As we continue our series on postpartum depression, we bring you the second part of the story from Guiding Star Project board member and pro-life speaker and advocate, Abby Johnson, who shares her experience of this illness. If you missed the first post, you can find it here: https://theguidingstarproject.com/walking-through-darkness-my-journey-into-post-partum-depression-part-i/
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 can help people heal themselves of emotional distress. I just needed to figure out how to heal myself. I could do this. “Counselor, heal thyself.” That would become the words that tormented my mind for the next year.
Doug was a teacher and had taken some time off after Grace was born, but was now returning to work and I was terrified. I don’t know the details, but I know that Doug was concerned enough that he had a conversation with my mom. He later told me that he was concerned about leaving me at home alone with Grace. My mom came and stayed with us for a week. Oh my gosh. That was such an amazing week. My mom knew just what to do with Grace. She was calm, so Grace was calm. I was able to sleep. Mom would bring Grace to me to nurse and would then take her away so I could get some more rest. Life was better. But from the moment my mom came, I felt this impending doom lurking over me. She wasn’t going to be around forever. Eventually, it would be just me again. The thought of doing this on my own made me sick to my stomach. Every day that went by, I felt the darkness closing in. Finally, that day did come. Mom left. I was actually feeling better than before she came, but I was still sad…a sadness that I couldn’t explain.
I spent a week on my own. I began to have more visions of myself hurting Grace. I would see myself violently shaking her. I would see myself dropping her on the hard floor. I would watch another version of myself smothering her with a pillow. I was still breastfeeding and hating every minute of it. My nipples were still cracked and bleeding. I would cry out in pain every time she latched. I had seen a lactation consultant and there was no problem with her latch. She didn’t have a lip tie. I just had very sensitive skin on my breasts. Great. “They will eventually toughen up.” I noticed that there was a correlation…the more I nursed, the more visions I had.
Six weeks went by. It was time for my six-week postpartum check-up. My OB couldn’t see me, so I saw a midwife in the practice. They gave me an information sheet on “baby blues” that was printed on blue paper…clever. I sat on the exam table, reading the blue paper and started to cry. Yep, I had all of these things listed, and then some. Hmm. How would I bring that up? Surely she would notice that I was upset. By the time the midwife walked in, I had dried up my tears and had composed myself. We exchanged pleasantries. She asked how my body was feeling. Physically, I was great. Everything had healed up just fine. Then she asked how breastfeeding was going. That’s when the dam broke. I started sobbing. I told her how I hated it. I told her that I didn’t feel connected to Grace and how I cried all the time. I told her that I felt sad and anxious every minute of the day. I told her that Grace cried all the time. She had gas. She had acid reflux. She nursed all the time. I feel like a prisoner, her always attached to my breast and I hated it…I resented her for it. I explained how painful it was for me to nurse. I was crying out for help.
(I realize the next paragraph uses the word “nipple” a lot and is a little awkward. But I’m including it because I think it’s important to the story).
I remember her response just like it was yesterday. “Have you tried any supplements to increase your milk supply?” she asked. I don’t think I said anything, so she went on. “Are you using lanolin for your nipples?” What? I answered her questions and then she went on to tell me that I may want to consider using some sort of apparatus that attaches to my shoulder and runs milk down through a tube or something. I had no idea what she was talking about. “Have you tried a nipple shield? Oh, you know what? Let me look at your nipples.” She raised my shirt up and asked me to unhook my nursing bra. I did as I was told. She reached down and squeezed my nipple. “You’ve got great breastfeeding nipples!” she said loudly as she laughed. I had no idea what that meant. And I didn’t know what was that funny. My nipples had been bleeding for six weeks. They didn’t seem to really be taking to this breastfeeding thing like champion nipples. She then told me to lay back. As she was poking around down by my uterus, she mentioned something about my stretchmarks. I had sort of zoned out, so I asked her to repeat what she said. “You need to start putting some cocoa butter on these stretch marks. It won’t make them go away, but they won’t be as noticeable.” I felt more tears running down the sides of my face. She told me to sit up, gave me the folder to hand to the woman at the check-out desk, and told me to be sure to look into those breastfeeding supplements she told me about. The she walked out. Okay. No one was going to help me. I was going to have to fix this myself.
