I failed where my mother succeeded.
Make that “failed” and “succeeded”.
My mother had postpartum depression since I was born. It got worse after the birth of my brother. She was 29 when she took her own life. I was six.
But this is no sob story. After my mother killed herself, she went up to heaven and searched for the best stepmother ever. My second mother, Mati, came to my life when I was seven. I have always believe that my first mother, Mina, sent Mati over to take care of the family she left behind.
When I was 33, I almost followed in my birth mother’s footsteps. I swallowed a whole lot of pills and woke up in the hospital. Yes, in the psychiatric ward. I believe that my birth mom had something to do with the fact that those pills didn’t end my life.
What a story, right? If I saw this in a movie, I’m not sure I would have believed the storyline. It would seem too convenient, orchestrated to make a point.
But wait, there’s more:
With a lot of therapy, medications and learning, I got better. A few years passed and I felt well enough to have another child. I thought that I knew enough about postpartum depression and hoped I’d be fine. I carefully weaned off my meds under the supervision of my doctor, got pregnant and was fine until my second child was almost one year old.
Then, there I was, 38 years old and suicidal. Again.
While I attribute my postpartum depression to a hefty dose of genetic predisposition, I know that the real triggers were sleep deprivation and guilt. Both of my children went through long periods of waking up every hour, sometimes more often. The first kid was born early, had oral motor issues, couldn’t nurse and could barely drink. I was pumping for hours a day and he was spitting up my milk. He wasn’t growing and wasn’t sleeping. My second son was born on time. He was nursing fine, was growing fine, but when he was teething he wasn’t sleeping.
To compound that, in both depression episodes I had completely lost my own ability to sleep. Even when someone else was on kid duty, I would lie in bed, awake and miserable. Whenever I did fall asleep, I would wake up after 15 minutes or so covered in cold sweat. I was drowning in a special combination of emotional and physical pain which was a cold, bitter burn. It raged from my skin to my bones to my soul, like acid. I would look at the baby that I was supposed to love and all I could feel was anxiety and resentment. I would look at my husband who was doing so much to help and all I could feel was guilt and inferiority.
I was hijacked by postpartum depression. My PPDemons made it all seem very logical:
I’m a terrible mother = my husband and baby deserve better = they will really be better off without me = I should kill myself.
Considering my family history, it’s not surprising that this actually made twisted sense the first time. But I was spared, and I wasn’t going to waste my second chance at life.
With my second child, my suicidal thoughts did not include pills. My visions centered on my green belt (the one I am wearing right now as I type this). One evening I actually wrapped it around my neck and longed to pull it tight, but I did not attempt to kill myself again.
This time I did know enough about postpartum depression and anxiety to recognize that the horrible thoughts were to really me talking. There were moments in which I could tell the difference between my real self and my PPDemons. In one of those moments I spoke up. I asked for help.
On the day before my baby’s first birthday, I nursed him for the last time and my husband drove me to the psychiatrist’s office. I was actually prepared to be hospitalized again, but my doctor didn’t think that was warranted because my family had the capacity to get into suicide prevention mode: someone was going to be with me at all times. I went back on psychiatric medications for postpartum depression. After weeks of not being able to sleep, I slept for 14 hours straight.
The next morning, I awoke to the sound of my six-year-old singing “happy birthday to my little brother, happy birthday to you”. It was the day before Thanksgiving. I resolved to never try to kill myself again.
I wish I could tell you that I never wanted to die ever again. It took weeks before the suicidal thoughts were completely gone. But every time I felt the call of the green belt, I remade this promise: I won’t kill myself TODAY.
My recovery had many components of course, but I sincerely believe I wouldn’t be here today had I not internalized that concept, that there is a fundamental difference between having horrible thoughts and being a horrible person. Sounds basic, right? Why is that so important? Because when we are in the grip of postpartum depression, we forget this basic distinction. We forget the huge difference between suicidal thoughts and a suicide attempt. It’s about as big as the difference between thinking that other guy is attractive and cheating on your husband.
When you are suffering, the thought of permanently ending your suffering is bound to be attractive at times. Illness, guilt and exhaustion cause millions of mothers to imagine killing themselves. The thought is so common it could almost be considered normal. Which means we should prepare for it. When we are not prepared for the possibility of suicidal thoughts we mistakenly see them as evidence that we are already such horrible mothers that we really should get out of the way.
My goal is not to stop the suicidal thoughts and the guilt. My goal is to disarm them before and when they show up. I call this permission-based healing. When I’m allowed to have all my thoughts I can lay down my weapons and pick up the shield. This is just one of the many reasons I adore the Postpartum Progress “Warrior Mom” logo. I survived postpartum depression. I survived it three times — mine twice, and my mom’s. I proudly display the Warrior Mom badge on my site.
After I got better, I heeded the call of my life story. I became a postpartum depression advocate and peer-support provider. On my 39th birthday I wrote my first blog post at ppdtojoy.com. Soon after I started leading peer-support PPD groups where I live in Ithaca, NY. Then I created the #PPDSpeakEasy, a monthly phone support chat for mothers anywhere. And I’m in the process of creating an online class called the UnGuilt Trip. Guess what we are going to talk about there …
On September 24th, I’m turning 40. To celebrate my birthday and my blog’s first anniversary, I’m giving a gift to everyone who supported me on my journey: I have tripled the #PPDSpeakEasy phone chats for September. Our next call is on Tuesday, September 27th and noon Eastern. We talk about a lot of things at the SpeakEasy. Suicide is one of them.
This is what I tell my callers:
If you ever have the thought that you would like to die because your family deserves a better mother, know this: millions of other mothers had, have, and will have such thoughts. It hurts like hell, but it doesn’t mean you are a bad mother. So please don’t kill yourself today. Talk to your family, see your doctor, reach out for help. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Tweet the hashtag #PPDchat and you’ll get an instant community of mamas who get it. You are not alone. Even when you feel like the only “freak” in town (because people don’t usually talk about this sort of thing), you are not alone. Every day, remake this promise: I won’t kill myself today.
Talking about postpartum depression and suicide is hard. And it saves lives. I am eternally grateful to Katherine Stone and Postpartum Progress for working relentlessly to change the cultural conversation about postpartum mood disorders.
I hope you’ll join me on the next #PPDSpeakEasy phone chat. You can sign up right here. Until then and always, hugs for the hard. May the Joy be with you.
Follow Yael Saar on Twitter at @yaelsaar. FYI, if you’re wondering why Yael’s hair is blue in the above photo, it’s because she colored it blue as part of a suicide prevention fundraiser with Cristi Comes (@motherunadorned) and other fab #bluebloggers.