This is difficult to write. Not because the details of the first couple months of my son’s life are fuzzy – on the contrary, they’re razor-sharp, and that’s what makes writing about them so challenging. Going back into the feelings of those memories is so easy. They’re still so close, just a step behind me.
But I think that more honest accounts of postpartum illnesses, and the recovery from them, need to be written. You can be told a thousand times that you’re not the only mom who’s ever felt like this, that it’s common, that it’s nothing to be ashamed of, but sometimes the words are hard to grasp. When you read another woman’s open, raw account of early motherhood, it stops being just head knowledge and flows to your heart.
So here we go.
My son, James, was born exactly 3 weeks early, on August 3, 2017. I was prepared but not as prepared as I’d have liked – I assumed, for some reason, that he wouldn’t be born until at least his due date, if not later. I was still working and actually had a doctor’s appointment on the day that my water broke. I wasn’t dilated and the doctor told me that I probably had at least two weeks left; an hour later, at home, my water broke. I actually wasn’t scared, just excited and a bit giddy. I’d nagged my husband, Andrew, into packing his hospital bag only the very day before (he laughed about that in an “ok, you were right” kind of way on the drive to the hospital). He was giddy, too – I think that’s the only day I’ve ever seen him flustered. When he pulled up to drop me off at the emergency entrance to the assessment center, he forgot to put the car in park and it started rolling away when he jumped out to come and help me into the wheelchair. (I think, by the way, that that will always be one of my favorite memories. I don’t get many opportunities to tease him for being ditzy!)
Because my water had broken on its own, I had to have the baby within 24 hours or the risk of infection and complications would increase dramatically. I was put on a Pitocin IV and the contractions started building. I didn’t really feel much, just pressure, so I’m not sure why I got the epidural so early; I think that the nurse just offered it to me, and I was afraid of pain anyway, so I went ahead and did it. That was really the start of me feeling “off.” The epidural gave me horrible tremors. They were so violent that the bed was shaking, and I became extremely frightened. I remember asking my mom and husband if I was going to die (ok, disclaimer: I tend to think I’m going to die about once a week, so this really isn’t as dramatic as it sounds. But it was extremely scary). My contractions went on throughout the night, but I did manage to get a few hours of sleep because I wasn’t feeling any pain. My brain didn’t quite feel like my own, though.
My son was born the next day at 12:09 P.M. I told myself to remember how it felt when they pulled him from my body, and I do. But my brain was whirling. I held him and cried over him, but I didn’t count his fingers or his toes – I was afraid to move him. I was so, so afraid that I would hurt this tiny, mewling creature that I had kept safe for almost nine months.
The fear didn’t go away. In our hospital room, I picked him up with a breathless tightness in my chest when I had to feed him or change his diaper, but I didn’t ever really just hold and cuddle him. I kept him close to me and I watched him breathe through the night, but the thought of just holding him didn’t even occur to me. I feel so guilty about that now, and I wonder if anybody thought it odd: me sitting in the bed staring at him in his little clear plastic bassinet, not touching him except when necessary.
My appetite was gone immediately after I gave birth. I remember that my first meal was a burger and fries from the hospital cafeteria, and my husband said that it was delicious, but I only picked at it. I ended up losing about 40 pounds in a little less than a month. Some of it was baby/water weight, but a lot of it was because I simply didn’t have the urge to eat.
In the following weeks, it looked from the outside like everything was going great: I fed James every 2-3 hours, washed his bottles, kept the laundry done and the house picked up. Andrew and I swapped night shifts so that I could get some sleep, and I did. I went to family gatherings and brought James to his doctor appointments (well-baby checkups and followups for jaundice).
Inside, things were starting to fall apart. I was walking around in a fog – everything seemed a bit unreal, like I wasn’t quite fully there. I was terrified that I would forget something important and something bad would happen to James. I was scared to touch him, scared to hold him. I started having horrifying “what if” thoughts: what if I hold this pillow over his face? What if I just do it? What if I just drop him – on purpose? Then my heart would lurch up into my throat and I would feel abject terror. I didn’t want to hurt him. But what if I did? What if I just did?
