I was supposed to graduate high school that year, and while friends were trying to figure out which college offer to accept, I was trying to figure out my entire life and how to care for a tiny human.
My mother came to stay for two weeks to help manage late night feedings and keep pace with the absurd amount of laundry; and then she left. I thank God I was still living with my father who had actual standards of cleanliness I might not have kept up with otherwise, and just having his company and often silent support was comforting.
I didn’t know anything of postpartum depression, but looking back it’s clear I suffered greatly. My feelings and emotions were treated as normal for a teenage girl with a newborn; “a baby with a baby.” I was no stranger to dirty looks and comments during my pregnancy and it only got worse after my daughter was born. I felt eyes on me whenever I left the house and saw the pity, disappointment, and judgment on strangers’ faces daily.
My life was clearly over – my future ruined – opportunities gone – and it was all my fault. These are the messages often sent to young girls who “get themselves knocked up.”
I was angry and scared all the time, and I turned to alcohol more and more for escape and comfort. I spent evenings with friends, took off my scarlet letter, and partied with a vengeance while my father sat for my sleeping child. I drank to breathe and to free myself – even for a few short hours – from the trap that was my life. “Drunk” became my salvation.
I didn’t know I was self-medicating, and had no idea I was an alcoholic, but with eyes still on me I did my best to maintain the illusion of “PERFECT” whenever possible.
In the house I grew up in, as long as things looked pretty outside it didn’t matter what was happening within. I learned very early how to avoid questions and concern with smiles and laughter, and wore those “life skills” like badges of honor. The less people knew about how terrible things were, the safer I felt. It was never a game I enjoyed or wanted to play – it was about survival and not losing my grip. It was how I learned to cope inside unpredictable and terrifying chaos.
When the toddler years rolled around, faking it became more difficult. Toddlers don’t always listen; and sometimes they whine and cry for no apparent reason. The sound shredded excruciatingly painful holes through every cell in my body. The whining provoked an intense rage deep inside of me I could neither understand or control. Many years later I would learn the exact nature of this reaction, but at the time the only obvious reason was that I was a terrible mother.
I wanted so much to be better for my daughter, and I tried so hard to keep it together only to fall apart. There were days I found myself crying hysterically on my bedroom floor wanting OUT and certain no one would ever understand. Motherhood was supposed to be happy and instead it felt like a prison. I knew my reactions weren’t justified, and couldn’t make sense of the incredibly intense anger I felt. The guilt after screaming or having the desire to shake her quiet (I never did) led to more plans for escape and more drinking. More drinking resulted in hangovers; which left me mentally and emotionally drained, physically ill, and irritable.
At twenty-one, I was a full time college student with a part-time job and work study. One day after working my hours at the counseling center, I broke into tiny little pieces on the office floor.
I left my daughter with her father that day and went to treatment. When I got out of the hospital two weeks later, I didn’t go back for her. The illusion had been smashed, and I was resigned to the fact that I was a genuinely awful, piece of shit mother. I ran away, and pretty much disappeared for a year to drink up the energy to kill myself. When that attempt failed, I got sober for real.
In 2009, my husband and I had a baby boy. Again, I experienced the horrid symptoms of PPD, but this time I was treated like a mother with depression instead of an emotional teenager suffering selfishness. When my son became a whiny toddler, I again experienced that old familiar rage, but this time I had appropriate resources and information available to me. This time I was lucky enough to have the $150 to pay – per session – for hypnotherapy suggested by a therapist specializing in trauma related disorders. In one of those sessions I went back to age ten; the year my brother became a toddler – the year I learned that whining would be tolerated for a very short time before something terrible happened.
It took me a very long time and a ton of expensive therapy to sort myself out. I often wonder what would have happened to my daughter had I not had support and the opportunity to place her with her father. Knowing what I know now, I imagine our story may have landed on the front page of the local paper and I would have been labeled a monster.
The message that struggling moms are “bad” moms is the wrong one. The idea: If I’m honest, I’ll be judged so I’ll just remain silent is a deadly one.
Struggling moms need help – not shame and judgment. Many women, just like me, are dealing with all sorts of feelings they don’t understand right now, and do not have options or access to support. They may need to hear that they are not their feelings and reactions – that they will not automatically be tossed into some lost causes of motherhood category for being honest about them – that it’s not their fault and they are not alone. They may not know that recovery from whatever they’re experiencing is 100% possible.
I tell this story because I can – because I was given the chance and opportunity to recover from both postpartum depression and alcoholism – because I had support.
Judgment will never help a mother and her children. Judgment serves secrets and isolation; which only exacerbate depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.
I do not suggest there is a very clear line when it comes to maternal mental illness, trauma related disorders and unfortunate stories in the news. Obviously if you have a safety concern, TAKE ACTION. And by action, I don’t mean gossiping about it on social media and/or using guilt and shame as a weapon. There are many ways to be proactive without making a struggling mother out to be a monster.
I was never a monster.
I cannot obviously speak to the individual needs of all mothers, but I am certain of one thing.
We all need hope and deserve a chance.