Okay, so I said that my NaNoWriMo material would be used for blogging purposes now...since it seems unlikely that I have much more to spew out at the moment. Maybe some day I'll get those 50,000 holy words.
I won't lie. This may have been the heaviest thing that I wrote, and this is the first time I've ever written about postpartum depression at length. So I guess..be warned? But here we are, for posterity. And with maybe even a small touch of hope that it'll help someone some day?
I've given birth to three children. It is probably the only truly worthwhile thing I will ever do with my life...the only thing that could potentially have an impact on the world or make anything better. With each pregnancy came months of puking in every nearly every parking lot in the OKC metro area, various bags found in the floorboard of my car, and so many toilets I couldn't have kept count if I'd wanted to. Then there was the heartburn, intense rib pain, swollen everything, and loss of all bladder function. That last one is still a very real problem even nearly 6 years after doing it for, what I hope oh God I hope, the last time.
But the worst part came after having our third. Giving birth to him was the most intense yet euphoric experience I've ever had. He was an enormous baby. I mean, gigantic. I pushed him out then Cory set him on the floor and he immediately ran across the room looking for a football to throw, that’s how big he was. I will gladly tell you all about the entire ordeal of shitting the floor while standing there as he was trying to make his way out, not even giving me the satisfaction of pushing. I will tell you with great pride that I did it all without a single drug in my body and that my vagina took it all like a fucking champ and didn't even tear like it did with my first two. I imagine that if we were to have a fourth I would probably be one of those women who squat on the kitchen floor, push the thing out, then go back to stirring my giant pot of stew.
They say that most women experience what they laughingly call the baby blues. There’s even a Sunday paper comic strip about it. A really hilarious one that I adore, with its breastfeeding and attachment parenting agendas. Baby blues fade. They get better. Maybe you cry in the shower...maybe you snap at your significant other during a moment of weakness. I had the baby blues after having our first two kids. What I experienced after giving birth to Otto was something completely different. I grew up in a depressed household. My mom used to spend hours in her closet, weeping and praying to God to save her children. My dad would shout and scream to make himself feel better. Yet somehow I had defeated the odds. I mean, sure I'd cry while reading Nicholas Sparks novels in college. My heart isn't made of stone. But for the most part my sanity and emotions were kept in check.
Once while at a tent revival (You know what a tent revival is, don't you? There are tents, the speaking of tongues, dancing with tambourines and ribbons..basically everything but the venomous snakes.) I had a young preacher point at me from the stage. There he stood in his fancy suit with his curly mullet, pointing his bejeweled finger at me. “You will be happy, child!” he shouted..spit flying out from between his teeth. Then mom wept and half a dozen men put their hands on me, shouting prayers up to the Heavens. But the thing was, I was mostly a happy kid despite so many of the things that were going on around me.
So when the baby blues progressed to something much worse I didn't know how to deal with it. This was something overeating so much food couldn't cure. Watching “Steel Magnolias” and crying about Shelby didn't make it any better. I think the most shocking part was that there were so many times when I couldn't even cry. Everything just felt numb. Dead. Asleep. I couldn't even talk to Cory about it because I couldn't find the words. There were no words. I just felt...not me. I didn't want to be me. I didn't want to be anything, feel anything, do anything.
Cory knew I wasn’t right. He’s always known when something was wrong. Our usual tactic when I was feeling overwhelmed was for him to take all of the kids and give me breathing space. I love being alone, so if you think about it it makes total sense that I had three kids. Being alone, in the quiet, gives me time to reflect. Sometimes I write. Sometimes I watch horrible television. Sometimes I read. But this one time, not too long after having Otto, the only thing I wanted to do was die. I thought about that scene in “The Craft” where Bonnie grabs Sarah’s wrist, eyes the scars, and says, “You even did it the right way.”. I remembered what Sarah used to give herself those scars. “A-a kitchen knife,” she said. I found myself wondering which one of our kitchen knives would be sharp enough. By this point in time our marriage had been going strong long enough for all the shit that we'd gotten in the beginning to be faded, dull, and nearly useless. I pictured myself sawing at my wrists just trying to get a good cut. I pictured Cory walking back into the house with three children, one of which would probably a screaming, hungry baby since he'd been without my breasts for too long and finding me.
Was that rock bottom? I honestly don't know. I do know that I didn't go any further than those thoughts. They all happened while I was sitting on the couch, frozen in place. I never walked to the kitchen to actually inspect our cutlery. I never considered other, less messy alternatives that wouldn't leave my already filthy house in even more disarray. (Hello, type A.) I just knew that it was time to get some help. Somehow, some way I needed to get help.
What do you do when you need to seek counseling to stay alive yet have no health insurance? When you're too proud to ask your parents for help because you know your mother thinks that therapy is of the devil, where do you turn to? The only sensible solution was to go to our local county’s health department. I took a deep breath, acted like a real adult, and called them. Gathering up check stubs, W-2’s, bank statements, and a sleeping baby in his carseat I shuffled self consciously into the building.
