Losing Myself… 11 Years Of Postpartum Depression & How I Found My Way Back
Almost 12 years ago, I had a beautiful baby girl.
She was so wanted, so planned. I thought of every, last detail to welcome this baby into the world — from the hand-painted pink and yellow circles on her nursery walls to the organized layette in the closet.
We agonized for weeks over choosing her perfect name. We prepared her older brother to welcome her with gentleness. I always wanted a boy and a girl — and this baby girl was, literally, a dream coming true for me. Everything was perfect by the time she arrived.
When she was born, chubby and pink and wailing and healthy, something happened inside of me. Or, perhaps something didn’t happen.¹
Are You Sure She’s Ours?
I stared at that baby, my legs still spread-eagle as I waited to deliver the placenta, and the only thing I could think as I looked across the room as the nurses cleaned her off was, “Is she mine? Why am I not over the moon? What’s wrong with me?”
Wrapped up and perfect, a nurse laid her in my arms for the first time. Surely the rush of emotion, the tears of joy would come.
I looked at her in disbelief, looked up at my husband, and genuinely wanted to know, “Are you sure she’s ours? She doesn’t feel like mine.” I was so confused.
This was not like my last birth, a mere 17 months earlier. The day I became a mother for the first time is forever etched in my memory. I’ll never forget the rush of exhilaration and protectiveness and strength and weakness and utter joy that simultaneously flooded my mind and heart and body that day.
It was absolute bliss and sheer terror and a love that ached in my bones all at once. That baby boy was mine, and I instinctively knew it.
This? Completely different.
Something was wrong. Missing. I couldn’t identify it or even describe it — and I was ashamed I was even thinking it.
Surely I was just tired. I mean, I’d just had a baby — an 8-pound, 13-ounce baby with head full of black hair and the most beautiful lips in the world. After some food and a good night’s rest, I’d be myself again.
That first day and night passed. Friends and family visited and held her and congratulated us. We oohed and aahed and our parents cried and our dads shook hands.
It’s mostly a blur to me. It was a blur even then. I put on my smile — as all new mothers do — and greeted the onslaught of traffic that ebbed and flowed from our hospital room for 2 days.
And then it was time to go home. Instead of the elation an exhausted, but joyful new mother is supposed to feel — the elation I most certainly felt last time — I was full of dread and fear and worry.
Could I do this? This baby didn’t even feel like she was mine. Oh, I loved her, but something wasn’t right.
Too afraid and full of guilt to say anything, we packed our bags and drove an hour home where my husband’s mother was waiting with our 17-month-old son.
David unloaded the car; my mother-in-law had dinner waiting for us. Our son was instantly enamored with his baby sister.
“Beebee!” he must’ve squealed a hundred times. He was going to be such a good big brother.
I settled down in the rocking chair in our living room to nurse. Nursing hadn’t been going as well this time. She would latch on, suckle for a few seconds, and promptly fall asleep. Waking her to keep nursing was so difficult. It often took 15 or 20 minutes to wake her up and latch her on again… where she would fall back to sleep.²
Something still wasn’t right.
Why wasn’t this working? Why did nursing her feel like a chore after just 2 days? Mothers aren’t supposed to feel this way.
The second or third day we were all back home, my husband’s mother encouraged me to take the baby and lay down for a nap. That was a good idea. Perhaps I was still so exhausted, and that’s why things didn’t feel right. I did love napping with a baby on my chest.
It didn’t take long for me to drift off with her nestled between my breasts. Seconds later, I was awake and gasping for air.
Hmmm, strange. I’ll try again, I thought.
Again, I drifted off to sleep. And again, I jolted up, unable to breathe.
I don’t know how many more times this happened, but I finally gave up and joined my family in the living room.
After 4 days, my husband’s mother went back home. I remember walking into the living room that morning and seeing her suitcase sitting by the front door — confused about why she was leaving. I wasn’t ready for her to go. David was leaving on a business trip the next day, and I wasn’t ready to do this — this baby who didn’t feel like my own and my toddler — all alone.
Too afraid and full of guilt to say anything, I smiled and waved goodbye.
She Doesn’t Want Me
I honestly don’t remember what happened once she was gone and David left on his business trip. My mom says she was with me every day, but I don’t remember it.
