Here is my truth: The first two weeks of my second daughter’s life were some of the darkest and scariest days I’ve ever experienced.
We always talk about these things in general terms, usually with an optimistic spin to make the story more palatable. When people asked me how life with two kids was going, I said things like, “It’s been a tough adjustment, but we are hanging in there!”
Sure, it makes sense to gloss over the truth when chatting with another mom at preschool pick-up. But I think it’s important to tell the full story for anyone else who might go through this themselves. So here is what the baby blues actually felt like for me.
The hormonal crash came on suddenly. I was three days postpartum: tired, bleeding, but generally surviving. It was our first night at home as a family of four. We were telling our older daughter how much her baby sister reminded us of her as a newborn, and we decided to watch the video my husband made for her first birthday party as a nostalgic trip down memory lane. As I watched clip after clip of my firstborn’s long-gone babyhood, I began to feel a strange cocktail of emotions brewing inside my sleep-deprived body. Dark thoughts began to invade. A sickening feeling filled my chest as I realized that the baby in the video didn’t exist anymore: She turned into the 35-pound preschooler sitting next to me, and I would never get to snuggle that baby in the video ever again. The tiny newborn in my arms would soon outgrow me, too, and there’s was no way to slow time’s relentless roll. My mind raced with existential dread and a sense of my entire life whizzing past me at an uncontrollable speed. I could viscerally feel the happiness draining from my brain as a dark, ominous cloud took its place. I turned to my husband, my voice choking in my throat. I croaked out, “This video is way more than I can handle right now, hormonally.” And then I began sobbing uncontrollably. I didn’t stop crying for a week.
I spent the next nine days questioning my entire life and wondering if I would ever feel like myself again. I would either wake up feeling okay and slowly slip into a bad place as the day wore on, or I would wake up feeling terrible and the darkness would lift a bit by evening. I never had a full day of feeling okay. I wasn’t sure I would ever feel okay again, and in the postpartum fog I had no ability to envision that there might be light on the other side. There was only the misery of that exact moment and the terrifying fear that I would have to live it forever.
My main symptom was anxiety. As someone more prone to depression, I’d never experienced the utter torture of clinical anxiety. I can only describe it as an overwhelming need to escape to somewhere that doesn’t exist. I felt trapped in my own body, my worldview narrowed to a pinpoint. The only thought I could process was, “How can I survive the next five minutes?” I would write in my journal “you will not feel this way forever” over and over and over again just to get through particularly rough patches.
Eating and sleeping, the go-to coping mechanisms I turned to during bouts of depression in the past, became nearly impossible. I had to choke down a few bites of whatever food sounded least repulsive, willing myself to chew for the sake of my breastfed baby. Despite being out of my mind with exhaustion, I did everything I could to avoid sleeping. Lying in bed, I felt most exposed and vulnerable to the darkness. The racing thoughts seemed to find me instantly, whispering things like, “What if you go to sleep and your baby dies?”
Knowing I wasn’t okay, I called my doctor at five days postpartum. It was almost impossible to get through the phone call; anytime I tried to talk about what I was feeling, I couldn’t stop crying. I wasn’t suicidal (and my doctor was sure to inquire about any suicidal thoughts), but I did feel like I couldn’t possibly go on that way much longer. When I told my doctor I’d only slept about ten hours in the last five days, she told me I needed to find a way to sleep. “Your brain is in crisis mode,” she said. “You need to get a four-hour stretch as soon as possible.” That night I took Unisom and melatonin, washing them down with wine. Within about ten minutes, I felt a chemical shift in my body, like the chains had been loosened ever so slightly. I got REM sleep that night for the first time in five days. But shortly after I woke up the next morning, the anxiety was back. Sleep hadn’t cured it, and I was even more terrified that this was my new reality.
