Circuit Overload

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typewriter with blank paperThis is a guest post by Sharline Chiang, a writer based in Berkeley, originally from New Jersey. She is a proud, long-time member of VONA, an amazing community of writers of color.

When my daughter was born I had no idea that I’d go from ecstatic to fighting thoughts of trying to kill her, and myself.

I was high on Anza’s birth for exactly one week. I birthed her squatting, just like I wanted to. She was slippery and pink. I remember sitting there in my own pool of shit, blood, and mucous, shouting over and over again: “Oh my god, you’re so beautiful!” My husband, Ben, was so excited he could barely cut the cord.

She had curly reddish brown hair like his (he’s half Jewish) and twinkly dark eyes like mine (I’m Chinese). We named her Anza after Lake Anza where we had our first date. It also means “beginning” in Swahili, which seemed so right because we had three miscarriages before her. She was our miracle baby.

The first few nights I rode on pure adrenaline, basking in the joy of her little piggy lips sucking on my tits and the sweet taste of milk on my fingertips. But by the end of the first week I couldn’t relax, kept imagining that she was dead, that she had suffocated in her sleep. Because of the miscarriages, while I was pregnant with her I had prepared myself mentally for her to not make it to term. Even as the doctor caught her, I had steeled myself for the monitors to flatline and for the doctor to say: “I’m sorry; it’s a stillborn.”

I would watch her sleep in her crib, worrying that at any second she would die.

Sharline-Chiang

Over the next three weeks sleep deprivation started to destroy me. I shuffled through the days and nights of nonstop nursing, burping, and changing, attempting and failing to nap and feed myself. My nipples, two spots of shooting pain, felt like someone had scrubbed them with steel wool. My crotch burned with raw tears and stitches. I had hemorrhoids the size of plums. Every time the baby cried and fussed, I wanted to scream. Even with help from my husband and mother-in-law, I was more exhausted than I’d ever been. Every morning I prayed that ten p.m. would come so I could get that three-hour window of sleep before I had to do it all over again. I cursed all my friends who are parents. No one told me it would be this hard. They duped me into joining their club of misery. I hated nursing, I hated pumping. I started to hate the sound of the baby’s voice. I started to hate the baby.

I felt tethered to the rocking chair, a used red Dutalier I found on Craigslist, where I nursed Anza for hours. There was a mirror facing the chair. Each day I stared at myself in my dirty robe, my hair greasy and flat. I hadn’t showered in weeks. I smelled like rotting meat. I’ve made a terrible mistake, I thought. All these years, I thought this was what I wanted. I’ll never get a full night of sleep again. I want my life back.

I told my husband, “I’m so tired it hurts.”

“Of course you’re tired,” he said with a smile. “You’re a new mom.”

tree-in-water

By the second month I started to shake all the time. I was freezing even though it was September and we were having a heat wave. My clothes were always soaked with sweat and milk. I stopped being able to sleep and prayed for the wired feeling to go away. I would lie awake and think: I have to go back to work in a month. How the hell am I going to do that? I’m going tolose my job. We’ll lose our health insurance. I’m going to end up in a hospital and we’ll go bankrupt.

My mother-in-law went back to Canada so we were all alone.

I told Ben that I felt like I was dying. “What do you mean?” he would ask. But I couldn’t explain, couldn’t find a way to tell him I felt like I was going crazy and that I was so tired I felt I would die from exhaustion. I didn’t think for a second that I had PPD because I wasn’t depressed. I never cried. I just felt like I was going into shock. None of my friends who were mothers had ever mentioned that they had been so tired they felt like dialing 911. Everyone else seemed to handle being new moms with such grace. I was sure my unraveling was due to a fundamental character flaw. I was weak. I was spoiled, lazy.

