To say that I was ill-prepared when I gave birth to my first child would be something of an understatement. I knew the bare minimum required to give birth and care for an infant, and I had plenty of hope for the kind of mother I wanted to be, the kind of relationship I wanted to have with my daughter, but I spent the majority of my pregnancy simply trying to accept the fact that I was, in fact, with child. I knew very little about breast feeding, except that it was the best choice; and I knew nothing about attachment parenting, nor how judgmental mom groups can be; and I knew nearly as much about the illnesses of postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis.
That isn’t entirely true. In my family, we watch a lot of true crime shows and documentaries, and one of our favorites is Deadly Women. So, I knew that postpartum psychosis was the thing that women get that make them want to drown their babies.
Then, I was diagnosed with postpartum psychosis.
The one thing that I always want to point out to people when I explain what it was like living with postpartum psychosis is that I loved my daughter, more than I ever loved anything in the entire world. I never had an urge to hurt her or cause her harm in any way. But I was terrified for her.
I came to believe that there was some kind of entity in our home. It changed sometimes, depending on the day or the room that I was in, and I didn’t know what it was. But it was there.
I’ve almost always coslept with my babies, and it began with Nova. Just something about their little breaths and tiny snores–and something about snuggling up to a sleepy baby that just makes it impossible to stay awake.
I slept with my new baby whenever I had the chance. Except, one night I went to lay with her in the twin bed in her room, and I felt something. Like, you know that feeling you get when someone’s watching you? Sometimes you turn around and there’s no one so you shake it off, or sometimes you turn around and your friend/mom/boss/spouse is just watching you (creepy, right)? Well I opened my eyes and looked all around the room and there was nothing there. But I could still feel is And it got stronger.
This presence was very real. And it wanted to hurt my baby.
I tried to brush it off because I’m a rational human being and that’s ridiculous, right? But it just got stronger. And then it got so strong that I couldn’t breathe and I could feel a weight on top of us. I grabbed Nova and ran out of the room and I could feel it right behind me the entire time. I ran out into the living room in a panic and suddenly I could breathe again. And I wept.
I slept exclusively in either my bedroom or the living room from that point forward, until a new presence came along. This one didn’t want to hurt my baby. This one wanted to hurt me. And this one was more than just a feeling, this one I could understand. This presence felt that I was a danger to Nova and wanted to save her from me by either taking her away or by hurting me. Any means necessary, really. And this one followed me from the living room into my bedroom, but mostly stayed in my bedroom.
I almost exclusively slept during the day. They were weaker during the day, and if anything did happen to me at least there would be other people around to hear me scream.
I lived in constant fear.
That’s when my relationship with Justin began to deteriorate.
He worked full time at one job and had just started a small business with a friend so he was hardly home. At night he wanted me to put her to sleep in her crib. In her room. In her room where the presence lived that wanted to hurt her. I couldn’t explain to him what this presence was or what it wanted because I knew it sounded insane. There was no evidence to support what I felt but it felt so real. I laid her in her crib and prayed harder than I’d ever prayed in my life, rebuking all evil and calling on Jesus to protect her. And I cried. All night I cried. I still couldn’t sleep.
I became convinced that Justin was cheating on me. Again, I had no evidence to support this but I could feel it. I screamed at him, accusing him of the worst things at least once a week. We’d already grown apart since he was home less and less often and I had a baby to devote the majority of my time to. I became certain he was seeing other women, saying terrible things about me behind my back, and any time he defended himself I knew that he was lying, and I only grew angrier that I had no proof.
It occurs to me that perhaps it’s possible for one to gaslight herself, because I could swear I was being manipulated and yet, he did nothing wrong. At least, not the things I was accusing him of.
It got so bad one night that I began hitting him, forcing him to restrain me. I began contemplating suicide.
Then there were the little things
I guess they call it generalized anxiety disorder. Any time I took Nova out of the house, I could see terrible things happening. Approaching a curb I had visions of stepping off wrong and twisting my ankle, dropping her to the ground. I could hear her head hit the pavement and I could see blood.
