I’m so glad Gretchen Houser, who is 70, reached out to me last week. She remembers keenly what it was like to have postpartum depression in the 60s, when there was no diagnosis and no support. She had to find a way to get through it on her own. Her words are beautiful and important. They remind us how far we’ve come, and how much further we have to go …
I can write somewhat dispassionately about what happened to me; after all, it’s been forty-three years. It is the fall of 1968, October 12th to be exact, a Saturday morning, normal in every way, except for me. My son has just turned five and my daughter is not quite a year old. A fierce headache insinuates itself early on and after breakfast, the pain is piercing. This explains why I am skulking around with a remedy of my mother’s: a soft cloth tied around my head smelling of Vick’s Vapo-Rub; an old wife’s remedy to “draw out the pain.” I wear it like a warrior headband, my body tensing as if in battle and in a way, I am.
I am standing at the kitchen sink washing breakfast dishes, looking out at a world going on without me, a world in which I no longer fit. It seems I’ve been standing here forever, rinsing glasses and plates, sorting silverware. There has been no postpartum Brooke Shields on my horizon, offering poster-girl encouragement; only fearful days and nights, falling one after the other in slow succession.
Desperate for normalcy, I have taught myself to knit: scarves, slippers, socks, Barbie doll ponchos, potholders — anything to alter my thinking. When I’m not caring for the children, I bend my head and with trembling hands, cast on, knit one, purl one.
I wonder if I’m doing a good job at anything, agonizing over every last detail until my mind is awash with nerve-wracking images. Is the bath water too warm? Too cold? Is there enough milk? Is her sweater warm enough? Did he brush his teeth? Am I a good enough mother?
Always a good housekeeper, I become maniacal in my need to set everything in order. I sort by color impossibly small panties for my daughter, fold t-shirts for my boy, match socks one by one. I add twice-daily cleaning to my list of mindless activities. The house sparkles, every inch a Pledge-dusted sea of clean. My intense need to straighten the house exhausts me but I cannot stop. I wax the bedroom floor and stand back looking at missed spots, cursing myself for failure.
I extend my efforts to the backyard, but after a few moments, decide weeding is too hard. I stand looking out at the sky, shielding my eyes from the sun. Then, everything becomes too hard.
I stop sorting and cleaning; my knitting needles gather dust. Nightly insomnia renders me useless most days anyway. My throat closes up when I eat and swallowing becomes problematic. One thing follows the next and food no longer appeals to me. Who can swallow past what feels like a large lump of clay? I weigh 103 pounds and am 5’7” tall.
During a doctor visit, I try and speak to him of my problems, but words cannot describe this hell. Ashamed of my tears, I bury my face in my hands and search for a Kleenex. He is sympathetic and makes appropriate cluck-cluck noises.
“You’re very thin,” he observes.
“Yes,” I say, pleased someone has noticed.
“I don’t sleep,” I offer as though I’m handing him a menu at a fancy restaurant.
He studies something on the wall behind me, writes in my chart. Finally, I close my purse with a loud click.
He sets up an appointment with a psychiatrist. Over the next few days, I prepare for this event like it’s some sort of strange debut. And yet by now, it’s nearly impossible to engage in eye-to-eye contact and I become like an animal, low and slinking around the corners of life.
Memories of that time still surface from time to time — of me trying to explain to this new kind of doctor, my monotone voice of those years, halting at first, then unable to stop. I remember that she looked at me gently and nodded.
“Depressed,” she declared sadly.
“No kidding,” I want to scream at her.
But on this day, this Saturday, October 12, 1968, my acrobatic heart goes on a rampage, turning somersaults in my chest, heartbeat thundering in my ears like a herd of bison. What plagues me most are the nightmarish restlessness, now extending down my arms, the back of my neck; my jaw. Terrified, I call to a neighbor through an open window. The rest is a blur, except for the worried, frightened faces of my children.
Soon, a screaming ambulance rounds the corner, and after a cursory examination, two paramedics load me onto a stretcher and out I go, like a piece of furniture that hasn’t worked out well. Several curious children stand on the sidewalk watching and great pity wells up inside me, knowing what might await them too. In the ambulance, safe from the world, I cling to one thought and one thought only: Wherever I’m going, I hope they keep me.
Stay tuned tomorrow for part 2 of Gretchen’s story …