I thought maybe I was experiencing diabetic shock so I got tested. My doctor said everything was fine. My sugar, iron and thyroid were all normal. She gave me Tylenol PM and benedryl to help me sleep. It worked for one night.

curve in the road

Soon I became OCD. At first it was just the bottles. I had to make sure they were boiled. Then I had to boil them twice. Then everything that touched the baby had to be boiled: pacifiers, toys, towels. If anything touched a “dirty” surface, I had to start again. I could barely handle holding the baby because I was sure I’d give her germs that would make her so sick she would end up in the hospital. I couldn’t afford for her to get sick. I thought: if I start sleeping again and then she gets sick that will be the end of me. So I boiled everything and only touched doorknobs with my sleeves.

I stopped being able to dress myself, I was so tired. Ben would help dress and feed me. It was like I was the baby. Most of the time I was too tired to eat. Ben did pretty much everything except nurse the baby: he did all the laundry, the dishes, took out garbage, cooked (well he tried his best), all while running his own business building websites. At night I’d lie in bed sweating feeling my heart race like I was having a heart attack. He would hold me and say, “Just try to relax and sleep. You’re going to be okay.”

By the third month I started seeing a therapist who specialized in postpartum depression. While she was helpful, it didn’t stop what was happening to me. My behavior was increasingly erratic. I felt less and less in control of the “real me” and watched with terror as some other woman, a “crazy” Sharline, took over. I would mutter and talk to myself loudly. People in stores would look at me with concern and step away. I had trouble connecting thoughts when talking to Ben, who was becoming increasingly concerned. I had to fight with all my will strong urges to do inappropriate things: grab some woman’s hair in the store, plunge my hand in a box of used needles at the doctor’s office.

We hired an amazing woman named Sara to help take care of the baby and with much of the housework. My mother-in-law and brother-in-law moved in with us from Canada to take care of me.

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Ben and I still didn’t realize how seriously sick I was. “Everything’s going to be okay,” he kept saying. Like good Berkeley-ites, we chose to take the natural route. We didn’t trust antidepressants. I was terrified of them, terrified that drugs would take away the last remains of my brain that seemed to be the only threads left preventing me from hurting myself, Anza or someone else. We didn’t trust Big Medicine, white man’s medicine, and we wanted to make sure I could still breastfeed. For weeks, Ben took me to all sorts of natural healers who tried endless remedies on me: acupuncture, Chinese medicine, massage, reiki, B12, spirulina, breathing exercises, meditation, and even crystals and chimes. Many of them helped me relax in the moment, but none stopped the downward spiral, and worst of all – no one diagnosed me.

One day, I rolled around on the sidewalk outside our house. It felt good. I didn’t want to get up for a long time. People just walked around me. (It’s Berkeley after all.) I shouted over and over, “No! How did this happen?” The next day, I had a major panic attack in the car and tried to jump out while Ben was driving. When I was home, I spent a lot of time crying. Now I was depressed. Also around that time I started having nonstop dark thoughts, of how to kill myself, and Anza. I started having urges to stab her, drown her, throw her off the deck, crack her head open, bite her cheeks off. I told Ben and my mother-in-law everything. They assured me that I wouldn’t actually act on my thoughts, and that they would watch me and Anza carefully and keep us both safe. Still, I felt like a monster. I told Ben, “I can’t be alone with the baby. I don’t trust myself anymore.”

We finally decided to try medication, and the bigger, harder decision: we switched to formula (which felt like giving our baby Diet Coke). I felt like the worst mother in the world. A total fucking failure. My OB and family doctor put me on Xanax, Ambien, Klonopin and Zoloft. The drugs helped me sleep a bit and calmed panic attacks but I was still mostly an insomniac wreck.

I called a few friends to let them know what was happening to me. Some of them visited and it helped me immensely, having people to talk to and just give me a hug. They felt sad for me, and helpless. It was so difficult to get anyone to understand when I said I wanted to live but I couldn’t bear to be in my body one more second, that I felt like I was being tortured.

