When Motherhood Comes Crashing Down
I always wanted to become a mother. I dreamed of taking prenatal yoga classes and wearing cute pregnancy t-shirts. I craved waddling around town with my very own pregnancy belly.
But for me, and one out of every seven U.S. women, pregnancy and the first year postpartum was anything but rainbows and unicorns. It wasn’t even heartburn and swollen ankles.
For up to 20% of women in the United States, a maternal mental health complication like pregnancy and postpartum depression is a reality. Sadly, it is one for which we are rarely prepared, screened, or given timely, adequate treatment.
For me it happened fast, the morning the ground gave way.
It came in the form of one terrifying thought that had the power to unhinge the woman I had always been. A forceful, unseen hand pushing me into my first mental health crisis and diagnosis triggered by what was supposed to be the happiest moment in a woman’s life.
I remember the morning, a soft light filling my dark kitchen, walking to my patio with a warm cup of coffee. I had a Spanish class in an hour. I was in graduate school pursuing my lifelong dream of one day getting the chance to work for the United Nations. As newlyweds, my husband and I were living in the small coastal town of Monterey, California.
That morning the cool fog made me pull my robe closer, hold my coffee tighter. I sat on the cold metal chair we never got around to buying a cushion for. I let my thoughts wander. Settling into the first warm sips, I thought about nothing in particular, watching my breath leave a trail of heat in the air.
And then it happened.
Somewhere lost between the space of those first sips and heavy morning clouds, time stopped. I looked up to the tall oak tree hovering above me and I could see myself, hanging from it. A rope tied around my neck. I saw myself dangling there. It was the first suicidal thought I ever had.
An hour later, I discovered I was pregnant.
At my first OB appointment at seven weeks along, I sat on the exam table. My husband sat by the door. The OB’s fingers poked around my soft stomach. “How are you feeling?” she said. Her head tilted towards my belly, her eyes looking up at me, a soft smile on her face. I didn’t try to hide it, I never did. “I don’t feel like myself,” I said. “I’m really sad.” Without pause or hesitation she answered: “You should be happy. You’re having a baby.” And just like that my red flags, voiced concerns and cry for help were ushered out of the exam room.
Over the next six months, I struggled to stay alive, battling this mental health crisis I had never experienced before. I dropped out of my life. I became an agoraphobic. I couldn’t be left alone. My thoughts told me it wouldn’t get better. I was scared of what I would do. My thoughts turned homicidal. For the first time in my life, I actually wanted to die.
I visited 29 care providers, begging for help. I was given so many reasons why I couldn’t be helped. I was told that my problem was “too big” for my graduate school’s three free sessions of therapy care, that I had to wait three months to be seen, that my insurance was too good, that my insurance wasn’t good enough. I was told that I had undiagnosed ADHD, that I needed to buy a new wardrobe to “celebrate my new body.” I was told I just had to worry about being a “good enough” mother. When I asked what “good enough” meant, my therapist said to think of a mother who uses crack. I was told that I caused the terrible thoughts I was thinking. I was told to read this book and that book, to fill out worksheets. I was told I couldn’t be talked to, couldn’t be advised, couldn’t be seen, and couldn’t be helped.
During my whole struggle to stay alive and find help, I couldn’t help but wonder if what was happening to me was happening to other women. I couldn’t help but think, if the women I had heard about on the news had tried to find help like me and had been ushered out of doctors’ offices, not once or twice, but multiple times.
My story is not unlike the millions of mothers who suffer from this debilitating, yet common, affliction. I was far from alone.
There are cracks, gaps and holes in the system for diagnosing and treating women experiencing a maternal mental health complication in the United States. While some communities and doctors have gotten it right, the majority of us are left feeling scared and alone without direction on how to get through this terrifying period in our lives.
My dear friend and fellow survivor, Jennifer Silliman, and I are determined to change this. We spent two years traveling across the country filming a documentary to see if what happened to us had happened to other women.
Our film, “Dark Side of the Full Moon,” uncovers the sad truth that while maternal depression is the number one complication of childbirth, getting help for this treatable condition is shockingly difficult. More than 1.3 million women suffer each year and less than five percent of women are screened in their pregnancy and in the postpartum period. More women will suffer from a mental health complication during pregnancy and postpartum than gestational diabetes and preeclampsia. It is the leading cause of maternal death in the postpartum period.
All I know is this has to change. It is so treatable, yet mothers are dying.
We invite you to view “Dark Side of the Full Moon” and speak up about this issue. We want to bring mothers who are suffering out of the shadows and into the light for both their health and that of their children.
It’s time to talk about it.