Coming Face-to-Face with Postpartum Depression

by Bee Quammie

Feeling understood is a luxury these days, and I guess a portion of that is my fault.

Each time I get a text message asking “Hey! How you doin’?” and I answer “Fine! How are you?” I promise myself that next time I’ll respond with the truth. Each time I get off the phone with my mother, I wonder if she senses the hesitation in my goodbye, the falter in my voice that signifies that I want to say more, but I don’t know how. Each time my husband asks me what he can do to help, emotion rises in my throat and bubbles out through my tears. All I can say is, “I don’t know.”

My first job out of university was in mental health research. It was there that I began to hone my theoretical understanding of mental illness, and where I began to cultivate the empathy and empowerment I used to assist the clients I worked with. After my own diagnosis of depression in 2012, that theory became practice. Now, as I struggle with a resurgence in symptoms due to postpartum depression, that outward lens has turned inward, and I’m trying to help myself the way I’ve helped my clients since that first job.

Given my history, my otherwise happy pregnancy was covered by a mist of worry: postpartum depression was real, and I braced myself for the possibility that we’d meet one day. After I gave birth I kept a watchful eye over my emotions, giving myself the space to feel whatever I felt and reminding myself that with hormones, sleep deprivation, breast feeding struggles, and the new role of being fully responsible for another human being also comes a new normal… where nothing feels normal for a while.

The new normal started feeling like overwhelming happiness followed by a surge of crippling fear. I wasn’t confident in my nascent motherhood and felt I did nothing right. I would cry and apologize to my daughter everyday. I was certain that even the slightest misstep would put roots into some kind of traumatic experience for her—I imagined her as a troubled teen who would undergo some kind of hypnotherapy and realize that the beginnings of her downfall came at my hands. Then I’d snap back to reality, realizing I was daydreaming when I should have been changing her diaper, and the guilt at failing her yet again would take another chunk out of me.

The new normal started feeling like incredibly soul-crushing sadness that left me numb. Sitting in this sadness was something I was familiar with, but it felt utterly overindulgent now that I was a mom. My suspicion that my daughter could sense my depression was heightened by literature reiterating that babies feel the energy of their parents, and I started feeling guilty again. As I’ve done in the past, I gathered up every bit of energy, personality, and happiness I could muster and presented my most cheerful self when necessary. But when she was asleep, or whenever I could steal a moment alone, I’d cry until my eyes burned.

The new normal started feeling like toying with thoughts of hurting myself. I became afraid of standing for too long on a balcony or walking over a bridge. I’d look at the knives in our kitchen and challenge myself to pick one up and calmly place it back in its wooden slab—if I could do that, it was a sign that things weren’t “that bad.” I’d often be able to quiet those thoughts in my head, and generally kept them to myself. Though my loved ones urged me to be open and honest about how I was feeling, there were certain things that I just didn’t know how to share.

My mother—who disclosed to me her own journey with postpartum depression when I was born—made sure to check in often. My cousin—who also dealt with postpartum depression— reminded me I could call her at any time. My husband would ensure that his workday texts and calls inquired about both our daughter’s and my own well-being. The meant-to-be-helpful things like reminders that my daughter was healthy and that I was doing a good job never cracked through the walls of fear, guilt, and sadness that I felt. The most I could say at times was just, “I feel really sad today.”

It was only recently that I truly started to open up during a discussion with my husband. I told him that I sometimes wondered what would happen if I fell down the stairs. I felt guilty when I heard the worry in his voice as he asked, “Why would you think something like that?” I felt guilty when my daughter cried in the other room during our heart-to-heart; I wiped my eyes before lifting her out of her crib, but she touched my cheek and looked curiously at the tear there. Through all that self-imposed guilt came equal parts relief and self-admonishment. It felt good to put everything aside and give voice to my emotions, but I felt that for too long I lived as a hypocrite who encouraged others to reach out while not exercising that same necessary action myself.

Much of this is still very present and all of this is a process to work through. I look at my daughter and my logical brain knows she’s a healthy, thriving, happy baby. My goal now is to be the healthy, thriving, and happy mother that I know I’m capable of being, and the one she deserves. It takes effort, honesty, and a circle of support—from trusted family, friends, and professionals—but after months of a stifled, tongue-twisted existence, I finally have some hope that I will be understood.

Photo: Shutterstock

Bee Quammie is a regular contributor at For Harriet. She is an award-winning writer and blogger, as well as a health and wellness professional. You can find her at her website and on Twitter @BeeSince83.

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