Written by Daisy Montgomery Ashton was not yet home from the NICU, but I had been discharged from the hospital for about a week. I had always been a vivid dreamer, so I assumed it was simply my brain’s way of coping with the stress of not having our baby home. I did not think they were a big deal, despite images of blood, death, or torture. Yet, as time went on, I noticed a shift in my thought patterns and emotions, and it soon became very clear to me why no one seems to talk about these illnesses.
They are terrifying.
Deep fear began to invade my life, and I found myself terrified of things I have never been afraid of before. I was absolutely certain someone was going to murder me. This became such a concern for me that soon I was afraid of the dark. I wasn’t sure what, but I knew with absolute certainty that something was hiding in the shadows, waiting to grab me if I wasn’t careful. Much like a child, I began leaving almost every light on in the house if I was alone, even running from one room to the other to make sure the monsters wouldn’t get me. Becoming startled by the slightest movement, or perceived movement, became normal for me—even when we spent time at the hospital visiting our son. The nightmares continued, occurring almost every night.
Once Ashton was home, my anxiety and panic seemed to subside for a day or so, only to increase to a level that debilitated me emotionally and mentally. Intrusive and horrifying thoughts plagued my mind daily. Even worse, the irrational fear of me being murdered spread to fears of Barclay and Ashton being killed in some alarming way. I felt on the verge of a panic attack getting into the car because what if we had a terrible accident on the way home? What if Barclay died on the way to school, leaving me scared and alone? Nevermind that I was too scared to drive by myself.
When I held Ashton, I was frightened that knives would stab his eyes out, or someone would drown him just to spite me. Much like the movie Saw, my mind was a dark place filled with torture and hopelessness. Some quick Google research said that the fear and anxiety I was experiencing was normal as a new mom, but as more time passed I had a growing sense that I was not okay. Despite having a great marriage with open communication, I felt such a sense of shame that I could not bring myself to mention these things to Barclay. I didn’t want him to worry about me, and besides, Ashton was home now…I’d be fine. Right?
Meanwhile, the nightmares started to become riddled with homicidal themes and characters that would ridicule me or my postpartum body, telling me I was not good enough until I would kill them from rage. I was exhausted, and forced myself to eat to keep up my milk supply despite having no appetite. I bounced between loving breastfeeding but hating the feeling of a baby attached to me all day.
Friends would text me, asking to meet up or to see Ashton, but I didn’t answer. What if they tried to take him away from me just like the hospital did? I couldn’t bear the thought, yet I was hollow and in need of adult interaction, instead opting for the happy façade that Instagram provided.
Movie dialogue would trigger thoughts of the scarce memories of the birth and I would zone out, ruminating. I would cry in secret. Guilt seemed to find me at every corner, and the shame made the time seem to slow down so much that it wasn’t until Barclay mentioned that I hadn’t left the house in a week, not even to go outside for a walk, that I realized how much time was passing.
At first, I didn’t think anything of it, but later that day when I walked into the bathroom to wash my hands, I realized I could not look at myself in the mirror. I knew I was not well, but felt like I had nothing to complain about since my baby was home and safe. I wasn’t the person I knew myself to be, but afraid of the world and afraid of myself. As I left the bathroom, I saw Barclay holding Ashton and feeding him lovingly. A bolt of anger shot through me because I felt like motherhood was not the experience I was made to believe by advertisements.
I did not feel resentment towards Ashton (nor did I ever have thoughts about harming him), but sadness and loss that I did not get the experience I was “promised.” Motherhood was exhausting and a true sacrifice that I was in no way prepared for, yet everything around me made it seem so easy. I loved my baby beyond life itself, but as I watched the bond Barclay and Ashton had, I was sure that my son would never love me because I was a terrible mom—after all, wasn’t everything that happened my fault?
Then the thought popped into my head that changed everything.
They would be better off without me.
