Great Expectations

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It’s 11:00am. We have been up for four hours. The crockpot meal that should have started cooking two hours ago has half of the ingredients in it and the rest scattered across the counter. There are toys everywhere. Laundry in the dryer from yesterday that needs to be folded. I haven’t eaten yet for the second day in a row. We are all still in pajamas and the baby needs a bath but she won’t let me put her down long enough to get it ready. My toddler is crying to be held which I try to do one handed while the baby nurses in the other. I am crying. My toddler asks “Mommy Happy?” She will ask me later if I feel better. Because she has become so used to seeing me cry these last 7 weeks. I feel guilty for my toddler. I feel scared and overwhelmed. Scared by how I’m feeling. Because I know I don’t feel good. I thought if I just got the house cleaned I would feel better. But now I can’t get a handle on anything. Sometimes I look at the baby and feel angry. Sometimes crazy thoughts pop into my head. I’m afraid to walk through a doorway while holding her because I think I’ll hit her head on the door frame. Then I’ll think do I want to hit her head? Do I want to feed her a bottle of bleach? What?!?! Will I end up one of those mothers on the news? I picked up a knife today and felt scared. I couldn’t even tell you why. Then I get that pukey feeling in my stomach and the panic sets in. This is post partum depression. And it is a bitch.

I posted this on a post partum support group I joined on Facebook after calling the Post Partum Crisis hotline because I just needed someone to calm me down. I saw a therapist later that day that gave me some tools to work with and upped my medication that night. This was Week 7 post partum and when everything finally started to turn around.

I should have known how I was feeling during my pregnancy that I would be more at risk for Post Partum Depression and Anxiety (PPD for short). But like so many others, I thought for some reason it wouldn’t happen to me. Sure I’ve had anxiety from time to time but I would never describe myself as depressed or “mentally ill”, I could control my anxiety on my own- I was “normal”- PPD wouldn’t touch me. Oh my the naivety. If I’ve learned anything it is that no one is immune and the illness does not discriminate.

I thought by having a natural homebirth I would spare myself from any baby blues, fall instantly in love with my baby and coast off into the sunshine empowered and euphoric. Unfortunately, I was wrong. Very, very wrong. My experiment failed. The end of the pregnancy was stressful and scary, the birth was fast, intense, and traumatic. Nothing was how I envisioned it would be. My birth story will have to be a different post, because I feel this story needs to be shared first.

The PPD started the third day after my daughter was born. I had not been able to sleep (despite the baby sleeping) for the last 3 days. Not even an hour. I was soaked in sweat, shaking, with my heart beating out of my chest and hives covering my body. I thought something was physically wrong with me. I thought I was having some type of post natal pre-eclampsia. I kept telling my husband I needed to go to the Emergency room. I called my midwife and told her what was going on. She told me to get my toddler out of the house with a babysitter and head to my doctor because I was having a post partum anxiety reaction. That first week was hell. I couldn’t shower by myself because I was so afraid to be alone. I could barely walk because my legs would shake so much. I couldn’t eat. I had to take Xanax for the first time in my life to stop the panic attacks. By day 5 post partum I was having suicidal thoughts and scary thoughts towards the baby. I remember looking at the dry Christmas tree and thinking it was a fire hazard… then looking at the baby and thinking Well, if the fire takes the baby that might be a good thing. Then becoming hysterical with panic.

I called my OB because I knew this was getting serious. I took the standard survey they give you at your 6 week check up to determine if you are showing symptoms of PPD. They worry about anything over a score of 10 with 30 being the highest you can score. I scored a 27. The post partum resource at my OB was wonderful, she set me up with a therapist and a support group (my first meeting all of us from all types of backgrounds wept together –  it was tragic and beautiful all at the same time). She assured me that I was not alone. That this was an illness like any other. There is a diagnosis, treatment then recovery. She explained that PPD this severe almost always required medication because it is a true physiological problem with your brain chemistry. I hated the idea of  being medicated, I have never taken any type of anti-depressent/anti-anxiety in my life. But I also knew that this was bigger than me and that I desperately wanted to feel better. That first week was one of the worst weeks of my life. Even now I cannot allow myself to go back there because of the feelings it creates. Every day farther away from that week, every milestone passed it, is progress for me. I owe my Mother, Husband, and children for getting me through it. Love is a powerful thing.

