by Heather Hippenstiel
I never saw it coming. It blindsided me. It crippled me. It crushed my soul. But through the darkness I found the light, and my journey through recovery of postpartum depression began.
In the beginning there was my husband and I. Two happily married for 13 years, DINKS. No plans for children. Footloose and fancy free. Involved in everything. But then our mid-thirties arrived, and during that time a move out of state that had us far away from our family for the first time, and wondering if perhaps the joy we felt from the love of our close family – started by two amazing and loving people – was something we should bring into our lives and our own little family. And so it began. We moved home to Portland Oregon and decided it was time. We got pregnant immediately but had a miscarriage at 8 weeks. I should have known then that something was wrong. Something broke inside me. I was deeply saddened and affected by the loss. I am one tough go getter. Eternally optimistic and happy. A planner. A perfectionist. So this shook my core. We waited a cycle and began again, once again getting pregnant immediately. My pregnancy was not exciting or difficult – it just was. But with a partial Previa Placenta, a breech baby girl, and my own choice of mode of desired delivery, we scheduled our C Section happily. Our daughter had other ideas. At 4:30 a.m. three weeks before the scheduled C Section, my water broke. We calmly called my midwife and the surgeon and met everyone at the hospital, never feeling pain, only feeling pretty peaceful, excited and ready to meet our baby girl. The C Section was so neat – the whole thing was fascinating. I was a chatty one and wanted to know everything going on. My husband and I were concerned but reassured it was alright, when our daughter was pulled out looking like a pretzel. Literally. She had been one breech baby girl wedged up under my ribcage with one leg behind her ears. I remember the feeling of utter relief, when they pulled her from my abdomen. It was heavenly. Like a deep, satisfying breath that I hadn’t been able to take in 9 months. I wasn’t thrilled to be pregnant anyway – the whole idea kind of grossed me out, and I did not have the warm fuzzies towards pregnancy, before, during or after. So this breath, and my body being mine again was immensely satisfying. Riiiight. Sure. Body being mine again, that’s funny, I know now. But at the time I was just thrilled to have it working for me again and not sustaining another life. So – those were my first thoughts. Not of concern or extreme overwhelming happiness at her arrival as I had expected, but care and comfort of my own body. Something was not right.
They closed me up and my husband excitedly danced between me and our new daughter getting weighed, measured and cleaned up. He was smitten immediately. And will forever be. He is the most amazing dad ever. Ever. My midwife placed her on my chest, all bundled and warm. It felt right to have her in my arms as we were wheeled back down the hall to our recovery room. I was happy to meet her, amazed at the whole fascinating process of life. Dumbstruck. We made this little girl. WE made her! Crazy! Recovering from the C Section in the hospital meant not being the one to change her, bundle her, etc. And my husband, who did all this was a pro from the beginning! I used to say he had more maternal instinct in his little finger than I did in my whole body. True story. So he became the go to one. All the hospital staff, everyone during our 4 day stay, referred to him. I loved it. But it later added to my extreme anxiety to care for our daughter myself.
The whole forced breast feeding thing happened too. You know the one. Nurses coming in, hands all over your boobs, trying to jam your nipple into your new baby’s mouth. It was scary. It was hard. I was unsure. And again, not feeling the warm fuzzies. I grew concerned she wasn’t getting what she needed. I knew I needed to take care of this baby girl, and help her thrive; and this growing concern and anxiety became a giant weight against my chest, blocking that deep satisfying breath, I had only hours earlier enjoyed taking. I felt the weight of being in the role of mom, feeling that concern for the rest of my life. It rocked me. I was responsible for her. It was so just not about me anymore. I was frightened by this thought, and numb to what was happening around me.
We got home after our extended stay in the hospital due to low blood sugar, and donor milk being needed for our daughter, because she was born at 37 weeks, and thus needed her little organs to catch up. All was well, but I did NOT want to leave the hospital. I dreaded going home with her and being the one to be in charge. But it happened, and with it the crushing weight of anxiety, only growing. The waterworks began night one. I cried and cried and cried. Everyone said it was from the pain medication and I would feel better after I went off them. So I did, early. That didn’t help. The crying happened all the time. And suddenly I started realizing I was grieving. I was grieving my old life, and everything that had led up to now. And day by day what I grieved for specifically, changed. It was random. One day it was college. Another, my midwife. And yet others, our nurses at the hospital. It grew worse and I began to feel we had made a terrible decision. I wanted to hit the undo button.
At our follow up appointments, my midwife asked me the PPD questions. I definitely had the “baby blues”, but I again, was a go getter, a strong woman, optimistic, determined, so I fibbed a bit, not letting the full force of what I was feeling spill out. But my midwife, being the amazing woman she is, saw through the mask. She gave me the BBC support pamphlet and explained what I might be experiencing was PPD. I shook it off at the time, because I’m so strong, right. Right? At the lactation specialist appointments I was asked the same things, and that coupled with my frustrations at not being able to breast feed and get daughter’s weight up, not feeling the warm fuzziness at the act of breast feeding, often had me leaving our visits, crying and feeling worse. What was wrong with me?
