The Monster In The Closet

August 18, 2010

sleep_of_reasonIt was just one night, and one night, measured against the course of a lifetime, doesn’t seem all that significant. But it was a dark night, and I have never been able to shed the weight of the memory of it. I have never been able to put it, as they say, in perspective. I never will.

Jasper was not quite six months old. I had not slept in weeks. I lay awake as he stirred and fussed, bracing myself for the moment when I would have to rouse myself fully to nurse him or change him or soothe him. The darkness that night seemed particularly black, the kind of black that has a density, a weight. To say that it felt like it was closing in would be to use a trope that gets overused when writers are trying to describe dark nights and oppressive fear, but in this case it was true. The darkness was closing in on me like a heavy fog, like an army of ghosts, like a slick of oil, like night made solid and sinister. I couldn’t breathe. Jasper continued to fuss. I fought the dark.

I fought the dark. I think that I won. Even at the time, I wasn’t sure. I’m still not sure.

Later, when I wrote about what happened, I couched it in the most delicate of terms. “I was groggy,” I said. “… (I was) confused, disoriented, as I held my squirming baby in my arms:”

He fussed, breathing heavily through a stuffy nose, truffling for the breast and then pushing it away. He squirmed and kicked and protested and snuffled and grabbed and pushed and with every kick, every push of his fierce little legs and arms I struggled toward wakefulness, needing to be awake, needing my strength and my composure but wanting oh so badly to just let the darkness overtake me and to slide back into oblivion. But he wouldn’t let me, he was too uncomfortable, poor thing, hungry and snuffly and demanding, he would not let me let me go and he would not let this be easy and in a flash, in one moment, I felt the frustration course through me like a current and there it was, for a split-second – a split-second and an eternity all at once – ANGER – sharp and hot and as I felt the tears prick my eyes and a sob burble in my throat I was overwhelmed by the brief flash of an urge to just drop the baby, just drop him to the mattress and throw myself off the bed and stomp away into the night.

I didn’t have an urge to drop the baby. I had an urge to throw him. And then to throw myself, right out the window. It was an fleeting urge, one that passed, as I said, in a split-second, but it also felt like an eternity, an eternity during which I was not in my right mind, and completely aware of not being in my right mind, and completely helpless to do anything about it. It was the most terrifying moment of my life. It was the moment about which I feel the most – the most everlasting – shame. In that moment, I was – or almost was – one of those mothers, those mothers that you read about, the Andrea Yateses, the horrible, terrible mothers who put their children in the car and drive it straight into the lake. I was a bad mother. I was a bad mother, the worst mother, the most horrifyingly terrible mother possible.

I sought help from a psychiatrist, but I downplayed the grimmer details. I am not a bad mother, I told myself. She will think that I’m a bad mother. I’m not a bad mother. Am I a bad mother? I denied parts of my own story. I denied having wanted to harm myself. She read me the referral report – reports intrusive thoughts… wanted to harm baby… – and I recoiled. It hadn’t been exactly like that. It was more abstract than that. I hadn’t been in my right mind. I hadn’t been in my right mind. But of course, that was why I was there, wasn’t it? In a psychiatrist’s office? I hadn’t been – I wasn’t – in my right mind.

Of course I wasn’t. I was depressed. I was suffering from postpartum depression, acute postpartum depression, acute postpartum depression bordering on postpartum psychosis. But even knowing that – even having a very firm grasp of that, having struggled with it for nearly three years; even having written at length about that – I was still ashamed. So ashamed, that I only went back the psychiatrist once after that. I took the prescriptions – leaving them unfilled, because I was still nursing, and shouldn’t a good mother continue to nurse her baby, regardless of her mental state? – and left after the second visit and never went back.

I didn’t have any more psychotic episodes. I continued to write about my struggle, which allowed me to gain – again, for lack of a better word – perspective on it, and which ensured that, in addition to my anxious husband, there was an army of sympathetic supporters – you, all of you – keeping an eye on me. But I still struggled with the shame and I tempered my stories, omitting the more depressing or frightening details of my experience; I hid my shame, I denied my shame. And I never went back to the psychiatrist. I was too ashamed. I was too afraid of talking, out loud, about whether or not I was a bad mother.

