Passing by the bathroom mirror I was drawn in by the image I saw. The “me” I was looking at, was not the some one I had always known. I was pale and thin with my collar bones sticking out. My eyes were as vacant and haunted as I felt. I had not been able to eat much of anything for several weeks, six weeks actually. That alone was strange for someone who loves to eat, and finds comfort in eating. Anxiety attacks had plagued me like a victim being stalked, never knowing where or when the siege would start, or how long the terror would last.
I had been depressed since I left the hospital with my beautiful, perfect baby girl. How perfect she was added more guilt that I couldn’t enjoy the moment. I wondered how I would ever be able to pull myself together and be the mother I’d dreamed of being to her and our four year old son Brendon. Lately, I didn’t have any feelings…just flat nothingness. Nothing brought me any joy, even this new perfect baby. I’d have had no feelings at all, if not for the torturous, nervous ones that came in waves. I just wanted to get though each endless day. At the beginning of this strange new existence, I went to bed praying and hopeful that tomorrow would be a new day, a better day, and I’d be my “old” self! The longer I was sick the less I was able to believe that tomorrow would be any different than today had been. I paced the floor, woke Kerry several times a night just to tell him how miserable and frightened I was. My Mother had been staying with us off and on for weeks trying to interest me in the baby, in food… in life for that matter. From three days after giving birth to this point I had tried four medications, which mostly only made things worse and the situation more hopeless.
In desperation one night after a horrible panic attack I agreed to enter the local hospital. My Mom and my husband both knew this was more than the baby blues some women get. Backing out of our driveway that night I couldn’t stop shaking. It was a weird sensation penetrating throughout my whole body. I also felt like I was looking at everything through a long telescope. I wondered if I’d ever be home. I will never forget backing out of the driveway, my Mom holding my new breastfed 6 week old baby(she told me later she was pretty frightened herself hoping to get the baby to take formula and the responsibility of it), and my four year old frightened, sad son clinging to her leg. Silently I prayed, pleeeaaasssse God let me come home again, and I did six weeks later but wasn’t really well for 8 long years.
When something that traumatic happens to you it changes who you are to the core. I had actually been mad at God for a long time that my Dad was taken away from our family when I was twelve. There were a lot of things adding up to me getting to the place I was in. My Dad’s death, getting married far to young, Kerry’s anger issues and we were building a new house which was fun but stressful. I liken what happened to the rain barrel effect. The rain comes down slowly but it all adds up in the barrel and the barrel eventually overflows and once it’s overflowing it’s going to run awhile.
I saw people far worse than I was in the hospital and still have images of the suffering people I saw there filed away in a locked file in my head. That’s why I studied Social work because I wanted to be able to say, “I’ve been where you are, I recovered and you can too”.
Over the years I got my hormones straightened out, dealt with the death of my dad, learned to stop being a people pleaser, stand up to Kerry, and I found ways to talk myself out of full blown panic. During my illness I never ever thought of harming my children but wasn’t so sure everyone around me wouldn’t be better off without me. I felt like everyone deserved better. The kids not such a distant mother, and Kerry was working hard and I was running to the ER or a Dr every couple days. He never called me crazy or put me down and if I thought I needed to go he drove me. He visited me every single night in the hospital and some nights I begged him to check me out and let me go home with him. I still tear up at his dedication to me and appreciate him. I had these morose thoughts about how they’d be better off without me for quite a long time. One day though, I looked at a photo of the four of us and really studied it. I pictured myself cut out of the picture, and a black hole where I was and imagined another smiling face in its place. Then I thought of my own family, of my Dad who’d died. Who else could be slipped in a picture he was in, and take his place? NO ONE! I still missed him terribly and NO ONE on the planet could take his place. I knew at that moment that I would have to find a way to handle this because my kids needed me and I had to make it.
Something like four million people give birth in the US every year. Of that number, I was one of the lucky ten percent that suffered with neurotic symptoms rather than psychotic ones. My heart bleeds for the five hundred or so, who become psychotic, hear delusional voices telling them to kill their children and commit horrible acts of violence. While the postpartum defense is part of the insanity defense in the US, it is not a defense by itself in this country. In the United States it must be entered as an insanity plea and then the defense must prove she didn’t know right from wrong at the time of the crime. They go through testing months after the crime ( and many times by then the hormones are calmed back down) to determine if they did indeed know right from wrong back at the time of the crime. Many mentally ill people do know right from wrong at times and other times don’t.
When my Mom was in the nursing home and struggling with Alzheimer’s, another puzzling brain disease, her brain worked intermittently. I always compared her brain activity to an electrical cord with a short in it. An hour ago she may not have known my name nor had any idea who I was but at this particular moment the connection flickers, the lights come on and she calls me by name and tells me to have a safe drive back to Minot like Mom always did. How long will the power stay on? I don’t know, she doesn’t know and the Dr’s don’t even know. So legally, she was insane for a time and sane for a time. That’s caused by plaque build up on the brain. Postpartum is caused by an extreme shift in hormones. Mental illness is not logical, but it’s a hard sell to the US justice system. In at least other 22 other countries including Great Britain, Italy, Canada, and Australia, if the, “balance of a women’s mind is disturbed” she would get manslaughter at the most and the sentence would be hospitalization instead of jail. I am not saying I don’t have compassion for innocent children because I do, I love kids. I don’t have answers or think everyone should get off in these cases, I am just raising a question I don’t have answers for...only empathy.
Ten years after Shelbey was born, I had one more baby and one miscarriage. Both times I was treated with progesterone injections and never had any depression at all with Sydney. My life was a lot calmer then too, and I’d decided God had a purpose for me and I was going to live until his purpose for me is over, scared or not! Once I got a grip on that idea, I embraced motherhood, travel, and my relationship with God that got me through all of this. It was the worst and best thing that ever happened to me, certainly the most painful and certainly made big changes in how I viewed things.
If only I could have read the back of the book first back then. I’d have known while backing out of that driveway in 1979, that the sweet baby girl in my Mothers arms that night, would grow up to be one of my best friends, and support systems. And that my frightened little boy, clinging to Grandmas leg, would be there to help me through a lot of dark days. It’s true that good things come in small packages.