We live close to the airport. This is an important detail in how I imagined my postpartum escape. Every day I held my crying baby and watched the planes as they flew out. I wanted to be on one of those planes in the most desperate way. I didn’t want to be on some sort of family vacation. I wanted to be alone. I would imagine the plane dropping me by parachute into a huge city. No one would know me and I could just disappear. Other times I imagined landing somewhere hot. I’d lie on a beach and drink too much while ripping up my return ticket. Often times I’d imagine the plane crashing.
It wasn’t long after my beautiful baby was born I knew I wasn’t right. I cried continuously for days (or maybe weeks). The crying was actually quite cathartic, but at one point I began to wonder if I was perhaps a little, tiny bit unstable. The crying was often accompanied with phrases like, “I can’t do this.” “I’m trapped.” “It’s never going to end.” “I’m sinking.” “I didn’t think it was going to be like this.” “I’m not good at this.” I felt desperate and isolated sure that no one had ever felt this way before. The desperation was always followed by guilt and then the cycle would begin again.
I was exhausted not only because of sleep deprivation and a baby with acid reflux, but also from pretending to be happy. I lied to everyone—my family, my friends, my husband, my doctor, and myself. If I ran into you during this time, I lied to you too. Sorry. I remember running into someone in the grocery store parking lot and lying so enthusiastically about how I felt. ‘Oh the baby’s great! I couldn’t be happier!’ Then I walked away feeling guilty for lying and guilty for feeling the way I did, but most of all, totally helpless. Here I was with everything I’d ever longed for and I was so unhappy.
Even though I lied to my doctor about the gravity of my state, I did tell him I felt off. I told him how much I hated nursing. I told him I felt trapped and anxious. He called me regularly under the guise of checking on my baby’s reflux. Then he’d skillfully turn the conversation to me and how I was doing. In hindsight, I know he was calling specifically to check on me knowing my baby’s reflux would eventually work itself out. My doctor repeatedly asked me if I was depressed and I repeatedly said I was not. I admitted to being anxious, but I just couldn’t admit to being depressed. If I admitted I was depressed, then I knew I’d feel even guiltier because I was supposed to be happy.
At our prenatal classes we spent part of one session discussing postpartum depression. One woman bravely told her story about her sinking thoughts. She admitted that she imagined hurting her baby even though she would never do it. She told us people who have suffered from a previous mental illness were more likely to suffer from PPD. I thought nothing of it. I thought I would never suffer from PPD because I wanted my baby so badly. Also, I had never suffered from mental illness, so I was in the clear (or so I thought).
Now I know I’ve actually suffered from mental illness my entire adult life. I am a highly anxious person. I feel like the world buzzes inside my chest, back and brain all the time. I am forever self-talking in order to calm myself down. When I was in university, I suffered from crippling stage fright. This wouldn’t matter for most degrees, but I was doing a vocal performance degree…so…yeah…it had an enormous impact on my life and my ability to complete my education. Later, when I lived in Toronto, I endured debilitating insomnia. The hum of the city took over my body and I could NOT cope. I eventually quit my job, packed my car, left my entire life there and moved home to live in my dad’s basement. I was 27 and very embarrassed.
Slowing down helped the insomnia and anxiety, but it really just bubbled under the surface waiting for the most opportune time to surface again. Giving birth to a baby was that opportune time. I can honestly say I didn’t have the kind of PPD where I wanted to hurt my baby. All my negativity was geared towards myself. I wanted to make sure my baby was cared for in the most loving and delicate way. It was me I hated, not him. I felt like I could do nothing right. Especially breast feed. I felt responsible for his reflux pain and it made me feel completely incompetent and inadequate. I thought he deserved a better mother— someone who could feed him properly and comfort him when he didn’t feel good. I couldn’t do either of those things. He cried after he ate almost all the time and I would just hand him to my husband. My husband and son formed a beautifully nurturing bond. I was just the milk machine that made him feel sick.
Near the end of the summer, my husband approached me and asked me about my darkest thoughts. He nailed everything. He knew exactly what I was feeling, but I lied and said I was fine. Feeling guilty for lying, a few days later I told him he was right. I was not doing well and I was definitely depressed and anxious. We both cried. It was terrible but also hopeful because I knew I couldn’t stay in the space I’d been hiding in anymore. I knew I needed help. The next day I went to my doctor and told him everything. I started medication that day and stopped nursing. Within a few weeks, I started to feel better. I knew I wasn’t all better, but getting better. I was finally able to comfort my baby when he was in digestive pain, and he and I could begin to bond. I also started opening up to close family and friends. My husband and I told our parents and siblings the general gist of what was happening and they all swooped in and took care of us.
Lately I’ve also been seeing a counselor. I can’t fully make sense of what happened and I want to understand it. I’ve also felt a second tier of guilt for thinking I was so unavailable to my baby in his first few fragile months. I resisted counselling for a really long time because I thought it would force me to open the can of worms that is my mental health. I thought it would be too exhausting to address it all, but really it’s more exhausting to just keep ignoring it.
I know by putting all this out there I risk judgment and ridicule. I know mental health is still misunderstood and stigmatized, but I also know there are other women who feel the way I did. And it’s more important to me to crack open the postpartum depression shell than it is to save face in our small province. If my story can make one woman feel like she is not alone, then it is worth it. If it encourages one person to seek help, then it is worth it. If it forces us to talk about our mental health in an open and caring way, then it is worth it. We are worth it.
Now my little guy is old enough to notice the planes as they fly out from the airport. He is mesmerized by them! He climbs the couch in front of the window and bangs his little fist against the pane while squeaking with excitement. And I would not want to be anywhere else.