In honor of Maternal Depression Awareness month, we are re-publishing Abby Johnson’s series on postpartum depression. Abby is a Guiding Star Project board member and pro-life speaker and advocate and she shares her journey with postpartum depression in this powerful series.
The day I found out I was pregnant with Grace, I don’t remember being happy. I remember being terrified. Doug and I had only been married for a few months and this was not part of our plan. My birth control had failed. I was in school getting my master’s degree. I could not even begin to imagine what labor was going to be like…pain…that’s all I could think about. I called my aunt in tears. She was so excited, and that helped. I called my mom and really wanted her to be like the moms who scream from excitement that they are going to have a grandbaby…but that’s not my mom’s personality. Don’t get me wrong, she was happy. But I think she was just as surprised as I was. I called my dad and his response was, “Well, Abby Brannam!” He maiden-named me. That made me laugh. I knew he was really happy because by the end of the call, I could tell he was trying not to cry.
I waited to tell Doug in person. He was coming up to my work to meet me for lunch. He walked in the office and I remember running up to him and hugging him. I immediately started to cry and told him that I was pregnant. He was calm and reassuring. I knew he was nervous. I mean, we had no money. We were both in school, working part time jobs. But he kept insisting that “we would be fine.” By the end of the day, I was feeling better. Better about being pregnant, still terrified about the actual delivery.
The pregnancy progressed like normal. I was sick every day, all day…until about 26 weeks. I envied the women who bragged about “never being sick.” Ugh. Shut up. But, I had heard that if you are sick, that’s a sure sign that you have a healthy pregnancy, so I just kept that in the back of my mind as I threw up in every possible location known to man.
My due date was around Thanksgiving, November 23rd. My doctor didn’t want my delivery to cut into her Thanksgiving break, so she decided to induce me at 39 weeks, on November 15th. I didn’t know at the time that I should have been a better advocate for myself. I mean, I was ready to get that baby OUT…I had no idea that induction could be a really terrible idea. I remember her saying at my appointment before the induction that my cervix was “green.” I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t ask any questions. I found out later that I was not dilated or effaced at all. Yet, I still went in for an induction…because of Thanksgiving break.
I went in on the 15th and was given Cytotec. I immediately went into active labor. About 6 hours later, I was put on Pitocin. I began to have coupling contractions; those are contractions right on top of each other. I had no relief. No break. I was not dilating. I had been in labor with off-the-chart contractions for 12 hours and was only dilated to 2 cm. I was crying and begging for some sort of pain relief, but nothing came. “You aren’t dilated far enough,” they kept saying. Then they came in to break my water. I don’t know what exactly happened, but whatever they did sent a surge of pain so excruciating through my body that I blacked out. I remember coming to and I was completed soaked. I knew I wasn’t doing myself any favors by staying in that bed. I had to get up. I figured gravity may help things a bit. I tried to walk around, but the coupling contractions had exhausted me to the point that I couldn’t hardly stand. Fifteen hours in and I was dilated 3 cm.
My doctor finally came back in and I think she could tell that I just couldn’t take any more. She ordered an epidural. The anesthesiologist came in and I swore he was an angel. Finally, some relief. But during the placement of my epidural, an error was made. He went too far into the spinal space and created a “wet tap.” But we would deal with that later. Within maybe 5 minutes I had fallen into probably the deepest sleep I had ever experienced…for 45 minutes. I remember the nurse waking me up and saying it was time to push. NO!!!!!!! I’m too tired!!!!!!!! I had dilated from 3 cm to 10 cm in 45 minutes. The nurse gave me some encouragement and they put my legs in the huge stirrups. Three pushes later, Grace was here. I was touching her head and her body as she was coming out. It was such an amazing experience. The doctor held her up and I remember that the sight of her literally took my breath away. I had to catch my breath as the nurse laid her on my chest. She was so beautiful. And I had done this. We had done this, me and Doug. How could we have made something so incredibly perfect? This feeling of love that I had never felt before invaded my body and it was very overwhelming. I wasn’t sure how to process it. The nurse took the baby away for a moment to check her. I was exhausted…and so hungry. All I wanted was a ham sandwich with lots of mayonnaise.
They brought me two sandwiches, which I devoured, and then I got to nurse my baby girl for the first time. We named her Grace. We had about an hour with her, just me and Doug, before they took us to our postpartum room…and before anyone else could get their hands on her. But even in that first hour, something felt strange. I just shrugged it off and figured it was because I was tired. I was in that room with my husband and my daughter, but I felt really alone. It was a feeling I had never felt before. I was just tired. I was sure that was the problem.
