I’m a mother of three. I have a job, a husband, family and friends. By all accounts, my life is not that different than any other suburban mom in her mid-30s. However, I was dead once. Not in the physical sense, but in a state of floating, detached delirium. I’m a mental illness survivor, and I suffered a breakdown in the years after my first son’s birth that left me convinced I had died.
I was 19 years old and had just given birth to my first child. After a long and agonizing labor, I was at the point of exhaustion when they placed him, all pink and squiggly, on my chest. I remember gasping in awe. I’d been under the impression that newborns looked unsightly at birth, but this child was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. His little face was perfect, from his pursed lips to the curve of his cheek. He was the first newborn I had ever seen up close, and he literally took my breath away. I stared at him and desperately hoped that this would usher in a new era for me, one where I left behind the chaotic mess of my past for good.
I had been an anxious child, prone to depression and self-destructive behavior. In hindsight, it’s clear that I had been suffering from some mental health issues, but I remained undiagnosed until I was briefly hospitalized at 17. Even then, I was only comfortable in chaos, which I inflicted on myself — drinking, drugs, dangerous situations. On more than one occasion, I attempted suicide. I was completely adrift and held no hope that I would ever live a normal life.
Nonetheless, at 18 years old, when I was barely able to keep myself afloat, I found myself in a tiny bathroom staring at two dark pink lines on a pregnancy test, signaling a positive. I was on the brink of adulthood, with no plans or prospects. I was a high school dropout, under ministry care, and living with a new boyfriend. I stared at those lines for the entire three minutes the test recommended, my mind spinning with uncertainty, hope and dread.
I had enough of a moral compass to recognize that this baby deserved better than a wreck of a mother. I had no experience with babies, so I read a lot of books and asked a lot of questions. Never in my life had I wanted a baby, yet I found myself getting more and more excited to meet the little one who was making me believe maybe I did have a chance after all. My impending motherhood lay before me like a shining beacon of hope, a deus ex machina that had come to deliver me from an irredeemable past.
I had a lot of anxiety during my pregnancy — understandable given my age and lack of experience. Everything I knew about pregnancy was from the movies, notoriously far from accurate. By the time I held my son after the marathon labor, it began to fully sink in that I was completely out of my depth.
I remember asking the nurse if I should change his diaper, and she laughed: “Do what you want! It’s your baby.” Her words left me feeling as if I had been doused in cold water. When all of the nurses left and I was alone with this beautiful child, I once again felt adrift. I was sore and swollen, flooded with hormones, and I feared failing this baby above all else.
The fear of being a bad parent hung like an axe above my neck. I took note of any tiny abnormalities before rushing to get them checked out. I began to regularly visit the clinic near my house with each worry.
These frequent visits became daily.
The front desk staff eventually began to greet me with sly smiles, gesturing toward me in hushed tones as they talked amongst themselves. On a couple of occasions, after investigating barely visible red spots on my baby’s tongue or cheek, the doctor gently asked how I was feeling. My eyes would sting and the lump in my throat would stagger my words. I was fine! I simply worried about my son.
It’s impossible to describe the emotional toll of anxiety. When I saw something that concerned me on my son’s tiny body, it felt as if my lungs were being crushed. I’d become lightheaded. I could hear my heartbeat swelling in my ears and some primal part of my brain would urge me to make this feeling stop.
I vividly recall, on a few occasions, averting my eyes as I dressed him in the morning, hoping that I wouldn’t see some brand-new spot or mark. I’d squeeze my eyes tightly and say a little prayer to my own broken brain: “Please let him be OK today.” My daily clinic visits embarrassed me; I was certain I was being judged as histrionic. I’d make promises to myself that today I’d remain calm and not seek professional reassurance. But then I’d hear a rattle in his chest, or he’d spit up more than usual, and I’d be trapped: I felt like I simply wouldn’t be a responsible parent if I didn’t get it checked out.
On some level, I knew that I was blowing things out of proportion. But I was young and inexperienced, and wholly ignorant when it came to babies. It was easy to excuse this behavior as overly cautious but not pathological. I knew about postpartum depression, but I didn’t feel sad. I was simply trying my best to be an ideal mother — not the mess I had been before my pregnancy, not another stereotypical teen mom screw-up.
As time went on and I became more comfortable with parenting, my daily visits to the clinic slowed, then stopped. I was happy with motherhood, but very unhappy with other aspects of my life. As a young mom, I felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere, and I lacked the friendships and support that can be a lifeline for new parents. The few mothers my age that I met were engaged in lifestyles I was trying to avoid. The older mothers wanted nothing to do with me. I was unhappy in my relationship but knew nothing of being on my own. I was busy, caring for my son during the day and working in customer service in the evenings. The old familiar comfort of chaos and self-destruction called to me as my happiness waned. In the two years following my son’s birth, I became increasingly depressed, and I began having some unsettling symptoms.
At first, it was a hum. An overwhelming feeling of dread that would come from nowhere and fill my ears. It grew to a roar, like my head was completely full of noise. I began to lose track of time, as I sat and stared at the walls late at night after coming home from work. During the day, I would go for long walks and take trips to the park, keeping busy to quiet my malaise. I frequently felt lost and disconnected, and I turned to restricting food and pinching my skin in an attempt to feel tethered to my physical form. I felt as if I was on the outside looking in, trapped in a waking dream. All of the progress I’d made since seeing those two pink lines was starting to unravel. When I would try to sleep at night, I’d hear what sounded like a vintage radio program in my ears, narrating as my misery festered.