We were still struggling to nurse. She was always falling asleep; I was constantly trying to wake her up to finish. So I began pumping and bottle-feeding her. That worked much better.
After speaking to our pediatrician, who concluded that my baby was probably just lazy and it took more effort for her to suck from a breast than from a bottle, I was pumping around the clock. David would wake up to feed her, and I would wake up at the same time to pump.
Things still weren’t going well, and David had begun to realize that something wasn’t right with me still. So we thought a little trip out of town and a change of scenery would do us both some good. We packed up our SUV — literally packed it to the brim with the double stroller, the baby bath tub, a month’s worth of diapers (we did have 2 in diapers), and twice as many clothes as we needed — and headed to Ruidoso, New Mexico, to stay in our uncle’s vacation home there.
Our daughter was nearly a month old, and we should have had the nursing thing figured out… but we didn’t. I would occasionally try latching her on, but the result was always the same. She’d fall asleep, and I’d spend 15 or 20 minutes waking her up to try again, only to repeat the process over and over.
To top it all off, she had become colicky by this point. She cried and cried and cried. It didn’t matter what time of day it was, she was crying. She was only happy when she was swaddled tightly, so swaddled she was — all the time. And she cried harder when I held her, but she’d settle when David had her.
She doesn’t want me, I’d think. She doesn’t like me. I can’t even nurse her.
Too afraid and full of guilt to say anything, I knew I hadn’t bonded with her still. I had a better relationship with my breast pump than I did with my baby, so I decided I was done with the whole thing. What was the point of continuing to pump when I couldn’t feed her anyway?
When we returned from our trip — which did not accomplish its purpose — I quit nursing and pumping. Cold turkey. I was done.
I’ll never forget that Monday morning. David wrapped my breasts tightly in an Ace bandage before he left for work. I stuffed ice packs down my shirt all day and loaded up on Benadryl to dry up my milk as quickly as possible.
My breasts ached so badly. If I laid on my side and turned over, the pain was almost unbearable. So the next day, I had him bind them even tighter. And I dutifully prepared each bottle of formula for my baby and fed her, swaddled, every 2 or 3 hours like a good mother should.
The Day I Broke
One late summer afternoon when she was 6 or 7 weeks old, it was nap time. I laid my son down first, then swaddled my daughter and went to rock her in the nursery. She had been crying for a while, and nothing I did soothed her. But I knew if I could get them both sleeping at the same time, I could have a few moments of quiet sanity.
The western sun was coming through her pink and yellow curtains that hot afternoon, giving the whole room an orange-y pink tint. We didn’t have central air conditioning, and the window unit hummed.
I rocked and rocked, trying to get her to sleep. I shooshed and hummed and sang. I patted her bottom and her back. She only cried more.
Before I knew what I was doing, I found myself squeezing her tightly — too tightly — to my chest. And I then I imagined myself throwing her out the window.
Seconds later, I was horrified at myself. I quickly stood up, laid her in the crib, still crying, and walked out of the room.
I called my OBGYN. I had the number memorized after 40 weeks of calling for appointments and test results and twinges and Braxton-Hicks contractions.
“Something isn’t right, and I need help,” was all I could say when Stephenie, the nurse, answered. I explained the feelings I was having, and how my imagination had just conjured up the worst possible image.
Dr. H. called in a prescription for Lexapro. David picked it up from the pharmacy on his way home from work a couple hours later.
I Didn’t Feel Anything.
I wish I could fill in this part of my story so much more. I would love to tell you that being on anti-depressants made everything better. But I don’t know if it did… because I can’t remember.
I have looked back at pictures of myself, of her, of our family during this time, straining my mind to recall something, anything. Yet, very little is there. We look happy. I’m smiling. We’re all smiling.
All I remember is constantly feeling like I was on the outside of my life, like I was outside looking in. I wanted to be present and involved, but I never felt like I was.
Too afraid and full of guilt to say anything, I smiled for photos. The above photo is our first Christmas with her. I had been on Lexapro for about 4 months. I don’t remember this photo or that Christmas.
I put on makeup, dressed up, and went to church. I dutifully took my children to well-child checkups and to have their pictures taken. That’s what good mothers do.
