I greeted our guests at my daughter’s baptism, holding the soft, warm weight of her in my arms and hoping that her small body would hide the shaking of my hands. I was always shaking now and wasn’t sure if it was the constant anxiety that had set my brain afire just hours after her birth or the fact that I couldn’t bear to eat, and most of the food that I was able to force down in hopes of keeping my milk supply going would come back up, often as my four year-old son stood beside me in the bathroom and asked if I was sick, if I was okay.
The postpartum period after my son’s birth had been glorious. I had taken to motherhood with zeal and enjoyed those first weeks at home with him. This time was so very different. The depression and anxiety had come on when my sweet daughter was only two days old, and I was immediately sucked into the great, black chasm with no warning. The nurses at the hospital assured me that this was normal and the shaking and all consuming anxiety were just part of “the baby blues” and would pass.
It did not pass. Six weeks later I stood in that church annex wearing a dress that had fit snugly before the pregnancy and now was likely a size too large. I had spent a lifetime fighting my weight, always a bit chubby, and now- in the depths of my own hell was finally the fit, trim mother that society expected me to be. As we greeted our guests, each person exclaimed first over my sweet daughter and then over “how wonderful I looked!” I accepted the compliments and nodded my thanks; while inside it took every bit of strength that I had to simply stay upright.
I had not slept more than an hour’s stretch at a time since my daughter was born, both due to her fervent nursing and my own anxiety, which blossomed each time my head hit the pillow. No amount of concealer could hide my black and swollen eyes. The guests must have been too busy taking in my trim waist and pert, swollen, nursing breasts to notice that I could not stand for long without leaning on someone or something for support. I could not enjoy the moment of our family loving on our new, beloved daughter-I too was terrified that I would drop her with my spinning head and shaking hands.
Just two days before the baptism, I had gone to my obstetrician and begged for help. I was frightened. My anxiety had become terrifyingly close to psychosis, with vivid nightmares and panic attacks with seemingly no trigger at all and visions of my own death that swam in my vision during my waking hours.
My only knowledge of postpartum psychosis consisted of the women that I had seen on the news that had taken the lives of their own children and I was living in fear of hurting those that I love the most. The physician, a small older man with hair more salt than pepper and a desk full of pictures of his grandchildren, waved away my concerns with a literal sway of his hand and said that he asks all of his patients to give it “a good college try” on their own before referring to a counselor and prescribing antidepressants. I left feeling small, scared and alone.
However, standing there now, on a day dedicated to celebrating my daughter, I felt even more alone as those I loved appraised my lithe body as inside I stood there feeling as though I was dying. I looked down at the face of my chubby, sweet daughter- a daughter that we had tried for months to conceive- and knew that I was alone in this fight but it was a fight that I had to win.
I struggled up the altar steps while gripping onto my husband so that I wouldn’t fall. We held my daughter a the pastor poured holy water over her forehead and our friends and family watched on. We listened as he read a verse about the new life that my daughter would embark on this morning and I made a silent vow- to myself and my children- that I would seek a new life, too.
I stood before the church, the perfect vision of a mother – thin, in a pretty dress with a stripe of red lipstick over my smiling lips – and inside I was making plans to visit as many doctors as it would take until someone would take my pleas seriously and give me the help that I so desperately needed. I celebrated my daughter in my arms and fervently prayed and promised to God and myself that I would someday be the mother that she needed.