Even though I knew – even though I know – in my right mind – that I am not a bad mother, still… I came too close to being one of those mothers. I came too close.

And therein lays the problem. We still slip too easily into thinking of those mothers as those mothers, as bad mothers, as the worst kinds of mothers, as other. These are mothers who have fought depression and lost. These are mothers who didn’t have support. These are mothers who might have had support, but were too ashamed to ask for it. These are mothers who get described, in articles like this one posted today at AOL, as ‘psychopaths’ and ‘cold-blooded criminals.’ Bad mothers. The worst mothers. Mothers whose path, but for the grace of God and Ativan and the Internet, any one of us might have taken. I might have taken.

We have an emotional investment in characterizing these mothers as bad, as other. We want to keep our distance. We want there to be a clearly recognizable line between the mom who struggles and the mom who harms. We do not want to say, there but for the grace of God go we. We want to say, we could not possibly go there. That is a place to which we will not, can not, could not go. But in saying so, we put ourselves, and our children, at risk. In saying so, we create monsters, and in creating monsters – creatures that lurk in a netherworld that is foreign to us, closed to us – we shame, and in shaming, we close off the possibility of understanding, and of battling, the darkness that produces these so-called monsters, these so-called monsters (these monsters who are not monsters, who are not monsters; repeat, repeat, repeat) who might – but for the grace of God, but for the grace of good psychiatric care, but for the grace of community support – be us.

This is not to say that every mother who harms her child is struggling with postpartum depression, or any kind of perinatal mood disorder or non-perinatal mood disorder or depression or mental illness. This is not to say that there is no such thing as abusive mothers. This is not to say that there is no such thing – no such person – as a really bad mother. It is to say that blanket characterizations of mothers who harm their children as cold-blooded and shameful and bad – as does the horrifying, appalling article posted at AOL – can have a terribly – possibly deadly – effect on women struggling with the darkness, inasmuch at these deepen and perpetuate the shame associated with that darkness. A mom that is ashamed of what she is going through – a mom who fears being labeled ‘bad’ because she is battling darkness at a time when she is supposed to be – supposed to be! – dancing in the light – is a mom who might not admit to what she is going through, a mom who might not seek help, a mom who might not get help.

A mom who might find herself, in the dark of night, battling a demon that she cannot fight on her own, and lose.

*Apparently, AOL has edited some of the original comments out of the article. That there was such an article in the first place, one that focused entirely on one ‘expert’s’ claim that mothers who harm their children are all cold-blooded criminals, is still evidence of the deeper problem that I’m speaking about here. (See also Katherine Stone’s excellent post on the subject, in which she cites some of the original remarks.)

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    Chrissy August 18, 2010 at 10:43 pm

    As a slightly related aside: did anyone else have the desperate, ridiculous wish to shove the baby back inside their uterus in those first few days? I remember being consumed by that want in the late, early nights. Thinking someone should invent a way to pop them back in, just at night so new parents could at the very least have a full night’s sleep – and enjoy the little alien-creatures during the day, when they were rested and somewhat normal.

    Her Bad Mother August 19, 2010 at 7:21 am

    I still have that wish ;)

    Vivobello August 19, 2010 at 9:06 am

    Thank you for writing this Catherine. Just, Thank you, from all the women who want or need to say it and can’t.

    Erin August 19, 2010 at 9:14 am

    Thank you for speaking out. There are so many of us with similar stories, who lack your courage and your audience. But we are here (But for the grace of God! Not monsters!), and we are vulnerable. I’m a good mother, largely because my husband has done most of the parenting. I nursed my baby for a year while taking an antidepressant. You know what? It’s okay. He’s okay, I’m okay, and that’s what matters. Thank you, as always, for saying what so many of us are too ashamed to admit.

    Megan August 19, 2010 at 9:34 am

    Thank you for posting this. And all the commenters who’ve been there too, thank you also. I cried reading the blog and the comments, because I’ve been there too. If I could buy you all a drink, I would.