I had dreams about him being dead, and I would wake up with my brain screaming, “What if that’s what you really want?”
I knew, deep in my heart, that I loved him and didn’t want to hurt him. But I wanted to be 100% sure that I wouldn’t, and that wasn’t possible.
I started wondering what kind of mother I was to be having those thoughts. I hated myself. I started having other thoughts: What if, instead of hurting him, I hurt myself?
When James was two and a half weeks old, I called my great-aunt from my living room sofa. I told her that something was wrong and I needed to go somewhere for help. I was so scared that I would do one of the awful things I was always trying not to think about. I didn’t tell her about the what-if thoughts of hurting James; that was too awful, and I would surely be put into prison or a mental institution for life. I only told her that I was having thoughts about hurting myself. With her sitting beside me, I called my OB, and she told me to go immediately to a mental health facility that was associated with the hospital.
My great-aunt and great-uncle loaded me and James into their van and we went. The evaluation at the facility didn’t take long; I was deemed suicidal (although, honestly, I was not – but more on that later). They didn’t have any available beds at the facility, so they sent me across the street to the ER at the general hospital. I was placed under an involuntary 72-hour psychiatric hold and sent upstairs to the psych ward, which didn’t allow visitors. I watched my great-aunt holding my baby as the nurse wheeled me into the elevator.
I hope and pray, genuinely and not just as a figure of speech, that no one reading this ever has to spend the night in a psych ward. I was terrified. There were people there who were acting violent, pacing up and down the room and letting out occasional incoherent shouts. One man kept trying to take his pants off. At first, the women and men were in different rooms, but as the afternoon and evening wore on, the ward began filling up and they combined us. I curled up in my chair and cried almost constantly. I was bleeding, leaking milk, and felt absolutely parched with thirst. The staff would only give us one tiny cup of liquid at a time and I felt as though I could drink a hundred of them, but I was too afraid to keep getting up and shuffling out to ask for more. My clothes and other belongings had been taken away and I was dressed in blue paper pants and a short-sleeved top, with hospital-issued socks, and I was freezing. We each had a thin blanket, but it wasn’t enough.
At one point, one of the other women in my room began screaming and shouting and I started sobbing in fear. One of the nurses – thank God for her – came and took me by the hand and led me to a corner room, where I was allowed to stay by myself. The security guard was sitting across the hall from my room and that made me feel a bit better, especially since he gave me the occasional nod and smile and asked me if I was ok. He gave me extra cups of water a couple of times when I said I was thirsty. He was like a middle-aged, balding angel in the middle of that place.
I was called out to the hallway a couple of times to receive phone calls from Andrew, who assured me that they were trying to find a place for me to go for the remainder of my 72-hour hold. I was allowed to make phone calls out, but my brain was in such a daze that I couldn’t remember anyone’s phone number. I got Andrew to tell me his a few times and when I went back to my room I huddled in a ball in my chair and stared at a patch of sunlight on the wall and repeated it to myself, over and over and over. I thought about James and missed his scent, even the smell of his poop (as funny as that sounds now). I cried constantly.
Around 2 in the morning, they found a bed for me at a behavioral hospital, and I was loaded into an ambulance and taken to the other side of town. My first clue that this probably wasn’t the place for me was when the nurse drawing my blood, a requirement upon arrival, said to my face, “You probably ain’t gonna have another baby anytime soon, huh?” And laughed. Laughed. I could dwell on that, but I won’t.
At this point, I hadn’t taken any of my usual medications (Xanax, which was prescribed to me in the hospital, being one of them) because I hadn’t yet seen the facility’s psychiatrist, but I was forced to take something (still don’t know what) that made me very sleepy. I was given the pill and a tiny cup of water and had to stand at the nurse’s station and take it while the nurse watched me. There was a water fountain nearby and I stood there and refilled that tiny cup about fifty times. Of course, I realize now that I was so thirsty because I was lactating.
Even though I was extremely sleepy, I didn’t sleep much for the rest of the night, mostly because the shared toilet between my room and the next one over kept flushing. I thought that something was wrong with the plumbing; I didn’t realize until the next morning that the girl in the other room was going into the bathroom literally every 5-10 minutes and flushing it. I’m not sure what was going on with her; she never spoke to me, the other patients, or the nurses.
