Have you ever walked down a dimly lit street, alone and at night, and felt the overwhelming sense that determined footsteps follow you? Not exactly on your heels, but close enough to foment imminent danger. That rush of chemistry so powerful you are rendered paralyzed and vulnerable to being overtaken.
Those dark strangers in my night are guilt and shame. A duo so powerful their frequent visits prevented me from seeking the critical help I needed for postpartum depression.
I didn’t know at the time but the combination of a 50-hour labor, the last five of which left me pleading for a C-section, and a case of postpartum preeclampsia merged to create the perfect, toxic PPD cocktail.
The first sign something was off presented itself a day after the birth of my beautiful, healthy baby. Hallucinations began. I began laying awake ceaselessly, convinced people were entering our room from the window. Despite being up for 72 hours, I was unable to sleep. I rang for the night nurse and asked if I could be having some sort of reaction to the enormous amount of medication that had been pumped through my body for the last four days. I described my confusion, pain, and delirium, certain she would tell me that this was a bad reaction to the meds.
“You shouldn’t be,” she said. I wondered if the round-the-clock propofol was the culprit. She reassured me what I was feeling was not a reaction to the meds.
The nurse did not offer what I was desperately seeking, assurance I was OK.
An hour later she dropped off a form for me to complete. In big bold letters, it read: Postnatal Depression Scale. Wait, had I been afraid or panicky for no good reason? Doubts about my sanity awoke. What constituted good reason, I questioned? When you begin doubting waypoints in your life that have always helped you navigate through adversity, sanity begins to erode. I answered those questions truthfully, but what is the truth in an altered state? According to this sheet, a combined score of 10 or higher constituted possible depression. I quickly tallied 25.
The next morning I received a knock at the door. It was the hospital social worker who was there over the depression score. A few minutes after she introduced herself, she asked a strikingly intrusive question, “Do you feel like hurting the baby or yourself?”
It was at that exact moment that I gave birth to something else, shame. A shame burning so deep within me I could hardly breathe. Here I was, one day into motherhood and having a visit by a social worker concerned over the well-being of my baby. My husband stunned in the corner. His fear now triggered by a normally trusted symbol of care. No reassurance offered from anyone at this moment that I would be OK. There was no reinforcement that this was a common occurrence in women, just the sheer realization of a sea change.
I snapped to it and reassured her I was feeling much better. The precise moment when I began to hide.
I swore I would never again share my overwhelming fear or shame of feeling like a completely inadequate mother.
The shame eventually gave way to debilitating guilt. I felt guilty most days. I felt guilty when I was readmitted and separated from my baby 48 hours after arriving home from the hospital. I will spare you the terrifying details of postpartum preeclampsia. I felt guilty when I couldn’t produce enough milk to feed my baby, despite knowing this is a common occurrence for women separated from their child in the first few days of life. I was guilty my husband was home alone with a 4-day-old. I was guilty his joy was diminishing from a moment in his life that he had longed for. I was guilty that I felt trapped and scared.
My constant guilt gave way to extreme shame and vice versa. I was in a swirling vortex between the two. These feelings were blocking me from seeking the help I needed. I was too ashamed to tell anyone for fear of being seen as abnormal and classified as an unfit mother. I kept replaying the scene from the hospital with the social worker over and over, my reddened cheeks burning.
I hid away in my house, sinking. It felt as if someone had taken over my body. I was an outside observer of what was now my disembodied outer shell. I took care of my baby, but it was an Olympic-sized, daily struggle. I lost 30 pounds from the inability to eat or fully sleep. I stopped doing anything outside the bare minimum it took for me and my sweet girl to survive. I would never get out of this cycle I feared. Wash, rinse, repeat. This was my life now.
Help finally came in the form of an OB/GYN angel.
During my eight week checkup, and through well-honed observance, my doctor gently touched my hand and asked, “How are you doing Jillian?” Her eyes held mine. I dipped my toe in and tested the truth.
“Not too well.” I expected her to dismiss or judge, but she didn’t. She listened intently as I began to share. I shared more and more, and she reassured me what I was experiencing was not abnormal. She texted the head of the maternal health program at my hospital, asking that she get me in right away. She comforted me in the way I had been needing. She kept repeating that this was not my fault. It was nobody’s fault.
I began seeing a psychiatrist who specializes in postpartum mood disorders. She candidly shared her own experience with PPD right out of the gate. I immediately felt comfortable with her. If she could have it, anyone could, right? She slowly got me back to a functioning level. Each week we worked through it. I became more comfortable sharing, knowing her experience and that there was a waiting room full of women enduring the same thing. She normalized my feelings. I began to slowly break free from my imprisonment.
I am not fully healed yet but on a road to recovery. I find myself wondering what would have happened if my doctor had not pressed me to tell the truth. To get help.
I worry for others who still shelter in place within themselves.
Even in the year 2020, there remains a stigma around PPD. It is perpetuated by images of the happy mother. She is well-rested, healthy, taking perfect care of her household and little bundle of joy. Another positively reinforced totem of American culture. Another dismissal of perceived abnormalities around the convenient perfect. I have known the happy mothers and admire them. However, you must look deeper to find representation of the mom who might not be thriving.
I perpetuated the stigma by hiding. I dropped the guilt and now embrace sharing. There is strength in knowing you are not alone. There is a community of women who have experienced the same thing.
There is help. Compassion exists. You will get better. I urge you to share unafraid.
Even as I write my story, I continue peering over my shoulder, wondering if those nearby echoes in the night will stalk me again. The further I recover, the more I distance myself from those ominous footsteps.