    Mary @ Holy Mackerel August 19, 2010 at 9:45 am

    Thank you for speaking out when so many can’t. I too suffered with extreme postpartum depression, and often went to “that” place, and felt very alone. And embarrassed. And bad.
    .-= Mary @ Holy Mackerel´s last blog ..Laundry =-.

    Sandra August 19, 2010 at 10:27 am

    I had terrible PPD after the birth of my second child. At my postpartum visit the ob asked if I was feeling blue. I said no even though I was feeling way more than “blue.” I had intrusive thoughts ALL THE TIME. Then I got pregnant again. I had a 3 year old and a 6 month old. I will never forgive myself for all the yelling I did to my 3 year old. It got so bad that I was planning on how I would kill myself. I figured everyone would be better off…I finally got help from my ob and started taking Zoloft at 5 months pregnant. Without it I would not be here. What stands out the most is that I was ashamed to ask for help yet I was considering suicide while 5 months pregnant and that seemed Okay. Obviously I was not in my right mind. I’ve been on antidepressants since then. I’m currently 4 months pregnant and I can still feel that blackness just lurking and I know that if I were to stop my medicines I would probably give into it again.

    Thank you Catherine for talking so openly of your own struggles.

    Laural Dawn August 19, 2010 at 10:38 am

    I’ve been there too. In fact I started reading your blog when I was still going through this with my first (he’s 6 now) so it was kind of at the “end” of it.

    PPD is so sad and awful, and not only is it terrible to go through, but personally I feel I missed so much of my son’s first year.

    I was terrified when I was diagnosed. I was afraid I’d be committed and they’d take away my baby. I was so lucky that I had a doctor who saw what was going on and took the time to diagnose me and help. And I’m also grateful to the nurse at my doctor’s office who sat down with me, despite an incredibly busy day, and when I cried she cried with me. And she told me over and over that this wasn’t me. That I loved my baby, and she could tell. In fact, I think he telling me she could see my love, when I felt so horrible and awful was what made me realize that there was hope.

    But I hate how people don’t get it. I wish a million times over that there was more awareness and support and information and comfort out there.

    And, I get why you feel ashamed because I do too. You shouldn’t. Nor should I. But, it’s really hard not to.

    If there’s a bright side to PPD for me, it’s that now that I’m not struggling with it, when I give my son a hug or he crawls into my lap and says he loves me, or when I come home from work to giant hugs I value them. And I can step back and appreciate how awesome it is to feel the love I have for him.

    It’s a little different with my daughter. I didn’t go through PPD with her. And, I love her to death, but it’s different too. I have never felt that “thank god I finally love you” feeling that I sometimes do with my son. I think that’s probably horrible to admit. But it’s true.

    Your post was amazing, and of course I’m sitting at my desk crying.
    .-= Laural Dawn´s last blog ..A Weekend to Remember =-.

    Phylicia August 19, 2010 at 11:12 am

    I think a lot of mothers go through times like this and we are forced to feel so ashamed and wrong for having these feelings. I wanted so badly to breastfeed my son that I nursed him even when my nipples were tore up and bleeding terribly. One feeding, he had just latched on and I felt pain shooting through my legs, it was so awful. He would never latch properly so it would take several times to get him where he could actually get milk. Anyway, I had the urge to throw him against the wall. I tried to reach out to my husband and my mother in law, but they were both so disgusted with me. My husband said if I ever talked like that again, he would take the baby and leave me. That’s the society we live in, where we, especially as mothers, have to do whatever it takes to make everything pretty and easy, but that is not real life.

    Mrs. Wilson August 19, 2010 at 11:30 am

    I’ve been there. That horrible place.

    I used to have that narrow-minded view of women who harmed their children – Andrea Yates. HOW COULD SHE DO THAT? And then I had children and wanted to throw them against the wall SO HARD just to make them STOP CRYING. But I was lucky. I put the baby safely in the crib and walked away to a place I couldn’t hear her to cry and scream and feel ashamed at the thoughts that were going through my head.

    Thank you for writing this. I am so thankful for every woman who tells their story so that maybe a struggling woman will know that she is NOT alone.
    .-= Mrs. Wilson´s last blog ..wake me up when summer ends =-.