They wheeled me into my new room and I started to feel sick. I had a debilitating pounding in my head. I couldn’t open my eyes, but it didn’t help to close them. I wanted to push on my head, but if I did, it felt like it was going to explode. The only thing that helped was laying completely flat on my back. What was going on?? Well, this was the side effect of this “wet tap” that I had gotten from the epidural. The doctor said that they would try to fix the problem with a caffeine drip first. So, I had to lay flat on my back for 24 hours with a wide open caffeine drip running through my veins, which was not super conducive for breast feeding. I tried to breastfeed as best I could. The lactation consultant ensured me that Grace was getting just what she needed and that I didn’t need to worry. After 24 hours, the headache had not subsided. In fact, it had gotten worse. We now had to opt for the more invasion solution, a blood patch. A blood patch is when they draw 20cc’s of blood out of your arm and push it into your spinal space where the leak has occurred. The blood then coagulates over the hole and stops the leakage. It’s an immediate solution to the painful headache.
I was brought in to the procedure room and they got started. As they drew the blood, I started to feel like I was going to faint. I began to sweat and was feeling light headed. They put a cold washcloth on my neck and I felt a stabbing pain in my back. The needle was in. The next part is hard to explain, but it felt like my hip was filling with fluid. I knew it wasn’t, but something weird was happening with my nerves. It felt like my hip was going to explode. I screamed out in pain and told them to stop. They said they were going to make an adjustment. Suddenly I felt a sharp pain and I lost my hearing. It was the scariest moment of my life. I was looking at the nurse next to me. I think I was talking, but I’m not sure. I could see that she was saying something, but I couldn’t hear it. Then things sounded muffled and within about two minutes, I could hear clearly again. I could feel them take the needle out of my back and I heard them say that they were done. I started to cry. It was over. And I could already tell that my headache was subsiding. As they were getting ready to move me back to my room, I realized that it had been a medical student who had performed my blood patch.
When I got back to my room, my mom and her best friend, Becky, were there waiting for me. Shortly after, the nurse came in with Grace and informed me that they had given her formula. What???? Why?? I had been breastfeeding her! “Well, she looked hungry and since you have had trouble breastfeeding, we figured it was best to supplement.” I later found out that they had been giving her formula every single time they took her to the nursery. No wonder she was having such a hard time latching on. Great. I couldn’t even feed my baby like I was supposed to, I thought. I was really shaping up to win the “Mom of the Year” award. Mom and Becky stayed for a while and that made me feel better. When they decided to leave, I began to cry. Since giving birth, I had cried pretty much all the time. I didn’t know why I was crying. I just felt sad. I didn’t know why I was sad. I couldn’t describe what made me feel sad. It was just a darkness, an anxiety that was looming over me. Becky gave me a hug and asked if I wanted her to pray with me. “No. That will just make me cry even more,” I said. She replied, “Okay, we will pray for you in the car on our way home.” I don’t ever remember a time in my life more than that one where I just wanted my mom to lay next to me in my bed and hold me. Here I was, this 26-year-old woman, and all I wanted was my mom. But I couldn’t say that. I couldn’t ask for that. I was supposed to be happy!! I just had a baby! What was wrong with me?
The next day, they told us we could go home. I didn’t want to leave. I kept thinking of reasons that I needed to stay. Maybe I could lie and say that I was still having a lot of pain. Maybe I could say that my headache was back. I did not want to go home and be alone with my baby. But Doug was ready to get home and he assured me that everything would be fine. We put Grace in the carseat and she screamed. I wasn’t doing this right. I started to cry. I couldn’t make her stop crying. Another mom fail. The nurse came and put me in the wheelchair and rolled me out to the car. I was crying as I got in. This was my last chance to tell them that I wasn’t ready, that I needed help. But I was silent as I climbed in the car.
We drove home and I was trying to act happy for Doug’s sake. That night, I stayed up nursing Grace. And for the next couple of days, that’s really all I did. I nursed. I didn’t enjoy nursing. I wanted to. I wanted to be one of those women in the pictures who loving looked down at their babies as they nursed. But I felt like a prisoner. My nipples were starting to crack and bleed. She wanted to nurse every hour or so. Every time she would nurse, I would feel more resentful…resentful of her, resentful of this task that I was “supposed” to do, resentful of all the people who kept saying “breast is best” in their annoyingly cheerful voice.