I know happy things happened. I know she rolled over, sat up, crawled, walked, and said her first words. I know she did.
I just wish I could remember it.
Thankfully, I never envisioned myself throwing her out the window again. I never, ever hurt her or even imagined hurting her again. I didn’t feel “depressed”.
I didn’t feel anything.
So I Quit. Cold Turkey.
Just before my baby girl had her first birthday, I was attending a ladies’ Bible study, when I confided in the group that I desperately wanted to stop taking my medication and asked them to pray for me to be healed.
They prayed for me and assured me that God would heal my depression if I had enough faith.
Of course I believe God can heal me! God can do anything!
In fundamentalist Christianity, faith isn’t something you have; it’s something you do. How can you show God your faith? You need to take the first step as an act of faith. You should stop taking your medication, in faith, and believe He has already healed you, they said.
Too afraid and full of guilt to say anything, I blindly (because that’s what faith is, right?) left the Bible study and decided, that very night, to step out in faith and prove to God that I believed he had already healed my depression. I quit taking my meds. Cold turkey.³
The first few days were weird. I don’t remember much, except feeling strange and outside my body. I would see a doorway and walk through it, only to walk into the wall instead. I felt quick electric shocks going through my body and brain. I didn’t tell my doctor I was quitting my meds for fear that she would try to talk me out of it, and that would ruin this act of faith I was so invested in. As if God wanted me to go through that to prove my faith to him.
Maybe it took days? Or weeks? I honestly don’t know. At some point, the meds were out of my system, and I emerged from the fog.
By this time, my baby was a year old. We celebrated her birthday in style — with a huge party and her very own smash cake.
(Somehow I was functioning enough to plan a party; I’ll never figure that out.)
The Years Have Passed
For the next 7 or 8 years, I tried so hard to be a good mom.
My children are and have always been loved more than life. Every milestone celebrated, every event, big or small, documented.
But I didn’t bond with her. Oh, I loved her, and she knew she was loved, and she loved me back.
Except she didn’t melt into me when I held her the way my son did. She didn’t reach for momma when she was upset; she reached for daddy. He understood her in a way I never did. And I was jealous.
David and my mom were the only ones I ever told about how I felt toward her. Or rather, how depression had convinced me that what I felt toward her was wrong and shameful. How can I explain it?
I lived in constant fear that she would sense rejection from me, so I often over-compensated.
I found things to do with her that I hoped would bring us closer together. She enjoyed anything tactile, so we baked and cooked together a lot. She loved being read to. I wanted her to want to snuggle, to rest her head on my shoulder when I held her. That just wasn’t her — so I continued to feel rejected.
It took 8 years of tears and grief, of faking it, of guilt and shame and crying at night, of confusion… 8 years of creativity, of studying her, of holding her even when I didn’t want to…
It took a lifetime. And at some point, we bonded.
I always expected that bonding would happen in an instant, like it did the moment my son was born and I experienced that oxytocin rush of motherly emotion.
Instead, it came slowly and softly. Years of kissing boo-boos and clapping when she went potty and reading Hungry, Hungry Caterpillar and Good Night, Moon a thousand times and singing Twinkle, Twinkle every, single night at bed time. Years of baking messes and rocking at nap time and homeschooling.
Years of demanding objectivity of myself and journaling and guilt and shame and tears in secret. Years of praying and begging and bargaining with God to make it happen, years of begging for healing while no healing came.4
Finally Recovering From Postpartum Depression
In the last year, I’ve learned so much about myself.
Before January, I wouldn’t have labeled the anxiety, the guilt, the shame, and the trauma of all this “postpartum depression”. Yet, there hasn’t been a day in the last 11-3/4 years that I haven’t felt so guilty and ashamed over not bonding with my daughter instantly, over imagining myself throwing her out the window.
What kind of mother does that??
Imagine carrying that around daily for 11 years… I didn’t talk about it daily, but you better believe it was always in the back of my mind. Every time I hugged her or tucked her in, I wondered if that was our bonding moment. Every time I kissed a boo-boo or took her on a mother-daughter date or gave her a Christmas present. Would today be the day? Was this our moment? Had it finally come?
