This piece is part of our Mental Health Month blog series, where we highlight and explore lesser-known mental health challenges. Here’s Ceara’s experience with and perspective on postpartum depression.
Note: this piece describes a traumatic labor and delivery experience in detail.
My pregnancy wasn’t especially difficult. I gained a significant amount of weight, as my diet consisted mainly of burritos, Italian food, sour candies, and ice cream.
When the day of delivery finally arrived, 10 days after my due date, my husband and I sped gleefully to the hospital. There, I was given the bad news that I was not dilating as quickly as they wanted me to, and was pumped full of Pitocin. As the contractions got stronger, I opted for an epidural. Three hours later, the juice had run out, and the pain came back with force.
Fast forward to two more epidurals and being in labor for 19 hours, I was exhausted, I was beyond angry, I was emotional, and I was done fighting the battle. Epidural four kicked in, and as the pain abated, I fell back against the sweat-soaked pillows of the hospital bed. I closed my eyes and began to float out of my body.
I was looking down on the hospital room. I could see my husband, red and angry, holding my hand. My mother sat in a chair next to the windows, eyebrows pinched together in concern, leg bobbing furiously. The sweet, thoughtful nurses, monitored me closely. I still was not dilating. But I no longer cared. All I wanted was for the pain to stop. I wanted the release that might come with no longer being a part of this earth. My eyes turned away from the scene and up toward the ceiling. I floated up, up, up, blissfully—until I heard a nurse shout, “The baby’s heart rate has spiked to 200! Get her to the OR!”
I crashed back into my body, the discomfort more real and more tangible than it had been before I’d begun my ascent. I was wheeled quickly through the double doors of my hospital room and down the hallway. I heard the words, “emergency c-section” and “fetal distress.”
We screeched into the OR and a sheet was draped over my body, leaving only my head exposed. Doctors and nurses converged, and a lovely Indian man, covered by a surgical mask and protective eyewear, touched my face softly, speaking to me in soothing tones about anesthesia. I asked him to keep touching my face. His hands were so tenderly reassuring. They felt like silk and paper, so cool on my flushed face.
My husband appeared from nowhere, dressed head-to-toe in hospital blue, face ashen. He sat beside me, reassuring and loving. All I could do was think about how much of a strain this had been on him. He’d been up for 19 hours, too–worrying about his wife, worrying about his not-yet-born daughter, and absolutely powerless to change a single thing that was happening.
A nurse mounted the table and my body was jerked once, twice, a third time. Suddenly, for the first time in months, I felt like I could breathe. No tiny feet were rammed into my lungs, no miniature being was shoving my organs out of the way. My daughter was now her own creature, with teeny toes and teeny fingers; with beautiful brown and swollen eyes, a shock of black hair sticking straight up.
The relief of being able to breathe was short-lived. At that exact moment, I realized unexpectedly I felt emptier than I ever had before. The life I’d carried for nine months was no longer a part of me. The movements of my sweet girl within me, the elbows and knees that had made my belly look like a terrestrial plain, the shifting of her body as she prepared to be born, the life that had surged within me was taken in one swift yank.
“Get that! GET THAT!” a doctor cried out in regards to something amiss in my abdomen. More commotion and urgency immediately followed but I didn’t care. I didn’t care for the wreck that was now my body. I didn’t care about what I’d just been through. I didn’t care about the pain, the exhaustion, or my life. I cared that my daughter had not yet cried. I looked toward my husband in a panic.
“She’s okay,” he reassured me.
And then I heard her–the shrill wail of life. They brought her over, wrapped in a yellow blanket, her skin pink and raw from rubbing. She wouldn’t stop crying. My husband and I cried right along with her.
Following a terribly poking and prodding hospital stay, our family went home. Although I had my baby in my arms, I could not shake the feeling of emptiness within me. Logically, I knew the baby in my arms was the life my body had carried, but emotionally I could not bear the loss. It’d happened too quickly. Something refused to be rectified within me. She had been inside, and then she was suddenly outside. My emotions could not make the connection any more than my body could.
My daughter howled all. the. time. She barely slept. She hated any swinging movement. She always wanted to be held. She never wanted to be on her stomach. And I was convinced she was the damned Anti-Christ. I’d stare at her, screaming and turning so red she looked almost purple, and I was at a complete loss as to what to do. I was tired. I was aggravated. I was angry and resentful of this squirming thing, taking my sanity with each lamenting breath.
It became very clear to me why people once believed their children had been swapped at birth with a fairy changeling. I realize now it was a way for them to cope with the difficulty of infancy. This thing in front of me was certainly not made from me. My eyes could see her, my hands could feel her, my nose could smell her, my ears could hear her–but my heart rejected knowing her.
Having a child forces a person into an unbecoming of their former identity. If they’re not quite rooted enough in their core self, that unbecoming turns into an abyss. And for a few of us, that abyss swirls in on itself, turning into the black hole named Postpartum Depression (PPD).