I walked back into a young woman’s office and sat down in an uncomfortable metal folding chair, keeping Otto’s car seat in my lap because I didn't want to set him on their disgusting floor. Even after three children I still had some sense of pride and awareness of germs. She informed me in a monotone voice that I was poor enough to qualify for free counseling and medication if they decided I needed it. I wouldn't be allowed to talk to a counselor today, they would have to assign me one and that could take up to a week. I was crushed. I needed help and was sent back home with nothing but an acute awareness of how poor we really were. We've had to use the assistance made available to the way too many people struggling to get by at various points in our marriage and the one thing that remains constant is the humiliation. The feeling that everyone is watching you pull your WIC checks out of the giant envelope in your bag thinking, “Why did they have kids if they can't afford them?” “Why should my tax dollars feed your family?”
I got a phone call a few days later from a woman with an even more monotone voice informing me, begrudgingly, that she had been assigned as my counselor. I could see it all go down in that moment. I would drive to the saddest building on the planet, sit in a room with truly crazy people, hold my baby in my lap because as a way to torture myself even further I insisted on breastfeeding exclusively so he could be a permanent fixture attached to my nipples, and struggle to gain enough trust in a woman who didn’t sound like she was interested in helping me to tell her my deepest, darkest secrets. At this point in time I didn't even trust my husband enough to tell him that I had thought about slicing the veins in my wrists open. I never called her back.
Obviously this wasn't healthy, and I realize that. I also realize that I knew immediately that that environment wasn't going to work for me. I told my brother over the phone that I needed counseling because I thought that just maybe I was suffering from postpartum depression. He made sympathetic noises and told me to let him know if I needed anything. I never told him how bad it was either.
The only thing that did help was a camera. I bought a used camera off some random college kid I found on Craigslist. I made Cory go with me so the children and I wouldn't get murdered, and I took some of the worst pictures anyone has ever taken. I took pictures of fences, brick walls and random junk in our white trash yard. There were pictures of the kids’ feet that were meant to be artistic, but only appeared so when I used the built in sepia filter. I love looking back at those pictures. It’s like I can almost see myself starting to get better.
I don't know if postpartum depression ever truly goes away. I heard someone recently discussing a mother who drove all of her children into a lake and drowned them. “But wasn't she a severe case of postpartum psychosis?” I asked. “I don't even think all that’s real,” she said. I have no idea what was going through that mom’s head on the day she did what she did, and I can tell you that the thought of hurting my children never crossed my mind. But I can tell you that postpartum depression and psychosis are very real. Mental illness makes people uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable, which is why I've never written about it before. I keep saying, “I'll write about it some day, when the time feels right.” but it just never does. I don't think it'll ever feel right.
Cory tells me that I'm still not the same person I was before having Otto. In all honesty I would almost consider having a fourth child if the fear of sinking back into the black hole wasn't too real to handle. I don’t pick up my camera for my own benefit as much as I used to. I can't even remember the last time I took a picture of a fence or an Oklahoma sunset. I do know though that some days are a real struggle. There are some days when I think to myself I can’t do it today. I have to stay in bed. I can't talk to people, look people in the eye, drive a car, eat any food, stop eating all the food, or even breathe. Then I drag my ass out of bed, take a too long shower, feed my kids dry cereal and cart them off to school wondering to myself Did they brush their teeth? as I drive away.
There are enough people in my life that know I battled postpartum depression to ask me for advice. They just had a baby and feel sad. Their friend/daughter/spouse just had a baby and they feel sad. And I always offer whatever quack advice I can. “Counseling didn't really work for me, but I found something that helped me escape it.” What I should say is, “Don't ask me, please, because I'm still severely fucked in the head.”
After playing with my camera for a couple of years I started taking pictures on the side for money. I meet the loveliest people doing this on the weekends. One of those lovely people is a beautiful, blond psychiatrist who lives in the most magnificent house, has a handsome husband who is also a psychiatrist, and two gorgeous children who both play musical instruments. She even owns two English bulldogs who are perfectly well behaved and adorably fat. One day, after taking pictures of her family leaning against trees in their neighborhood, I sat on her couch while she wrote me a check. She lectured me. “You need to be charging more. That picture we used for our Christmas card last year got so many compliments.” I took it as an invitation to dump all of my mommy issues onto her lap. I sat there for a solid half hour on the verge of tears, telling her all about my mom’s need to try and buy my love and why that gave me a serious hatred of money and all things related to money and stupid useless possessions.
Are you grasping what I'm telling you right now? I, the professional, sat in the home of a client who did nothing more than offer me a simple piece of advice and psychoanalyzed myself. I told the therapist, who wasn't even my therapist, what I thought was wrong with me. She is still one of the sweetest people I have ever met. Not only did she endure it all with the grace of a saint, but she smiled and nodded offering grunts and sounds of sympathy that I took to mean, “Your mom is an absolute bitch and you deserve better. Here, let me be your new mommy.” She even hired me two more times after that to take their pictures again.
Bottom line? I should still probably be in therapy. I still get streaks of the baby blues even nearly 6 years after having an actual baby. I try to figure out ways to trick people into slipping me Xanax or weed, even though I'm too terrified of getting caught to actually take someone else’s pills or even be near anyone in possession of weed. For now I try and hold onto the knowledge that it’s never gotten that bad again. I'm still okay. I’m still here. I’m still standing. I haven't had a day when I couldn't get out of bed in a really long time. It’s like I'm forever hiking and don’t know when I'll reach the part where the plateau where I can take a deep breath and head downhill finally happens, but at least the climb doesn't feel quite as steep any more.