Drowning in plain sight: My struggle with postpartum depression and anxiety

PHOTO: Ashley Abeles shared with "Good Morning America" her struggle after the birth of her son.PlayAshley Abele
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You know that nightmare about giving a speech in your underwear? That’s basically what sharing this story is like for me. This is me, standing in front of everyone I know and an internet full of strangers, letting it all hang out. That type of vulnerability can be terrifying, but I know it’s worth it.

It’s worth it because sharing my story is part of my own healing. The monster in the closet disappears when you shine a light on it.

It’s worth it because I know there are other women out there struggling in silence, feeling ashamed and alone. If one mother reads this and reaches out for help, it’s worth it.

It’s worth it because we still live in a society that puts an immense amount of pressure on mothers, and that continues to stigmatize perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. The result is that we are letting too many new mothers drown – right in front of us – because they are afraid to ask for help or don’t realize they need help. We need to fix this, for ourselves and for the mothers who come after us. If I use this platform and my social media presence only to showcase the best of my motherhood experience, I am part of the problem. We need to share the real, raw, beautifully ugly parts of motherhood as well. By being imperfect, we allow others to be imperfect. By being honest about the struggles of motherhood and perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, we can begin to dispel the myths and stigmas.

So this is me, standing naked in front of a crowd, exposing the parts of myself I have spent the last year hiding. And I know it’s worth it.

BEFORE

When I was a little girl, if you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have told you that I wanted to be a mommy. While I went on to have other professional goals and passions, which involved working with children, my desire to be a mother never dwindled. I knew that someday, somehow, I would be someone’s mama.

Imagine my excitement when, after deciding to start trying, I became pregnant almost immediately. I felt gratitude, euphoria and a touch of disbelief.

My pregnancy was smooth overall, and I loved my growing baby bump – I wore only form-fitting tops to proudly showcase it! I bought a fetal heartbeat monitor so that I could listen to the baby, my baby, growing inside of me. I nested and anxiously awaited his birthday. Surely, meeting this person we had created – half me and half my husband – would be the best day of my life.

My water broke around midnight, and we spent a few hours at home – shaking with excitement – before heading to the hospital. This is it! He’s coming!

THE BIRTH

At first, it was smooth sailing. I felt great (thank you, modern medicine!) and ready to do this thing. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, I was surrounded by 10 doctors and nurses, frantically moving my body into different positions. As a nurse placed an oxygen mask on my face, I saw the concern in her eyes. The baby’s heart rate had dropped, and they were having trouble bringing it back up. They began prepping the OR to perform an emergency cesarean section. Just in time, his heart rate increased, and we all breathed a sigh of relief. From that moment forward, I realized how terrifying and tragic motherhood could be. I was both immensely grateful and immensely afraid.

After approximately 17 hours of labor, my doctor told me I was ten centimeters dilated. It was showtime! Only it wasn’t. Three exhausting hours of pushing later, and now twenty total hours of labor, the little guy wasn’t moving an inch. We later found out that he was wrapped up in the umbilical cord multiple times (this seems fitting given that he still likes to scare his mama by playing with cords!) I ultimately ended up in the OR, which I thought I had successfully avoided, for a c-section. Aside from harm coming to my baby, surgery was one of my greatest fears. My body shook uncontrollably throughout the procedure and I periodically dry-heaved into one of those kidney-shaped hospital dishes.

As I laid there, I suddenly heard a baby crying and wondered where the sound was coming from. Maybe there’s a baby in the next room? Then, to my surprise, one of the nurses held up a baby and told us to meet our son. Wait a minute – that’s my baby? And I didn’t know? I didn’t even realize he had been born? How could I not know he was born? And just like that, my first taste of mom-guilt reared its ugly head. I couldn’t hold him initially because I was still weak and shaking. For the next 40 minutes, as my body was stitched back together, I alternated between falling asleep from exhaustion (successfully freaking out the anesthesiologist) and sobbing, relieved that this was over and that my baby was safe.

WELCOME TO MOTHERHOOD

After being pieced back together, I was wheeled into the recovery room, where my husband and new son, Owen, were waiting for me. I mostly remember feeling more fatigued than I had ever felt in my life. And staring at him. Staring at him, trying to wrap my head around the idea that this was my baby – the one who lived inside of me for almost a year – and that I was a mother.

It didn’t feel the way I expected it to. I thought that motherhood would come naturally to me. It is a natural thing, after all. So why didn’t it feel natural? Why did I feel like I had no idea what to do? I realize now that natural and easy are not synonymous.

