The After | My Journey Through Postpartum Mental Illness | Milwaukee Birth + Motherhood Photographer
The birth of my first child is a blur. I was 22 years old, newly and unhappily married. I was young and though I believed myself to be informed about all things birth + pregnancy, I could never have in my wildest dreams prepared for what came after.
The after. When you're allowed to take this tiny helpless human home from the hospital. They check your carseat installation. They ask if you've got a "proper" sleeping space for said tiny helpless human. And they send you on your way. There is no rule book. There is no nurse checking in every 2 hours anymore. It's just you and this baby who's entire existence now rests on your shoulders rather than within your womb.
My son slept. I did not. Instead of "sleeping when the baby slept," I stayed awake anticipating when he would wake up. I drank an embarrassing amount of energy drinks to do just that and floated through our days alone. I retreated to my bedroom when my sons father came home from work so that I could be alone. I spent all of my time inside of my own head going through the motions. Feeding, changing, putting the baby down for a nap. It was relentless and the days seemed never ending.
When my baby boy, that I had so impatiently awaited the arrival of for 9 months was just a couple of weeks old my husband and I got into an argument. A screaming match, because lets call it what it is here. I packed a couple of bags, set them by our front door and said I was leaving. I didn't know where I was going. I didn't have a plan. I just knew I needed out and quickly. Without my baby. My husband talked me down and I stayed. I sobbed. I had no idea what was going on within me. I was terrified and full of shame. I continued to go through the motions all the while my marriage was crumbling and I didn't posses the energy or desire to save it.
By the time my son was about 6 months old we separated. My sons father promised that he would do all it took to take care of him, that he would never abandon him or us. And he didn't. He was a great father and I couldn't fault him for not wanting to deal with me and whatever it was that was going on inside of me. I took my son who I had promised to give the world too and moved into a spare bedroom at my mothers house. My sons dads picked him up on the weekends and I was numb to it all. The pain was all consuming.
I continued to live in a fog for almost a year. In that year I got an apartment for my son and I and began working as a waitress. During the day I was ok, on the outside at least. But the nights, the nights were when all of the ugliest thoughts a person can have came seeping out of me.
I dreamt of leaving my baby. Surely he was better off without me. I dreamt of my baby dying. Maybe I'd be better off without him? I thought about what would happen if our apartment caught fire or if someone broke in and killed us both. I had created an entire narrative in my head in which my soon to be ex husband would come and take him from me, never to be seen again. The guilt and shame these thoughts ignited was so heavy. But every day the sun rose and I packed my son and his things up, dropped him off with my mom and went to work like I was supposed too. Until I didn't. Until I lost my job. Until things were so bad that I could no longer ignore the constant worry, panic, and ugliness in my head.
I asked my sons dad for help. I told him I did not feel safe and that I didn't think our son was safe with me. My cry for help was used against me in a courtroom not long after I'd spoken up. So I went on the first medication that my primary doctor offered me for "the baby blues". Baby Blues? I was DROWNING. And my son was at this point over a year old. But I left the office, I filled the script, I took the pills. I pretended I was ok because I was afraid that if I went to get the help I truly needed I would lose my baby for being honest and seeking treatment. I was terrified of the situation. But mostly I was terrified of myself.
I suffered for nearly a year and a half before a Dr recognized what was going on and offered me a referral to someone who worked with women struggling with Postpartum Mental Illness instead of just offering me a new perscription. I was immeadiatly diagnosed with Postpartum Depression, Postpartum Anxiety, + PTSD. I was not crazy. I was not ALONE. And what was happening to me was NOT unusual. I did not NEED to continue suffering.
Now I look back and I cry because of all of the things I missed out on when my son was a baby. All of the things I ignored or took for granted because I didn't have it in me to appreciate them at the time. All of the small things that felt so impossibly hard. All of the every day parts of raising an infant that brought me to my knees begging for someone to take me away from this place because I couldn't do it any more.
The after, that no one prepared me for.
5 years later, I was remarried with the life I had dreamt of since I was a little girl. A man that worshipped me and cared for my son like he was his own. A healthy 5 year old who had all the good parts of me within him. My eyes, that looked back at me every single day when he said " I love you mama." I was happy for the first time in as long as I could remember.
I got pregnant with my daughter just a couple of months after we got married. My pregnancy wasn't easy or without stress. We had experienced a second trimester loss early on in our relationship so I struggled daily with accepting this baby in the wake of that loss. I was disconnected, doing my best to protect myself incase something went wrong again. It wasn't love at first sonogram and I didn't bond with my daughter until she was earth side.
Despite it all - I planned everything out perfectly. The most beautiful birth center. The most incredible birth team. How long my husband would be home with us after her birth. "You're a big brother!" books for my son. I had a neatly written list of what had gone wrong the first time, I promised myself that I'd take things in strides and I would get help at the first sign I needed it this time. I would ask for help if I needed it. I would NOT suffer in silence, again.
