By E.F.C Warden
I remember how my brain started working, how even well before my daughter was born I kept envisioning her death. Not a peaceful “died in her sleep” or was “born sleeping” death but horrific versions of the same endings.
While pregnant, I would envision falling on sharp objects that would pierce my belly and my daughter and end her life. I saw myself being hit by a car and her tiny form being squished to death inside of me. We died together in many ways inside my mind.
Visions after visions of our untimely end filled my senses on a daily basis to a point where it was all I thought and even dreamed, my brain consumed with how she would die and when she didn’t fulfill the nightmares new ones would form in their place.
This should have been my first clue something was wrong.
The thoughts never ceased after her birth. I thought she would die during her arrival. I thought she would suffocate from my inability to progress during labor. I believed she would choke to death or stop breathing before she was even born.
Beyond that, even when they placed her, cozily wrapped in a colorful blanket, in my arms, I feared for her life. I was terrified and exhausted by thoughts and that was just the beginning.
The first car ride home from the hospital was smooth and my daughter slept peacefully in her brand new car seat. She was still slightly yellowish-orange from battling a slight case of newborn jaundice. According to the doctors she was perfect – ten fingers and ten toes – and should be just fine. I, however, was a mess. After almost 48 hours of labor and no sleep, and barely any food, I felt as though a week’s worth of sleep wouldn’t even be enough to catch me up. Physical exhaustion wasn’t my only ailment, emotionally I was spent. Chalk it up to hormones or whatever but my brain was playing trampoline with my heart. I couldn’t tell if I was happy or underwhelmed by the arrival of my tiny human.
After 45 minutes in the car we arrived home to a confused, but excited dog. Introducing the dog to the baby was like flipping on a light switch in my mind. In that instant, I remember thinking Oh shit. What if he bites her, even if it was an accident? What if she fell on the ground and broke her neck or hit her head? What if she stopped breathing? Oh shit.
My in-laws followed us from the hospital to the house and pulled in the driveway right after us. They came to help us settle in and then planned on heading back to their place. I thought maybe I should ask them to stay but felt more anxious about having them there.
They put me on edge. Every time they picked up my daughter, she made the tiniest noise. My brain and body went into overdrive trying to assess her needs. They could calmly hold her while she fussed, from waking up or because of gas, and in contrast, my brain would whirlwind around itself determining how to fix her. I had to fix her.
She didn’t need to cry, so when she did something had to be wrong, and I needed to figure it out and fix it. After all I was her mother and it was my job to make sure she didn’t need to cry. I had to make sure her every need was met and that she never ever cried. If she cried then that meant that I was failing as a mother.
Once settled inside, my mother-in-law picked up my daughter who whimpered in her faint baby tones, and I found myself reaching out for her. I covered my reaction with an “it is time for her to eat” and whisked her away to the bedroom where she was safe from the world in my arms. This wasn’t the only time this happened, but I was just feeding her, and there was nothing wrong with that or with me. I was just hormonal from birth, at least that’s what I told myself, over and over and over again.
I was fine. And many times when I took her away she really was hungry. We were both fine. I was fine. I was not crazy. I was totally fine.
Until I wasn’t.
Being a parent is sometimes harder than we like to admit, and being a new parent is extra difficult in that there is no established norm for daily activities. It is all a learning process. Add debilitating thoughts of impending death to the everyday education of newborn needs, and you have a cocktail of sleep deprivation, stress, fatigue, and concerned panic that would send anyone into a catatonic state.
My newborn education included feedings every hour and half on the dot, to which my husband could be of no assistance since he biologically was not outfitted to nurse. For me, this meant a growing frustration derived from not being able to sleep more than twenty minutes at a time and extra short nipples to which my child could not latch onto without the aid of a nipple shield. I didn’t sleep, I barely ate, and I spent even my pooping minutes with a tiny human curled up against me taking in her hourly sustenance while I attempted to relieve myself with pulling stitches.
