This is a guest post from Elizabeth. We want to highlight other mother's experience during Mental Health Awareness Month. Trigger warning for anxiety, depression, and psychiatric care. If you or someone else you knows needs help, we encourage you to reach out to Moms Mental Health Initiative.
I open a drawer in my kitchen two times a day… three on the really bad days.
For some reason, this drawer gets stuck a lot, so opening it usually requires a decent amount of pulling and wiggling and yanking. I joke that it’s almost as if the drawer doesn’t even want to open. Sometimes, I talk in a funny, grumpy troll voice, pretending to be the drawer talking, “I don’t wanna open. I like being closed. This isn’t fair, leave me alone!” My troll voice makes my seven-year-old laugh, and his laughter makes me laugh, and in the back of my mind, I’m thankful that he’s still too young to understand that my jokes are just my own way of coping with the reality that as much as the drawer doesn’t want to open, I don’t want to be opening it.
I want to leave it closed, but that’s not really an option, and I know that. So I force the drawer open, and I force myself to pull out four prescription bottles, and I force myself to begrudgingly swallow a small handful of meds that I hate, prescribed by a psychiatrist that I hate visiting, to treat a complex blend of mental illnesses that I hate having. On paper, mostly for insurance purposes, it’s called C-PTSD. Complex post-traumatic stress disorder. I’m an overachiever though, so obviously I couldn’t stop with just one diagnosis. After C-PTSD comes BPD, borderline personality disorder, and then ADHD, attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder. Sometimes, a doctor will just summarize it all by calling it depression or anxiety, but that’s rare. It’s been a long time since anyone’s been able to look at my mental health history and tag me with a one-word diagnosis. Come to think of it, I suppose it’s been at least seven years. That’s how long I’ve been a mom.
It was supposed to be easy. I knew that it was common for women to experience postpartum hormone changes that could trigger depression or anxiety. I knew that some moms experienced those feelings more intensely or for longer periods of time. I knew that I was considered to be “at-risk” for a more severe perinatal mood disorder due to my mental health and substance abuse history. But like I said, it was supposed to be easy. I considered myself a seasoned pro in the world of mental illness. By the time I had my first baby, I had already been in therapy (and on a variety of meds) for almost 12 years. I remember skipping the entire chapter about PPD in both books I read during pregnancy. I honestly believed that the postpartum months would be a breeze compared to the chaos I’d been living with in my mind since I was 10 years old.
And then I gave birth.
The sadness that I felt was instant, inexplicable and unlike anything I’d ever felt before. Nobody tells you beforehand that the whole labor and delivery thing is absolutely nothing like what you see in the movies. I’d had a complicated and traumatic delivery that resulted in our son being whisked away to the NICU within minutes of his birth. I’d been preparing myself throughout my pregnancy to breastfeed, but post-delivery medical issues meant that I had to start pumping instead. Our son had both a lip and tongue tie, which caused him to have a lot of tummy discomfort and delayed our breastfeeding journey even more. The first few weeks after giving birth were a whirlwind of doctors’ visits, pumping every three hours, unexpected arguments with my husband, constant exhaustion and more crying than I’d ever done in my entire life. By the time we found our groove, if you can even call it that, it was time to go back to work.
The line between my pre-pregnancy mental health and my postpartum mental health slowly blurred until I couldn’t see it anymore. It was different than before. It was supposed to be easy, remember? But the cloud of darkness that hung over me every day was unlike any depression or anxiety that I had ever felt before I had a baby. And I just completely normalized it. I told myself that I was fine. That it would get better eventually. I focused on organizing the nursery and taking monthly baby pictures and navigating the world of never-ending tummy bugs and colds (#daycarelife). On the outside, I looked like an average, happy, tired first-time mom, while on the inside, I felt isolated, alone, empty, and hopeless. But I kept going, because that’s what moms do. We just keep going.
And somehow, it’s all okay… until it’s not.
I didn’t know that I was unraveling. My work performance was good, the laundry was always clean, our toddler’s first birthday party was Pinterest-perfect. I was fine. That’s what I kept saying. I was fine. I thought if I said it enough times, it would be true. But somewhere along the way, I started reaching over to make sure my car doors were locked every time I stopped at a red light. My hands became calloused from how tightly I would grip the steering wheel when I drove through an intersection. Mood swings and episodes of uncontrollable rage became a part of my normal nightly routine. I stopped letting our toddler stand near the window on the second floor because all I could see was this recurring image of the glass breaking and his body on the ground below. Meals became impossible… one cough from our son at dinner would trigger a full-blown panic attack. What if he was choking? What if I couldn’t save him? What if he died?
It happened gradually, a little bit here, a little bit there, until I suddenly realized that I had become afraid to live.
Shortly before our son’s second birthday, I was admitted to a five-week intensive psychiatric program for mothers with severe mood disorders. It was there that I was diagnosed with all my fancy acronym-laden mental illnesses. It was there that I learned that my childhood trauma was silently sabotaging my ability to bond with my son. It was there that I learned about the lasting effects of that same trauma and the ways that it had changed how my brain was wired. It was there that I first heard the words “intrusive thoughts.” I’ll never forget how shocked I was to learn that there was a whole name for the ongoing nightmare reel in my brain. But I was even more shocked to learn that other moms have those thoughts, too, and that there are a ton of ways that we can challenge those thoughts and stay grounded in reality.
I very much believe that checking into that program saved my life.
Listen carefully here, okay? Are you listening? Of course not, you’re reading. But read carefully because this is the important part. This is the part that matters the most: it gets better.
There will always be some bad days, I’m not gonna lie to you about that. But the difference is that now, after having gotten the help that I needed back then (and with ongoing treatment in the form of therapy and meds currently), I know how to weather the storm when that unwelcome cloud of darkness shows up. I’m basically like Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone when he runs out of the house and screams “Hey! I’m not afraid anymore! Do you hear me?! I’m not afraid anymore!” I call it channeling my inner Kevin. Therapy helped me learn how to confront my negative thoughts and tell them to f*ck off. I know now how to recognize my triggers. I know what the warning signs look like when I’m going down and I know how to wave the white flag when I need it.
Sometimes I still feel like I have nothing good to offer this world, and that I’m a terrible mother, and that my boys would be much better off without me here. And sometimes I feel angry that my brain cheated me out of having the joyful experience that I was expecting to have as a new mother. It feels so unfair. It was supposed to be easy, remember? I skipped the entire chapter about PPD in both of my pregnancy books. But here I am, seven years into motherhood, knee-deep in the evidence that it wasn’t easy at all. So I force open a drawer in my kitchen every morning, pull out four prescription bottles, and begrudgingly swallow a handful of store-bought serotonin while talking in a funny troll voice that elicits the most beautiful, soul-healing laughs from my children.
There is help and there is hope. I’m proof.