PPD is the tapeworm to a mother’s soul. It’s a gaslighting, devious, underhanded disorder that slinks its way into a mother’s heart and subconscious. It whispers to you to throw your baby out the window at 2 am after you’ve been rocking her for three hours and she still will not stop crying. It hisses to you that a little shake won’t hurt—that you just need to shake your baby to snap her out of it. It murmurs to you that if you hurt your infant, you’ll understand why she’s crying, and then you can do something to make it stop. You can fix the hurt if you know where the hurt is.
It plants little seeds in your mind that you are an unfit and terrible mother because deep down, you know you truly hate your child. It heaps on the guilt when you let your child cry in her crib for more than five minutes because you’re trying to feed the dog. It reminds you that you are a worthless being because now your body is ruined, you’re incapable of taking care of yourself or your child, and everyone knows you’re a failure.
It rears up as anger and frustration toward your partner. Their body isn’t completely foreign to them because of all the pregnancy and hormonal changes. They didn’t have to carry this thing in them for nine months! They didn’t have to go through 19 hours of strenuous labor, almost die, have their baby ripped from them, then go through the healing process of an infected c-section! They don’t know what it’s like to have this thing attached to them, 24-hours a day. They can’t breastfeed. They don’t have the maternal instinct kick in to never fall all the way asleep, just in case the goblin-child needs something.
Some people take to motherhood the way I’d been led to believe all mothers were wired to; a divine right to create a being, care for this being, and send this being off into the wide world. And every mother does so with grace, a smile, and an air of nonchalance. These mothers love babies, and being pregnant, and being a parent, and being a grandparent.
I had none of that from the very beginning and had even less of it when my infant had some unseen issue that she could only communicate through a banshee scream. With each of those screams, my black hole grew wider, deeper, and darker. With each scream, I resented my daughter and my husband more. With each scream, I retreated into the darkest part of myself.
In the effort of self-preservation, a mother suffering from PPD does everything they can to fill that hole. I felt as if the truth of who I was inside had disappeared, so I began to feed that emptiness with food. I packed on pounds—growing, inch by inch, outwardly, hoping I could create my own gravitation to pull myself back in… to no longer be the black void, but to feel whole again.
Of course, food didn’t work. And being the prideful, scared young woman I was, I refused to ask for help. I refused to follow my innate intuition that something was not right. I refused to see that my efforts were a detraction in the realm of the soul. I was disappearing. That is, until, something wicked happened.
I hurt my daughter so I could take control of her incessant screaming. I lasted four months without incident. Four months of sleepless nights, my daughter’s constant screaming, my bleeding nipples, a pinched nerve in my shoulders and neck, an infected c-section wound, and my attempt at going back to my active duty Air Force position. Four months of shame, of guilt, of thoughts so dark I knew the face of evil, of bitterness, of self-loathing, and of self-inflicted mental and emotional torment.
It’s almost impossible for anyone to believe that a mother could hurt their child. But the thing is, in a situation like mine, in an environment like mine, with a mental capacity like mine, I wasn’t a mother—and my child wasn’t my child. I was a “Mombie,” and my sweet baby girl was a demon. I realized later, through counseling and medication, that I wasn’t alone. There are millions of women who feel this way. There are millions of children who have undiagnosed medical issues that are turned away, doctors merely stating they are “colicky,” and that “this will pass.” I realized later how much of a gift intuition is, and vowed to listen to this gift, always. Intuition is the true Divine right, and it is ingrained within each and every one of us.
If you’re feeling the way I did, there is no reason to feel ashamed. Some of us struggle more than others. Some of us have a predisposition toward hormonal or mental imbalance. Some of us don’t take to motherhood the way our neighbors or our society would have us believe. Some of us have really, really challenging infants. Some of us weren’t ready to be mothers but did it anyway.
Some of us need a little extra help, too. Not just in reassurance, or the loving spouses and relatives that surround us, but from licensed professionals who understand that PPD is a mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical ailment in need of caring and intensive treatment.
I promise you–you are not alone. You are a being of wonder and a breathtaking, glorious mother. You are strong, you are beautiful, and you are miraculous. You can do this. All you have to do is reach out of the abyss. We who have suffered are here to grasp your hand, in solidarity, love, understanding, and vigor, to pull you out and bring you back to whole.
Mental illness has a way of making us feel incredibly isolated. We’re here to remind you of the truth that you are not alone. We encourage you to use TWLOHA’s FIND HELP Tool to locate professional help and to read more stories like this one here. If you reside outside of the US, please browse our growing International Resources database. You can also text TWLOHA to 741741 to be connected for free, 24/7 to a trained Crisis Text Line counselor. If it’s encouragement or a listening ear that you need, email our team at [email protected].
For support and resources specific to PPD, visit Postpartum Support International.