The first two months of my daughter’s life were the worst in my life. Yet everyone made going home with their new baby look so easy, sweet and wonderful. We weren’t feeling that. My husband was dealing with both the care of my daughter and me. When he went back to work after 6 weeks I was bad. Really bad. I had been dreading him going back to work as much as I had dreaded leaving the hospital. I had to do this all by myself?! How?! I was so scared and the weeping only grew worse. I remember leaving the house for the first time to meet my family for lunch, like 8 minutes away. It was like climbing Everest – physically, mentally and emotionally. I wept the whole way. Everyone kept telling me it would get better, that I just needed to get out more. But the getting out more was what caused the most anxiety. I began to snap at people. I had mini rage sessions and would throw things against walls, seeking a release in my mounting tension. And I could not handle it when my daughter cried. I knew I needed to care for her, and I did. But I was not in love. I was on autopilot.
It all came to a head when one day, shortly after my husband had returned back to work from his paternity leave, when my daughter’s crying had driven me to the very end of my frayed rope. It was mid afternoon and I couldn’t take it anymore. I hastily put my wailing daughter down in her bassinet, walked out into the garage, slammed the door and screamed. I screamed long and hard. I dissolved into a puddle on the ground and lay there crumpled, broken, weeping, just wanting to disappear… to make it all go away. I texted my husband, “911”, and went outside to walk around our house. I couldn’t bring myself to go back inside, for fear of being too forceful with my daughter. Not wanting to harm her, but doing it out of rage and anxiety that I could no longer control. My husband made it home in record time, and on his way had called my midwife, who called me. She saved me. She is the one who stayed on the phone with me while I died inside. She is the one who called a prescription in for an antianxiety/antidepressant, and called my newly referred Mental Health Therapist. My husband took me into his arms, calming me, holding me. He wrapped me in a blanket and put me on the sofa. He took our daughter into his arms, cooing to her, calming her, holding her to his chest. He had saved his girls.
I was directed to stop pumping, which I had been exclusively pumping since week 3. I was relieved and happily measured out the formula – knowing I was healing, and our daughter was thriving. I began taking medication, talking to my midwife daily, and seeing my mental health therapist twice a week. I had amazing support. The darkness cracked and I could see in a small fraction of light. But it would be a long road. My mental health therapist was a specialist in neurotransmitter balancing. I had mine tested and results came back drastically low in many areas, but most severely in Serotonin. I hardly made any. Through careful and consistent doses of amino acid supplements to balance out my low neurotransmitter levels, and the antianxiety/antidepressant medication, I began to feel better. It grew and grew. There was suddenly a pause before exploding into tears and rage, I could breath, and bring the wave that was about to crest, back down and let it dissipate.
Through my journey of recovery, I remember there were days where I would clutch the blue BBC pamphlet in my hands, staring at the number. But I never called. That pamphlet became a lifeline, but I never called. I still thought it was for those who needed severe help, and did not want to bother anyone. Boy was I wrong. It took a long time before I realized that it was I who needed that help. But nonetheless, that pamphlet was a rock for me. It had a home on the kitchen counter. I’d lay it on the bath tub’s edge as I soaked, relaxing, and staring at it. I remember planning ways to get away. To disappear. I would think of how one night I would just get up, go to PDX and get on a plane. I’d fly to Europe and get lost for a while. My fantasies never had a timeline of when I would return, I never got that far, but that wondrous feeling of relief from everything would flood me as I planned my disappearance. I just wanted to make it all go away. I wanted my old life back. I battled the mixed emotions of what I should be feeling and what I was feeling. I still did not feel a strong connection with my daughter, but learned how to deal with my feelings, my anxiety, my rages, while caring for her, and always smiling for her. I never wanted her to see me cry, or upset. I felt terrible guilt over having placed her forcefully into her bassinet and leaving her that day. I felt guilt for crying through the pain and frustration of breast feeding. I made sure she knew she was safe and loved.
The bad days were dark, very dark. It was almost manic at times. But the good days that started as just ok, became better and better as my daughter grew, thrived, and began interacting with us. I began to fall in love around the 6 month mark, and was head over heels deeply in love with her by 9 months. So that’s what it was supposed to feel like at the beginning?! Huh. Who knew! Cool! I also began attending BBC support group in SE Portland. It was magic. I would take the evening to myself – go out to dinner first sometimes, blissfully by myself, and then go to group. It was a warm and inviting place, filled with love, understanding and acceptance. I felt stronger after each visit. BBC support group was there for me, from the beginning – in that blue pamphlet rock of mine, in the stories I would read online, and in person from the group support. I couldn’t have journeyed through PPD without them.
During my journey, I remember reading a blog post from an amazing mama who had gone through PPD. I was struck then and will always be at a very powerful line of hers…”I died the day I became a mother”. And this is the story of my rebirth”. A rebirth into a woman far greater than she was before. Through good and bad days, and a lot of support from my family, and care providers, I made it through my healing process. In many ways I will always be healing. But healing in the light now. I’ve not returned to my old self – to my old life, but instead, to something far greater – a new and improved me, and a very joyful life.