Looking down at my 6-month-old daughter, Rivka, I am filled with immense gratitude for this sweet bundle of joy in my arms. I caress her warm soft skin and gaze gently into her sparkling eyes. Relishing in the simple joys of motherhood I relax in my chair as I feed my child, letting my mind flow.
Suddenly, I sit up with a start and my dreamy smile slowly evaporates. A far off memory has jolted me. In my mind’s eye, I see a younger version of myself holding another six month old little girl. I am catapulted a decade back in time. I’m 24 years old and I’m holding my second child Devorah who is screaming.
It is very hot outside yet I feel myself shivering with cold. I am feeling confused and disoriented. I look at myself in the living room mirror and see a young woman in the prime of life with a dark shadow of pain spread about her drawn features. “Is this really me”? I ask myself silently. Yes, I recognize my deep set dark brown eyes but where is their spark of life? It has all but vanished.
Since Devorah’s birth I have become a shell of my former self. I wrestle with panicky feelings and obsessive thoughts of danger. My battle with them takes up every conscious moment and is wreaking havoc on my emotional health. I have been fighting for many months now. I feel sick. Very very sick. Night after night I lay awake in a grip of terror, cold sweat covering me like a sheet of ice. My heart palpitates wildly throughout the day thumping so hard that I fear that I will rip apart from its impact.
I am continuously assaulted by an invisible monster intent on destroying me. With my defenses weakened I find myself slowly being sucked into an abyss of a silent darkness. A darkness so deep and vast that I am left completely powerless as I am sucked into its fathomless depths.
An invisible noose around my neck is drawn tighter each day, a black band of despair.
The intensity of these dark feelings and emotions is so real it is almost tangible. I feel as if I am physically choking. I am constantly heaving; frantically taking in huge gulps of air yet I continue to seemingly suffocate. There is an invisible noose around my neck that is being drawn tighter each day, a black band of despair. I can barely swallow, let alone eat, and feel myself physically weakening moment by moment.
Through the oppressive haze in our small living room, I look at my innocent baby crying helplessly in my shaky arms. She is miserable as well. She senses my pain and apathy; the invisible disconnect between us. Despite the thick fog of despair surrounding me, her plaintive cry pierces through and penetrates my broken heart. Another jagged shard splinters off, painfully ripping away at my insides. I blink repeatedly, trying to ward off tears of my own but it is to no avail.
I soon find myself crying along with her; heavy relentless sobs wracking my bent over body as I clutch her tightly to my chest.”What is wrong with me?” I berate myself over and over. “Why I am such a failure at what comes so instinctively to others? Why can’t I just pull myself together and succeed at being this child’s mother?”
I cannot accept the fact that I can be afflicted by an emotional disorder.
But deep down I know the truth. I know that this is not my fault. I know that I am suffering from severe postpartum depression. I know that this is a mental disorder and that I should reach out for help. But I can’t. I just can’t. I cannot face and accept the fact that I, who always prided myself on my inner strength and independence, can be afflicted by an emotional disorder. I was not one of them, one of the nameless unfortunates that dotted our community and society. A powerful force continues to hold me back from recognizing and accepting my illness.
And even if wanted to reach out, I wouldn’t know where to start. I simply cannot help myself in my disoriented and precarious state. I cannot think rationally nor make informed decisions. I feel as if my brain has disintegrated and my intellect stripped away. No one but my husband knows of my anguish and I beg him not to reveal my secret to anyone. My young innocent husband not wanting to upset me even more makes the dreadful mistake of complying.
I feel that if I would reach out for help the shame would completely break me. That I would lose myself in the process. My logic is twisted and warped. I am forgetting that the broken human being that I have become cannot possibly get any more broken or lost than she is now. But I cannot think straight let alone make rational decisions. All that I know with certainty is that I don’t want to be branded as “crazy.” My inner voice warns me of the terrible and dire consequences that would come as a result of such a rash action. This message is repeated over and over and over like a broken record. The overwhelming fear of stigma and the pressures of society’s expectations are shockingly stronger than the mammoth forces of illness that are destroying me, mercilessly tearing apart my innards into ragged shreds…
I continue to convince myself that I am making the right choice. I am young and very naive. My self confidence is shaky and as if to prove myself, I continue to suffer a tortuous existence. And here I am holding my six month old baby girl in my arms feeling the hot tears coursing down my cheeks and dripping onto my little girl’s warm soft skin; bitter tears of anguish and pain.
On the Other Side
Suddenly my painful reverie is interrupted by a little giggle. A carefree sound full of life and joy. I am instantly back in the present moment. It is 2012 and I am looking down at baby Rivka who is laughing and smiling her sweet gummy grin at me. I am again holding a six month old baby girl. The scene is eerily similar to the one I have just left and yet so very different. In the ten years that have passed between them, life has taught me a lot. After reaching a point in my treacherous journey in which I literally could not function, I finally received the help I so desperately needed and began a journey of recovery and self growth that has helped mold me into the strong confident person that I am today.
I now know that postpartum psychiatric disorders are a biologically based illness with the potential to cause unbearable suffering if left untreated. Postpartum depression, along with all mental and emotional illnesses, is as painful and all encompassing as any serious physical disease. It can be likened to a cancer of the soul, a disease of the spirit eating away at one’s inner core and leaving its victims a shell of their former selves. The pain can be compared to a fiery cauldron searing away at the very essence of a person. The baby is at significant risk for physical and emotional neglect and subsequently may miss out on important developmental milestones and be scarred for life.
I learned that though it may seem that I can control my life, in actuality the ultimate control is in God’s hands and by yielding to Him I can let go. I have done my part and with this realization comes a tremendous release of anxiety, tension and inner conflict. I learned that I am stronger than I think and that strength is in fact measured by facing a challenge head on instead of running from it. Most importantly, I now recognize that reaching out for help is a sign of strength and not one of weakness as I had so erroneously thought.
I am immensely grateful for those whom I see as God’s messengers; the dedicated mental health professionals who helped me rise from the abyss and guided me back to the road of health. I thank G-d daily as well for the gift of the psychotropic medications available which literally change the brain’s chemical dysfunction back to a normal setting. With the use of these medications under a physician’s care, I was able to fulfill my dream of having more children without a trace of the affliction I had previously experienced.
Postpartum disorders are treatable and even preventable if dealt with in a prophylactic fashion.
I will never forget the intense pain and anguish inflicted upon myself as well as my husband and innocent young children. No one should have to suffer as my family and I did. Postpartum psychiatric disorders are very treatable and even preventable if dealt with in a prophylactic fashion. The key to eradicate the stigma involved is awareness and education.
But now, holding my baby with the gift of a clear head and a light heart, I am on the other side. I awake each morning with a sense of thankfulness and purpose. I feel so very fortunate to be fulfilling my role as a healthy and functional mother. I have come full circle. And today, on my baby girl’s six-month birthday I am filled with immense appreciation as I celebrate the spectacular gift of life; of her life as my child and mine as her blessed mother. I hold little Rivka close to my chest and rock her.
Once again I feel hot tears running down my cheeks and slowly dripping onto my baby’s warm soft skin. But this time they are tears of joy.
The author's complete story can be found in “Waves of Blue,” published by Israel Bookshop and found in Judaica stores worldwide.