Words by Paige Bellenbaum
Published by MotherMuse Magazine
In the middle of the night on June 16th, 2006, when contractions were 3 minutes apart, my husband and I rushed to the hospital to finally meet our son Max.
After 18 hours of a physically and emotionally traumatic delivery, I was so exhausted when they put Max on my chest for the very first time, that all I could think about was eating a hamburger and sleeping. I didn’t feel that immediate unconditional love that you’re “supposed” to feel when you meet your baby for the first time. I wanted him off me and I just wanted to be alone. The next morning, at 8 AM, after receiving neither a hamburger or sleep, we were discharged from the hospital – out the door with a pat on the back from our doctor and a newborn, who was now our permanent responsibility.
The first few weeks we were home together as a family were a blur at best. I had complications nursing – oversupply in one breast and undersupply in the other. The pediatrician was concerned that Max wasn’t gaining weight and told us with an aggressive bedside manner to supplement with formula, while also dealing with Max’s severe jaundice and the required medical treatments. I felt moments of elation and moments of intense failure, but I chalked it up to the fact that my hormones were all over the place considering what my body had just been through.
At around week 6, things took a bad turn. I became increasingly anxious about everything that had to do with Max. I was obsessed with whether he was eating enough or sleeping enough or too much. I was calling the pediatrician daily convinced that something was severely wrong – believing that he was going to die. On top of the mounting panic, I felt totally trapped. Max refused to take a bottle after numerous attempts and would only sleep when he was in a sling on my body, physically always joined to me . I still didn’t feel emotionally connected to him at all – instead, I resented him for making me have this new “normal” that was tragically unrecognizable. I felt like I had made the biggest mistake of my life and there was no turning back.
I began sinking into what felt like a deep, dark sea, wishing someone would throw me a life preserver. I watched other new moms bonding with their infants saying it was the best thing that ever happened to them. To me it felt like the worst.
I stopped being able to sleep, even when Max was sleeping, because my mind was racing like a hamster wheel and I couldn’t stop it. I lost my appetite. I wouldn’t leave the house or respond to any friends or family. Every morning I would sit on the sofa, crying and begging my husband not to leave for work. I felt lonely, empty and scared and most of all so very hopeless. I was petrified of being left alone with a 9-pound human being who controlled every aspect of my existence.
At night I would sit on the cold bathroom floor crying and crouched in the corner hugging my knees while my husband and son slept. Staring at the medicine cabinet thinking about what pills behind the door I could take to make all the horrible feelings stop and escape from it all. Surely the two of them would be better off without me. I hated myself for feeling that way and for being such a failure as a mother. And I couldn’t tell anyone because I was so ashamed and disgusted with this pathetic shell of a self that I had become.
I want to stop here for a second and tell you that I am a social worker. I was trained to recognize and identify mental illness – yet – I was totally unable to diagnose myself. I was lucky to get dressed in the morning.
One day, after weeks of not leaving the house, I went outside because it was the middle of summer and so hot in our apartment. I was pushing Max in the stroller in a daze and the light turned red at the corner as we reached it. I looked to the side of the street and saw a bus coming. I watched the front of the bus get closer and closer, almost in slow motion, and in that second it was right there and every ounce of my body and mind told me to throw Max and I right in front of that bus and end it. Just end it all. Make it stop. And as the bus passed by in front of us, I caught a glimpse of myself in the reflection of the window and I saw this woman that I didn’t know – but I knew she needed help.
I hailed a cab and told the driver to take me to the nearest hospital. I was seen by a psychiatrist, and within 5 minutes was diagnosed with severe postpartum depression and anxiety.
I went on medication, began talk therapy, and slowly I began to heal. After an extended leave, 9 months after Max was born, I went back to work and began to put the pieces of my life back together. Most importantly, I began to finally love my son more than anything else in the world – like I was supposed to.