Driving around town or to the doctor I envisioned horrific car accidents leaving us both dead. And let me start on baths. I’ve never had a great relationship with water, but giving her a bath became traumatic. I just knew she would drown if I let her sit in the water. It became difficult to go anywhere or do even the simplest things.
It’s clear to me now that these feelings and presences were projections of my fears and overwhelming emotion. I was mortified of something happening to my baby, this small child that popped up in my life and I had no idea how badly I needed her. I was afraid for her and her future. Afraid that if something terrible didn’t happen to her immediately that eventually the world would get to her. That was the presence that wanted to hurt her. And the other one, that was my instinct to protect her no matter the cost; and the fear that I would inevitably let her down. That I wouldn’t be the mother that she needed and deserved, the mother that I so desperately wanted to be.
At some point, I finally sought professional help.
I hadn’t realized how bad it had gotten and Justin had made a threat or two.
When the therapist said postpartum psychosis, I felt… shocked. I didn’t want to hurt my baby. I wanted to protect her. It was this entity, these entities, that wanted to hurt her. And if anyone heard I had postpartum psychosis, surely they would want to take her from me. They would think I might hurt her.
Then, I was relieved. Being diagnosed meant that there was treatment. There was hope. It meant that maybe I wouldn’t have to live in fear.
I was prescribed medication
I was hesitant at first. Obviously I hadn’t had a wonderful history with prescription drugs and I was afraid that it would leak into what little breast milk Nova was getting at that point.
But I reluctantly agreed. Anything would be better than the Hell I was living in. I just wanted to have a normal, healthy life and raise my daughter to have a normal, healthy life As normal as possible, anyway.
They prescribed me two antidepressants, and I stayed in therapy for a while.
Things got better. It wasn’t a magical cure, and it didn’t happen overnight. But it got better. I started to feel normal again, and I started to get my life back. Some damage couldn’t be repaired, but it was a start.
Vitamin D may play a role
When I was more recently pregnant with my third baby, Atlas (our first and only boy), I went to a birthing center for treatment by midwives.
I don’t trust doctors, and I don’t like doctors–especially OBGYN. My one and only pregnancy for which I saw an OB was a terrible experience and I vowed never to return–but that’s another story. So, I went back to a midwife.
They tested my vitamin D and it was dangerously low. Like, less than half of what it should be kind of low. They gave me a bunch of maximum strength supplements, but they also told me that new studies that suggest that vitamin D deficiency can play a part in postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis. Huh.
They said, “if your levels are normally this low, that could explain your experience.”
And I’ll tell you, after a few weeks of taking one vitamin D tablet twice a week (and then down to once a week), I felt better.
I wasn’t booming with energy, but I wasn’t tired all the time, and I could make it through the day and wake up before noon. I was less anxious and less depressed. My mood lifted. My midwives said they could see a difference in me; I smiled more and seemed more relaxed. I felt more like myself.
There is help.
And there’s no shame in asking for help. Statistics say that approximately 10 to 15% of women experience mood disorders after giving birth. The truth is, I think many women don’t realize they have it, or don’t seek help for it. I know a handful of women who experienced depression and anxiety prior to giving birth but never thought to speak to a professional, either because they didn’t believe they needed help or because they felt shame or fear or guilt for asking for it.
Society dictates that moms today have to do it all. We’re the superheroes of the world. We cook, we clean, we care for our children; we never cry, we must not yell, and we must not let our children cry or yell.
But we need help.
We must support one another
And we must speak up about our struggles with mental health. There is no shame in asking for help, there is only strength, and hope.
We must not shame each other for having different beliefs or making different choices for ourselves and our children. And we must not bully other moms for using medication or for seeking therapy.
We are moms. We love our children best and we know our children best. Every one of us would give anything and do anything to care for our children and help them succeed. And we can’t do that if we don’t first care for ourselves, by whatever means necessary.
Ask for support. Tell the world what you need. Tell the world what you feel. And when a mom reaches out to you to tell you what she feels, listen. When a mom reaches out to you to tell you what she needs, give her what she needs, if possible.
We must support one another. Because only another mom knows what it’s like to do what we do.