I drifted off for a short bit and suddenly, my body jolted itself. It was similar to having a dream about falling but jerking awake just in time. My heart was pounding quickly and my breathing became rapid as I braced myself for a contraction – only, the contractions were over. My body felt electrified and the possibility of any deep sleep escaped me.
I needed to try nursing Grace every couple hours and I soon found myself in a puddle of tears and exhaustion.
It seemed like physically giving birth had also caused my brain to give birth to another person living in my head. She was my past self, pre-baby. She was angry and mourning.
“Nothing is ever going to be the same,” she told me, accusing me of making her life miserable. “You can’t make any decision for yourself anymore. You always have to consider the baby. Everyone else will get to do whatever they want, but not you. Not. Ever. Again.”
We were having central air installed in our house and had been hoping to have it done by the time we brought the baby home, since it was the middle of summer. Because Grace was early, Chris was still in the middle of the project and he needed to help the installer dig a trench at the house.
“He’s already leaving you and the baby alone,” pre-baby me said. “No big deal to him. You just have to take care of, well, EVERYTHING. It’s not up to him to keep her alive. It’s up to you.”
I had thought when I saw Grace, I would feel instant and automatic love – a feeling I was sure every mother had for their baby at first sight. I had read books that said not all mothers felt that way but I didn’t believe them. I looked at her and I wanted to want to hold her, but I was terrified. When I looked at my baby girl, I saw a stranger; a stranger who knew every one of my weaknesses and was set to expose them to every single person I knew. She had now taken the place as the dominant female in our family and she was just a baby.
I sat in the hospital room, sobbing. Once the tears began, they wouldn’t stop. People came to visit and I cried. I told everyone I was sure it was hormones and would pass. I was hoping it would pass. Please, oh please, just pass.
My Aunt came by to visit and we joked about her aversion to babies. She was having fun with it, but secretly, I understood, related to and agreed with everything she said.
Chris was ready to go home with the new member of our family, but I was doubtful. If I felt this unsure about my skills in a hospital with trained medical personnel, how did I think I could take care of her at home?
My sister came home with us to help me organize Grace’s room. As soon as we pulled into the driveway, I became nervous. I didn’t want to walk through the front door. Chris was excited, but I was terrified. Everything was different, even my relationship with my dog had changed. I didn’t want to face my new life. In fact, I would have much rather turned around and run away, but I knew that was the wrong thought and the wrong feeling.
My sister busied herself with putting clothes and blankets and diapers away. I sat in the rocking chair Chris bought when I found out I was pregnant, crying and sobbing and sobbing and crying.
My sister didn’t know what to do. She had been pregnant once and lost her baby to a horrible, unexpected accident when she was eight months pregnant. I knew she would give anything to have a baby to hold, rock, cuddle and snuggle. Here I was, blessed with a healthy, beautiful baby girl and all I could do was cry about it. I imagined she must have thought I was incredibly ungrateful and pathetic. At least, that’s how I felt about myself.
I didn’t know what to do with this baby outside of my womb. I wanted to rewind. Everything was happening and changing too fast. Every minute that went by, she was another minute older and I mourned for every one of those minutes that passed.
That night, I hoped that a good night’s sleep might help make everything better. We had Grace’s bassinette next to my side of the bed. As night came, Chris slipped easily into a deep sleep, snoring as proof.
I couldn’t stop looking at her. I was certain if I went to sleep, she would stop breathing. What if she died unexpectedly? What if she somehow worked her arms out of her swaddle and covered her face with the blanket causing her to suffocate? What if the swaddle was too tight and she couldn’t breathe. What if she woke up and I didn’t? What if she starved to death because I was sleeping and couldn’t hear her crying? What if she spit up and choked on it? What if the central air was too cold for her? What if her blankets were too warm for her?
The electrified feeling came back. I was scared. I wanted to sleep but I couldn’t and Chris’ snoring only reminded me of how truly alone I was. Something was wrong.
I woke Chris and told him I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t stop crying. Someone needed to do something – I felt like I was going to lose my mind. I was holding on to the thin string of a helium balloon containing my sanity and if I fell asleep, the balloon would float away or pop.
I called the nursery and the on-call doctor prescribed a sleeping pill. He suggested I take the lowest dosage possible since I was breast feeding. Chris, bless his heart, got up in the middle of the night to pick up the prescription. I took the pills and still didn’t sleep. It was a pattern that would follow for the next couple weeks.
I cried for at least 20 minutes of each hour. I didn’t want anyone to leave me alone with the baby. When she would start crying, my stomach turned into acid and began churning itself back and forth. Waves of energy caused me to shiver and I had a rushes of adrenaline so strong they made me sick.
I cried at every postpartum appointment and checkup. I couldn’t eat. My mouth was dry which made chewing and swallowing almost impossible. If I did manage to choke something down, my acidic stomach chose to expel it one way or another. I began drinking “Ensure” just to “ensure” I had enough nutrients to continue producing milk.
One of the doctor’s I saw said if they had known I was that bad before I left the hospital, they wouldn’t have discharged me. He wrote me a prescription for Paxil, which created a whole new set of shaming statements to myself.
When I was a teenager, I had become suicidal and was put in a psych unit for two weeks. My dad was a chemical dependency counselor and he refused to allow them to prescribe me anti-depressants. There hadn’t been a lot of research done at that time and he was skeptical.
I was nursing, so anything I took would transfer through the milk to Grace. I didn’t want to stop nursing. It wasn’t because I was a naturopathic mother who was against the secret evils of formula. It was because nursing Grace was the only way I felt I was able to provide for her. It was the one thing my body could get right.