Not dead, per se. Just gone. I knew then I needed help. What was wrong with me? It was then I sat on the couch and started telling Barclay everything. I couldn’t look him in the eye, but a lot of relief came over me because I didn’t feel alone anymore. He couldn’t relate 100%, but he knew how hard the birth and the NICU experience had been on both of us. He did not place any blame or shame on me, but instead hugged me and told me everything was going to be alright.
I called the doctor and got an appointment immediately.
As I sat in the exam room, familiar feelings of dread surfaced. I felt profound anxiety that they would try to take Ashton away, or institutionalize me, or some other scary scenario. I explained everything when the doctor came in, her face soft but concerned. Everything came pouring out like I had been keeping a secret for centuries, tears running down my face. When I was finished, she put her hand on my shoulder, smiled, and softly said, “I can help you. You are not alone or crazy. With help, you will get through this and be okay!” For the first time in what seemed like forever, I felt the rush of hope and understanding. Hidden wounds are often the most damaging.
I began a regiment of medications and therapy: medications to help me sleep and therapy to help me restructure my brain’s way of thinking about what happened. Slowly but surely, after over a month of help, I began to feel more and more like my old self…but still very different. I doubt I will ever be the same, but that’s okay.
Postpartum Depression and PTSD are insidious because you can’t see from the outside if someone is suffering from them. To a stranger on the street and even to some friends and family, I am the same as I ever was: nicely dressed, smiling, and enjoying life, just like any “normal” person. They don’t know I am struggling with fear and anxiety over things that don’t always make sense to me. On good days, sometimes I even feel like I am “all better,” until a sound, smell, or phrase pulls me into those dark corners of my mind. It reminds me that people do not just “get over” traumatic events and I still have a long way to go.
Yet, I have come such a long way in a short time. I can drive by myself to appointments and leave the house without being crippled by fear. I’m starting to see friends more often and answer texts without apprehension. I still have graphic nightmares, but they are becoming less frequent. I’m going to the gym at least three times a week, eating healthy, and I’m completely off the blood pressure medication.
I am still afraid of the dark, and I deal with disturbing intrusive thoughts and anxiety every day, especially at night. I still have fears that something will happen to Ashton or Barclay, and sometimes those fears can ruin my whole day. Still, I am happy with where I am considering the place I was and continue to make progress every day.
My birth experience and the side effects of it has made me reevaluate nearly every facet of my life: my dreams, my friendships, my career, my health, and everything I knew about mental health. My son unknowingly pushes me to be better and to not accept the status quo. My marriage is even stronger, and the appreciation I feel towards Barclay overwhelms me. He has been my strength, and I could not be more grateful.
Life is so fragile, and I don’t want to waste any more time doing things that do not serve my soul or truth. I am more compassionate towards mothers, as I now realize how hard motherhood is, and more compassionate towards those that have PTSD and PPD. There is a belief that those with PTSD are dangerous, but in my experience, we are more scared of you than you are of us, the battle occurring within our minds.
We need to begin creating safe environments where people feel more comfortable sharing their struggles, from soldiers to public servants to children to mothers and fathers. The less shame there is, the more people can receive the help they desperately need.
We need more awareness and discussion of PPD, as well as resources and support for mothers that suffer from it. We need to let mothers know that PPD is not caused by anything they did. We need to talk about trauma, and the importance of birth experiences. Most of all, mothers need to support each other, even if the path of motherhood for one may not match our own.
I was lucky to receive help quickly and have a group of amazing mothers supporting me (you know who you are!)—many do not have that luxury and feel that their situations are hopeless. Reach out and ask your fellow mom if she is doing okay. You never know what difference you are making in her life.
As for me, I’m taking it day by day. I don’t know if I will have another child. I don’t know if I would suffer from PPD again, or have another traumatic birth with another NICU stay. I don’t know if I could love another baby the way I love Ashton and be the mom I would like to be. Who would I be today if all of those things did not happen? But, I’ve learned that these are questions that do not need immediate answers…or maybe they will never need answers at all. Sometimes things happen that challenge who we are and change our course of life forever.
What I do know is this: I am on a path towards great and wonderful things, navigating this difficult but amazing world of motherhood…but much stronger than I was before.