    Issa August 19, 2010 at 12:12 pm
    caramama August 19, 2010 at 1:54 pm

    Thank you for this. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. The abstract thoughts… the sleep deprivation… the omission of details when telling people, even the therapist… Yeah.

    audi August 19, 2010 at 3:53 pm

    omg…my hands are shaking trying to type. Your night was MY night too, nearly 3 years ago. I had 2 freshly adopted children (home only a couple of months then)…we were new parents with an 18th month old that never ran out of gas or noise during the day and a 5 month old that slept less than a cumulative 8 hours in a 24 hour period, with several, multiple-hour stretches in the middle of the night where s/he was awake. We didn’t feel like we could ask for help because we were so freaked out about attachment, so we just suffered through the first 18 months as a family. Thank God for a couple of empathetic friends, a saintly aunt, and our agency’s Post Adoption Counselor. The 5 month old did not start to regularly sleep through the night until s/he was 2 years old. It was horrible. I felt like a horrible, awful, evil person because of how much I hated all of it. Hated them. Hated myself. I was so tired. So, so tired. But that one night is burned into my memory. I just wanted the crying to stop and the baby to go to sleep. I mean, babies need sleep right? Not mine. I remember feeling like there was evil in the corner of the ceiling above the baby and me and a wierd oppressive darkness in the room. I remember thinking I could make the crying stop. I don’t know what happened, other than I can only guess that perhaps God had mercy on me and all of us, and somehow I snapped out of it. But, oh, how close I was. It still is hard in many ways, but at least we get sleep now and I can function and think rationally. You know, honestly, your honesty on your blog has helped a lot. I started reading it regularly after that 10 things I hate about M-hood post. I’m glad my kids are my kids, but oh my head, I hate it still sometimes.

    Anyway, I hadn’t heard about the article, but I don’t want to know. That kind of stuff just pisses me off now. (Like idiots who haven’t actually lost a child telling a grieving mother what appropriate grieving looks like.) I know this: I don’t know why I didn’t and someone else did. But, I could have just as “easily” done it on more than one occasion, so I have a large well of grace for those who find themselves in circumstances that they themselves would have likely found at some earlier point, despicable.

    Michelle August 19, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    I too have been to that darkness and have fought it back. With my oldest child I fought hard and long, I never harmed him, but there were those thoughts and then followed the shame. Unfortunately at that time I still self-harmed and that was how I punished myself for the shame. I am older and wiser now, with my second child I did not have the PPD that I did with my first. But I have opened up to my family, friends, and husband about that time and that I that I expect them to watch me for the signs. Not to expect them, but to keep their eyes open. I greatly appreciate your honesty and making yourself vulnerable to the critisism, but know you are not alone we are good moms that have come through the darkness.

    Gwen August 19, 2010 at 8:11 pm

    I got the chills reading this, not because I was shocked but because it described my own fleeting dark moment, just before dawn one cold autumn morning in 1998. My son was one of those babies who spend a month screaming all day, every day. For 31 days I think I had gotten maybe 12 hours of sleep, add to that the fact that I was a 22 year old single parent and I can too easily hear the headlines of damnation that exist in the land of What Might have Happened. It was like you described, a fleeting urge that lasts for an enternity. I could see myself just flinging him out of the second story window even as from somewhere deep inside me the thought, “this is not normal, you ADORE this baby, this has to be Something Else.”
    12 years ago Post Partum was still mired in shame and silence, I only figured out what might have been wrong with me because when I was a kid a family friend almost became one of it’s tragic statistics.
    When Andrea Yates was being damned by everyone, I felt unspeakable pity for this woman and anger at her husband for not getting her help..and a humble moment of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ because I look at my son and still sometimes wonder at what makes an intrusive thought an unspeakable action, why her and not me?
    Post partum is real, terrifying and needs to stop being cloaked in silence and shame, learning to recognize the signs should be as common place as lamaze classes and breastfeeding coaches.
    Then maybe at least some scared mother who is sitting in the dark will recognize the monster as within her mind but not who she is as a mother and will have the tools and knowledge to seek help without shame.

    Alexicographer August 19, 2010 at 9:39 pm

    Thank you for writing about this.