So for 11 years, I experienced so many different manifestations of the trauma surrounding her birth. From weight gain and then extreme weight loss, hypothyroidism, hair loss, OCD, anxiety, insomnia, and more.
Granted, I don’t blame it all on that experience. I had enough childhood traumas to cause all of those things too, but I wasn’t symptomatic until after her birth — when I found myself gasping for air every time I fell asleep.
Theoretically, it was my first panic attack. The first of many that would follow during the next decade.
I sought the help of an EMDR-certified therapist in January. This “birth experience” as I call it — though it was much more than that — was the first thing I wanted to tackle.
EMDR For Postpartum Depression & Trauma
I had to start at the very beginning. Again. As if living it everyday wasn’t enough.
The first thing a therapist asks at the beginning of a session is, “What does this (the event) say or make you think about yourself?”
“Uh, I’m a terrible mother. No mother should think that about her baby. I feel so guilty and ashamed.”
I went back to the confusion I felt as the nurses cleaned my baby girl off, of how I was convinced she wasn’t really mine. I relived the trauma of not being able to nurse — and then never being able to grieve over the sudden and forced loss of my breastmilk.
I felt the loneliness and desperation of being left alone when my husband’s mother and my husband left me to care for these babies alone for days.
I cried over feeling rejected by my own child — because that’s how I felt.
I ached for that immediate bonding again. Oh, it ached so much. It physically hurt to want her to come out of my body again so I could do it “right” this time. I longed, all over again, to have the kind of relationship with my daughter that I had always had with my son.
I returned to the guilt and shame of remembering the hum of the air conditioner and the orange-y pink hue of the room as I squeezed my tiny daughter and envisioned throwing her out the window.
I saw myself on the outside of my life, looking in, again. Disconnected, depersonalized.
I felt the lump in my throat, the tightness in my bottom, the burn of fighting back tears. I got it all out. Every last, ugly bit of it that I had re-played and re-lived daily for nearly 12 years.
And all the while, I held 2 little buttons that vibrated back and forth in my hands.
Toward the end of the session, the therapist asks the question again. “What does this (the event) say or make you think about yourself?”
For the first time in 11 years, I didn’t feel like I had rejected my child or like she had rejected me. I didn’t have a knot in my throat. I didn’t long to nurse her again or ache for a second chance to birth her.
For the first time in 11 years, I didn’t feel too afraid or ashamed or alone to say anything.
“I didn’t do it,” I said. “I didn’t throw her out the window. I put her down. I called for help. I did the right thing. I was a good mother.”
After 11 years of brokenness, I felt wholeness again — in an instant. I couldn’t bond with her in an instant like I had always wanted to, but mercifully, the pain of carrying all of this around for 11 years was gone.
In an instant.
This is a relatively new life I’m living now… this life without shame, guilt, and fear, of constantly second-guessing myself as a mother.
It’s only been 3 months since that EMDR session. And I continue to go to therapy to address the childhood and adult traumas that also contributed to the clinical anxiety and depression I’ve dealt with for the last decade.
I wish I had found EMDR a decade ago. Back then, I was heavily involved in fundamentalist Christianity, and where there was (and still is) such a stigma attached to mental illness. It wasn’t discussed, and when it was, it was always in a context of something the devil did or worse, demon possession. So if you were depressed or anxious, you didn’t talk about your feelings; you asked for prayer and healing. Anxiety and depression were “lies from the devil”.
Um, no, trust me — what I experienced and felt was as real and tangible and true as that little baby I gave birth to. Anxiety and depression are not a lie.
Now that I’m outside of that bubble, I see mental illness for what it really is — a disease that’s caused by biological factors and hormonal imbalance beyond the person’s control. Mental illness isn’t only the sterotypes — the death row criminal in a straight jacket or the institutionalized, wide-eyed, messy-haired old man.
Most of the time, you don’t recognize mental illness from the outside. If you had met me on the street during those 10 years and watched me interact with my children, you would never have guessed that I was struggling with depression and anxiety. You would never have known that I was constantly second-guessing my mothering abilities and even, at times, my devotion to my kids. You wouldn’t have seen the weakness, the nighttime tears, the panic attacks, or the dark guilt.
