An Unpalatable Truth

An Unpalatable Truth - student project

“Jamie!” I screamed at the door, but he was gone. The moment the door had shut behind him, a sour scented mixture expelled from my daughter’s mouth covering her, me, the table, and the floor. She was screaming as unrelenting acid reflux burned her fragile chest. She was always screaming. Holding my newborn to my heart I whimpered some tears of my own. It wasn’t his fault, not necessarily his choice, but I resented his absence all the same. The door was closed. I was alone.  

 

Weeping, I stared at the door willing Jamie to come back, instead I stood isolated behind its silent resolve. I spent my pregnancy naively imagining myself as a mother happy, present, and fulfilled, but I was crumbled on the floor torn, weary bleeding, and haggard. I grieved the woman I used to be, the child I thought I would have, and the life I thought I would live. At the same time, I felt nothing at all. I sank in the dark behind a closed door, imagining a woman better than me was the mother my baby deserved. If I couldn’t be my ideal, then I couldn’t be anything at all, so we were trapped in this purgatory together – my child and me.

 

I grieved most what she and I once were, when we were one, body and soul. Now, outside of my womb, we were strangers. Within an endless void swelling between us, I shattered as though the cost of her life was my death. I longed to return to the days, weeks, months when she and I were magic. I walked her to sleep every morning with ease, her hiccups arrived every afternoon an hour after lunch – I felt their beats like a ticking clock. We were a universe to ourselves, our days as full as the seasons of the year. I regretted every moment I longed to hold her in my arms. I thought it would be as natural as breathing, but now I certain that I was bad at mothering. That I was bad, period.

 

How are you?” The constant query. “So happy.” I lied, reassuring everyone I truly felt the satisfaction of new motherhood some omnipotent presence told me I should. I lied until I was convinced it was true. I lied until I didn’t know what the truth was.

 

The couch formed an indention around my body where I spent hours holding my baby in the only position that she would sleep during the day while I silently cried into her hair. It became the only place where I found some semblance of solace from my increasingly frenzied thoughts. Panic attacks bookended any attempt to leave the house. Once I returned from a trip to the store to buy Jamie a birthday gift to lie face down in the carpet screaming. My choice was clear – I could either remain behind the door weeping or venture beyond it frantic.

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My twin sister eventually coaxed me out of the house with promises to help with Madelyn. For hours before we left, my breath was shallow, my skin itched. The whole afternoon I parroted the plans I had mentally prepared ahead of time for every contingency. I knew I sounded crazy, but I couldn’t stop. Every minute that ticked by was increasingly triggering.

 

If she cries, I will ____.

She may need to eat so I will ____.

If someone tries to touch her I will ____.

 

I can’t be out of the house for more than two hours. She will need her bed… her pillow... her blanket… her changing table. She won’t be able to sleep... someone will try to touch her... she may cry in her car seat.

 

I frenetically recited until I was home. I had a panic attack within minutes of being alone. I felt relieved as I released my frenzy, trembling on the floor while my baby slept in her car seat. I rose telling myself it was fine, just a bad day. I would be better tomorrow. Thank you for helping me with M. I texted the next day. I had a lot of fun. She answers, I don’t know what you were having, but it wasn’t fun. In a split second, I was screaming, sobbing, and cursing. I have never hated anything as much as I hated her in that moment.

 

Depression tells you a lie, convincing you that it’s true. I felt a void envelope me from the inside out until I believed that the Depressed Hannah was the true me, and the Before Hannah was the lie. I was eventually convinced that my less-miserable moments were moments of happiness because I had forgotten that it was possible to experience immoveable peace. I thought my baby deserved a different mother because I thought that by simply existing, I had doomed her. Consumed by my depression and anxiety, I recoiled at any threat to its survival. It was too late. My frenetic stream of consciousness had confessed my secret, now my sister’s unrelenting voice dealt my depression a mortal wound.

 

Throughout my pregnancy I was greeted with celebration from my closest friends, vague acquaintances on social media, and strangers on the street. No one placed warning labels on pregnancy and childbirth: Side effects may include increased anxiety and depression. My postpartum body was carefully tended in the hospital and my healing monitored with checkups. Lactation consultants visited twice daily to check on our breastfeeding progress. A hospital chaplain came by to talk and pray with us. Everyone was gentle, helpful, and genuine, yet there were no nuanced conversations regarding postnatal mental health or mental health at all. If no one speaks it, then maybe no one wants to hear it or, worse, maybe it’s just me and it’s my fault.