Days were longer than they had been my entire life, even longer than my long study nights in college. So long, in fact, that I could no longer tell the difference between days and nights. I remember lying in bed, between numerous feedings, thinking that I might as well get up and start my day, though I probably only slept a total of three hours.
I was a wreck. I felt beaten both physically and mentally. Giving birth takes a lot out of you. Dealing with contractions and then pushing out a tiny human for hours, without resting, feels pretty close to running a marathon. After all of that and not being allowed to rest and recover you begin to feel as though you are breaking. I remember I kept thinking that women who have back to back children are saints. I could not imagine having another child nine months after my first. I swore I needed at least five years to recover from my initial birthing experience.
As the days passed, and my daughter began to do more and more and to grow to the point where she no longer needed assistance in holding her head up, my thoughts chased and circled around themselves in a frenzied rage. Every moment with my daughter seemed to bring on more thoughts of her death, and not just the accidental rolling and hitting her head on the table corner, but by my hand. I would move her to the kitchen so I could make lunch or dinner and all of a sudden knives and plastic wrap took on a new purpose. How easy would it be to send a knife through her head with that soft spot? How easy would it be to wrap her in plastic wrap and let her suffocate? Too easy.
Following each horrendous thought came a shock of panic. What the hell was I thinking!? I would never ever ever ever hurt my child. I would pick her up then and hold her close to me. Feeling her breathe against my arms, I couldn’t help thinking that maybe if I kept her close enough to me my hands could do her no harm and she would remain safe.
I never told anyone about my thoughts. I was sure that if I told my husband he would think I was nuts and insist I never be left alone with our daughter. I didn’t think what I was dealing with fell under postpartum depression and didn’t want to run the risk of telling my doctor and having them take my baby away from me. Besides, I knew I was safe, and that she was safe with me. It didn’t matter what anyone else thought. So I kept it hidden. I buried my stress and anxiety behind a wall of new motherhood activities.
When the doctor asked me how I was feeling at my six-week checkup I told them tired – which was undeniably true. They didn’t need to know more.
My husband and I started to fall into a routine by the time my daughter was a month old. She ate every hour and a half and so I tried to eat, shower, and sleep while she napped her twenty minutes or so between feedings. It still meant I only slept maybe three hours a night, but the sleep deprivation could be battled with endless cups of coffee by day and catnaps by night. Things seemed okay from the outside looking in, but, as we all know, appearances can be deceiving.
As a couple, my husband and I usually enjoyed spending time at our friends’ houses in the afternoons. It was usually pretty common on any given Friday or Saturday night for us to make the 45 minute drive over to visit and watch some random television show with comrades of ours. Since the birth of our daughter, we rarely left the house. We were becoming recluses in our own house, and not fully by choice.
I spent the early days of my daughter’s life calculating feeding times and times between feedings. I became so proficient at these calculations that I could tell you the exact time my daughter would want to eat again and was correct about 97% of the time. Some would call it mother’s intuition – I called it survival. This feeding schedule, as we may refer to it, provided for me set times in which I needed to be somewhere where nursing would be easily performed.
On one Friday, my husband decided that we needed some time away from our house and that we should visit some of our friends. I was initially unreceptive of this idea and informed him that with the feeding schedule as it was that we should wait another 45 minutes before we left to ensure that our daughter did not get hungry on the drive. He returned with the fact that the drive was 45 minutes and we would be there before she even woke up from her nap and needed feeding.
We most definitely were not. At exactly the time specified by the feeding schedule, our daughter woke up and started yowling to be fed. As she was strapped into her car seat I could not offer her a breast to satiate her hunger, and I had yet to find a bottle that I felt was compatible with nursing and would not cause the dreaded “nipple confusion” I was told terrors stories about. So, my daughter screamed. She screamed and screamed and screamed, and I could do nothing. My husband asked if he should pull the car over, but there was no exit near us and the side of the highway didn’t seem reasonable, so I told him no. I told him no even though her screams were sending me into a panic attack. I told him no though she screamed herself into a choking fit.
