No one would have known how much I was suffering. How could they? I had a beautiful, healthy baby. I had lots of friends. I was home full time so I didn’t have the added pressure of work that so many new moms have. I had a supportive husband, parents and a sister to help with stuff around the house and to help me adjust.
It didn’t matter. I was a mess.
I remember the sensation as my brain slowly made the transition from “normal” to whatever the hell came next. It began about a week after we came home from the hospital—precisely the time when the visitors stopped visiting and the callers stopped calling and my husband went back to work and I was left all alone with this teeny, tiny helpless creature that relied on me. TO SURVIVE. I imagine it was a combination of hormones gone wild and a healthy dose of reality that triggered the downward spiral of my mental health.
Nearly 70 percent of women (and up to 25 percent of men, due to lack of sleep and their own hormonal changes, among other triggers ) report some form of “baby blues” and 15 to 20 percent of new moms experience more significant symptoms of depression or anxiety. But experts suggest that these figures are significantly higher as cases of postpartum depression go underreported due to the stigma attached to mental health issues combined with the societal expectation that moms are supposed to have their shit together.
Plus, postpartum depression is so easy to hide.
Outwardly, I looked normal. Not only did I bathe every day, do my hair as much as any new mom can muster, wear clean clothes that matched and answered all the typical questions that came my way:
“Yes, she’s a good baby.”
“Yes, she’s a good eater.”
“She sleeps four hours straight.”
“Yes, I know, I’m very lucky...”
I also had the body of a porn star—I had lost all the baby weight very quickly, my breasts were enormous and people were constantly telling me how great I looked. I should have been thrilled. But the reality was that I wasn’t eating at all and my breasts were so engorged that I couldn’t put my arms down at my sides. I struggled with breastfeeding, which caused me terrible pain and several infections. I still couldn’t sit without a “donut” due to an episiotomy. I couldn’t sleep. And I felt like I was going to jump out of my skin. I kept thinking that something terrible had happened to me. I felt violated. And, surrounded by loved ones, I felt so very lonely.
But I managed. Because that’s what mothers do. Or at least that’s what it looked like they did when I watched them with envy from afar. They made it seem easy. Why was everything so hard for me?
The weeks crawled by. I fed the baby. I changed the baby. I truly loved that baby more than I knew possible. But it didn’t take long for things to go downhill. I cried a lot, but only when I was alone. I feared that someone would see my pain and think that I couldn’t handle this new responsibility that had been placed onto my very sore lap, and take my baby away from me. Eventually I began to have visions—my daughter’s limp, lifeless body everywhere I looked: on the chair, on the kitchen counter, in the corner on the floor. And then I got into the habit of biting my own tongue, just a little at first to try to calm myself down. But when I started experimenting with biting harder and harder just to see what would happen, I knew it was time to get help.
I enlisted the help of my husband and we contacted my OB/GYN who had a list of professionals for exactly this type of thing. A few days later, I was relieved to find myself in the very capable hands of someone who was reassuring and took control of the situation immediately—it was exactly what I needed. The treatment for postpartum depression is highly individualized and can include antidepressants, antianxieties, or a combination of the two. It took about two weeks for the medication to fully kick in, but honestly, just knowing that someone else was in charge was enough to allow me to breathe again. And things just got better from there.