We were moved to our shared room, and a nurse began showing us where all the necessary supplies were stored. “And here are the diapers,” she said, pointing to a drawer. The panic set in. Diapers! I forgot about diapers. I work with children! How could I forget about diapers? Yes, babies wear diapers – they need to be changed – I need to change them. What if she hadn’t said something? Would I have thought to change him? I’ve been a mother for two hours, and I’m already awful. The guilt and self-doubt grew larger.

For the next few days in the hospital, I slept only 1-2 hours per day, and only after assigning someone to sit next to the baby and watch him breathe. Most of the time I still didn’t sleep because it needed to be me watching him. No one would watch him as well as I would, I thought. I had to keep him alive. That was my job now. And change his diapers – don’t forget about the diapers, Ashley. It felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders – and my knees were shaking.

AND SO IT BEGAN

On my last night in the hospital, I had my first motherhood anxiety attack.

In the previous few days, I had endured a twenty-hour workout on no sleep or nutrition, experienced terrifying medical scares, had major abdominal surgery, and slept 1-2 hours. Trying to stand up from my bed for the first time, with the help of a nurse, was some of the most intense pain I had ever experienced – right up there with labor. Taking a few steps felt like wild animals were ripping out my insides. I could barely pull down my giant mesh underwear myself and needed to be lifted on and off the toilet, the inside of which looked like a murder scene. I was also anemic post-surgery and needed to be held when walking or showering to prevent me from falling. I remained light-headed for weeks. Additionally, my thyroid levels were completely out of whack. I was a mess, to put it mildly.

PHOTO: Ashley Abeles is pictured here with her husband.Ashley Abele
Ashley Abeles is pictured here with her husband.

In this condition, I expected myself to do all of the parenting things – and to do them perfectly. I had always wanted to be a mom, and I had to get it right. he only problem was that I didn’t know how – and I was in a terrible state to try to learn. I was overwhelmed and physically unwell. This all felt new and foreign I had never felt so incompetent. It didn’t help that the exhaustion made it nearly impossible for me to process any of the assistance or information I was offered. The hospital staff might as well have been speaking to me in Japanese (and, FYI, I don’t speak Japanese).

On that last night in the hospital, after hours of trying to soothe a crying baby, I fell apart. My heart was racing and my hands shaking. I began sobbing to my husband – the kind of sobs that come from deep within your soul. I can’t do this.

FAILURE

The next morning we were discharged, and I was terrified. I can’t handle this with trained professionals helping me – how will we do this on our own? How can they just let me walk out of here with a helpless baby? I felt that there should be some type of parenting competency test and that I would surely fail it if there were.

When we arrived at home, Owen began to cry, and that feeling of panic returned. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what he needed. People say you recognize your baby’s various cries – but I didn’t. And I added that to the list of reasons I was a failure.

As the days went on, I sank deeper and deeper. I worried all the time. Owen had some gastrointestinal concerns and cried any time he was not held in a particular position, someone had to hold him almost all the time – and sometimes even that did not bring him relief. This essentially meant that my husband and I rarely slept (and by rarely, I mean rarely). On the occasion that I actually had time to rest, my mind would race, and I was often unable to slow it down. I had never experienced such intense and prolonged sleep deprivation.

We were also struggling with breastfeeding. I had a significant undersupply that nothing seemed to fix. Lactation consultants, breastfeeding groups, a hospital-grade pump, cookies, shakes, fluids, power pumping – you name it, I tried it. I had always been a hard worker, and when I dedicated myself to a goal, I typically achieved it. Not this time – and that was a hard pill to swallow. When it came to breastfeeding, despite my best efforts, I just couldn’t seem to succeed. Another failure on the ever-growing list. Every two hours, when it was time to feed my son, my stomach sank. Like clockwork, 12 times a day, I was reminded of my inadequacy.

To make matters worse, as a result of my low supply, Owen lost a concerning amount of weight, and we had a dehydration scare. He initially needed to be taken to the pediatrician every 1-2 days to monitor his weight and health. I can’t even do basic things for my child – what kind of mother am I? As I sat in the pediatrician’s office, feeling like I might pass out, the guilt, shame, and anxiety grew exponentially.

PHOTO: Ashley Abeles shares her story about postpartum depression and anxiety.Ashley Abele
Ashley Abeles shares her story about postpartum depression and anxiety.