 

I felt allowed to be sore and tired. I could talk about my second-degree tear, how much (little) sleep I was getting, my bleeding and scabbed nipples. I felt I could express, with limited honesty, my cluelessness about first-time motherhood. I was supported by women who advised and helped me. I was partnered with a husband who in no way resembled the clueless dad stereotype.

 

I hid my rage and my grief. The way I helplessly trembled when she wouldn’t sleep, how my world spun when her screams were endless. Newborns birthed with supernatural power to bring their caregivers to the brink of insanity. My own panicked screams that were becoming easier to trigger as I sped to that brink a little faster every day. I constantly oscillated between oppressive grief or rage follow by an abyss of nothingness. I was enraged that this was not the life I foolishly promised myself. I mourned the life I had and the one I could not attain.

 

I felt allowed to be a Martyr Mother or Wine Mommy or Hot Mess Mom or any other mother type that allowed me to suffer, but never live. I was supposed to suffer and sacrifice, surrender the things I love about myself and about my life. Perhaps I was struggling, but I now believed that motherhood is struggle. What I could never be is a woman with a real mental illness in need of real help. In an unspoken way, I felt that everyone else could accept me as any other type of mother than a sick one. Admitting I am not ok. I need help was unpalatable to everyone, especially me, because my reality was cruel and ugly. It seemed to me that it is better for a woman to passively die to herself than to honestly live.

 

The truth was that for my depression to thrive, I had to die. Eaten alive by it until I was devoid of feeling or fight, I lived into my death. I resigned myself to it, but it had reigned long enough. My sister’s ferocity ripped through me, You have postpartum depression and you need to go to the doctor. She promises me, I love you. This isn’t forever.

 

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That next evening, I nursed Madelyn to sleep while Jamie cooked dinner. I returned to the solace on the edge of the couch. As tears slipped down my face as they near constantly did these days, Jamie walked over to quietly hold me as he often has. He knew what I needed to say, I think, and that I was the one who needed to say it. I had been obsessively rehearsing it in my head.

 

Something is wrong with me, I whispered. And like that, I could breathe.

 

My sister’s truth woke me up, but my truth was the resurrection power.

 

This is the curse of depression – even when truth is spoken into my life and the hard guidance is handed to me, I must choose to take it and make it my own. If I accept that Depressed Hannah isn’t the True Hannah, then I must make the hard decisions to return to myself then keep making those hard decisions. It would have been easier, I was sure at times, to surrender to back to the void.

 

No one else can press a resurrection power upon you. There are those who may be brave enough to go beyond social media posts with mental health hotlines and passive invitations, Please, reach out if you need a listening ear. There are those who are brave enough to warn a glowing mother-to-be, You may not be ok after the baby comes, and I will be here when it isn’t. If there is someone so courageous as to risk your hate in order to call you back to life and sit with you in your suffering while you awaken, then the next step will still be yours. They risked you hating them, now you must risk loving yourself. When you’ve felt nothing for so long, feeling again is like life returning to atrophied muscles – desperately painful and torturously slow.

 

The next step will always be claiming the true you then refusing to let you go. What is brave is calling a therapist, weeping with a friend, letting someone else see the scream and the tears, taking medication then continuing to take medication. What is brave is passing through the full pain of suffering on the way to back to yourself.

 

So, again and again I spoke my unpalatable truth. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. Something is wrong with me. I am depressed, and I need help. With every confession, I felt as though the pieces of me were forming a mosaic of someone new, or perhaps someone remade. The resurrection power comes from within, no one else can return myself to me. After all, no one knows me better than me.

 

Jamie laid next to me at night, hand on my back, as I cried myself to sleep at night while my sister texted me every morning at 7am, I’m here. They promised me again and again, This isn’t forever.” Perhaps it should have been a promise, This is forever. This living I was doing again. That pain and grief and fear are all just a part of living. The lie was that joy and peace wasn’t. Soon I realized that I had gone an entire day without crying, then a week, then longer. Soon I realized I could not remember how long it had been since a panic attack. As I forgot I started to remember.

 

Then one day my precious daughter smiled at me, and I laughed a true laugh that was not forced or fake. It was true joy that she was mine and I was hers. I grieved the loss of what she and I were when she was within my womb but having journeyed through grief my joy was greater. What is true is that I can both be sad and joyful. I can both grieve and laugh. I can name my depression and anxiety, and also live a full, beautiful life. Beyond my depression, I could see that I was not broken nor was I gone. I am not dead, I am fiercely, bravely alive. There was no old me nor was there someone new. As a woman who has divested herself of pretense, I am only ever becoming a truer version of who I am.

 

I fought to love and so I have fought to live.