I called my doctor again and told her I still wasn’t feeling great. She scheduled an appointment for me in a week. I wasn’t sure how I would make it, but having the appointment scheduled gave me a date in the future to focus on. I can ask for medicine then if I still need it, and maybe I will be better. That weekend, I ended up calling the emergency counseling hotline provided by my husband’s employer. Again, I could barely speak through the tears to explain what I was feeling to the counselor. She asked if I was able to try to distract myself from the feelings with activities like watching TV shows I liked. I told her that trying to do things I normally enjoy actually made me feel worse because they highlighted just how disconnected I felt from my normal self. “It just reminds me that I can’t feel emotions like happiness or humor,” I told her through suppressed sobs. “Don’t try to be happy,” she said. “That’s not the goal. Just try to be very gentle with yourself. Focus on activities that are restful, not activities that are supposed to be fun.” She suggested activities like coloring and painting my nails. This ended up being a great suggestion. It helped to find mindless activities that occupied my brain without asking anything from me emotionally.
Another thing that helped was talking with my friends. As much as I love my husband, talking with him only made me feel worse because I just immediately fell apart. He has always been my safe place, and every time I locked eyes with him I allowed myself to feel the full weight of my misery and terror. Talking with my friends, I was comfortable enough to open up but not so comfortable that I couldn’t keep it together. Most of my friends have had a second child, and they were able to reassure me that things would get better. I also felt most normal when talking with my friends. I was able to remember a glimmer of myself, like, “Oh, right! I am the person who is friends with this wonderful woman. Maybe that person is still in here somewhere.”
One of my best friends, who lives in Utah, began FaceTiming me multiple times a day. Sometimes she caught me in a bad moment, tears streaming down my haggard face as I struggled to even speak. She just stayed on the line, telling me she was so sorry I was feeling that terrible and reassuring me that it wouldn’t last forever.
The day after the “baby blues” began, I had asked my husband to see if his mom could come stay with us. I couldn’t manage everything, especially my three-year-old daughter and her firestorm of emotions and sleep regression. Having my mother-in-law around to help made a big difference, and also helped me keep it together during the roughest moments. The day before she was scheduled to go home, she suggested my husband and I go out to lunch and run some errands. I remember sitting at a restaurant with my husband, tears filling my eyes as I told him I felt completely detached from everything and everyone I loved. “I literally cannot feel love,” I wept. “And I’m so scared I never will again.”
And then the very next day, I woke up feeling like myself. The fog had lifted. It was just…gone. I was ME again. The evening came, and though I felt tired and worn down by the day, I no longer felt the overwhelming despair and hopelessness. I could feel joy. I could feel LOVE. For the past ten days I had been clinging to the hope that it would just go away, and somehow, it did.
A day later, I went to the previously scheduled doctor’s appointment and described my ordeal. My doctor called it “a particularly intense case of the baby blues” since it had resolved itself within two weeks of giving birth.
It was the most terrifying experience I’ve ever gone through. It made me realize that so much of who we are, indeed the experience of “being ourselves,” is actually the result of a very specific balance of brain chemicals, and if that balance is off, our entire world crumbles. It gave me even more respect for people who live with chronic mental illness and made me even more passionate about the need for comprehensive and widely available mental health care. This was the hardest experience of my life, and I was actually extremely fortunate to have wonderful medical care and tons of support. So many women suffer through mental health crises without those things, and that’s unacceptable. We need to do better.
If you or someone you know is going through the baby blues or postpartum depression, here are my tips for making it through:
- Call your doctor right away. If you sense something is off, don’t wait. It can be difficult to see things clearly in the postpartum fog, and it’s crucial to get the support of a medical professional to advise on next steps for your care.
- Rally your support network. You need your people right now. Tell the people you trust what you are going through and how they can help you through it. Ask for what you need, and accept all the help you can get.
- Use the “opposite action” strategy. This is a tip from a friend of mine who is a therapist. Sometimes the things that will make you feel better don’t come naturally when you are mentally unwell. You might feel like avoiding people, when talking to friends would actually help. You might want to stay in bed, when a brisk walk would improve your mood. For me, it was very important that I ate regular meals to stabilize my blood sugar, even though I didn’t have an appetite. Using the opposite action strategy helped steer my brain and body toward normalcy even when I felt completely out of control.
- Find mantras that work for you. The intense bouts of anxiety were terrifying, and I found it very helpful to remind myself, “What I am feeling right now is the result of unbalanced brain chemicals. This is NOT me, and I will be okay. There is nothing to fear. I am safe.”