My Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Were Much More Dangerous Than I Realized

I had the baby blues after my first son was born. I spent New Year’s Eve in the bathroom crying, wondering what I’d done to myself and my life. When my second son was born, I had no problems whatsoever: my depression medication was adjusted correctly. But when my third son was born, that medication wasn’t enough. I had a dangerous case of postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety, and I didn’t realize how bad it had become until I was placed in a day-treatment mental health program when my youngest son was 15 months old.

But my struggle with postpartum depression started well before that. After my third son, Sunny’s, birth, I started having intrusive thoughts. I remember one in particular: I was lying in bed with my middle son, August, trying to get him to go to sleep. I cuddled him close to me, his back back to my belly, and thought, This is how we will lie after the apocalypse happens. Only we will do this beside some godforsaken fire, praying the cannibals don’t come. But we will lie in the same way, wishing for a bed, and I will love him exactly the same. This, of course, is not a normal thing to think as you put your son to sleep. But it didn’t strike me as odd, only terrifying.

Courtesy of Elizabeth Broadbent

I developed other fears, too. Whenever I drove somewhere, I worried I'd left my baby at the house, or in the driveway, or in the roof of the car. I had to reach back and touch his head to make sure he was there. Five minutes later, I’d have to do it again. But the last fear was the worst, the most persistent: Once, when I was out hunting with my father, I watched him twist the head off a dove. I was struck, then, by the fragility of spine and sinew, by how easily he could separate flesh and bone. Those same feelings returned when I looked at my newborn. How easily, I mused, could his head fall off. How simply could his spinal cord separate from that big baby head of his. I knew, intellectually, that his head wasn’t going to come off. But then I’d see my father twist the head of that dove, and I’d be afraid all over again. I knew I wasn't about to twist my baby's head off. I would never hurt him. But the ease of it terrified me.

I once wept — wept! — over the size of his organs. A kidney the size of a kidney bean, a heart I could hold in just two fingers. It left my husband baffled. “Why are you crying?” he asked again. “Just because his organs are small?” In my mind, their smallness seemed conflated with a desperate delicateness, a terrible danger.

I laid in my bed for two days and wept. I didn’t take care of my kids. I didn’t take care of my house. My husband took off work. And finally, we made the decision to enroll me in a day-treatment mental health program. In other words, I went to the psych ward.

And I worried. I worried that when my husband went to work, he wouldn’t come back. If he was late, visions of car crashes danced in my head. I worried that my sons didn’t know their alphabet. The worries became overwhelming, and I’d turn on the TV for my older boys, shut the bedroom door, hunch over myself, and cry. But all the worries were not the same. When I flew up to see my parents, I didn’t worry the plane would crash. Instead, I worried that my older children would drown on their beach vacation.

Courtesy of Elizabeth Broadbent

Then it started getting worse. I was a terrible mother, I thought. The house fell to pieces because I couldn’t muster the energy to clean. I managed to homeschool my oldest and take the kids places — to a friend’s house, to the park, to the grocery store — because I couldn't stay at home staring at the four walls confronting me. I felt I was failing at the most important job in the world. I started to cut myself to feel better.

Then, I cried. I started crying and I couldn’t stop. I'd quit one of my medications, as per my doctor’s instructions, but the withdrawal was brutal. I laid in my bed for two days and wept. I didn’t take care of my kids. I didn’t take care of my house. My husband took off work. And finally, we made the decision to enroll me in a day-treatment mental health program. In other words, I went to the psych ward. The only difference was that I got to go home at the end of each day.

Courtesy of Elizabeth Broadbent

I didn’t realize how dangerous my postpartum depression was until then. I needed help, and I needed intensive help, not a psychiatrist who could write a prescription and listen to me complain about the intrusive thoughts I was having. At the day-treatment facility, the team there validated my thoughts. My doctor didn't tell me it was all in my head, or that I needed to just "push the thoughts aside." Instead, she listened to each worry, each fear, each intrusive thought. She heard every painful, terrifying, and weird detail. Then she said, "Yeah, you shouldn't be thinking like that. That's not normal." And then we worked out a plan from there. In turn, I felt so relieved. I hadn't known what I the thoughts I was having were abnormal. My doctor prescribed some medications to help, and they did. They made the thoughts go away.

For me, my postpartum depression started with wondering, maybe I left the newborn in the driveway, and ended in the psych ward, with new medication and more serious help. I eventually found a medication combination that worked for me, and today I’m perfectly fine, so long as I stay on that medication. No amount of walking, yoga, or positive thinking will replace it. I need the medication. For me, and for my boys. And I’m OK with that.