Being postpartum is a confusing experience. You’re overwhelmed by mazal tov texts, calls and visits; recovering from labor and delivery; and taking care of a newborn—all at the same time. It was December 2018, and this was baby No. 3 for me, but I had an inkling in the back of my mind that it was going to be more difficult than the others.
The night we brought home the baby from the hospital, my 6-year-old came down with the flu. My husband and I did our “zone defense” and took care of it as best we could so that no one else would get sick. It was stressful, especially with a newborn and still recovering, but we did it.
Then it happened. My 28-day-old newborn wasn’t keeping any food down for a few days. After our marvelous doctor figured out what it was, there was a huge sense of relief but also a huge sense of panic, fear and anxiety. My son, who couldn’t even hold his own head up, needed emergency surgery.
I checked the baby into the hospital and the staff prepped him for his surgery. This was a very harrowing experience. Not only was he hooked up so his vitals could be monitored, he had an IV that took up half the length of his arm, and a nasogastric (NG) tube to empty out his stomach. Each time his stomach emptied, he screamed even more. I was given strict instructions that were impossible to hear: “No matter how much he cries, you can’t feed him until a few hours after the surgery.” This was going to be about 24 hours.
Holding him as he screamed, trying to calm him down as he was so hungry and hooked up to all of these machines, I felt helpless. There was nothing I could do. Being told you can’t feed your newborn baby is like someone telling you to “starve your child and have him scream with no way of consoling him.” It was brutal. I’ll never forget the screaming and crying (sometimes from both of us) but we came through on top. Thank God, the surgery was successful and we were discharged two days later.
After all of the adrenaline died down from this experience, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was somewhat depressed before any of this happened, but now it was out of control. Depression, panic and anxiety set in. Still, I had to take care of a newborn, recover from labor and delivery, and fulfill my need to put a smile on my face when I saw anyone outside of the family. The last thing I wanted to do was smile.
I didn’t leave my house for days. When I did, the sunlight burned my eyes because I wasn’t used to being outside. I took care of the baby all day, and each time he napped I curled up into a ball next to him and cried. I wasn’t eating and was having a hard time taking care of my two older kids as well.
Thank goodness I have the most supportive and helpful husband, who ensured the kids were taken care of so that I could get a break to clear my head. However, the last thing in the world I could do was clear my head. Every time I was away from the baby, I panicked and couldn’t stop crying. Walking through the mall with my hood over my head, crying. Walking through the local Jewish grocery stores trying to avoid people I knew with my hood over my head, still crying. Nothing was helping.
We decided it was a good idea to extend my maternity leave until my postpartum depression (PPD) was under control. I went to the doctor every week, switching medicines, switching doses, trying to find something that worked. I finally had the strength to search for PPD resources around Bergen County, and let me tell you, it was slim pickings.
I posted anonymously in Facebook groups asking for resources, but the majority of them came up short. I called the numbers on lists I was given and most of the time I was told, “That group doesn’t meet anymore,” or “This group is still forming,” or “Your insurance won’t cover it,” or the worst one: “That person doesn’t work here anymore and we no longer offer PPD support.” I was left empty-handed with no one who really knew how to further my recovery.
After my wonderful husband encouraged me to speak to some people he knew who had gone through PPD, I was left with a few messages: Get your story out there so you can one day help other people; don’t be afraid to ask for help; no matter how difficult it is, try to keep to a schedule each day. I was in favor of the last two, not so much the first one.
So I made a schedule for myself each day along with a menu of what I was going to eat. For the first few days, it was hard to keep, but it eventually became routine. Part of the schedule was going to the gym almost daily. The adrenaline I had after exercising each day was so strong that I was slowly able to start leaving the baby more. (Thank goodness for helpful in-laws who offered to watch him every time.) I still had anxiety each time I left him, but after a few weeks, I finally had the clarity I needed to realize, “Shelli, take care of yourself; the baby will be fine.” I went shopping, exercised at the gym, did laundry, and just went about doing typical things that I wasn’t doing for the previous few weeks.
Why am I telling you this whole long story? Part of the reason is to encourage you to seek help when you need it no matter how hard it is. Another part is to bring to light PPD and try to get more resources out there. To thank my husband for his never-ending love and support throughout this journey. Additionally, I would, of course, like to thank my family as well as close friends for supporting me throughout this extremely difficult experience. The last part of the reason why I’m sharing is to get my story out there, and let others know that they are not alone and there are resources available.
One of my rabbis once told me, “Today’s headlines, tomorrow’s trash cans.” You may have scrolled through this casually as part of your Shabbat reading, but what I really want is to spread awareness. PPD is no joke. It can hit you like a ton of bricks, but once you get the proper help, you’re able to remove those bricks one at a time. It may take a long time, but lightening the load each day really helps.
Did I get through this? Yes. Did it take a while? Yes. When you ask me how I’m
doing, will I always say everything is good? No. I’m all about honesty, and I will no longer be hiding behind my smiling mask. But, I will continue to be resilient and take it just one day at a time.
Shelli Sussman is working to destigmatize mental illness based on her personal experiences. She has also written articles on depression for the Refuat Hanefesh blog. Shelli is creating a comprehensive spreadsheet of pediatric, adult, and geriatric mental health service providers for the Bergen County Jewish community. This will enable those who want to seek help, to be able to do so more easily. If you can, please contribute to the list by emailing her at: [email protected] Names of people who contribute to the list will be kept confidential.