I originally published this essay in the literary magazine Dorothy Parker’s Ashes. It was nominated for a 2022 Pushcart Prize. I wrote the essay about my experience with postpartum depression to honor all women who have been similarly touched. I hope the piece provides comfort and support. We are not alone with our struggles. There is help out there. Contact your health care provider for resources.
Since my baby girl was born, I have been a 24-hour sentry. The psychology books I consult describe my behavior as hyper-vigilant. I stand over my child, listening for a break in her sweet breathing. I hold my breath until I see her back rise and fall again.
Late at night, I wake my husband and tell him that I hear mice scurrying within the walls. It’s an invasion, I whisper-scream. My husband says I have dreamed about my parents’ house. Yes, that’s it. I’ve mixed up the decrepitude of my childhood house with the solid home I have made with him.
In another dream, I place my drowsy baby girl inside the microwave with the solemnity of an offering. She has spent too much hypnotic time in her windup swing. I am a failure because the swing is the only way she will fall asleep.
The baby swings in the kitchen. The microwave menaces me as I tend to her. I crank the swing again. Back and forth, back and forth. The motion is brisk at first. As the baby’s eyes finally flutter, the swing winds down. The microwave is a silent witness. I am dream-waking as I open the silverware drawer. The desperate jangling of cutlery jolts my baby awake. But she’s back asleep in seconds and I take out a steak knife. The long jagged line I have grazed on my arm is the despondent color of red. I stop short of the blue-green tributaries of blood flowing underneath my wrist.
It is just anxiety, my husband tells me. He means to be reassuring. But I curse my genes. I curse my brain chemistry. I hear the hissing sound of my neurons short-circuiting. The mice in the wall are scurrying; they communicate that I do not deserve the beautiful baby, the devoted husband. I do not deserve love. And most tragic of all—I am a mother who does not know how to love her baby.
Anxiety is transient. Panic dwells. Anxiety is a response to a perceived crisis. Panic comes out of nowhere. It is the mysterious onset of death—a sudden eclipse. Panic carves out grooves in the brain. A therapist tells me that no person can physically sustain panic for more than 10 minutes. The heart will burst, I think. Time it, he says unhelpfully. I try to tell him that the aftershocks of a panic attack rumble forever. Bam, bam, bam—the tremors assault me in waves. Bam, bam, bam, I do not trust myself.
I rock in front of the television on my own power, breastfeeding the baby with what little milk I have. The nurse in the hospital told me to hold the baby like a football. I imagined tossing my tiny girl across the room.
I hear on the news that a mother in South Carolina let her car roll into a lake with her toddler boys strapped into their car seats. The boys drowned. My husband fiddles with the microwave as he prepares dinner. I clutch my baby. Save me from myself, I whisper.
I drive alone to the grocery store, intending instead to continue west clear across the country until I am standing by the rough Pacific. I will be that woman whose hair is wild with wind, holding a bottle of Champagne by its neck. The air is the blue-green of my vein that I want to take out.
My husband will report me missing in a shaky voice. In short order, I will be found in a roadside diner hunched over a plate of cold eggs. My freedom is sad. I will desperately miss my baby. This sequence of events happens in a flash of images as I sit in the grocery store parking lot, hands gripped at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel.
My mother, her mother, and almost certainly her mother’s mother had postpartum psychosis. Words matter, my husband tells me. Please, you are not psychotic. He is pleading with me. These are your hormones, he says. Neither of us is convinced of that.
The mice wake me up again. It feels as if it is the middle of the night but I have been asleep for less than an hour. I want to die, I tell my husband. I knock over a lamp as I try to get out of bed. I have confessed to him that I washed down more than the standard dose of Sominex with white wine. “Take Sominex tonight and sleep. Safe and restful sleep, sleep, sleep.” The old commercial jingle is a wriggling earworm. The ditty winds as tightly as a tourniquet around my brain. “Do I need to call an ambulance?” my husband urgently interrupts. He is crying.
The mice are armed with tiny guns. I am terrified that their miniature bullets will burst through the wall and penetrate my brain. I tell this to the psychiatrist my husband has brought me to. I dry heave in his office. My husband places his hand firmly on my thigh as if he intends to hold me down. I am afraid this doctor will take my baby away from me. Instead, he prescribes an antidepressant with a clonazepam booster—no more Sominex-white-wine cocktails.
A couple of weeks after the visit to the psychiatrist, the mice have put down their artillery. The microwave is just a microwave again. We have a new lamp. My husband says there is nothing to forgive and gently kisses my forehead. We all sleep through the night for the first time since the baby was born.