When Owen was about two weeks old, our beloved dog, Lucy, suddenly became extremely ill. She had a stay in the animal ICU, where I visited her twice a day. Two weeks postpartum, I was laying on the floor of the animal hospital, hugging her, crying, and aching in pain – both physical and emotional. When Lucy finally came home, she was on an intensive medication regiment, requiring me to set alarms every few hours throughout the day and night to provide her treatment. By the end of the week, our hearts were broken into a million pieces as we said goodbye to her. I was shattered. I had failed as a mother to my four-legged baby as well. I thought that maybe I had caused this in some way. I blamed myself for all of it.

MY DARKEST HOURS

By this point, I had fallen into a depression, which lasted for months. It was difficult for me to recognize that at the time but you know what they say about retrospect. I couldn’t eat or drink, and I didn’t want to do anything. Anything aside from lay in bed and cry, that is. My body was so weak that walking more than across the room made me sick and dizzy. I took care of Owen, through tears, because I knew it was my responsibility to do so – he was an innocent baby – but I didn’t want to.

What I did want, desperately, was to hit the rewind button – to frantically claw my way back in time. I wanted my old life back – a life where I was competent and where things made sense to me. A life where I felt like me. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I thought that I had made a terrible mistake and that, despite my dream of becoming a mother, I just wasn’t cut out for it. Why didn’t I know I’m not cut out for this?

And now here we were. I had created this amazing little person who deserved so much better – but he was stuck with me. And I had married this wonderful man and father who deserved an equally wonderful partner – but he was stuck with me too. I was convinced that I was not what either of them needed and that I was nothing short of a catastrophic disappointment. The self-loathing consumed me.

In my darkest hours, I fantasized about ways to save them both from me. My husband was too kind of a person to leave me, so I was going to have to be the one to leave, I thought. I considered packing a bag and leaving to go – anywhere. Some nights I wished I would fall asleep and not wake up. I never had active thoughts of harming myself or anyone else, thankfully, but I did have a desire to stop existing. I wanted to end the pain I was feeling and that I thought I was causing. I knew that everyone’s lives would be better without me. At that time, I was convinced that the most loving thing I could do would be to disappear.

DROWNING

I was drowning in plain sight – right there in front of everyone – and aside from a few family members, no one knew. No one saw me gasping for air.

I don’t blame anyone for this. For a long time, I didn’t reach out for help. I hid behind a mask, hoping no one would notice what was beneath it. I was afraid that if someone looked into my eyes, they would see the pain behind them.

I was ashamed to let anyone see me – really see me. I felt guilty for my unhappiness. I had a beautiful, healthy baby. I had a loving and supportive husband. I had family to provide assistance. What right do I have to feel this way? I knew there were people out there enduring more difficult circumstances and I was ashamed to have such good fortune and be struggling. I now realize that pain is relative and that postpartum anxiety and depression can happen to anyone in any circumstance – but at the time, I despised myself.

I also did not quite realize, yet, that I was experiencing postpartum anxiety and depression. I had been so overtaken by darkness that I could not clearly see what was happening to me. I also did not have accurate information and believed many common myths about postpartum mental health conditions. I did not want to harm myself or my baby, so I thought that meant I did not have PPD. During this time, anxiety and depression told me many lies that felt like truths. You’re a horrible wife. You’re a terrible mother. You will never get better. You’ll never be good enough. You’re dragging everyone you love down with you. When I was in the middle of it, the voices of anxiety and depression were so loud that I was unable to hear anything else.

I thought all of these things were true. I was afraid that if anyone knew what was going on inside of me, they would be horrified. I believed no one would ever see me the same way again. In today’s world, there is an immense amount of pressure to be a perfect mom, and there are dangerous stigmas associated with maternal mental health conditions. The myths and over-generalizations surrounding postpartum mood and anxiety disorders (e.g., that all women with PPD will harm their babies) mislead many women or intimidate them into silence. Because this topic is typically discussed quietly and behind closed doors (if at all), I thought that no one could relate to what I was going through. It seemed so easy for everyone else. I had never felt so alone.

I didn’t know what to do, so for the most part, I faked it. I tried my best to smile even though I felt empty inside. I posted the obligatory photos on social media – you know, the ones about discovering a new kind of love and wanting him to stay little forever. This came partially from a place of shame and partially from a desperate hope that maybe there was something to the “fake it ’til you make it” approach. I thought that perhaps if I looked the part, I would start to feel the part as well. You can probably guess how that worked out. I just kept hoping that I could will myself back to normal – whatever that was.

This time was also confusing for me because the anxiety and depression came in waves. I had periods of feeling like the storm had passed – like I was becoming myself again – and then another wave would come crashing down on me. The lulls gave me false hope, and the waves made me feel hopeless. The intermittent nature of my symptoms, combined with the fact that I was generally functional, made it difficult for me to recognize that I needed treatment.

