Why having a baby almost killed me: My postpartum nightmare

One of the first times I left the house with Isabel, at about three months old, on the UA quad.

This article was originally posted on November 20, 2017 on al.com.

Let me tell you about the time my mind turned on itself and my brain stopped working.

My daughter was born in May 2002 and it’s taken me more than 13 years to talk about what happened next.

Yet now it feels urgent on the heels of breaking news about a task force urging health care professionals to screen women for postpartum depression during and after childbirth.

When Isabel was born, after some serious complications with delivery (in the first picture ever taken of us I am still receiving blood transfusions) and many medical issues later, I scooped up my bundle of joy and took her home. I had read a year’s worth of library books on child care. I did my homework, gathered supplies and was ready to take on the world, in the form of a tiny, 7-pound wonder.

Yet I was completely unprepared for what happened next.

One of the first times I left the house with Isabel, at about three months old, on the UA quad.
One of the first times I left the house with Isabel, at about three months old, on the UA quad.

I slipped into the darkest, most numb funk of my life. I couldn’t shake it. My brain knew it should be happy, but I wasn’t. I knew all of the subjunctives: I should enjoy these moments. I should have fun showing her off to family. I should rejoice in the visitors who stopped by. If I were normal, I would be happy.

But none of those was true.

As people told me the usual platitudes a new mom hears, “You must be so happy!” and “What a joyous moment!” I couldn’t say what I felt. That I was dead inside. That although I didn’t want to hurt myself or my baby, if a bus hit me the next day, I might be fine with that.

I didn’t sleep. When I would close my eyes I was certain I might not wake up. I couldn’t eat. The knot in my stomach was unrelenting and frightening. Worst of all, my mind wasn’t doing what I knew it should be doing. The pressure of healing from surgery and wanting to be the happy mom in the diaper commercials was almost unbearable.

The weight was almost too much for my new-mom heart to carry. I was terrified if I told anyone that my child – the most important thing in my life – would be taken away. I was scared silent.

I had memory problems and couldn’t remember from one minute to the next what I had just done. I had to write down everything. I still have legal pads full of notes to myself. “4:45 a.m. 4 oz. of breast milk.” Or “called doctor at 10 a.m.” Or “Fed cat, 11 a.m.”

The breaking point was when I found myself crying on the phone to a friend, pacing the floor while using a breast pad (the cloth-like things women put in a bra to catch drips of milk) to wipe my tears. The thought of finding a tissue was just too daunting. The thought of talking on the phone was usually too much, but this friend was reaching out because she had figured out I was in trouble and wanted to help.

I did not leave the house. I could not focus to read. TV was too hard to understand. My brain had shut down in the most abrupt and unexpected way.

But I continued to hope. Hope that I would somehow wake up from the fuzzy nightmare my brain had become. I so desperately wanted it to be over.

I struggled to form sentences and literally put one foot in front of another. Meanwhile, I would wistfully watch women with workout gear that matches their jogging strollers zip by out my living room window, when I was strong enough to get to the window.

I finally saw a counselor. She was horrible. I saw another one I liked.

Isabel and I on the Rhode Island beach in the mist. Despite the smile, I was miserable.
Isabel and I on the Rhode Island beach in the mist. Despite the smile, I was miserable.

I tried – much to my distress – various medications. The first two made me want to get sick and made my heart beat so fast it felt like I was having a heart attack. Then I found one I liked. 

This was before social media was used to connect women like me. But my counselor connected me with a woman all the way across the country. I had nothing in common with her. I did not know her at all. Yet in my greatest time of need she threw me a lifeline.

“I have been there,” she told me. “And I’m talking to you from the other side. It does get better.”

I didn’t believe her, yet her words followed me and rang in my head during the never-ending days when I couldn’t bring myself to smile. I knew she was me, just a potential future version of me. And, much to my incredulous heart, she was right. 

My depression has long since lifted. My mind is clear. I stopped taking medication. And right this very minute?

As I write, my daughter is sitting in the next room, laughing. Soon she will start high school, then learn to drive, and then be off to college.

Now, almost 14 years after one of the most difficult times in my life, I hope my words might reach someone who feels the same way I did for all of that time. Hope will find you. I know because I am here, talking to you from the other side.

It does get better.

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