Monday, August 27, 2012

Motherhood's darkest secret

"I can't do this," I wailed to The Brit as he held our sleepy son in his arms. "Not tomorrow, not tonight, not next week. Seriously. We made a mistake. We need to put him up for adoption."

J. was a month old. I couldn't fathom making it to the next day without a nervous breakdown; the thought of 18 years filled me with the deepest despair and dread. That night, the only thing that got me to talk to The Brit instead of quietly putting J. into his car seat and surrendering him and a bag full of onesies at his birth hospital was this thought: "I lost my mom. I'm sure as hell not putting anyone else through that pain and loss."

Hi. My name is Stacey, and I have postpartum depression and anxiety.

After the first eight weeks, J.'s pregnancy was a relative piece of cake. The delivery? That's another story, but suffice to say: four hours top to toe, no epidural, pushed out in 20 minutes. Violent but quick. Despite wonderful care and a speedy labor, I sat in the delivery bed, watching the sunrise, holding J. and thinking, "Is that it? He's interesting, but what do I do now?"

The insta-love? The "I was put on this earth to take care of this person?" Not for me. I was robbed of that moment. And so much more.

In fact, that's exactly it. Postpartum depression robs you of everything the childbearing experience is supposed to entail. And yet, you're expected to smile. To seem in rapture with a mewling cabbage. To feel something for this lump of flesh that appeared in your house and won't go away. Underneath it, you feel sorry for the kid -- that he's being robbed too. Because he is. And so is your partner. And so is everyone around you, whom you've shut out because you're isolating and telling everyone "I'm fine, I'm fine, I'M FINE -- I JUST NEED SLEEP."

Which you do. Desperately, because (as your therapist will later explain to you) your neurotransmitters can't replenish themselves due to sleep deprivation. You think you can't do this because, physically, you can't. Your brain is on strike. Add to that too much thyroid medication (hello anxiety) and the uncovering of a weird genetic mutation that doesn't allow your body to process B vitamins (hence, no serotonin -- gee whiz) and you have the perfect recipe for bottoming out. Right when you can't afford to do so.

The Brit let me sleep through that night -- my first six-hour stretch since two nights before J. was born. I felt fine the next morning. "I've pushed through worse," I lied to myself. "I thrive in crisis situations. I run a company. This kid isn't even eight pounds. What can he do to me?" Not much, it's true -- but my wonky brain doesn't understand that. And that same brain -- the one I have adored and relied on faithfully for 39 years -- can kill me if I don't watch it.

Which, in a fit of rebellion, it almost did. No, I (thankfully) never got to the point where I was truly suicidal, but I'd be lying again if I didn't admit to getting really creative that weekend about how I might go about it. And the saving thought there was, "But I'm not taking J. with me. And I'M NOT DESERTING HIM."

After weeks of swapping night shifts in the TV room, that Sunday night we tried to let J. finally sleep in our room in his bassinet. And he kept us up all night because he HATED his bassinet. By 2pm the next afternoon, I found a new bottom in the pit of despair. By 3pm, I was about to load up the car again. Only The Brit forcing me to call my stepmom stopped me, a call in which she made me pinky-promise to call my midwife the moment we hung up.

So I did. And the nurses checked in with me every three minutes while we waited for the midwife to finish a patient exam. She talked me off the ledge and asked if I had someone with me and J. constantly until 10am the next morning, when she could see me. She said to head straight to the ER if I felt like I was going to hurt myself, J. or anyone else. And all I could think was, "Whoa. Am I on house arrest 5150? When did I become this person?"

Since that 10am appointment on July 3rd, I've slowly started to recover. After a ridiculous amount of blood work, I'm on the right meds for all of my concurrent conditions, including methylated B vitamins that I will need for the rest of my life. I'm seeing an amazing therapist who specializes in PPD. I exercise regularly and make sure I get at least 15 minutes of morning sunlight each day. I go to a support group every other Friday, full of incredibly strong, persevering women. I have good days and "dip days" where the lights seem to dim, but at least they don't go out completely like they did almost two months ago. And each dip is a little less, well, dippy.

The Brit and I have blown through our savings to hire a night nanny a few nights a week -- expensive, but sleep is so is the support and advice she gives us every visit. Going against every self-sufficient instinct in my body, I opened myself up to accepting help from friends and family. And, for once, my aunts meddled in the right way by calling my stepmom and telling her I needed her in July, not in September when I went back to work. So she hopped a plane 36 hours later and spent almost a month with us, giving us an extra pair of hands and teaching us how to maneuver with a newborn. It takes a village, indeed.

To clarify some lies: Being a parent isn't instinctual. It's not a special skill mothers unlock because they give birth or sign adoption paperwork. The first 2-3 months are brutal, with or without PPD. Bonding and love are not always instantaneous -- and can often take weeks or months -- because the baby is truly a stranger. And I say all of this with a relatively good kid and a supportive husband who not only works from home, but truly believes he's responsible for 50 percent of J.'s care.

So here we are at J.'s three-month mark. It is a milestone of survival -- for all of us. We are figuring out what works for us as a family, including breastfeeding (yes, primarily, as it is and has been the only thing I could do consistently for J. throughout this trauma) and a wonderful preschool that J. is attending three days a week until I go back to work in a couple of weeks and we move up to five days. Being J.'s primary caregiver on Mondays and Fridays is exhausting, but a challenge I've met with great success. And I'm so glad I pushed myself to do so.

I learned to fake it and remain calm with J. until the feelings became real. And he has rewarded me with beautiful smiles, ongoing fascination at my actions, and a yearning for Mama when he is unsettled. Let me tell you -- nothing fills your empty heart like that moment where your kid snuggles in, gives a shaky sigh, and calms down in seconds. Nothing.

As for me? I'm about 75 percent there. I have days where I feel like a mom and days where I feel like a babysitter, but the former are catching up to the latter. I wake up in the morning, not because my brain is cycling through anxious thoughts and I can't stop my feet from repeatedly clasping each other, but because I have a job to do. And a son who will be smiling at me in a few minutes time.

And I'm here to remind anyone who may be reading this and facing their own struggle: PPD is 100 percent treatable. One in eight women get PPD -- you are so not alone. Cling to those two facts in your darkest moments. I know I have, and continue to do so. If you feel like you're going to hurt yourself, your child, or anyone else, call 911. NOW. And do not listen to anyone who says it's all in your head. I mean, it is -- but it's very real, caused by hormones, NOT YOUR FAULT, and you can be helped. You deserve help. And so does your child.

As my endocrinologist reminds me: "Be kind to yourself." It's amazing how little we do that. But it's the most important lesson of all -- now and throughout this adventure known as motherhood.


If you need help, here are some resources that worked for me. May they help you until you get the one-on-one support you need:

* The Symptoms of Postpartum Depression and Anxiety (in Plain Mama English): Postpartum Progress is a wonderful resource all-around. Highly, HIGHLY recommended.

* Postpartum Depression for Dummies by Dr. Shoshana Bennett: I read this after seeing my therapist for a few weeks and was comforted to know that many of the techniques and neurological explanations she told me were reiterated here.

* Postpartum Support International: Information, resources, where to get help no matter where you are.

* Arizona Postpartum Wellness Coalition -- Support Resources: If you need a free support group in Arizona, you can find one here. In Phoenix, the group at St. Joseph's is wonderful. If you need it, I will give you a ride -- just drop me a line.