I spent nine months in this place, struggling to keep my head above water – and to smile while doing it. Those were nine months when I could have been getting treatment and working toward getting well. Those were nine months when I could have been a happier and more emotionally-present mother. Instead, I suffered quietly in the dark, something for which I still carry a level of guilt. I was lost, and I was afraid. There is so much pressure on women to fit into an unrealistic image of motherhood and the fear of falling short, of being judged, can feel insurmountable.

Eventually, the water overtook me. The sea was too large, and I was too fatigued to keep pretending I could swim. I began having daily panic attacks. I was so anxious that I vomited several times a day. I couldn’t eat or sleep. I cried all the time. The desire to not wake up in the morning grew more and more powerful. I could no longer function. My knees had buckled, and the weight of the world had crashed down upon me.

A LIFELINE

With the love and support of my mom and husband, I was now able to realize that I couldn’t fix this on my own. The fear of going on this way became greater than the fear of anything else. I needed help, and I was finally able to begin asking for it.

Just around this time, a friend sent me information about classes at a new facility called The Motherhood Center of New York. When I looked it up, I realized that, although they offer a variety of groups and classes, they specialize in treating perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. They had an upcoming support group meeting, and I registered to attend.

I cried my way through that first meeting. It was the first time I had been in a room with people who understood what I was going through. It was the first time I felt like I could stop pretending. It was the first time I didn’t feel alone. My insides trembled, and I cried tears of relief.

Those weekly meetings became my lifeline, and I continued to attend religiously. I still do. On one particularly rough day, Paige Bellenbaum, the center’s program director (and angel in disguise), made a promise to me that she would help me get better. Those were the words I wanted to hear more than anything yet I was in such a dark place that I was unable to believe them. I knew she would try to help me, but anxiety and depression had become my new normal – I could no longer imagine life any other way. I couldn’t see through the murky waters. She assured me that one day I would believe her and I prayed with every ounce of my being that she was right. With Paige’s help, I began receiving the treatment I needed.

At that time, I so badly wanted The Motherhood Center to pull me out of the water – to rescue me. But that’s not what they did. Instead, they taught me how to swim. You see, no one can pull you out of the water. The water is just life and motherhood. Because I received (and am continuing to receive) appropriate treatment, I no longer need someone else to rescue me – I am learning to save myself.

Now that my head is above water, I have a different perspective. I am able to see things for what they really are. I am finally able to be the mommy I dreamed of being all those years ago. I am able to truly enjoy my son, and my heart is filled with so much love that sometimes it hurts. And those cheesy social media posts? I’m no longer faking them. Sure, there are still hard days and hard moments – that’s just parenthood – but I wouldn’t trade this love for anything. At this point, I can barely remember the old life that I so desperately wanted back. I now wake up every morning feeling thankful for another day with my family.

Truth be told, I wouldn’t mind if my human alarm clock would wake me up a little later in the morning – but he does make me see the sunrise – and I’ve never been more grateful to see the light.

FOR MY FELLOW DROWNING MOTHERS…

I see you. You are not alone. You are not a bad mother. This is not your fault, and this can happen to anyone. It is not a reflection of who you are, and it does not define you. You can get help, and you can feel better. Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders are highly treatable with appropriate intervention. Anxiety and depression are like murky water – they cloud your vision and make it difficult to see the light – but I promise you, it’s there. I know that may feel hard to believe, but I ask you to trust me – I have been where you are, and I have found my way to calmer waters. There are lifelines all around you – reach for them. Ask for help. You have nothing to be ashamed of, and you don’t need to suffer alone. Don’t let yourself drown – this life needs you in it.

Acknowledgments: I cannot possibly publish this article without acknowledging the people who made it possible for me to write it. To my amazingly supportive husband, Brian, thank you for loving me unconditionally and for holding me up when I couldn’t stand alone – both literally and figuratively. To my mom, who cared for us when we struggled to care for ourselves, thank you for being what we needed when we needed it. To the angels at The Motherhood Center, thank you for being a lighthouse in the dark. You have helped me reclaim my life, and you have given Owen the mother he deserves. And to Owen, the best thing I have ever done, you give me the strength to share this story. I hope you always know that you are enough – exactly as you are – and that you have the courage and confidence to stand naked in a crowd (just don’t get arrested doing it!) I love you more than the ocean is wide.

Editor's note: This article originally appeared on Muffin Man's Mama. It has been reprinted here with permission.

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