After two more weeks, I went back to work. I think it was the best day of my life. I couldn’t wait to get out of the house and away from the daily grind of motherhood. I was sick of holding her. I was sick of looking at her. I was sick of nursing her. Now I could pump during the day at work and get a much needed break. We had hired a nanny who was absolutely amazing, so I knew Grace was being well taken care of while I was gone. I was so hoping that I would start to feel normal again. My mornings would always start out great, but by 2:00 pm, I would begin to feel anxious. The day was coming to an end. I would start thinking of reasons that I needed to work late. I would make up reasons to work on the weekends. Soon, I was working 50-60 hours per week. I was incredibly disconnected from my family and that was exactly how I wanted it.
A couple weeks after I had gone back to work, I took Grace in for a check-up with her pediatrician. I explained that her stomach problems had not gotten any better. She still cried all the time. Gas drops didn’t work. Gripe water was no good. It didn’t seem to matter what I ate. She was just so fussy. I remember crying at that appointment, too. Her pediatrician was such a kind and soft-spoken man. He asked me how I felt about putting her on formula. He felt like her body was not able to break down some of the things she was getting in my breastmilk. I remember feeling like I wanted to jump up and scream, “Hallelujah!!!” and at the same time go crawl in a hole and grieve over my ultimate mom failure. Looking back, I realize that he was pretty quick to jump to the formula suggestion. But I genuinely believe that he could tell that I needed help. He wasn’t my doctor, so he couldn’t treat me. He had to treat me through Grace. To this day, I believe that pediatrician saved my sanity and possibly my life. He told me that he wanted to put her on a special formula called Nutramigen. I remember him very tenderly explaining that she would still be getting all of the nutrition that she needs. I remember him telling me that I was such a good mom to Grace and that putting her on formula didn’t mean that I was failing her in any way. He told me that if I wanted to keep pumping to keep up my supply in case this didn’t work, that I certainly could. But honestly, once I had been given permission to release myself from the prison I felt I was in, I wasn’t going back. I was done. I was done physically, that is, but now I was wracked with guilt. Once we switched her to the formula, she was a different baby. She wasn’t fussy anymore. She didn’t cry as much. I no longer hated to be around her. And when I stopped breastfeeding, the resentment I felt toward her also stopped.
During the next eight months, the visions had, for the most part, subsided. But the guilt and sadness were still there, strong as ever. I still cried all the time, mostly in private. I had no joy. I never laughed. I wanted to go to work and sleep. I would hold Grace, but only because I knew I was supposed to. I didn’t feel bonded to her. She loved Doug. She wanted to be with him, not me. Of course. She was so precious. So perfect. She would smile and everyone’s face would light up. She was a beautiful little baby. It felt like I loved her from afar, but it didn’t feel intimate. It was almost impersonal. But I was her mom. No one was supposed to love her more than me. I just didn’t know how to love her like I was supposed to.
Grace turned one. A whole year had gone by. I had been a terrible mom for a year. I had been a terrible wife for a year. A year of sadness. A year of disconnection. Her birthday party was sweet. All of the family came. We went back to our little house that night. I got in the bathtub and cried. I could not fix this. How long was this going to last? I was sick. I knew that. I had known that for quite some time. No amount of exercise or eating a certain way or vitamins or sunlight was going to fix this. I just couldn’t make myself ask for help. It would just be admitting to yet another failure and I could not fail again.
Christmas came and we decided to fly up to Nashville to spend time with my aunt and the rest of my mom’s side of the family. Everyone had flown in…my parents, aunts, uncles, cousins. I thought I was doing a pretty good job of acting as if I was completely happy. I now realize that wasn’t true. The family insisted that Doug and I go into downtown Nashville and have a date night. They were more than happy to keep Grace while we went out. We went down to music row and settled on a little eatery with some live music. We sat down to eat and I just started crying. No idea why. Doug was frustrated. He didn’t understand why I cried all the time and I had no answer for him. In his defense, I wasn’t talking to him. I had completely shut him out of what I was going through. We decided to leave since I wasn’t eating my dinner anyway. We went back to my aunt’s house and I went up to the room where we were staying. The next day, I stayed in that room all day. Doug would come up and try to get me to come down and I would just start crying.