    Whenever I find myself in some chatroom space where assorted voices write about how if you REALLY love your children you’ll find a way to be a SAHM, I think of Andrea Yates.

    I know her situation was far more complicated that just that (er, understatement, anyone?), and I also know that many women, Catherine included, choose to be SAHMs (and that still more would like to) and I am glad they (those who want to and who can and do, that is) can make that choice — I am not complaining about or criticizing SAHMotherhood. But I know that I would not be a good SAHM and am grateful I know that’s not the right choice for me or my son and that I live in a section of the world that supports my choices to be a WOHM. And honestly, if I had to be a SAHM, I’d deal. But the voices that would narrow our choices frighten me on all of our behalf (-ves) because I think that the narrower our choices get, the fewer of us will find appropriate ways to cope with the many challenges and difficult emotions (and psychological states) that motherhood brings with it.

    Tina C. August 19, 2010 at 9:46 pm

    that happened to me too. it was my first kid, he was little, not even crying and i don’t remember being over-tired. i was just holding him, looking out the back door at the concrete block wall at the end of the garden and thinking what would happen if i threw him over the wall into the alley; i could almost visualize the arc of his flight. i wanted to be able to rewind and not do it again, but just wanted to see what would happen. i told myself to back away from the door and close it. it was a really creepy feeling. i had post-partum depression/hormones going berserk.

    Maureen August 20, 2010 at 8:15 am

    Thank you for writing this, and thanks to everyone else for the comments. I have been suffering from major depression for 10 years now, and started working with my psychiatrist and therapist while I was pregnant to try to prevent falling into PPD. Nonetheless, I have the “intrusive thoughts” nearly daily, feeling almost compelled from somewhere beyond me to throw the baby across the room or hit him. I have had to stop myself from hurting myself several times, as well, and have bruises on my legs from hitting myself. I never would have admitted this before reading this post.

    This is me, medicated. I can’t imagine what it would be like without medication and therapy and family and friends. This post may have saved our lives, because knowing that I can come back and read this and feel like I’m not alone in the hole gives me a refuge.

    I was lucky to have support while I was pregnant, and I think that preventative measures for and education about PPD should be a routine part of prenatal care. We talk to mothers about nutrition and breastfeeding, but not about how to recognize PPD? That doesn’t make sense.

    Megan August 20, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    I’m sorry and thank you all.

    Suebob August 20, 2010 at 1:32 pm

    Once again, mom-blogging is a radical act…all of these old illusions getting shattered and reality blooming up through.

    Thanks, Catherine and all of the thoughtful commenters, for being brave enough to tell the truth. This is one of the most important things I have read all year. Brava.
    .-= Suebob´s last blog ..I am a loca =-.

    Trish / CotR August 22, 2010 at 8:39 am

    I don’t wish to downplay PPD, as I know it be very real. One of my closest friends has suffered with PPD with all 3 of her childbirths (and in fact during the 2nd two pregnancies).

    What I do wish to respond to is that idea that there are THOSE mothers, and how we as society think of THEM. I believe that EVERY mother has experienced at least ONE moment where they can absolutely relate with THOSE mothers. It is not abnormal, it is adapting to new and at times very frustrating circumstances. For the majority of us they may not happen frequently, they may not happen more than once, but WE all have experiences and we can relate with THOSE mothers. They may be fleeting and we may be able to discredit them as a split second of overwhelming fatigue / uncertainty / what-have-you. But. WE are THOSE mothers, every one of us.

    The difference is in the support we seek/receive and what we do with those circumstances and feelings. What WE need to do is be connected and supportive and non-judgmental. If we could approach our lives in a more cohesive almost communal fashion, less of US would struggle.

    I applaud you for sharing your story. I wish every woman would feel compelled to admit and share – even just to share those split second (even fraction of a second) moments so that the rest of us could experience less of the guilt and more of the acceptance and support required to be mothers.
    .-= Trish / CotR´s last blog ..Imperfection =-.

    stephanie August 26, 2010 at 8:58 pm

    My mother suffered from severe PPD. She went straight from the delivery room to the psychiatric ward after the birth of each of her three children (I’m the third, and unplanned at that). Forty-something years ago doctors and spouses had NO understanding or tolerance for mothers who became suicidal and refused to nurture their children. She was bullied, shamed, given whacks of medication and sent home before she was ready. In my case she was given so many anti-depressants and mood-levelers while pregnant with me I was born addicted and had to be weaned off for two weeks after the birth or the withdrawal would have killed me. Those drugs are no longer legally prescribed for pregnant women. I have the side effects to reason why not.