Each night I would get up and search the house for my sleeping pills. (I was only allowed one a night. Ben hid them from me.) I tried to find ways to keep myself busy until morning. With a shaky hand, I wrote thank you cards to people who had sent baby gifts. I tried yoga. I tried meditating. But mostly I would lie on the couch and feel my body tremble and pray to make it through one more night. The OB had asked if I had plans to kill myself, and I remember thinking, as I shook my head no, Yeah, I’ve got plenty of plans: pills, razorblades in the tub, kitchen knives. How can I buy a handgun? Does putting your head in an oven really work? If I slice my wrists, how much will it hurt before I pass out? I fought images of going into Anza’s room and smothering her.

At a friend’s urging, we decided to find a psychiatrist. After calling 20 psychiatrists, we finally found one who would take a new patient and could see me right away. Her name was Dr. Cedars and she asked me a bunch of questions. I paced the room, told her I felt like I was dying or that I wanted to die. She asked me if I had plans to kill myself. I whispered, “Yes.” “What kind of plans do you have?” she asked. I told her.

She immediately called Herrick, the local mental hospital, and asked them to reserve a spot for me. “I highly recommend that you go tonight, but I can’t force you,” she said. (Later, when we got home, Ben convinced me that it was worth trying to get better at home. But I  packed a suitcase just in case.) Then she prescribed Seroquel, an anti-psychotic.

“You mean I’m psychotic?” I said.

“Well, marginally so,” she said.

I was scared shitless about what was happening, and ashamed. I had an Ivy League education, was a director at a national nonprofit – and I was cracking up, headed for the nut house.

I was diagnosed with extreme postpartum depression with anxiety with intrusive images.

Dr. Cedars referred me to Dr. Alexander, a leading expert on PPD. Dr. Alexander doubled my Seroquel and had me continue taking Klonopin and Zoloft, and that’s what did the trick. What I learned was that each person’s brain is different. I got lucky that it didn’t take long to find the cocktail that worked for mine. In a week I began to dramatically stabilize. Ben noticed the difference right away. “Your thoughts are more organized. You seem more calm, more like yourself,” he said. I started sleeping through the night, stopped having bad thoughts.

The truth is science still doesn’t fully understand PPD – why it happens, why it happens to some women and not others, and why it manifests in different ways in different women. Most experts agree that the sudden change in hormones and brain chemistry are partly to blame. The woman’s body and brain is flooded with hormones during pregnancy and the minute a child is born those chemicals plummet. “Your brain didn’t like that,” Dr. Alexander told me. “It’s like a computer that had a circuit overload. We need to do a hard reset.”

In December, I started going to a support group for women with PPD. Some of them were in worse condition than I had been in. One mother had been in and out of Herrick. Another had OCD so bad she accidentally burned her kid with hot water in the bathtub. We talked about our shame, our guilt, and the myth of motherhood.

I was sure that I would get worse from the drugs before I got better, but I didn’t. I didn’t have any bad side effects. I didn’t completely lose my mind though I suspect it’ll always be broken. The therapist who led the support group said that some people believe PPD “cracks women open, in a good way.” I don’t know about that, but I do know that it changed me forever. I still have fears about having survived a major mental health crisis. I’m grateful that I’ve survived, but wonder: will I always be damaged, my brain like a car that’s been rammed once too hard? Will I always be prone to crazy? And if so, what does that mean? Is that who I am?

train tracks

I couldn’t go back to my previous job because I was too sensitive to stress. By the following summer, I had weaned off the Seroquel and Klonopin and stayed on Zoloft for another six months. Right now I’m not taking any medication. I try to manage my stress and anxiety by trying to get enough sleep (still hard since she still wakes up each night), eat well, try to stay active, make time to go out and have fun with friends, write, and meditate when I can. I’m really lucky that Ben has supported my decision to stay at home for now so I can focus on getting better. It has also given me more time to spend with Anza, who is now a spirited, book-obsessed toddler. Sara comes to our house twice a week so I can take walks and write. I am forever grateful to her, and my husband and in-laws, and many good friends for supporting me during my darkest times.

While my PPD was happening, I didn’t tell my parents and to this day they still don’t know. For many reasons, largely cultural (they’re Chinese immigrants), I didn’t want to them to know because I didn’t want them to worry. They’re older and live in New Jersey and they would either have tried to fly out and help or spent sleepless nights of their own feeling helpless. The reason why I still haven’t told them? PPD isn’t discussed enough in any society or culture, and I fear that they might blame me or make me feel like I’m exaggerating about my experience.

