Even though it was 18 years ago, my memory of postpartum depression and anxiety feel as fresh as if it were last week. There was a nurse in the hospital, Mardi, who cared for me in the days after Alec was born. She sensed something was wrong and checked on me at home with a phone call. When she asked how I was, I tried to answer but my voice choked with tears. “I’ll be there in twenty minutes,” she said. I hung up the phone, and let the emotion I’d been holding back, flow. I was filled with such a degree of sadness, that I could only clutch my chest, and cry. I didn’t understand why. I loved my baby, but this feeling of immense melancholy pushed him into the background. The tears streamed down my cheeks as I stood at the window and watched for Mardi. All I had to do was make it twenty minutes, just hang on until Mardi got there. My life had become one of surviving life small blocks at a time. Finally, this nurse, who was intuitive enough to see what no one else could see, rushed up to my front door. When she saw me, she pressed my head into her chest, and in the loudest voice possible without screaming, she spoke into my ear, “I promise you, you will get better.”
I wanted that promise of “better” and I was desperate to believe her. But my thoughts, my fears of the worst, held me back. I knew something was very wrong, and I was scared enough to be worried. In the pitch black of the night, my heart raced, I prayed over the pounding in my chest that I would be normal again. But what if I would always feel this way? Panic would rise into my throat, as I thought, what if I never get better? What was I going to believe? Was it her promise that was my hope? The part of me, too terrified to believe, scared that I wouldn’t get better shouted back no— you won’t be one of the lucky ones. You’re just too far gone. I was afraid to believe in case she was wrong. But I had to. I had a baby now and I had to do something for him. My days blurred into nights and sleep deprived, every moment felt like I was standing on a cliff, looking out over my life and the world whirred on with me lost in the middle of it. Thoughts roared in my head, Just Give Up. Run away, he’d be better off without you. I imagined myself leaving my baby in the better care of my husband, and I wondered if Alec would know that I left, for love of him. But through all this, Mardi’s voice was louder, and I heard it. She was telling me I would get better, that she had seen people like me get better, and that it would happen. But I knew it was me that had to decide — either I would believe and try, or I wouldn’t make it. I couldn’t leave things to chance, I loved my son so much.
I remember that moment of decision with Mardi. She was sitting next to me on the sofa, I had Alec in my arms. I sat with my baby, holding him so close I could smell his breath. While my tears fell on his little face, I tried to talk but I could only sob. She understood what I couldn’t say. I heard her voice, firm and determined, break through the deafening defeat in my mind. The word “promise,” again. And then, somehow through the darkness, something in my heart lifted. A resolution, and my soul took on the fight for me and my baby. I decided to believe what she was telling me. What I felt was more than optimism, it was far more powerful than positive thought or statistical probability.
What I felt was real HOPE. With Mardi there, I called my doctor and went in to see her. Within a few minutes of talking to me, she got on the phone and called a mental health specialist. I had an appointment for that afternoon. I was started on a prescription medication that was safe while breastfeeding and had therapy sessions three times a week
I write here today, having been fortunate enough to have held hope in my arms at a time when I can say it is the only way I survived. It’s the personal experience I’ve had with hope that makes me know hope is not on a continuum, that it’s not measured in degrees or a dash marker on a spectrum. It is that complete hope, the desperate belief in something when you have nothing else. My postpartum depression and anxiety remain the blackest period of my life, and I survived.
Eighteen years ago, when I became a mother for the first time, I needed that kind of hope, more than words here can describe. I had to believe that Mardi was right. I would get better. I had to take that HOPE into my terrified heart and make it mine. From that moment on, I knew I had to wake up every morning and claim that hope for me and my son. I believed Mardi, that living spark of knowing that I saw in her eyes. I still feel that white hot commitment to hope that lit up my soul. That seed took root, and I gave it no time limit or ultimatum for when. I accepted hope on its terms and believed in its promise.
Hope gave me determination and became that tangible thing I held on to when my sanity was disappearing. The early weeks of new motherhood cracked my world in half. I needed a life saver, and I needed to never let it go. Hope is that thing that told me to look at my child with a smile on my face — always. Hope led me to the library to find CDs of Broadway show tunes so I could learn songs to sing loudly, happily, earthily, to my baby.
One morning, as I held Alec, singing “Oklahoma!” to him off-key but with my whole heart, he looked up at me and smiled. He was ten weeks old, and my heart bounded out of my chest with JOY. This was his first smile and he had it for me. I saw how beautiful, indescribable, and true, hope is. In the days to come, hope kept showing me its face with flashes of the gift that life is. And would be like.
It is this gift of hope that is flesh and blood real to me now. When I speak to new mothers’ groups, I talk honestly about my slow, struggling climb out of the depths of my early days as a new mother, about the pain of hopelessness. I tell them, in a voice that still breaks from the fierceness of the memory, my true unprettied up story from the past with the hope that they’ll believe this seemingly put-together woman standing now in front of them when she confesses about the days she thought she’d never feel normal again. That once, I was right where they are.
When I look out, teary-eyed, into the faces of the women sitting in front of me, I see them listening — and there is always that one there. The face I instantly recognize. I know what she’s come looking for. Her desperation for belief in my words so visible, so clear in her eyes, in the same way I wanted my nurse’s promise of hope for me to be real — like it’s the only thing we have.
In the loudest voice I can without screaming, I look into her eyes, and just like Mardi did for me 18 years ago, I beg her, never give up. Never give up HOPE.
*This is Part II of an original series written for Postpartum Progress. Part I was published January 14, 2013.