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“Is he okay?” I asked my husband.
“For the tenth time, yes!” he yelled from the living room.
I paced around my son’s crib, dizzying dread pressing down onto my back like a huge slab of concrete, threatening to crush me into pieces. Every day the weight grew harder to bear.
I peered down at my newborn son, sleeping soundly in his blanket cocoon. He was okay. He was breathing. He was fine. Right? Was he fine? What if he’s not fine? I picked at my fingers until they bled.
“Is he okay?” I asked my husband again.
I knew I was repeating myself. I knew my brain was somehow stuck on one track, like a needle skipping on an old record player. But there was no controlling it, this fear. This blinding panic seeping into my mind, stealing my thoughts away, replacing them with terrible thoughts I never imagined in my worst nightmares.
A few weeks earlier, my firstborn son came into this world after a long traumatic labor and emergency C-section. When I first looked into his soft hazel eyes, I saw the light of my life, a miracle brought to us after two years of struggling to get pregnant. Yet what should have been weeks filled with joy and warmth slowly turned dark as I was plunged into the murky depths of postpartum depression.
My days and nights were a constant battle: my mind against myself. I was severely sleep deprived, recovering from major surgery and dealing with a newborn who had terrible reflux and colic. I failed at breastfeeding. My son couldn’t eat, and was constantly screaming from the pain of throwing up. I blamed myself because I must be doing everything wrong. I was a bad mother. He needed me, but I didn’t know how to take care of him. Why wasn’t I happy? What was wrong with me? My shame and guilt nearly suffocated me.
I didn’t want to eat. I barely had the energy to walk around the house. My brain felt as if it was dipped in thick syrup then set on fire, my thoughts disconnected and fuzzy. I spent hours suffering numerous panic attacks. Nights I dreaded the most because I couldn’t sleep. If I did sleep, it was only a few disjointed hours filled with vivid nightmares. Sometimes I’d hallucinate, thinking I heard my son crying, screaming for me from some distant place I couldn’t reach. I thought he was under my bed. I thought I left him outside in the snow. I’d wake up, heart pounding and paralyzed, thinking these horrific visions were real. My husband would hold me tight, stroking my hair and whispering promises that our son was fine, safe and warm in his crib.
As the weeks blurred by, the entire world was increasingly steeped in harsh tones of gray. My life now colorless and devoid of all hope, I saw no way out of the dark. I was at the bottom of a well, my soul slipping away, the dim circle of light at the top fading more with each passing day.
I didn’t want to live anymore.
But I knew my son needed me. Only this thought alone kept me breathing.
My husband saved me–plucked me out of that well–by saving our son. He insisted to our pediatrician there was something very wrong with the way he was eating. We were not just first-time jittery parents, we knew in our hearts he was very ill with something. Reluctantly, she did an abdominal ultrasound. He had severe pyloric stenosis, a birth defect where the stomach opening is completely closed off, food can’t pass and comes back out as projectile vomiting. His pyloric muscle was nearly three times larger than normal. Our son was very sick, pale and listless from not getting any nutrition. We were told to rush him to Maine Medical Center that night for emergency surgery. He was barely six weeks old.
At the hospital, I sang Itsy Bitsy Spider into his ear as the NG tube pumped the bile from his tiny body. His eyes searched mine, trusting. He needed his mama to make it all right. I kissed him goodbye as the OR nurse wheeled him away down the long corridor. My tiny bundle of sweetness alone in the middle of a giant steel crib. I felt my heart crack.
Surgery was a success and our son recovered beautifully. The relief I felt was indescribable. Back at home, his cheeks were rosy again as he steadily gained weight. One morning he giggled at me from his bouncy chair and I found myself giggling back. It was an odd but familiar sensation, this feeling of ease, of letting the possibility of joy break through the clouds again. A few months passed and the heavy veil of darkness started to lift even more; my eyes were clear, my mind bright and light again. I soon relished every moment with my son–his smiles, his coos, the way his silky head nestled perfectly into my neck. The love I felt for him was as deep and true and wide as a prairie sky.
I was a mom again.
At my own post-op checkup several months later, I broke down and confided to my obstetrician what I had gone through, how I had felt in those early weeks. How I must be a horrible mother to have been so sad during such a happy time.
He looked at me and said gently, “I think you had postpartum depression. This is not your fault.” I was stunned. I never knew that was how it would feel. I’d read about it in magazines and thought, well, that would never happen to me. But I knew in my gut, I did have PPD. Many years later, I finally released my guilt over those early months. I forgave myself.
Going through this has only brought me closer to my son and my husband. I felt like I had gone to the depths of hell and back again. Yet walking on my own two feet, using my own inner strength to push through, I made it back to the land of the living. I was lucky. I only wished I had known then what I was going through wasn’t my fault, and was possibly treatable.
Today, as my two children giggle, dance, and run circles around me, I know this deep in my bones: I am a damn good mom.
And no amount of darkness could ever dim that light.