Naturally all of our birthing plans went out the window. But my daughter arrived without complication and she was even more special than I could have ever imagined. I loved her the first moment I laid eyes on her. All 9lbs of her. My husband was the definition of a proud and glowing new dad that night in our delivery room. I had never seen someone smile so big. He was complete and I was so thankful we finally had OUR baby.
I felt prepared to take THIS tiny helpless human home from the hospital. Things weren't as new as they once were. I was confident in my ability as a mother. My husband was supportive and behind me every step of the way. Life was different this time. Everything was different this time. I had prepared. I had taken steps to prevent PPD. What I didn't know is there is absolutely nothing that can prepare you for or prevent postpartum mental illness.
The symptoms weren't anything I could have anticipated. I was angry. A lot. But never at my kids. I yelled at my husband at any and every opportunity I got. My husband who had been caring for us day in and day out without hesitation. My husband who supported me EVERY step of the way, EVERY single day.
I stormed out of the house during a blizzard one night. Eric followed me trying to get me to come home. And I did, eventually. I can only imagine what our neighbors thought. I had no idea why I was so angry. And again, I was terrified of myself.
My anxiety worsened with every day. I checked our locks multiple times per day and night. I wanted to move, out of the city. Somewhere quiet. Somewhere "safe". I had to say a specific prayer every single night before going to bed or I was convinced my entire family would die while we slept. I haven't gone to church in almost 18 years, but I could not sleep without saying that prayer. The exact same words every single night. My husband worked nights and every phone call I got while he was at work was surely someone calling me to tell me he was dead or hurt. How would I raise 2 kids by myself? I couldn't do it by myself. Every time he left I was convinced he wasn't coming back. So I asked him not to leave. I made him cancel plans, I made him call into work. I started fights when he wouldn't. How dare he. I needed him. I threatened divorce when he needed to leave to do every day tasks. Why was he leaving me? Why didn't he want to be at home with us? My mind raced, day in and day out. I put him in impossible situations more times than I can count. Through it all he did nothing but love me.
When my daughter was a couple of months old I went to see a therapist. I was evaluated and diagnosed with bipolar disorder based on the intense mania and mood swings I was experiencing. The fact that there was a family history of it didn't hurt either. My own history of postpartum illness was never taken into account or talked about, though. Never mind the fact that I had just had another baby less than 6 months prior. I was given a prescription for Lithium and advised that "I probably shouldn't have more children because it would be worse with each child." The diagnosis was heavy and those words weighed me down for weeks. I took the cocktail of meds I had been prescribed. I had strange side effects. I felt weak and nothing like myself. Almost a daily out of body experience. Going through the motions ( that was familiar). Keeping everyone alive and fed. I slept, a lot. I fell down a flight of stairs in our home, twice, because I was so shaky and disoriented. The first time it happened I was holding my daughter and home alone. It was terrifying. I continued to take the medication I was told I needed for the rest of my life.
I saw my therapist every week. We talked about everything and nothing. Family trauma. My dads death. My marriage. The good, the bad, the ugly. Eventually the rage episodes subsided. The anxiety did not.
Halfway through my treatment I found out that our insurance no longer covered the providers I was seeing. We were handed 2 very large bills and sent on our way unless we wanted to pay thousands of dollars per month out of pocket. We couldn't do it.
I continued to take the medication though. It wasn't helping. I was consumed by my anxiety. Crushed underneath the weight of it. It was running my life. Finally, I went off my meds cold turkey. And while that is not at all advised and pretty damn dangerous, I felt better off of it than I did on it. I began to question my diagnosis. I did research. I educated myself. I searched for mental health professionals who specialized in women + womens issues.
So here we are. My son is 8 now. My daughter is 2.5. I was recently diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, NOT bipolar, by a woman who specializes in womens health issues. What I was suffering from after my daughter was born was postpartum rage as well as postpartum anxiety. I had no idea those were even real things. But they are. I didn't recognize the symptoms because though I had been down this road before it was SO different this time. Nothing presented the same way. I could never possibly have prepared for it.
I am a couple of weeks into therapy with a new therapist whom I really enjoy. And I am a couple of days into a medication regimen that will hopefully once and for all allow me to have my life back while helping to manage the anxiety that has exhausted me for nearly a decade at this point.
I took medication that caused me to gain weight, become weak, attacked my thyroid and made my hypothyroidism worse than ever for a year for a mood disorder I was never suffering from. Misdiagnosis's happen. But no one listened to me when I spoke about my previous experience with PPD + PP Anxiety just 5 (7 at this point) years earlier. I understand how the 2 were confused though, I am just thankful to finally know what was/has been going on.
You are not alone. You are not crazy. You are not unusual. You don't need to suffer anymore.
Writing this all down was one of the hardest things I've ever done. It's easy to ignore when its not all literally in black and white right in front of you but I don't want to forget. I want to move forward but I do not want to forget. These experiences have changed me forever.
And if sharing my story helps even one person than all of the anxiety that went into writing this was worth every second.
To my husband - Thank you for being the keeper of all my secrets. For loving me when it would have been easier to walk away. For holding me when I pushed you away. For caring for our babies on your own on my worst days. For being here, always, every day, day in and day out. Thank you. I love you to hell and back. xo