Like many new mothers, I lacked confidence in my mothering skills. Is it easier for women who had younger siblings? For women who used to babysit? I’d never in my life been taken with children. I was shocked by the urgency of my need to touch her, and also by the long hours in which I was solely responsible for her well-being.
I set small meaningless goals to get through days: Shower daily. Ten-minute walks between naps. To my untrained breast, she seemed to have little appetite — nurse more frequently… or less? She cried — pick her up…or put her down?
There was often another presence with us, perched next to us on the sofa, lying alongside us in the bed, shadowing us through every room. It teased my peripheral vision; tucked itself into extra space in my belly. Occasionally it surged forward, threatening to surround me fully. Anytime I looked up from my baby’s head against my breast, it blurred and darkened my vision.
I tried to pretend it wasn’t there, but what do you do when defenses are low, when sleep eludes you, and you feel so very isolated while caring for a vulnerable and confusing being?
Was blurriness the normal response to interrupted sleep and stress of a newborn, or something more? I did not have the will or energy to tell. Nor did I want to admit I was familiar with, even compelled by, its presence.
That July afternoon, it overtook me in the living room. I was on the sofa, nursing, watching sunlight wave through the irregular glass of our windows. The cat observed us with one eye from a strategic position just beyond arm’s reach.
The very image of new motherhood at peace. Except: as my girl nursed methodically, my mind sucked fiercely on an acidic thought:
I cannot bear how much she will hurt in life. I cannot bear it.
I looked down as she pulled at my breast, understanding the impulse at the cellular level:
Protect her, my body chanted in time with her thwuck thwuck thwuck.
There is only one certain protection, the acid thoughts replied. To live is to sorrow.
Have you ever licked a battery? The taste is both poisonous and sweetly compelling. I knew these thoughts were false and deadly, yet I could not stop suckling. The acid drew me back, back for more.
To live is to sorrow. To live to sorrow. Sorrow. Sorrow. I cannot bear it.
I pulled her away, smarting as she tugged at my nipple. I needed her not in my arms. I settled her into her cushioned car seat — the only position she’d use for a nap that week. She fell asleep in only a few minutes, mewling briefly then settling into unconsciousness. The cat closed her other eye, the sunbeams flickered over all of us.
My eyes stayed open despite my training: Sleep when she sleeps; wake when she wakes. I paced our house — stumbling over bare feet, staying conscious only through movement. I preferred the distress of being awake to closing my eyes — the mere thought of acidic dreams frightened me.
In retrospect, darkness overtaking me should not have been a surprise. So much of my biography was influenced by ebbs and flows of my mental health. I had my baby at the age of 29, the healing end of a difficult decade. Had it not been for Prozac, first prescribed for me when I was 26, I doubt I would have been ready for pregnancy. Or marriage. Or possibly life.
From the age of 14, I white-knuckled my way through accomplishments: academics, activities, self-created pressures. Adrenaline and stress hormones made an effective antidepressant. The faster I moved, the more I strove, the less attention I paid to the darkness I felt in my belly, and the safer I felt.
When I gave into the darkness, it grew in size and strength. It rose from my belly to my chest to my throat, overshadowing all my desperate activity. It kept me in bed for days, too stunned to move, too despondent to cry. Those were days, and occasionally weeks, of near-paralysis.
For twelve years, I rode the tides between balance and disequilibrium. I was lucky the tides more often tipped towards balance. Whole months could go by in which I felt competent, even buoyant.
In my mid-20s, though, the tides shifted: The calm days were fewer and the happy ones nearly non-existent. Paralysis came more regularly, as did new impulses: the urge to tear at my own skin. I went from busy to frantic, in an effort to recreate the chemical effects of adrenaline and stress.
A therapist I frustrated for years with my unwillingness to try medication finally convinced me to read a book about the impact of SSRIs on unbalanced people like me. I recognized myself in the “before” portraits. I agreed to try a prescription.
Newly awash with serotonin, I suddenly found more ease in my life. I enjoyed small pleasures, the way healthy people do. I married my boyfriend. I listened to my biological clock, ringing loudly right on schedule.
