When my daughter was born I had no idea I’d go from ecstasy to thoughts of cracking her head open and throwing myself out of a moving car. This dark side of motherhood needs to come out of the shadows.
This story is republished from MUTHA Magazine. MUTHA explores real-life motherhood, from every angle, at every stage.
* * *
“One of the worst things about being a parent, for me, is the self-discovery, the being face to face with one’s secret insanity and brokenness and rage.” ~ Anne Lamott, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year
* * *
When my daughter was born I had no idea that I’d go from ecstatic to fighting thoughts of trying to kill her, and myself.
I was high on Anza’s birth for exactly one week. I birthed her squatting, just like I wanted to. She was slippery and pink. I remember sitting there in my own pool of shit, blood, and mucous, shouting over and over again: “Oh my god, you’re so beautiful!” My husband, Ben, was so excited he could barely cut the cord.
She had curly reddish brown hair like his (he’s half Jewish) and twinkly dark eyes like mine (I’m Chinese). We named her Anza after Lake Anza where we had our first date. It also means “beginning” in Swahili, which seemed so right because we had three miscarriages before her. She was our miracle baby.
The first few nights I rode on pure adrenaline, basking in the joy of her little piggy lips sucking on my tits and the sweet taste of milk on my fingertips. But by the end of the first week I couldn’t relax, kept imagining that she was dead, that she had suffocated in her sleep. Because of the miscarriages, while I was pregnant with her I had prepared myself mentally for her to not make it to term. Even as the doctor caught her, I had steeled myself for the monitors to flatline and for the doctor to say: “I’m sorry; it’s a stillborn.”
I would watch her sleep in her crib, worrying that at any second she would die.
Over the next three weeks sleep deprivation started to destroy me. I shuffled through the days and nights of nonstop nursing, burping, and changing, attempting and failing to nap and feed myself. My nipples, two spots of shooting pain, felt like someone had scrubbed them with steel wool. My crotch burned with raw tears and stitches. I had hemorrhoids the size of plums. Every time the baby cried and fussed, I wanted to scream. Even with help from my husband and mother-in-law, I was more exhausted than I’d ever been. Every morning I prayed that ten p.m. would come so I could get that three-hour window of sleep before I had to do it all over again. I cursed all my friends who are parents. No one told me it would be this hard. They duped me into joining their club of misery. I hated nursing, I hated pumping. I started to hate the sound of the baby’s voice. I started to hate the baby.
I felt tethered to the rocking chair, a used red Dutalier I found on Craigslist, where I nursed Anza for hours. There was a mirror facing the chair. Each day I stared at myself in my dirty robe, my hair greasy and flat. I hadn’t showered in weeks. I smelled like rotting meat. I’ve made a terrible mistake, I thought. All these years, I thought this was what I wanted. I’ll never get a full night of sleep again. I want my life back.
I told my husband, “I’m so tired it hurts.”
“Of course you’re tired,” he said with a smile. “You’re a new mom.”
By the second month I started to shake all the time. I was freezing even though it was September and we were having a heat wave. My clothes were always soaked with sweat and milk. I stopped being able to sleep and prayed for the wired feeling to go away. I would lie awake and think: I have to go back to work in a month. How the hell am I going to do that? I’m going to lose my job. We’ll lose our health insurance. I’m going to end up in a hospital and we’ll go bankrupt.
My mother-in-law went back to Canada so we were all alone.
I told Ben that I felt like I was dying. “What do you mean?” he would ask. But I couldn’t explain, couldn’t find a way to tell him I felt like I was going crazy and that I was so tired I felt I would die from exhaustion. I didn’t think for a second that I had PPD because I wasn’t depressed. I never cried. I just felt like I was going into shock. None of my friends who were mothers had ever mentioned that they had been so tired they felt like dialing 911. Everyone else seemed to handle being new moms with such grace. I was sure my unraveling was due to a fundamental character flaw. I was weak. I was spoiled, lazy.
I thought maybe I was experiencing diabetic shock so I got tested. My doctor said everything was fine. My sugar, iron and thyroid were all normal. She gave me Tylenol PM and benedryl to help me sleep. It worked for one night.
Soon I became OCD. At first it was just the bottles. I had to make sure they were boiled. Then I had to boil them twice. Then everything that touched the baby had to be boiled: pacifiers, toys, towels. If anything touched a “dirty” surface, I had to start again. I could barely handle holding the baby because I was sure I’d give her germs that would make her so sick she would end up in the hospital. I couldn’t afford for her to get sick. I thought: if I start sleeping again and then she gets sick that will be the end of me. So I boiled everything and only touched doorknobs with my sleeves.