Everyone was woken up around 7:00 the next morning. During the daytime, the facility was loud and boisterous, even happy in a manic sort of way. After breakfast, we were shuffled off into groups to play bingo while hip hop music blared at full volume. I thought I would scream. The stimulation was overwhelming.
I talked to Andrew and my mom during the course of the day and they both said that they were coming for the 5:00 visitation hour. Unknown to me, Andrew was doing everything he could to get the 72-hour hold revoked; he knew that I wasn’t in a good environment and that I missed James so much it felt like it would choke me.
During lunch, two of the male patients began arguing and almost came to blows. An older black nurse came and took me by the arm and led me away to a staff room, where she let me sit crying while she filled out her paperwork for the day. I told her I was there for postpartum mental illness, and her eyes filled with tears as she told me that her daughter had struggled with it too.
I finally was evaluated by the psychiatrist a little before 5:00 that evening. As he went through the questions, he started tapping his pen and looking at me closely. Finally he said, “I don’t know who evaluated you, but you have postpartum OCD. You’re not suicidal – you don’t want to hurt yourself, you’re afraid of the thought of doing it. The thoughts pop up randomly, because that’s what thoughts do, and you label them as “bad” and try to stop them. But you know what happens when I tell you not to think about a white horse? You think about a white horse. And if a white horse is “bad,” you get anxious – why are you thinking about it? Why can’t you stop? Your brain keeps trying to censor itself and the more it tries, the less it can and the more anxious you get. You don’t belong in here. I want to talk to your family first, but I think we’re going to end up revoking your hold.”
Andrew said my face lit up when I saw James. He was in his yellow duck footie pajamas – I’ll never forget. I remember being mildly amused that Andrew had brought him out in his pajamas, and I cried when he and my mom told me that he’d lost his umbilical stump the night before when Andrew was bathing him. My mom had offered to keep James for the night, but Andrew had done it all by himself, after working all day, while worrying about a wife who’d been committed to psychiatric care and making phone calls to try to get help. I’ll never not be in awe of him for that.
So I was released, and the process began of trying to find the right medication – a process that’s still ongoing, 9 months later. I’m so much better than I was. I don’t want to be ungrateful for that. But it’s been a long, hard road with plenty of tears. I’m extremely sensitive to most medications, so I recently had to have a genetic test to determine my drug metabolism rate for different psychiatric medications. Currently I’m only able to take a very low dose of Effexor along with a low dose of Xanax – the low dose of Xanax is by choice because I’m afraid of getting addicted (which my postpartum psychiatrist tells me is extremely unlikely to happen, given my terror of it, and to just take the dang pill for heaven’s sake, Jennifer).
The bad days are slowly becoming fewer and less frequent, but they still happen. I have a lot of guilt. I deal with a lot of anxiety. Sometimes I start counting things and putting things in order and it takes a day or two to make myself stop. The intrusive thoughts about hurting James or myself have faded for the most part, but they still pop up from time to time. I’m learning to let them be. I’ve started letting the dishes stay in the sink for a few minutes while I get down on the floor and play with my boy, who is beautiful and wonderful and so worth it. I’d do it all over again for him. All of it.
Andrew is my rock and my strength. My mom is my comfort and go-to when I need a break from it all. God is faithful and so, so much bigger than all of this. I truly believe that what has happened to me will be for the best, though I may never know how in this lifetime. I know that the very end of this story is happy; no matter what happens in the rest of the book, that’s a given. My faith has grown big, big, big.
Thanks for reading this huge, rambling story, and if you’re going through something similar, just remember this: it gets better, God loves you, and you are so strong. Whether you’re going through postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety, postpartum OCD, or postpartum psychosis, help is out there. It may take awhile and you may have some bad experiences, but a determined effort to get well will yield results. I believe this for you. Whatever you’re feeling now, fear or dread or self-hatred or the urge to just end it all, it’s just a feeling and it will pass if you abide and let it be.
There is hope. Always.