It's still hard for me to look at pictures from my son's first year of life. My eyes are sad, my skin pale, my weight quickly dropping, and there is a pervasive emptiness in my face.
I remember the first day my son smiled, March 8, 2008. My husband was overwhelmed with joy. I tried hard to feel it too. I knew deep down that this was an amazing moment but I all I felt was sadness. So, while my beautiful son smiled, I cried. And while I wept, I worried about the lasting effects postpartum depression would have on my child, my marriage, and, even, our finances.
At six weeks old, my son was rolling over and sleeping a pretty good portion of the night (well, 3 hours, but at the time it seemed like forever). This is about the same time I started having an unending sense of despair. My lowest point came one morning when, unable to do anything else, I got on my bike and started riding through Brooklyn. One thought repeated itself in my mind: could I just keep going, through the city, and on to a new life, away from everything? This powerful desire to leave my family, my life, behind was terrifying. When I returned home, I told my husband I needed help, desperately.
To combat postpartum depression, experts recommend therapy, antidepressants, support groups, exercise, and sleep. While I couldn't find a support group, I figured I would try anything and everything else. I just wanted to be me again, to be a mother to my baby, and give my husband back his wife.
Because of past depression I already had a wonderful psychiatrist. She adjusted my medication, assessed my infant son, and gave me the number of a therapist she couldn't recommend more highly. Both the psychiatrist and the psychologist didn't take insurance but thankfully my amazing spouse was willing to empty out our bank account to get me well (little did we know that's exactly what we were going to have to do).
The dosage modification helped slightly. And my new therapist said I could bring the baby with me to our once-a-week sessions so I didn't have to find a sitter. I also began to exercise regularly, a few times a week, and my husband took over nighttime feedings. I was still breastfeeding but was able to pump enough for the evenings. But even with all of this, I couldn't shake the overwhelming sense of doom.
Although my husband missed an inordinate amount of work, and at one point we were worried he might lose his job, I was able to care for my son most days. When I was home alone with the baby I was just going through the motions, meeting his needs. I felt especially guilty when we went for walks in the neighborhood or to the park. Other mothers would be there laughing, playing, and engaging with their children. I tried so hard to do this. I played the part, but inside I felt like a fraud; I was hopeless and terrified. I felt buried alive, unable to dig my way out, to scream for help; I didn't have the strength or the voice.
At a loss, I went to see a holistic doctor and acupuncturist. She too didn't take insurance. Neither did the message therapist or the chiropractor or the nutritionist. I was poked, prodded, kneaded, pulled, told to take this vitamin and that supplement. I did it all. But still the depression stayed with me.
Finally, my psychiatrist said I would have to stop breastfeeding so that we could try other medications. At my wits end, I agreed. I strapped my breasts into a sports bra, took lots of ibuprofen, and bought some formula. About a week into it, I started to feel a little better. I began to see glimmers of hope on the bleak horizon. With a new medication and the hormonal imbalance of breastfeeding behind me I could actually have a normal conversation, meet a new person, and, once in awhile, feel a sense of happiness.
With these new tools at my disposal I was able to meet a bunch of women who had experienced similar thoughts and feelings. It was with their support and care that I was able to finish putting my self back together. I had finally found that support group that had alluded me for so long (more on how in tomorrow's post). And it was (and still is) glorious!
It's been a year and a half now, but our bank account and credit cards have still not recovered from the $10,000 (yes!) we spent on out-of-pocket medical expenses. For us that's a pretty hefty sum and I know for a lot of people it's an impossible amount. But, I guess, we did what we had to do. We may not be able to afford quite a few of the things we'd like but we have each other and two years ago I didn't think that was possible.
My PPD was especially hard on my marriage. My husband and I have been through some difficult times together but those 12 months were a true test of our relationship. Like me, he still has a hard time looking at pictures of that year. Today, though, he's a stronger person, more than he ever thought possible. I feel fortunate that we made it through because there were so many times it could have easily gone the other way.
As for my son, perhaps, I'm lucky. He was and still is a very happy child. But for a year I worried that I didn't love my baby enough, that he'd grow up unhappy and ill adjusted. What I've come to realize though is that no one can be that "perfect" mother. The fact that I fought so hard to get help, to get better, I truly believe that is what made all the difference. At the very least, he learned at an early age to fight and not give up. And these days I'm able to give him all of the attention and interaction I couldn't before.
This is why it's KEY women be supported and encouraged to come forward if they are suffering. To get the help they need and deserve.
Watch the PPD video that Vernooy created about her journey. Tomorrow, she explains how to find that elusive postpartum depression support group.