Thanksgiving came and so did the entire family. My parents, Doug’s parents, Doug’s sister and Doug’s grandparents were all at our tiny house…and I mean tiny. I actually put makeup on that day and fixed my hair. I wore something other than a t-shirt, too. I thought if I looked like I felt good, that maybe I would actually feel good. I smiled and hugged and fake-laughed and talked about how wonderful things had been. Then Grace needed to eat. So I went back into her room to nurse and I cried. And then I pulled myself together, put on some more makeup and went back out to the crowd. And then about 30 minutes later, she was hungry again. So I went back to her room and nursed some more…and cried. More makeup, more family time. And then an hour later, she wanted to nurse again. I went back to her room to nurse her and I just couldn’t even look at her. I didn’t want to hold her. I put her down in her crib just so I could collect my thoughts for a minute and that’s when the first episode happened.
I don’t know if you have ever seen the show Ally McBeal. I used to watch it many years ago. There would be these scenes where she would be having a conversation with her boss and he would make her mad and all of a sudden, you would see her step out of her body and punch him in the face. Then she would step back into her body and the scene would continue. It was like a little out of body fantasy experience. That’s almost exactly what I experienced.
Let me pause here and say that the rest of this story is very painful for me to write…even today, nine years later. I’m ONLY sharing this in hopes that it will help others understand that there is no shame in asking for help. Nine years later, I am still riddled with shame that I could have ever had these thoughts about my own child, even though I KNOW I couldn’t control them.
I remember looking at Grace in her crib and it was like I saw myself picking her up and throwing her against the bedroom wall. It was so realistic that when I snapped back into reality, I thought I had actually done it. I panicked for just a second. But then I looked back in the crib and she was there. And she had started crying. I don’t know when she started crying. I don’t remember hearing it. Doug heard her crying and came in the room. I was just standing there looking at her. I quickly picked her up and said that I was really tired and that she wasn’t nursing well. I sat down in the chair to nurse her once again and Doug left the room. I’m not sure what Doug said to everyone, but within a few minutes, my mom came in to give me a hug goodbye. She said she would call later to check on me. I realized then that I must have not done a very good job of hiding my exhaustion and frustration. Oh well. I would do better next time.
Grace was a fussy baby. She had acid reflux and gas issues. She was not a great sleeper. She cried a lot and the more she cried, the crazier I felt. A couple nights after Thanksgiving, I was up with Grace in the middle of the night. We had been up for hours. She would not go to sleep and she would not stop crying. When I tried to nurse her, she would squirm around so much that she wouldn’t latch on. She was clearly uncomfortable and I was out of patience. I knew I needed help. I put her in the bassinet and walked around in our bedroom. Doug was sleeping. Just for the sake of knowing, Doug is deaf in one ear. He generally sleeps on the ear that he can hear out of, so he hears NOTHING at night. He didn’t hear me come in and he didn’t hear her screaming in the other room. I was just about to lean in and wake him up, but decided against it. “I can do this. I’m her mom. I can handle this. I just need to be a better mom.” I told myself.
I walked back into the living room and thought that maybe she would calm down if I took her for a drive. It was now 3:30 am. I put her in the car seat and headed out. But the screaming didn’t stop. In fact, it got worse. And now we were in an enclosed space. Every scream felt like a cymbal pounding against my head. I started to feel out of control. I remember looking down and realizing that I was going 90 mph. Good. Maybe I would lose control of the car and crash. I sped up. Now I was going 100 mph. She was still screaming. I turned the music up as loud as it would go. I needed her screaming to go away. I realized at the time that it was probably hurting her ears but I didn’t care. I didn’t care about her at all. I didn’t want her. I didn’t want to be a mother. I slowed down and exited off the highway. I came to a stop at the red light and looked at the overpass. I turned the music off and contemplated my next move. I could just run off that bridge. I could end this right now. I was so tired of crying. I was tired of Grace crying. I was just tired. In that moment, even in the chaos that was churning in my brain, I knew my daughter deserved better than death. I remember saying out loud, “I do love you, Grace. I don’t feel like I do, but I know that I really love you.” I put the car in park and got out. I screamed as loud as I could, over and over again.
I got back in and drove home. She was finally silent. I brought her inside the house and we both slept for about three hours. When Doug woke up that morning, I didn’t tell him about what had happened. I couldn’t. You see, I’m a therapist. I’m the one that helps people heal themselves of emotional distress and I just needed to figure out how to heal myself. I could do this. “Counselor, heal thyself.” Those would become the words that tormented my mind for the next year.
Continue reading the rest of Abby’s story here: http://theguidingstarproject.com/walking-through-darkness-my-journey-into-post-partum-depression-part-ii/