“Hannah! You look great! How have you been?”
“Does anyone really want to know how I feel?” I thought as I sat cross-legged on the couch, surrounded by people coo-ing over my baby.
I really felt awful. I don’t remember the last time I had showered or changed my clothes. I cried multiple times a day, and felt I would keel over from the anxiety if left alone with my daughter. If it weren’t for my husband, I probably wouldn’t have eaten anything that day because I couldn’t imagine it being possible to find time to eat, let alone make food.
“I’m doing great!” I gushed as I looked down lovingly at my beautiful daughter. I loved her with all of my being. There was never a moment I didn’t love her. That’s one of the reasons I was convinced I wasn’t depressed—because everyone said you would feel disconnected from your child if you were depressed; however, even with that love, I felt like my world was falling apart pretty much since she had came into my life.
I should’ve been more honest with myself about depression. I knew the second my OB had routinely mentioned PPD during a checkup that I wanted nothing to do with it. And my desire to immediately disassociate myself with it, instead of honestly digesting the information with an open mind should’ve been a hint that denial was already there. Even though postpartum depression was common, I brushed the concept off as casually as I now wipe spit-up off my shirt. I distanced myself from the possibility that I could be a statistic. I wouldn’t let myself get PPD.
Depression seemed like a weakness, a flaw, as if it was something that I could overcome simply by rolling out of bed, and forcing myself to eat or take a shower. But it never went away, even when I would do things like that; getting myself out of bed, eating or showering felt like climbing a mountain. I didn’t want to be weak. I wanted to be the mom that I thought people saw me as: Happy, and on-top of things. The kind of moms who I would look at on Instagram with their smiling faces, perfectly coordinated nursery and fit bodies.
I felt incompetent that I felt like I couldn’t watch my daughter alone (and if I did, I was a nervous wreck). I felt guilty about everything. I felt guilty that I was being lazy when I put my daughter in the swing so I could shower. Guilty when I let her play (happily) on the floor instead of engaging her 24/7, that I would somehow stunt her development. Guilty letting someone give her a bottle of breast milk, instead of nursing, as if we wouldn’t connect because I wasn’t feeding her and she wouldn’t love me if we missed out on skin-skin time.
When you have a baby, everyone’s favorite question seems to be, “How are you? How’s motherhood?” I think that people care, I just don’t feel like everyone wants to hear the raw truth all the time. Typically, most people want to hear that you’re doing well—not that you’re on the verge of a mental breakdown in the middle of the supermarket. Just as we casually ask people, “How are you?” or “How was school today?” this is simply a form of small talk that fills gaps, and makes people feel connected, although I tend to view it mostly as pleasantries.
Deep down, I was miserable, and a complete wreck. Exasperated, smelly, and convinced I might die if I had to do this all over again; however, instead, I would honestly answer, “It’s a transition,” with a smile.
It wasn’t a lie. It WAS a transition. I was going from a wife to a mother. And as someone who wanted to be a mother so badly, I couldn’t understand why it felt like the world was caving in.
I would lay in bed at night, unable to fall asleep. I felt an overwhelming sense of gloom. My mind wouldn’t shut off, even though I was exhausted beyond belief. Not only that, but beyond anything I could control, my mind would be overrun by anxiety-inducing thoughts. It felt like a swarm of bees carrying solely negativity were buzzing angrily in my head.
These thoughts were upsetting; thoughts that put me down. Things like I wasn’t a good mother, or a good wife, and that my daughter would be better off without me. My head was so full, it felt like it would explode. I would turn to my husband and say that I wanted to die. Multiple times. Every night. I wanted my world to shut off like a light. The pain was so over-stimulating and so deep. It was the kind of sadness that you feel throbbing in your fingertips and makes you short of breath.
At every appointment with my daughter’s pediatrician, they would give me a survey to fill out. It asked how I was coping, how I felt, and if I was enjoying life. Every appointment, I would sit in the waiting room, sheepishly staring at the evaluation, feeling like I was failing when I would answer that I wasn’t enjoying life. I loved my daughter. Was I defective? I would hand in the paper, secretly hoping that they’d see my awful answers as a cry for help. I knew I needed help, that I was drowning—but I couldn’t pull myself out of this dark problem that I didn’t want to name.
Something that made me feel even worse, as funny as it sounds, is that my daughter was (is) such a good baby. She was happy. Happy to play by herself, happy to take a bottle, to be held by anyone, and to sleep longer stretches with a little bit of coaxing. And everyone would tell me that I had such an easy baby. This is one of the reasons why I was so perplexed and upset with how I was feeling. Not only did I KNOW that I had a great baby, but everyone else did too—but for some reason, I was NOT coping. Maybe I just wasn’t cut out for this mom stuff.
I decided to reach out to a beloved teacher from my seminary. I told her that I was feeling really down, and I didn’t feel like I was a good person. She told me, “Not to worry,” and that, “[I am] a rockstar.”
I didn’t feel like a rockstar. She knew me when I was in seminary-when I felt like I was on top of the world. I was davening every day, in class for hours, high off the kedusha of Eretz Yisroel, and generally rocking at life. And here I was now, huddled over my phone, in the same, dirty clothes, having a mental breakdown. I hadn’t davened in G-d knows how long, I hadn’t sat down and learned in even longer, and I was failing at simple daily tasks like eating and showering. I was certainly NOT a “rockstar.”
