“I’m afraid my baby’s head will fall off,” I tell my psychiatrist.
She nods, normally, sympathetically, as if mothers everywhere suffer visions of their baby’s heads coming off their necks. “Can you explain that?” she asks.
And I tell her how, when I was 10, my father took me dove hunting. Most of the time, his shot didn’t kill the dove. So to end its suffering, my father would casually twist its head off. I watched in sick fascination, over and over, as his big hands almost gently wrenched the birds’ heads from their small gray bodies. I had no idea heads could be so precariously attached, no idea that one small twist could decapitate.
When I had my third son, I couldn’t stop thinking how delicately his head attached, how strong hands could twist and pull. It terrified me, this thin neck, this precarious joining of flesh and bone. I remembered the birds. I had seen their heads lie wide-eyed on the ground.
“That’s horrible,” my doctor said. She upped both my medications and added Xanax. “We need to get that under control,” she told me. “You can’t live like this.”
But I could. I did. And so do millions of other women.
I’ve been down the dark alleys of depression before. But it didn’t become utterly unlivable until I got pregnant. At eight weeks, we thought we were losing our baby. I sobbed for six straight hours, through the emergency room, the ultrasound, all the way home. I cried because I was still pregnant. I couldn’t possibly cope with this very wanted baby. How could I have made such a terrible mistake?
A case of borderline hyperemesis worsened my depression and anxiety. My husband left town for three days, which I spent consumed with thoughts of his imminent death. The panic attacks began: clutching bouts of heart-pounding terror that left me gasping for air, convinced every wheeze was hurting the baby.
When I admitted to my husband that I kept myself from suicide because I didn’t want to kill my baby, I finally got help: medication, and a real psychiatrist.
I was suffering from prenatal depression, which is experienced by 10 to 20 percent of pregnant women. Everyone talks about postpartum depression. No one mentions that the same hormones can trigger prenatal depression as well. Babies born to depressed women suffer higher rates of stress hormones, less coordination and motor control, and more sleep disturbances. Up to 14 percent of women take antidepressants during pregnancy, and their efficacy — and effects on the baby — is debatable. But for some women whose depression is severe enough that they can’t care for themselves or a child, their use is necessary. I was one of those women.
But my SSRIs weren’t enough after Sunny’s birth. Coming off a high-risk, debilitating pregnancy, I began to have obsessive thoughts. I would lay down with my son during nap time and think, This is how we will curl up after the apocalypse, when the nuclear bombs fall and we scrabble to live through nuclear winter. How would I feed us? Would people try to cannibalize each other? I was haunted by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Stephen King’s The Stand. The end felt nigh.
I had other symptoms. Constantly stressed, I snapped at my older sons. Depression doesn’t always look sad: It can look like mean instead. Normal kid behavior left me enraged; a simple lost shoe could ruin the day. I yelled. I stomped off to the bedroom. I couldn’t understand why my children had suddenly become so bad.
And I began, again, to worry my husband would die. I started crying in the bathroom. My baby, who I loved so much, felt like a terrible mistake. I was a mistake. I thought about killing myself, but knew he wouldn’t have anything to eat. I worried his head would fall off.
I needed more medication.
We had to tweak and tinker. But a year later, I’m on an even keel again. I needed a good deal of medication to get here, but the dangers of a depressed mother outweigh the medication passed through my breast milk (and for health reasons related to severe food intolerances, weaning was not an option). And other things helped, of course: I spend time outside; I eat well. I make sure to get enough sleep, and I cuddle my son as much as possible. I am happy and healthy. I am productive.
But I wasn’t always this way. I got help.
Millions of women do not.
And the first step toward helping women with depression is to take away its stigma. I’m afraid to write this. I worry about its implications for my relationships, for my life. We’ve been taught that depression means you’re weak or crazy. We worry it makes us less of a mother. We have been shamed for the vagaries of brain chemistry, for the feelings we can’t fix.
Millions of women suffer. They need us to come out of the dark and to say: I’ve been there. I am there. I hear you.
Depression doesn’t mean you hate your baby.
It doesn’t mean you hate yourself.
It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, a weak person, or a selfish person.
It doesn’t make you less than other mothers.
It shouldn’t make you ashamed.
It shouldn’t make you alone.