That’s when he talked to my mom. I don’t know what he said, but I know he told her that I needed help. I remember her slowly opening the door of our room. I was sitting on the bed, watching TV, zoned out. She sat down on the bed and said, “Honey, what’s going on?” I burst into tears and said, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” We talked for a long time and she told me that I needed to get help. She told me that I could not fix this myself. She said that as soon as I got home, she wanted me to call my doctor. She was right. I don’t know why it took that conversation with my mom to convince me that I needed help. I think I just needed to be heard and to be encouraged…this WOULD get better.
We flew home on Sunday and I called my doctor’s office on Monday morning. My doctor couldn’t see me, but the Nurse Practitioner could see me that afternoon. I was actually thankful, because I knew the NP pretty well and liked her more than I liked my doctor. She was much more personable. She walked in and asked me what was going in. Before I said anything, tears started welling up in my eyes. She rolled her stool over to me and took my hands. “Tell me what’s going on.”
I left that day with a prescription for medication. She also encouraged me to see a counselor, but I wasn’t quite ready for that. I wasn’t ready to verbalize how I actually felt about my daughter. I started taking the meds, and after a week, I was better. But after two weeks, I was a different person. I no longer felt nauseous and anxious all day long. I no longer felt like I was living in this fog of chaos that was constantly turning in my brain. And just a month after being on the medication, something amazing happened.
I was rocking Grace to sleep one night, not because I had to, but because I wanted to. I was looking down at her and for a moment, I had to catch my breath…just like I did when I saw her for the first time after I had given birth. I looked at her and it was like I was seeing her, really seeing her, again for the first time. I started to cry, but I was crying because I was so overwhelmed with love for her. There was no sadness. Just love. And gratitude that this fog I had been living in was now lifted.
Over the next year I had to learn to be mom to Grace. It was like having a newborn even though she had already turned one. The hardest part was figuring out how to bond with her. I had been so distant from her for so long. She didn’t trust me. She didn’t come to me when she hurt herself. She didn’t reach up for me to hold her. She never cried out for me. But over time, she did. Within a few short months, it was like that first year had never even happened. It was like she had been waiting for me the whole time. She was ready for me to be a mom to her.
It took several years before I finally went to counseling. I had been not dealing with the guilt I felt for so long that I thought maybe it would just go away. But I knew we were going to have another baby eventually and I didn’t want this to happen again, so I finally decided it was time.
Counseling was hard. But it was amazing. It helped me understand my illness better. It helped me deal with the guilt that I had felt for so many years. It also helped me understand that it was NOT MY FAULT. I didn’t have Postpartum Depression/Psychosis because I was a bad mom or because I didn’t exercise enough or because I didn’t eat the right foods. I had PPD/P because I had an illness. PPD/P is not “baby blues.” It’s serious and it has to be addressed by a professional. You can’t pray it away. You can’t Whole Foods it away. It takes action. You should never “wait and see” or “let’s try this” when it comes to your mental health.
I don’t know if my birth experience had anything to do with the escalation of my PPD/P. I have gone on to have 3 more hospital births without complication and have never had any recurring symptoms of PPD/P. I don’t have any family history of PPD/P. I do know that breastfeeding escalated my symptoms. I am a breastfeeding advocate, but also realize that sometimes, truly, breast is NOT best. Breastfeeding Grace was not best. We must be careful not to judge a woman we see buying formula for their baby. We have no idea the circumstances that have brought her to that point. For me, I believe a fed baby is best…and a healthy mama is best.
Every time I write about my experiences with PPD/P, women reach out to me for help. Inevitably, these women reach out to tell me their own stories about struggling with PPD/P. If you have lived through this, tell someone. Tell a woman at work. Tell a family member. Tell a lady in your Sunday school class. Tell somebody. We need to start sharing these stories. If we share, then women who are in the throes of this illness will feel more free to ask for help. It feels so shameful to tell someone that you have thoughts of harming your child. It feels so much better when the person you are telling looks back at you says, “I understand.”
If you are currently suffering, please get help. You CANNOT fix this on your own. Go see a medical provider. Don’t wait for things to “get better.” So many of us have gone through what you are going through. You are not a bad mom. You just need help. You WILL get through this. For more resources on how and where to get help, visit www.postpartum.net.