Although deep down I knew that this was really happening, I still desperately wanted that first week to be the baby blues. I kept telling myself “Once I get through the first two weeks and my hormones settle- I’ll be okay”. As two weeks passed, I tried to “fake it til I made it” because I STILL desperately wanted this to not be real. I remember having to take 20 pictures until my smile looked “real” enough to post on social media. I remember thinking I had to post a picture of my new baby or people would wonder what was going on with me. It goes to show you that you never really know what someone is going through. When I went into my two week follow up with the post partum counselor through my OB, and pasted a fake smile on my face and told her I think I’m fine, that I don’t need the medication- she saw right through me and I melted into a puddle of tears. Then I thought “Well if I just get through the Holidays and December and find a routine- I’ll definitely be better by then.” As I changed the calendar on my refrigerator to February with a pit in my stomach I knew I was wrong about that too. I thought because I was “functioning” that I was “okay”. I would measure myself by saying okay I got dressed today and ate something and smiled at my toddler so I’m okay. But I wasn’t okay. The scary thoughts and feelings toward the baby were still there, the overall feeling of not feeling myself was still there; my life felt completely unfamiliar no matter how hard I was fighting.

See when you are having all of these crazy thoughts and feelings, you are self aware enough to know they are not normal or even your own. Your brain has literally been “hijacked” as my therapist put it. The hormonal cascade has altered your brain chemistry so much that you literally are no longer in control of your thoughts or feelings. It is terrifying. We have all heard the horror stories on the news of mothers harming their children (this is actually very rare and considered post partum psychosis not post partum depression) which I look at completely differently now- how bad those mothers must have felt and what a tragedy it was that they couldn’t find help. It is a terrifying thought to think there was a time where medication, therapy, and support groups did not exist especially as this illness affects up to 1 in 7 women. It is the most common “complication” of childbirth- and totally treatable.

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I’ve never been depressed before and if anything this experience has made me realize how “normal” I actually was. High strung maybe, but within normal limits. It has been a humbling, eye opening experience. How judgmental I was thinking depression was a “choice”. It is not a choice. Waking up with dread in your stomach and feeling apathetic towards everything you once loved including your precious 2 year old is not a choice. Being so afraid to pick up your brand new gift from God because in your mind they represent everything that makes you feel bad is not a choice. Feeling so sad for yourself because you desperately desperately want to feel normal and you know you are missing a sacred time in your child’s life is not a choice. On the worst days it was as though my brain just could not produce endorphin’s. I looked forward to nothing; not a meal, not my favorite TV show, not my family, nothing. By the end of the day I was so exhausted by trying to will myself to feel better that it was just easier to submit to the hopelessness. For the first time in my life I understood why people who suffered depression gave up or turned to drugs and alcohol. Because you would do anything to feel better.

I can’t help but wonder what type of “God’ or Creator would have this phenomenon happen to mothers. Why? What purpose in nature does it serve? I have this horrifying memory of my pet hamster eating her young in middle school. Why would having offspring drive us to madness when it is one of the most joyful things on earth? It makes no sense to me.

PPD has been one of the hardest things I have ever had to go through in my life thus far. So much so that I highly doubt I will have anymore children. At least thinking this brings me some sordid kind of comfort at the moment. Why have I had to go through Hell and back to have children? Infertility, recurrent miscarriages, and now post partum depression? I’ll never know. My best friend seems to think I was destined to help other mothers. Who knows, maybe she is right. I am unapologetically open after all.

But through all of my struggles, there has always been light at the end of the tunnel. I know precisely when things started to turn around for me on my PPD journey. I was giving my gentle, mild-mannered 8 week old baby a bath, and she looked up at me with the tiniest of smiles- subtle and sweet just like her personality and the love hit me like a thunderbolt. Knocked the wind out of me. And I remembered why we go through all of this. Because these precious, marvelous gifts are worth everything…everything.

Although I am still in this, it has been over a month since I have had any scary thoughts or feelings and finally feel like myself again. I find joy in things again. I look forward to the days spent with my children, and I am so excited about what our future holds as a family with two little girls. This experience has taught me that I am stronger than I know, that I am loved beyond measure by my family and friends, and that we as women can bring each other out of the darkness and be all the brighter on the other side. ♦

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