    She and I went home together. They released her from the psyche ward and sent her up to get me from the nursery. You can well imagine the terrible abuse I received throughout my childhood. I was not wanted and she needed help that the system refused her because their prejudice insisted all mothers rejoiced in motherhood and that just being with me would dispel her own private misery. She needed help. She was mentally ill and the PPD was a disastrous addition to her problems that pushed her over the edge. I’m lucky to have survived. But being born with a sleep disorder characterized by chronic insomnia as well as severe chronic depression myself since early childhood I can only think on my mother’s battle with her temper and herself with great compassion. I had to struggle with my own as I became a young adult.

    My mother refused to admit to the extent of her anger and abuse with her doctors and that is why she was never properly diagnosed or helped. I would not follow in her course. I would not live her life. I went on to become a loving mother who knew all about the importance of rest and support from others. I would never let myself be the sole caregiver, sacrificing all my sleep and energy to the point it became an issue. I knew better because of the way I’d been raised. My partner and I were partners and that was that – 50/50 in time and every other way.

    A happy mother means a safe and happy child. Mothers need help to be mothers. Feeling shame because you reached a breaking point? That has nothing to do with being a mother of any sort. That is HUMAN. It’s HUMAN and nothing but.

    cara August 27, 2010 at 7:39 am

    how do you know? if you have PPD?

    my son is 5 and when i look back i… my skin crawls, my heart races, my mood plummets and then i get angry. REALLY ANGRY. his first year was the most awful time in my life and yet still – was it depression or was i just garden variety miserable? he was an unsettled, demanding, screaming pain in the bum for about 9 months, my husband was o/s making millions as an investment banker and so so so busy, my family didn’t feel “comfortable” looking after a baby that “should” be with its mother and none of my friends had babies yet. Surely anyone would be having a bad time? I wished i had not had a baby – pretty reasonable in the circumstances, yes? I had fantasies where i broke my leg and COULDN’T look after the baby alone anymore. I got to the end of the road with my wallet and car keys and NO BABY before i crumpled and sobbed realising that there was no escape. BUT. I always loved him. Adored him. I just wanted to die.

    so… PPD or no? always wondered. always too ashamed to ask.

    my second was so different – sweet easy baby, all my friends had babies now, husband had been promoted a couple of ranks and now other people were doing the travelling for him. it was so profoundly healing and i will be grateful to my sweet second for helping me unclench and let the anger and sadness go. And yet my love for her lacks the fierce teeth of my love for her brother. i work so hard to never let it show… but, for me, it is a bond forged in a time of war and it is the strongest connection of my life.

    sorry for the rambling – i don’t normally read blogs and stumbled across this tonight and things just welled up. my thanks and deep love to you all.

    Steph Hansen August 29, 2010 at 1:23 am

    @cara, I find your admission heartfelt and full of lifeblood and sweet. A mother’s deepest true love. I raised two children, neither born from my body. A choice. One severely disabled. Dependent. Violent. Autistic. Brain damaged. The other, younger, bitter and needy. Thirteen years later she’s still bitter and needy and mean, too. But her sister became my my joy, my heart’s desire, and no one was more shocked than I. And I too tried not to let it show – you know, the difference in my deep longing love for her over her sister – but love is love. I understand. I am grateful. I buried my heart’s desire three years ago last Sunday. I am empty and grieving daily still. She was my baby after so many years. I taught her to eat. I taught her to brush her teeth. To walk. To talk. Everything. She was almost sixteen when I kissed her goodbye for the last time. Love your babies. You never know. Love them in whatever way it is for you to love them. Life and love comes to us as it will. Feel no shame, no pressure. It is what is should be. Enjoy your babies. You are a good mother. I hear it in your words. I have no doubt.

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