I felt like I was somehow deceiving her, but I appreciated her love, nonetheless. I accepted her words with a strange combination of hunger and hesitance. I felt unworthy, like I was getting a participation medal for breathing.
I decided to bring up my unresolved feelings of being a “rockstar” to a couple who I’ve been close to for years. They said something that changed my life: Before you’re married, you have ZERO responsibilities, so everything you do IS amazing! You can run around and deliver food till 12am, and spend hours learning Torah, and although it IS truly a wonderful thing to do, because you have no responsibilities, of COURSE you’re a rockstar! Then, all of a sudden, the next stage in life hits you like a ton of bricks: You’re married with kids, with a TON of responsibilities, and everything that you had done before that had previously defined you isn’t necessarily something you’re able to do.
When you enter a new stage in life, the scale that you used to previously define your success doesn’t apply any more. Being a “rockstar” now has nothing to do with the outstanding chessed you do, or learning for hours on end. Now, being successful, being a “rockstar” means fulfilling the responsibilities that you DO have, WELL. It means having patience with your child when all you want to do is scream out of exasperation, or taking the time to communicate civilly and lovingly with your spouse when you’re upset.
I felt a huge weight lift off my chest. As much as I had been upset for not being able to fully accomplish things that I thought I needed to be doing (i.e. davening, and learning to the extent that I felt capable of), I indeed was succeeding at being a good wife and mom. Even though I was mentally and emotionally struggling, my child was a well-rounded, happy and healthy kid, and I didn’t take out my frustrations or sadness on my husband. My teacher wasn’t wrong; I was a rockstar.
As validating as it felt to have reached this revelation, I still knew I needed to get better. I couldn’t go on living wanting to constantly die.
I don’t exactly remember what the turning point was, but one day (around five months after having my daughter), after mustering some spontaneous strength, with the wonderful support of my husband, I decided to call my OB and ask for medication—not even help, just medication. I just wanted the struggle to be over. I called, and my doctor recommended I talk with a psychiatrist. I’m not familiar with how the medical system works, but the fact that I had to go through another phone call to start getting better felt like having to scale a mountain. Any resistance felt like defeat. My resolve disappeared. I let calling the psychiatrist fall to the edges of my mind.
Almost every day, my husband would remind me to make the call, but I couldn’t find the energy to do it. (Which I felt ridiculous about, because it’s literally dialing a few numbers on my phone). Anyway, one day, a month or so later, I made the call, and the Dr.’s receptionist said that the doctor’s earliest appointment was 3 months away. I felt awful. I silently started blaming myself. If only I had called earlier, I could’ve gotten an appointment. The receptionist asked what symptoms I was experiencing: Fatigue, sadness, anxiety, not wanting to live. She said that the doctor likes to help patients experiencing PPD whenever possible, so she’d send a message to her and try to fit me in. Hope.
Thankfully, this wonderful Doctor, G-d bless her, had rachmanus on me, and fit me in for the next week. I almost felt like Hashem was smiling down at me for making an effort to get better.
The day of the appointment arrived: I walked into the doctor’s office, and filled out a lengthy assessment. Afterwards, I met with the psychiatrist, where we chatted about the past 5 months. How I was miserable, moving back unexpectedly from Israel, and looking for a place to live, all on top of having a baby.
I remember feeling so empowered, validated and relieved after coming back from my appointment with the psychiatrist, prescription in hand. It felt like breathing after being underwater. There was a reason for what I was feeling, and it wasn’t that I was lacking as a person. I wasn’t incompetent or a bad mom, and it wasn’t just lack of sleep. I had postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety.
The day after I started taking the medication, it was like a fog had been lifted. It’s not like I was ready to run a marathon, but I definitely did not want to die. I wanted to live. I wanted to get better.
I realize now that a huge reason that I felt afraid to speak up about my PPD was because I barely knew anyone that had it. I had read articles, and seen celebrities talk about it, but I hadn’t really met people with it, especially people my age. I want to change that. I want to make postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety and even post-birth something that’s easy and accessible to discuss among women. It is with that hope, that in the future, women won’t feel afraid or ashamed to bring up their experiences and feelings, so that they too can get better.
I would like to add, that because everyone is unique, everyone’s experience with postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety is unique. As a result, everyone’s treatment and recovery is different as well. Some people will do best with medication, some people with therapy, and others a combination of the two. The only thing that I can guarantee about recovery is that it’s not linear. It’s a twisting, unpredictable path, and it’s hard. Getting help doesn’t mean that you’ll never be depressed again, and you won’t have nights that you spend sleepless with anxiety. Getting help means that you’re making the effort to get better, and you will get better; it’ll just take time, effort, and realistic expectations.
Even as I write this, I feel somewhat hypocritical, having a night this past week where I was seriously struggling; how can I write about recovery when not only a week ago I felt swallowed by darkness and unable to breathe? It is then when I have to take a step back, and remind myself–recovery is not linear. All that we can do is our best.
Lastly, I feel eternally grateful to Hashem, as well as my family and friends for continuing to help me through this nesaiyon, and giving me the ability to see this as an opportunity for growth, as well as to reach out and hopefully help others.