My memory of that time is hazy. What I do remember is being in the middle of a fight with my boyfriend, yelling and arguing, with the ever-present hum of dread beating in my ears. It felt like all of the anguish I had been having in bits and pieces rose beneath me and lifted me like a wave. My life flashed before me in pictures, snippets of all of the moments that collectively made up my entire existence: Spinning dizzily on a mall rooftop with a bottle of vodka. Slicing my wrists in a crisscross pattern. The bitter taste that licked at my tongue as I downed handfuls of pills.
Suddenly, the realization crashed around me that all of the good things that had occurred in my life had happened since my last suicide attempt. Shortly after that attempt, I’d gotten pregnant, abstained from self-destruction, and given birth to my son. Every single one of my golden moments.
My sense of self completely shattered as I came to a horrible and terrifying conclusion: What if the last time I’d attempted suicide, I’d been successful, and everything that had happened since then was a lie? The hum that had been relentlessly vibrating in my mind quieted only when this realization fell upon me in the midst of all the chaos.
I was dead.
The wretched, painful realization that I had actually died pierced the very fabric of my existence. It felt as if the walls gave way around me, reality shattered into a million jagged pieces that rained down in my perception. Nothing brought me any comfort at all. None of it was real. None of it mattered. I had died long ago, and my whole life since then, including the birth of my son, was a tragic, misguided fantasy. I was completely overcome with a feeling of sadness and longing. My baby boy’s face on the day of his birth flickered in my mind’s eye, the audible gasp at his perfect tiny features was like a ghost in my throat.
None of it was real, and none of it mattered. I mourned for him, and for myself.
My boyfriend took me to the same clinic where I had lurked in the months after my child’s birth, the place where I had nagged the doctors with my anxiety about my baby’s health. I was committed under a three-day psychiatric hold, hospitalized for five days total. In a subtle twist of irony, the doctor I had relied on for reassurance after my son was born was the same one who signed my certificate. It felt as if the plot was lacking new characters.
The next few days were filled with waiting rooms and questions. I felt completely detached from what was going on around me. The entire situation seemed like a vaguely comedic tragedy. I was asked questions about what I was feeling, and I couldn’t help but see the absurdity in the situation. I was dead and none of this mattered. Was I in purgatory? I wasn’t a religious person, but the fact that I continued to float through a timeline that didn’t exist perplexed me. I was cooperative, patiently waiting to break through to whatever lay at the end of this charade.
It’s a difficult thing to explain, the feeling that I was dead and yet present as life continued to go on around me. In hindsight it makes no logical sense, but the feeling of being so detached caused an overwhelming sense of depersonalization. I was me, but I wasn’t. My body existed, but it didn’t. In that brief piece of time, the thought that I was dead and suspended in some sort of fantasy limbo made more sense than anything else. Perhaps I was just too exhausted to think of alternatives.
My emotions were dulled, save for the overwhelming sadness that came along with the thoughts of my son. I remember kissing his sweet head, going through the motions, although it pained me. I was simultaneously reluctant to let go of this life and eager to move away from the pain that knowing its true nature caused me.
After I was hospitalized and medicated with a cocktail of rainbow-colored pills, it didn’t take long for that feeling of depersonalization to dissolve. I didn’t have some sort of revelatory moment where I realized that I actually did exist. The whole thing was both eerily life-changing and painfully dull.
Life barreled forward at breakneck speed, and my medicated mind kept on keeping on, despite the gravity of what I had experienced. I had to speak to multiple doctors and explain the whole thing over and over. I had to earn access to my clothing, and to time outside to have a cigarette. I felt relieved that I was, in fact, alive, but it felt like I was at the foot of a very large mountain that I would have to climb. What was it going to mean to go on living after such an incident? I was only 21 years old, and I already had two hospitalizations under my belt.
Some doctors who dealt with my case theorized that this dissociative break with reality was a result of untreated postpartum anxiety. While many people are familiar with postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety gets less mainstream attention and can be easily misread as new-mother jitters. In my case, being young and completely inexperienced when it came to babies made my troubles seem understandable to outsiders.
There are a variety of reasons why women who struggle emotionally postpartum don’t seek help. In my case, being a young parent who feared judgment, and who was trying to outrun a broken past, created barriers to recognizing that there was something wrong. I was full of turmoil in the lead-up to these events. However, I had always been in turmoil. It was difficult for me to recognize my struggles as abnormal.
When I left the hospital, it was like being reborn. I began the process of trying to heal and pick up the pieces of my life. I would love to say that I remember being reunited with my son in an epic scene of motherly love, but I do not. The truth about mental illness is that it can ebb and flow in an excruciatingly mundane fashion. Life doesn’t slow to accommodate your struggle. Instead, you’re left continually putting one foot in front of the other, essentially caught up in the orbit of a world that just keeps turning.
My boyfriend and I separated, and I left the hospital and embarked on my new life of single motherhood, co-parenting and therapy. I began the process of going back to school and getting a psychology degree. I later started a career in mental health, got married, and went on to have two more children. During my subsequent pregnancies, I was watched carefully for signs of distress.
Although society has come a long way in terms of the stigma of maternal mental illness, we still have a very long way to go. We rally around women who have had experience with depression and melancholy after birth, but we still speak of things like psychosis in hushed tones.
The fact is, we shouldn’t cherry-pick which characteristics of mental illness deserve support and which do not. One research study reported that 13 percent of women worldwide experience some form of mental disorder postpartum. Although my case may have been dramatic, it’s simply one story among many.
Although I’ve learned to fall into a peaceful rhythm when it comes to managing my condition, I’ll never get over the feeling of trying to outrun the stigma of mental illness. That dead girl continues to haunt me, a part of my history that is simultaneously hidden and constantly present.