Looking back, I wish my doctors and infant care teachers had spent time talking to me and my husband about the serious nature of PPD, how to look for signs and get help. I wish they had told me that PPD is now also called Postpartum Depression Spectrum because it manifests in so many ways, including intense prolonged anxiety, and rage. I also wished people had shown me articles written by survivors, especially women of color like this African American mother, and this Asian American mother.

I hope to keep sharing my story, to be part of a movement to put PPD in our collective face, so we can see the whole picture of motherhood. As women, as a society, we need to talk about these experiences, the dark side of motherhood. We need to take PPD out of the darkness.  I want us to tell each other it’s okay, that there is no such thing as being a perfect or normal mother, that it’s okay to say I’m really fucking tired and I need help, to say I’m sick and I need help, to say there are ways to get better and we don’t need to feel alone, and most of all, we don’t need to feel ashamed.

 

This article originally appeared on Mutha Magazine.

Image credits: Sharline Chiang and Unsplash

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Headspace Subscription Giveaway

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Mindfulness meditation is an effective way to train your mind and body to relax and to be more welcome and accepting of whatever comes your way. If you’ve never tried it, here’s your chance! Headspace makes learning meditation through mindfulness easy. You learn online (on your computer or using an app on a tablet or your phone) in just 10 minutes a day.

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Studies have shown that meditation through mindfulness can help decrease stress, anxiety, lack of focus, worry, and more. You can read more about the science of meditation here. We’ve tried Headspace and find it easy to use and love its accessibility.

We’re thrilled to be able to giveaway ten, 3-month subscriptions, and two annual subscriptions.

To enter to win, answer the following question below by submitting a comment in the comments section. (Be sure to include your email address and full name so we can contact you if you win!)

Have you tried meditation or other relaxation techniques before? If so, have they been helpful?

Good luck!

You must be 18 years or older to participate. To enter, just leave your comment below by 11:59pm Eastern time on Wednesday, 12/17/14. Winners will be chosen randomly on Thursday, 12/18/14, and will be notified soon after. 

 

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Hanging on By a Thread: What flossing taught me about postpartum depression and intrusive thoughts

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I am honored to introduce my friend Susan Goldberg who is courageously sharing her story of postpartum depression for the first time.  Susan’s discussion of how parenting books exacerbated her struggle resonated with me in a way I hadn’t anticipated.  That’s the power in sharing our stories here isn’t it?  No matter how long I’ve been reading or writing about PPD, a new “me too” always leaves me feeling just a bit more healed.  Thank you, Susan, for trusting Postpartum Progress with your story.

Susan GoldbergI keep coming back to dental floss.

This is a problem. The writer in me knows that I need to open with a strong image, and, ideally, that I should close with that image, making — no pun intended — a tidy loop of a narrative, tidying up (forgive me) all the loose ends.

But what I keep returning to is the nightly ritual of flossing. I’ve been a model flosser for decades, a dentist’s dream, scraping away at the grit between my teeth even on nights when I’d had a few drinks, even when I was exhausted, even when the tedium of dental hygiene was the only thing between me and my bed and my bed was so, so attractive. I flossed out of a sense of obligation, because it felt good, but most of all because I had long taken it as a bellwether of my own mental health: no matter how bad things are, I’d always figured, if I was still managing to floss, things couldn’t be dire. There was still hope. I mean, no one on the brink of madness, of utter collapse, says to the guys in the white suits, “I’ll be with you in a second — I just need to floss my teeth.”

Or do they?

Probably you knew I was going to say this, but for the record: in retrospect, I’m not sure that flossing was such a good bellwether.

I’m pretty sure didn’t floss for the first few nights after my first son, Rowan, was born, a little over 10 years ago. I’d had a C-section (he was breech) and that first week in the hospital, with its midnight shift changes and baby weigh-ins, 2 AM lactation consultations, was a blur of day and night, pain medication and sweet exhaustion. But by the time we got home, I was ready for routine, a clear demarcation between day and night, rest and wakefulness.

