“Tell them I died.”
I spoke calmly. I had clarity. After weeks of panic attacks, hopelessness, and pain, I had a plan.
Ten months earlier, I found out I was pregnant. What should have been cause for celebration was cause for worry. I bled in the early days of my pregnancy and was advised that I might not remain pregnant for long. I was devastated and desperately wanted to gain control over what was happening in my body. My husband and I soon discovered that all was well, but that we were expecting twins. This was exciting and welcomed news, but started us down a stressful road that included countless doctor visits, a cross-country move to be close to family, early winding down at my job, and significant discomfort for many months. I never did manage to feel settled into pregnancy as we had many surprises along the way including fetal heart concerns, my own heart and lung concerns, fetal monitoring every 48 hours, a diagnosis of preeclampsia, and ultimately an emergency c-section. When my boys arrived five weeks early, but healthy, we were extremely grateful and relieved, but I couldn’t shake the uneasiness that had persisted throughout the pregnancy.
As was the case during pregnancy, our early days with the boys looked nothing like what I had anticipated. I was advised not to breastfeed because they were too small. All of the cute newborn clothes and tiny diapers we had excitedly collected were too big for them and I had to search for anything small enough for them to wear. Everyone who visited commented on how tiny they were, and I felt offended and hurt. No one meant any harm, but after months of obsessing over having healthy babies, I was shook up by each reminder that we didn’t quite make it to the end. I am someone who rarely fails to achieve what I set my mind to, but for many months now, I had been fighting circumstances that were out of my control.
Despite these initial difficulties, we enjoyed our first few weeks with the babies. They were quiet and soft and very sweet. We cuddled and sang and swaddled. I was increasingly exhausted, however, as I could never manage more than a couple of hours of sleep between feedings. Attempts to breastfeed were unsuccessful, but I was determined to provide them with breastmilk. So when I wasn’t feeding or sleeping, I was pumping. I began to feel stuck. I was hooked up to this machine during the only times I might have been able to do something that even remotely reminded me of who I was. The need for breastmilk became obsessive and I misguidedly felt that I could successfully manage at least one part of this process if I could just make enough milk. Ironically, this stress was likely the cause of my inability to make enough milk, and I was deflated each time I had to supplement with formula.
In the midst of my feelings of inadequacy and my obsessive need to gain control over situations, the babies developed colic. I’ll never forget April 29th. They cried for eight hours straight. I attended a wedding that evening and was in a daze, absolutely distraught at the fact that I couldn’t console my babies that day. As I drove home, I experienced what I believe was my first panic attack at the thought of returning home. The next month was torture. Each day the babies seemed to cry more, unresponsive to my attempts to comfort them. They wouldn’t eat without crying and they seemed to be screaming at me all day. I had never encountered a problem that I couldn’t solve just by working harder at it, but no matter how hard I pushed myself, I couldn’t gain control over this situation. Every new formula or medication we tried, every book I read, every person I talked to, every technique I applied resulted in nothing but disappointment. I then went from a manic need to resolve this issue to completely shutting down. I became numb and despondent, unable to motivate myself to do just about anything. My stomach turned at the sight of the breast pump and I couldn’t bring myself to look at the bottles as I filled them and fed my babies. The sound of their cries made me shake and stopped my breathing. Everywhere I looked I saw evidence of my failure as a mother.
I decided, with the help of my family and friends, that I needed help. I saw my primary care physician to talk about medication. Although she was willing to prescribe it and talked to me about how I was feeling, her attempt to reassure me that what I was going through was just normal adjustment made me feel worse. What I was going though was NOT normal. If that didn’t register with her, then I must really be a more terrible mother than even she had ever encountered. I chose not to start the medication, as I was too afraid to give my boys breastmilk while taking it. And Lord help me, I was going to give them breastmilk if it was the last thing I did. I also went to see a therapist who also assured me that everyone goes through a tough time adjusting to motherhood. This was absurd. She didn’t even suggest postpartum depression, and I again felt like no one could ever understand the depths of my pain. What an abnormality I was, truly a never-before-seen case of weakness and incompetence. Even professionals didn’t recognize this. I had never felt more alone and scared in my life.
On Memorial Day, 2006, I found myself unable to look at my babies. They were sleeping in their swings, and I was terrified about them waking up. I knew I couldn’t go to them. I was physically unable to pick them up anymore, as the dread and pain were too overwhelming. I hid myself under the dining room table like a frightened animal and called my husband, my mother, and my father. I was done. It was going to end here.
While waiting for my parents to arrive, I shared with my husband that I was completely unable to function as a mother and that it was time for me to give up. I was going to leave that day and not return. It sounds melodramatic now, but I was clear at the time that I had no other choice. I thankfully was not suicidal, but I was definitely not sticking around. When my parents arrived, I told them that I was leaving and that it was up to all of them to decide what to do with the babies. I wasn’t coming back and I wouldn’t be in touch. I calmly shared that I was finally clear on the fact that I was not only a terrible mother, but I was a terrible person and needed to start over where no one knew of my failures. I was incapable, useless, and selfish, unable to be the wife or mother my family deserved.
The only thing I asked was that they tell my boys that I had died. I never wanted them knowing that they were abandoned and thinking it was their fault. It was mine. I had failed.
My family was clearly rattled by this, and my parents packed up the boys and began to leave with them. It was only at that moment, as my boys were being taken from my home, that I began to feel again. I suddenly cried out for them. I wailed and fought to grab them, and my husband held me back. I reached for them and screamed as they were taken away. As much as it hurt, this deep surge of pain was a sign of hope. I wasn’t totally ready to give up yet.
Over the next week I took my medication, found a new therapist, visited a support group and made sure I was never alone with the babies. I talked and was supported. My husband was a rock, never judging me and never showing how scared he must have been. I had help and I tried to rest. I cried as my breastmilk dried up and as I returned the pump to the hospital. Things still didn’t look as I had expected, and I wasn’t going to gain that control I desperately wanted, but I was going to learn to accept what was. It took a lot of work, a number of professionals, and medication for me to slowly make my way back to myself. Within weeks, the dark cloud lifted. Within months, I began to feel joy.
Five years later, I am a truly happy mother. I love my children deeply and my family is in-tact and thriving. I am sure that I am a good mother and know that my early impressions of myself were clouded by depression, a filter through which your worth is disguised and your hope is destroyed. I have learned to let myself be human, working to accept the things I cannot control and to forgive myself for the mistakes I have made and continue to make. I still grieve the loss of those early months. They are a hazy, dark time for me and my heart hurts to think that I began motherhood under that fog. I worry about what my depression and anxiety might have done to my children while I was pregnant and when they were newborns. I experience pangs of envy when I hear of happy babies who don’t cry and mothers who easily breastfeed their babies. I was robbed of these precious moments. Yet, others have had it worse, and each day that I look at my beautiful boys and feel the joy that we experience together in this life, I am grateful for where my journey has brought me.
Today I work for the Postpartum Health Alliance, trying to prevent depression and anxiety in mothers and support them if they are suffering. We work hard to share with mothers the message that they are not alone, that how they feel is not their fault, and that they will get better. I have the privilege of talking to women who call seeking help. I have the opportunity to teach doctors how to identify and help women like me. I have a platform on which to affect the conversation about perinatal anxiety and depression. All of the obsessive energy that went into judging myself is now a powerful drive to help others. I hope this story creates understanding and a sense of responsibility among all of us to seek out ways to support one another. Without those who knew, those who cared, I truly would have left. But I am here, and I have so much to teach and share and tell my boys.
Instead of telling them I died, I will tell them I survived.