Because most of us with mental illness are striving for normal. We so desperately want to look and feel normal that we’ll fake it if we have to. And we often do.
We live in a society that demands perfection of everyone — including sleep-deprived mothers who imagine throwing their babies out of windows for a moment’s peace. Our society demands perfection of everyone — because we imperfect, broken, crazy people make them uncomfortable.
We make them feel like they have to fix us — and they can’t.
If you’re dealing with postpartum depression, anxiety, or any other mental illness, please know…
- You’re not alone. It feels like it, but you’re not alone.
- Help is out there. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to ask.
- EMDR is AMAZING and so much more effective than talk therapy. Find a therapist, get help. It works so quickly.
- Reach out and ask for help from friends and loved ones. There are areas of your life that are overwhelming; don’t feel like you have to carry it all by yourself.
- Finally, you’re not a freak. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re not demon-possessed. You have a chemical imbalance. Seeking help for mental illness is no different than seeking treatment for cancer. If people judge you, they’re the ones who lack understanding, not you. Have compassion for yourself.
¹ At my 38-week appointment, when my doctor and I decided to induce labor at 39 weeks, I showed no signs of beginning labor. I was simply sick and tired of being pregnant during a hot summer and ready to have my baby. I always suspected that my induction had some connection to the lack of bonding and subsequent postpartum depression I experienced, but my doctor assured me “these things just happen”. Now, studies are coming to light that the labor-inducing drug, Pitocin, is in fact linked to postpartum depression.
Pitocin is synthetic oxytocin — the “bonding hormone” that is released in huge amounts during delivery and then after birth during nursing. It is the hormone that causes mothers to feel that rush of emotion, love, instinctive protection, and bonding during birth. This hormone also helps protect against postpartum depression. Studies are showing that the use of synthetic oxytocin inhibits the body’s natural production and release — which leads to a lack of bonding and then, depression. I beg and plead with mothers now… please don’t induce unless it’s medically necessary. Please don’t induce to spare yourself a few more days of swollen discomfort. It’s not worth the risk of emotional trauma you could experience for years afterward… believe me.
² I still don’t understand this. We were clueless about tongue ties and lip ties back then. Even the pediatrician never mentioned it. In hindsight, I believe that my hormones were so whacky that they caused me to feel like I had failed at one more thing, and so it seemed easier to quit than to keep going. But I can’t entertain the “what ifs” and the “if I could do it over again”, because I can’t. I tried those thought patterns for years, and they got me nowhere.
³ Discontinuing SSRIs without the supervision of a doctor is severely misguided and dangerous. If you’re currently taking anti-depressants, please don’t listen to those in your community who urge you to stop taking them suddenly for any reason. Faith or not, that was terrible, dangerous, and irresponsible advice from several very unqualified individuals.
Thankfully, I didn’t experience some of the more extreme withdrawal symptoms, like contemplating suicide, but I will never forget the loss of coordination, dizziness, and “brain zaps” that lasted for a couple weeks. I also didn’t “know better” back then. I knew nothing about hormone balance or how nutrition plays a role in mental health. I may or may not choose differently if I was in the situation again — I mean, I had just imagined throwing my baby out a window (postpartum psychosis). Clearly, I was desperate and didn’t have time for a nutrition program and supplements to work.
4 Two hours of EMDR-therapy did more for me than a lifetime of prayer, church, Bible study, worship songs, retreats, and sermons ever did. I don’t mean to belittle anyone’s faith here; but I cannot deny this experience in my own life. For me, this is the difference between proven science and faith.
- 15 Ways To Practice Self-Care
- Find An EMDR Therapist
- The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing Of Trauma by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D.
- Alternative Treatment Options For Postpartum Depression
- This Isn’t What I Expected: Overcoming Postpartum Depression by Karen Kleiman and Valerie Davis Raskin, M.D.
- Down Came The Rain: My Journey Through Postpartum Depression by Brooke Shields
- Postpartum Depression Demystified: An Essential Guide for Understanding and Overcoming the Most Common Complication after Childbirth by Joyce A. Venis and Susan McCloskey
- A Mother’s Climb Out Of Darkness: A Story About Overcoming Postpartum Psychosis by Jennifery Moyer