The problem was, there was very little routine, very little demarcation between day and night. There was very little rest. There was lots of wakefulness, though: hours and hours of it, those hours punctuated by increasingly fitful moments of sleep and, eventually, no sleep at all, even when the baby slept. Months passed, with my partner, Rachel, and I juggling the nights in which our son woke as often as every 45 minutes, soothed back to sleep only by breast-feeding or, if we were lucky, with a pacifier. We slept in shifts — Rachel going to bed by nine to take over at 2 AM with bottles of pumped milk, me shuffling about the house with the baby sleeping against my chest in the sling, hoping to ease him into bed and catch a couple of hours of sleep (after flossing) before I could surrender responsibility.

It wasn’t just sleep, obviously. It was so many things that to list them here quickly, in one paragraph, is almost laughable, but for the sake of narrative and expediency I will: my mother had died six months earlier. We’d just moved to a new city and I knew practically no one. Rowan had been born at the end of November and the weather had turned bitterly cold — getting out of the house involved shoveling, warming up the plugged-in car and scraping the frost off the inside windows with my credit card. And I had nowhere to go, anyway, so I didn’t leave the house. Instead, I read books about infant sleep and paced the house, day and night, with my baby.

Those books: Marc Weissbluth and Dr. Richard Ferber and baby whisperer Tracy Hogg and the Searses and Katie Allison Granju with her tome on attachment parenting. They nearly killed me. There’s a picture of me, in the early days, sitting on the sofa with my laptop on my lap, the baby sleeping next to me on the couch. It’s a simple enough shot of modern life with baby while mom catches up on e-mail. But if you could read the thought bubble above my head, it would have been filled with warring impulses: What kind of mother are you, letting your baby sleep on the couch — on his stomach, no less? He could die. In my head, Hogg hissed at me to Start as I meant to continue: if I wanted my baby to sleep regularly, in his crib, through the night, then what kind of asshole was I being by letting him sleep on the couch? And then Granju would chime in: What kind of monster are you for staring at your computer instead of staring lovingly your child? Why is he sleeping on the cold, unloving couch cushion when he could be nestled against your chest, the rhythm of your beating heart in sync with his? You’ll break him, you know. You already have.

They never stopped, those voices. They kept me company in the day, kept me awake in the middle of the night. (Somewhat ironically, I was ghostwriting a parenting book of my own during my son’s first few months, pretending on paper to know exactly what I was doing. And I’m ashamed to admit it here, but here’s just how far gone I was: when Hogg later died of cancer, and when Granju’s son died of a drug overdose, my bitterness toward these two utter strangers overshadowed any empathy I felt for them. My apologies to them both.)

These were the pre-Facebook days, and I longed for something like Facebook — like this website — to replace them, some kind of beacon in the night where I could commune with other parents as I rocked and paced with my baby: Who’s awake? Who’s scared? Who’s lost in grieving? Who else can no longer recognize herself? Who else is desperately looking for someone to help her feel less alone, to make sense of these feelings, to tell her that it’s going to be okay — or, more to the point, to say, You’re not okay. What you’re going through is real, and even common, but you’re not okay. You need help.

No one did. Friends nodded and clucked sympathetically, offered to come over for an hour or two so that I could nap, but of course I couldn’t nap, so what was the point? My doctor never asked. “I’m having a hard time,” I finally said one day on the phone to my father. “I know,” he said. “I know.” But the conversation never went further. No one mentioned postpartum depression, suggested that maybe I should see someone. At one point, I phoned the District Health Unit to ask if they had any services that would help us sleep-train the baby, because I was so tired. They phoned back and berated me for even considering letting him cry it out. What kind of asshole are you?

Eventually, the baby slept: first in five-hour chunks and then, after marathons of sleep training that nearly killed me and Rachel (and during which we nearly killed each other), through the night. Eventually, I took a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course, got some perspective. Eventually, spring came, and then summer. Eventually, things got a bit better, then a lot better. We had a second baby.