I stopped being able to dress myself, I was so tired. Ben would help dress and feed me. It was like I was the baby. Most of the time I was too tired to eat. Ben did pretty much everything except nurse the baby: he did all the laundry, the dishes, took out garbage, cooked (well he tried his best), all while running his own business building websites. At night I’d lie in bed sweating feeling my heart race like I was having a heart attack. He would hold me and say, “Just try to relax and sleep. You’re going to be okay.”
By the third month I started seeing a therapist who specialized in postpartum depression. While she was helpful, it didn’t stop what was happening to me. My behavior was increasingly erratic. I felt less and less in control of the “real me” and watched with terror as some other woman, a “crazy” Sharline, took over. I would mutter and talk to myself loudly. People in stores would look at me with concern and step away. I had trouble connecting thoughts when talking to Ben, who was becoming increasingly concerned. I had to fight with all my will strong urges to do inappropriate things: grab some woman’s hair in the store, plunge my hand in a box of used needles at the doctor’s office.
We hired an amazing woman named Sara to help take care of the baby and with much of the housework. My mother-in-law and brother-in-law moved in with us from Canada to take care of me.
Ben and I still didn’t realize how seriously sick I was. “Everything’s going to be okay,” he kept saying. Like good Berkeley-ites, we chose to take the natural route. We didn’t trust antidepressants. I was terrified of them, terrified that drugs would take away the last remains of my brain that seemed to be the only threads left preventing me from hurting myself, Anza or someone else. We didn’t trust Big Medicine, white man’s medicine, and we wanted to make sure I could still breastfeed. For weeks, Ben took me to all sorts of natural healers who tried endless remedies on me: acupuncture, Chinese medicine, massage, reiki, B12, spirulina, breathing exercises, meditation, and even crystals and chimes. Many of them helped me relax in the moment, but none stopped the downward spiral, and worst of all – no one diagnosed me.
One day, I rolled around on the sidewalk outside our house. It felt good. I didn’t want to get up for a long time. People just walked around me. (It’s Berkeley after all.) I shouted over and over, “No! How did this happen?” The next day, I had a major panic attack in the car and tried to jump out while Ben was driving. When I was home, I spent a lot of time crying. Now I was depressed. Also around that time I started having nonstop dark thoughts, of how to kill myself, and Anza. I started having urges to stab her, drown her, throw her off the deck, crack her head open, bite her cheeks off. I told Ben and my mother-in-law everything. They assured me that I wouldn’t actually act on my thoughts, and that they would watch me and Anza carefully and keep us both safe. Still, I felt like a monster. I told Ben, “I can’t be alone with the baby. I don’t trust myself anymore.”
We finally decided to try medication, and the bigger, harder decision: we switched to formula (which felt like giving our baby Diet Coke). I felt like the worst mother in the world. A total fucking failure. My OB and family doctor put me on Xanax, Ambien, Klonopin and Zoloft. The drugs helped me sleep a bit and calmed panic attacks but I was still mostly an insomniac wreck.
I called a few friends to let them know what was happening to me. Some of them visited and it helped me immensely, having people to talk to and just give me a hug. They felt sad for me, and helpless. It was so difficult to get anyone to understand when I said I wanted to live but I couldn’t bear to be in my body one more second, that I felt like I was being tortured.
Each night I would get up and search the house for my sleeping pills (I was only allowed one a night. Ben hid them from me.) I tried to find ways to keep myself busy until morning. With a shaky hand, I wrote thank you cards to people who had sent baby gifts. I tried yoga. I tried meditating. But mostly I would lie on the couch and feel my body tremble and pray to make it through one more night. The OB had asked if I had plans to kill myself, and I remember thinking, as I shook my head no, Yeah, I’ve got plenty of plans: pills, razorblades in the tub, kitchen knives. How can I buy a handgun? Does putting your head in an oven really work? If I slice my wrists, how much will it hurt before I pass out? I fought images of going into Anza’s room and smothering her.
At a friend’s urging, we decided to find a psychiatrist. After calling 20 psychiatrists, we finally found one who would take a new patient and could see me right away. Her name was Dr. Cedars and she asked me a bunch of questions. I paced the room, told her I felt like I was dying or that I wanted to die. She asked me if I had plans to kill myself. I whispered, “Yes.” “What kind of plans do you have?” she asked. I told her.