It can take up to a couple weeks before discovering whether a medication will be effective or not. I started to worry that finding a solution was going to take too long. What if I wasn’t better in a couple weeks? Then would I have to try another drug for two more weeks? And what if that one didn’t work either? All the while, my baby girl, who I wanted to want more than anything was growing older by the minute and I couldn’t enjoy her.
It didn’t take long to find out Paxil wasn’t going to work. It made me more anxious and on-edge, which of course, once again meant, no sleep.
Chris had to start thinking about going back to work. He had taken a couple weeks leave but he was the only one who knew his job and it was getting to be month end. I had a checkup with my OB/GYN, so Chris thought he would go into work to get a few things done while I was occupied.
As soon as my doctor walked through the door, I broke down. The never ending tears began once more. She asked questions and I could hardly answer through the sobbing. I could tell she didn’t know what to do. She was genuinely concerned, but didn’t know what to suggest as the best solution. She told me she was going to make some phone calls and asked if I would be okay for a few minutes by myself.
She returned shortly after and said she had called Chris to come visit with us as well. She was concerned about my lack of sleep and lack of nutrients. It was the opinion of many, that if I got at least one good night of sleep, things might look brighter. My doctor had arranged with the nurses to let me stay for a night in the hospital while others cared for Grace to allow me to get some sleep. At first, it was very appealing, but when Chris and I arrived, it started to feel all wrong.
The nurse that was helping us happened to be the teacher from our labor and delivery class. It was nice to see a friendly, familiar face, but I was still doubtful. After she spoke with us for a little bit, we explored the idea of bottle feeding with formula instead of nursing. Logically, it made sense. More people could help with Grace if they didn’t have to depend on me for milk. Chris could let me sleep at night and could make a bottle of formula. I could experiment with more meds without having to worry about it affecting my milk. Again, logically, it made sense. However, emotionally, it felt as if I were severing the one and only connection I had to my daughter, and it was almost unthinkable.
When Grace became hungry at the hospital, the nurse showed us how to make a bottle and fed it to Grace. Grace guzzled the formula and began screaming when it was gone. My heart sunk and I felt sick. I thought Grace was screaming because she was angry at me for giving her formula. She was exposing me, once again, as the inadequate mother I believed I was.
Chris and I knew we couldn’t afford a night’s stay at the hospital and I had a feeling it wasn’t going to help anyway. It seemed like a lot of money to pay for one night of something that would be undone the next night. Since we were going to try bottle feeding, I thought I would be okay going home. I didn’t want to stay in the hospital because I couldn’t be away from her, but I also couldn’t be around her. I was lost. I didn’t belong anywhere. I didn’t belong in the hospital, at my job, at my house. I didn’t know who I was anymore.
Chris and I went home and he tried to feed Grace a bottle one more time. I went into the other room so she wouldn’t associate me with the bottle, but one bottle was all I could stand. My body was crying out for my daughter; it was too sad to think of my milk drying up. I trashed the formula idea.
I was desperate for relief and we tried every possible remedy we could think of or was suggested. We tried switching the bassinet to Chris’ side of the bed, we tried going for walks outside, we tried sleeping in the basement because I had developed a strong aversion to our bedroom. Everything seemed to have a new smell and feel to it.
I felt like I was literally losing my mind. I became obsessed with how much sleep I got. As soon as I woke, my brain was in high gear, calculating the hours and minutes. It was several weeks in before I managed to sleep a consecutive four hours.
I became obsessed with the baby stages. I had to know what to expect next from Grace. The only problem was, it would have taken a fortune teller to calm my fears – the books were never specific enough. “Most babies,” this and “some babies,” that and “not all babies,” will experience the “norm.” I was never satisfied. I kept reading through my books several times to see if maybe I missed something. (Reading actually only consisted of skimming through the chapters I was interested in because I couldn’t concentrate long enough to read a whole paragraph.)
I found statements like, “If you are experiencing extreme sadness for more than a few weeks, talk to your doctor about it.” I talked to my doctor about it! Nobody knew how I felt, the extent of my despair or how to make it stop! Nobody understood that the smell of blood when I went to the bathroom turned my stomach, or that there was a small, tiny sliver of time when everything was okay. It wasn’t a time I could pinpoint on the clock, it was just a feeling. It couldn’t be filled with too much light of day or darkness of night. There was only one hour and when that hour was up and darkness began, I grew cold and couldn’t warm up again until the next day at the same hour.
I longed for someone to say they could relate. I found women who said they had struggled after their babies were born, but they went for walks and got better or switched to bottle feeding and got better or took medication and got better. I felt defective, alone, inadequate and hopeless.
Family came over and said, “Go take a nap in your bedroom. We’ll take care of her.” I went to lay down on top of our comforter and my thoughts wouldn’t stop racing. I didn’t even have time to decipher them, I only knew the thoughts weren’t good. I repeated to myself, “God, please make it stop. God, please take this away. God, please make it stop. God, please take this away.” I was laying on the bed, pleading to God with my eyes, like someone who’d had their mouth taped shut.
One morning, I woke from a restless night and went into the living room. Chris and Grace were still asleep. I was doing my first daily check of my child development books to see if there was an answer I had missed. I was shivering even though I wasn’t cold and suddenly I was overcome with the feelings and the thoughts that I was never going to get better. I had visions of shredding my flesh and punching holes through walls. I was supposed to be alone with Grace part of the day. I couldn’t trust myself to be alone with myself, let alone my baby girl.
I felt nauseous, my heart was racing and I had so much energy that I didn’t know what to do. I woke Chris and told him I needed to go to the psychiatric hospital. I couldn’t take it anymore. Once again, the flood gates broke open.