“What sleep philosophy will we use?” I asked Rachel, justifiably terrified.

“Whatever gets everyone the most sleep,” she answered, and we threw out all the books and went with what worked for us.

Through it all, I flossed. And I survived.

But I’m scarred. I talked about those times with a good friend a few weeks ago, one of those no-holds-barred conversations that goes immediately — no small talk — to the painful core of things. “No one said anything,” I said, and was suddenly racked with tears I didn’t know were still there. We talked about the respectful, uncomfortable silences each of us had maintained at different points in our friendship, when both of us knew something was wrong, but didn’t want to overstep, didn’t want to intrude, even though the hurt and the pain and the damage were obvious. And we made a vow to each other to speak up, to be the friend who says, “I think something’s wrong.”

On so many levels, we need to learn how to have these conversations with each other, to find ways to speak up about our own pain and acknowledge each other’s. New parents need education about postpartum mood disorders well before their babies are born — and not just light references to the “baby blues.” Our midwives and obstetricians and family doctors need to check in regularly. We need to establish circles of safe friends and family members who can intervene, gently, to say, “I think something’s wrong. Can I help you get some help?” We need conversations — not just with the warring voices in our heads, but with each other and with the people who can help. We need websites like Postpartum Progress, and ways to make sure people know about it and resources like it.

I still floss regularly, but every so often, even just a few times a year, I skip a night. I skip it for all the usual reasons: too tired, up until 2 AM dancing, just don’t feel like it. But I also skip it to remind myself that sometimes, it’s okay to take a break. I skip to remind myself that my sanity, my well-being, are much too complex and complicated to be reduced to a single, arbitrary ritual of self-care. In other words, sometimes, flossing is just flossing — not the single, tenuous thread holding me together, keeping me from falling into the brink.


photo credit: Susan Goldberg

Susan Goldberg is a writer, editor, essayist and blogger, and coeditor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents and Our Unexpected Families (Insomniac Press, 2009). Her personal essays have been featured in Ms.Lilith, Today’s Parent and Stealing Time magazinesas well as in several anthologies and collections. She is a contributing blogger for VillageQ.com and Today’s Parent, where she blogs regularly as The Other MotherIn 2012, Susan was chosen as one of BlogHer’s Voices of the Year community keynote speakers, and has twice been a VOTY honouree. She is one of approximately 30 Jews in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she lives with her partner and their two sons. Read more at www.susanlgoldberg.com and www.mamanongrata.com.

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Gaiam Yoga Mat Giveaway

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The holidays are here and we know it’s not always the brightest and most fun time of year for everyone, especially those mamas who are struggling through PPD and other related illnesses. We want you to know we’re always thinking of you, our loyal Warrior Moms (and those that support Warrior Moms too.) You are truly amazing and we are so touched by not only your courage and strength as you fight one of the hardest battles imaginable, but also by how supportive you’ve been to Postpartum Progress and all the work we do to help moms.

Starting today until Christmas Eve we will be giving away great items to a few lucky winners. We hope you’ll get in on the fun!

Do you practice yoga or have you been wanting to try? Today one lucky winner will win Gaiam’s Citron SundCitronSundial_Matial yoga mat.

With its chic intricate pattern printed in lemon yellow on a light heather gray Gaiam’s Citron Sundial Yoga Mat provides a stable, non-slip surface for your practice. This durable lasting mat ensures the safety and comfort you need to enhance proper alignment and maintain poses.

According to an article by Harvard Medical School yoga has the potential to tame the stress response and improve mood and functioning. Amen to that!

To enter to win, answer the following question below by submitting a comment in the comments section. (Be sure to include your email address and full name so we can contact you if you win!)

What’s one thing you do to manage your stress around the holidays?

Good luck!

You must be 18 years or older to participate. To enter, just leave your comment below by 11:59pm Eastern time on Monday, 12/15/14. One winner will be chosen randomly on Tuesday, 12/16/14, and will be notified soon after. 

 

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