“You will have to give up the Prozac,” my doctor told me when I had The Conversation with her, about my mental health and desire to get pregnant.
Three months later, Prozac was out of my system. Four months, and I was pregnant.
Early pregnancy was physically easy for me – no illnesses, no cravings – but mentally I was thrust back 5 or 10 years, and the tides moved more powerfully now. Disequilibrium threatened me. Not my entirety, which would almost have been a relief, but in pieces – gulping down parts of my well-being: like I was bait for a hungry herd of sharks.
My obgyn and psychiatrist conferred at the start of my second trimester. We agreed: medication was safer than suicide ideation. We reinstated medication, and the storms calmed.
There were risks we discussed: My baby shared my medication, of course, now and when I planned to nurse. I worried — how could I not? I knew I would not otherwise be capable of taking care of either a baby or myself.
As I write, I’ve been under medical care for depression for nearly two decades. I know mental illness the way you know any chronic condition — the weather that makes your knees ache, the need for an additional puff from your inhaler in pollen season.
I’m mostly high-functioning with proper medication and self-care. I watch the struggle in my brain and body even as I participate in it. A formulation works for me for about four years before I notice the urge to claw my skin returning, along with obsessive thoughts about the ways life delivers pain to everyone I care about. Today, I recognize these changes as the signal to return to my prescribing psychiatrist.
I had none of this knowledge in the first years. I thought an antidepressant inoculated me against mental instability. Instead, it should have been a brightly lit sign informing me, my doctor, and my family of risk.
The body-mind during postpartum and when nursing is in chemical flux. My mind takes the emotional result and transforms it into pain and overwhelming despair. Knowing what I know now, it’s not surprising a pre-pregnancy dosage of Prozac didn’t meet the needs of that time in my life.
That July afternoon, all I knew were terrifying thoughts about unlimited griefs ahead.
Eventually I settled back on the sofa. I placed my hand on my baby’s warm belly to feel her breathing rise and fall. She gripped my fingers in her sleep. The sun moved lower; soon my husband would come home from work and we would be less alone for a few hours.
Acid thoughts continued to fill my head: I cannot bear how much she will hurt in life. To live is to sorrow.
My baby girl is now 16. I’m quicker today to recognize the compelling, poisonous sweetness for what it is. But when I find myself staring at the rising dark now, it’s even scarier. More is at stake: the tides tug not just at me but at the girl who is still part of me.
I am always in temporary remission from depression. I’ve come to accept (mostly, most days) that mental illness and its treatment are not just part of my history; but part of my remaining future. It’s also now an inheritance passed to the next generation. I hope my girl’s experience will differ, but her early pattern is already eerily similar.
I grieve my child has inherited a lifelong disease. She has better, more enlightened care than I had at her age. The cultural shame around illnesses like ours is lessening, but more importantly, I can mother her through her darkness. When I see her charmed by it, I can hold her hand and talk to her until she can look away.
Still, it is true: To live is to sorrow. She has plenty of hurt on the path ahead of her. I cannot bear it, and yet; I have to bear it.
That July afternoon, I remained aware enough to be horrified by the acid of my thoughts and my compulsion to suck at their teats. I did not tell my husband when he came home, that day or ever. I did not tell my doctor. I did not tell my mother or my friends. I returned in August to my therapist, but I didn’t tell her either.
I’ve never told anyone before just how strongly the tide pulled me, nor how ready I was to ride it beyond reaching.
Robin Neidorf holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She is working on essays relating to mental health, addiction and family dynamics. Connect with her at https://www.linkedin.com/in/robinneidorf
The 7th Annual Mother’s Day Rally for Moms’ Mental Health is presented by Postpartum Progress, a national nonprofit 501c3 that raises awareness & advocates for more and better services for women who have postpartum depression and all other mental illnesses related to pregnancy and childbirth. Please consider making a donation today, on Mother’s Day, to help us continue to spread the word and support the mental health of new mothers.