She immediately called Herrick, the local mental hospital, and asked them to reserve a spot for me. “I highly recommend that you go tonight, but I can’t force you,” she said. (Later, when we got home, Ben convinced me that it was worth trying to get better at home. But I packed a suitcase just in case.) Then she prescribed Seroquel, an anti-psychotic.
“You mean I’m psychotic?” I said.
“Well, marginally so,” she said.
I was scared shitless about what was happening, and ashamed. I had an Ivy League education, was a director at a national nonprofit–and I was cracking up, headed for the nut house.
I was diagnosed with extreme postpartum depression with anxiety with intrusive images.
Dr. Cedars referred me to Dr. Alexander, a leading expert on PPD. Dr. Alexander doubled my Seroquel and had me continue taking Klonopin and Zoloft, and that’s what did the trick. What I learned was that each person’s brain is different. I got lucky that it didn’t take long to find the cocktail that worked for mine. In a week I began to dramatically stabilize. Ben noticed the difference right away. “Your thoughts are more organized. You seem more calm, more like yourself,” he said. I started sleeping through the night, stopped having bad thoughts.
The truth is Science still doesn’t fully understand PPD – why it happens, why it happens to some women and not others, and why it manifests in different ways in different women. Most experts agree that the sudden change in hormones and brain chemistry are partly to blame. The woman’s body and brain is flooded with hormones during pregnancy and the minute a child is born those chemicals plummet. “Your brain didn’t like that,” Dr. Alexander told me. “It’s like a computer that had a circuit overload. We need to do a hard reset.”
In December, I started going to a support group for women with PPD. Some of them were in worse condition than I had been in. One mother had been in and out of Herrick. Another had OCD so bad she accidentally burned her kid with hot water in the bathtub. We talked about our shame, our guilt, and the myth of motherhood.
I was sure that I would get worse from the drugs before I got better, but I didn’t. I didn’t have any bad side effects. I didn’t completely lose my mind though I suspect it’ll always be broken. The therapist who led the support group said that some people believe PPD “cracks women open, in a good way.” I don’t know about that, but I do know that it changed me forever. I still have fears about having survived a major mental health crisis. I’m grateful that I’ve survived, but wonder: will I always be damaged, my brain like a car that’s been rammed once too hard? Will I always be prone to crazy? And if so, what does that mean? Is that who I am?
I couldn’t go back to my previous job because I was too sensitive to stress. By the following summer, I had weaned off the Seroquel and Klonopin and stayed on Zoloft for another six months. Right now I’m not taking any medication. I try to manage my stress and anxiety by trying to get enough sleep (still hard since she still wakes up each night), eat well, try to stay active, make time to go out and have fun with friends, write, and meditate when I can. I’m really lucky that Ben has supported my decision to stay at home for now so I can focus on getting better. It has also given me more time to spend with Anza, who is now a spirited, book-obsessed toddler. Sara comes to our house twice a week so I can take walks and write. I am forever grateful to her, and my husband and in-laws, and many good friends for supporting me during my darkest times.
While my PPD was happening, I didn’t tell my parents and to this day they still don’t know. For many reasons, largely cultural (they’re Chinese immigrants), I didn’t want to them to know because I didn’t want them to worry. They’re older and live in New Jersey and they would either have tried to fly out and help or spent sleepless nights of their own feeling helpless. The reason why I still haven’t told them? PPD isn’t discussed enough in any society or culture, and I fear that they might blame me or make me feel like I’m exaggerating about my experience.
Looking back, I wish my doctors and infant care teachers had spent time talking to me and my husband about the serious nature of PPD, how to look for signs and get help. I wish they had told me that PPD is now also called Postpartum Depression Spectrum because it manifests in so many ways, including intense prolonged anxiety, and rage. I also wished people had shown me articles written by survivors, especially women of color like this African American mother, and this Asian American mother.
I hope to keep sharing my story, to be part of a movement to put PPD in our collective face, so we can see the whole picture of motherhood. As women, as a society, we need to talk about these experiences, the dark side of motherhood. We need to take PPD out of the darkness. I want us to tell each other it’s okay, that there is no such thing as being a perfect or normal mother, that it’s okay to say I’m really fucking tired and I need help, to say I’m sick and I need help, to say there are ways to get better and we don’t need to feel alone, and most of all, we don’t need to feel ashamed.