Hearing her choke caused my husband to finally pull over. As soon as the car was off the road I undid the safety belt around my daughter and panted Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. She was already, but I was wrapped in anxiety and fear. As soon as I realized she was indeed breathing, I began to nurse her. Her tension subsided as she relaxed into the comfort of my arms. My tension, however, stayed high in my shoulders and I broke down into a heavy sob that racks my body.
My husband opened his car door and slide inside beside me in the backseat. He wrapped his arms around me as if to stop me from shaking. He told me that everything was okay, that our daughter was fine and not going to starve, and that I was just stressed, but everything was okay.
I didn’t believe him. I didn’t believe him because as we sat there, a family intertwined both physically and emotionally, I thought about how a much of a mess a semi would make if it plowed into us at that very moment. I thought about my daughter’s tiny head busted open on the highway for all the world to see. I, also, very carefully and quickly placed her back in the safety of her car seat where she would stand a chance at surviving if that nightmare came to be. I knew then that something was very wrong with me; that I was broken somehow. I, also, knew that until I fixed myself nothing would be okay.
The exam room table is cold against my legs, even though I wear long pants. I hold my daughter against my chest as I sob gently into the nearly silent room.
The doctor wheels around from the computer screen where she is typing and faces me. “So how long have you been feeling this way?” She questions concerned.
“A little while,” I manage to squeak out through sobs. My daughter is now two months old and my intense reaction to her crying and the endless parade of scary thoughts has yet to release their hold on me.
“How do you feel exactly?” She glances over to the computer screen and then back to where I cradle my daughter. I try to avoid her eyes. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to tell her about all the death that fills my head now, without her thinking I am crazy. And crazy people are not allowed to keep their babies. I hold my daughter tighter.
“Um…” I start, trying to be brave, “..afraid..” I feel the knot of emotions loosens inside me “…of everything.” Though only half true, this statement clears the clouds of inquiry from the doctor’s eyes.
“So you are worried bad things will happen to your daughter?” She prods. I want to tell her yes, and add that I am terrified I will do something horrible, but instead I just nod in agreeance. The doctor tries to meet my eyes, tries in what I guess is her own way of attempting to convince me that she is with me on this – that I am not alone or crazy. The tiles beneath the examination table glisten under the fluorescent lights as I keep my eyes on them. “Look,” she says, trying again to draw my attention to her, “this is normal. You’re normal, and I am here to help you see that.” She rolls her chair close to me and, when I look up, the palm of her hand is pressed against my knee. I still can’t meet her eyes. I am not that brave.
Her hand moves to mine and gives it a preemptive squeeze which breaks down the remaining walls within me. I melt into her, spilling every tiny bit of anxiety in an honest rush of emotion and tears. In a final Act of Contrition, I drown my thoughts of death in her willing ears; I give all of my fears and dread away and feel reborn in the tears running down my face and pooling beneath my chin.
In return, she gives me 25 mg of Zoloft a day and an appointment with a counselor. Thank you, dear Mother of medicine, for you have granted my soul future salvation within your prescription pad.
Where am I now? How are my brain and the intruder I found postpartum? He is here still but rarely makes appearances as long as I am medicated and can draw my focus elsewhere. Since the first appointment where I admitted the presence of the intruder in my head, I have made frequent visits to that doctor, as well as a psychiatrist and counselor.
My prescription for Zoloft has increased to 150 mg daily, and Buspirone has been added to the mix. It is my hope to one day be able to manage my demons without medication but I do not feel shame or urgency in doing so as I can have days where death never reaches my mind. Counseling helps me cope with day to day issues, but I know that medicine has saved me from myself, and there is nothing wrong with that. Just as there is nothing wrong with me. This is just my life right now, and though one day I may be drug-free, today I am free of the intruder and that is alright by me.
E.F.C. Warden is a high school librarian and mother of two by day and writer by night. She resides in Tennessee.