My story is not an exception to the rule. The Center for Disease Control’s research reflects self-reported cases of postpartum depression ranging from 10 – 15%. Yet thousands of cases go undetected due to shame and fear – increasing the estimate of sufferers to 20% or 1 in 5 – which would mean around 1.3 million annually.
Each year less women — approximately 800,000 — will get diabetes.
300,000 will suffer a stroke.
205,000 will be diagnosed with breast cancer.
In fact, more women will suffer from perinatal mood and anxiety disorder (PMAD) this year than thecombined number of new cases for men and women of tuberculosis, leukemia, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and epilepsy.
When Max was 2 and I was pregnant with my second child, I found myself unable to shake the anger I felt. How was it that in the 21stCentury, in New York City, not a single medical professional asked me how I was doing after Max was born? How did nobody around my see the signs and tell me what to do?
I started researching what city, state and federal legislation existed to address postpartum depression. I looked at medical statistics, best practices, screening procedures and treatment options. Based on all my research, I created an outline of what I felt to be the most effective way to help women who were suffering.
I requested a meeting with my favorite advocate for women’s issues – NY State Senator Liz Krueger. I shared my story with her, and when I was done and I told her that I had put together an analysis of what I thought to be the best ingredients for legislation. I stumbled all over my words with self-deprecating comments like, “It’s probably silly, and I don’t even know what I am talking about…” and she looked me in the eye and said, “Paige – stop. We’re doing this”.
Six years later, after multiple roundtables with stakeholders, bill drafts and re-drafts, introductions without making it to committee, getting vetoed, and then finally getting signed into law by Governor Cuomo in 2014, New York State law now mandates education on PPD for new moms and recommends screening and treatment for maternal depression disorders.
Over the next 2 years, I continued to share my personal story with anyone and everyone who would listen – newspapers, news channels, radio shows, magazines and more. I met hundreds of thousands of women along the way who were struggling or had previously suffered from a PMAD. I heard over and over the painful stories of loneliness, guilt and shame, about the lack of access to care – how there were very few providers that specialize in treating PMADs and those who do, had month long waitlists. In the winter of 2015, I was approached by a friend that I had met in the course of my travels as a PMAD survivor and advocate – Dr. Catherine Birndorf– a nationally acclaimed Reproductive Psychiatrist here in NYC. (On a side note – we later came to discover that Catherine was on the team of clinicians who evaluated me at the hospital the day of the bus incident – how is that for full-circle???) I was stepping off the stage after sharing my story at the New York City First Lady’s press conference announcing city wide screening for PMADs. Catherine said to me “What are you up to these days?” And I said, “I want to be doing a lot more of this – all the time.” And we were off to the races.
Soon after that conversation, I joined forces with Catherine and her partner, and we spent the next year and a half preparing to open the doors of The Motherhood Center. In March of 2017, The Motherhood Center became the first of its kind clinical treatment facility in NYC for new and expecting moms experiencing PMADs through a range of interventions based on symptom acuity. Since we opened we have provided support and clinical care to thousands of women through our Partial Hospitalization Program or “Day Program” – where women receive group, individual, couples and psychiatric care five hours a day, five days a week with an onsite nursery; outpatient treatment consisting of individual therapy and medication management; PMAD support groups, and classes and workshops for all new and expecting parents ranging from breastfeeding support, returning to work, perinatal acupuncture and much more.
1 in 5 women. For those of this who do this work daily – we know its more like 1 in 3 – but the shame, guilt and stigma surrounding PMADs still serves as a massive barrier to treatment and so many women suffer silently for weeks, months and in some instances, years. The ironic thing is that PMADs are totally and completely treatable.
Thankfully – the conversation is starting to change. There are more and more famous women coming out and sharing their stories, more cities and states enacting policies around PMAD education, screening and treatment, and more providers becoming educated on what symptoms to look for in a pregnant or new mom and how to make a referral to treatment. There is still a long way to go – but if every mom who has experienced a PMAD can share her story with another new mom who appears to be struggling – think of how many moms we can give permission to ask for help.
If you or someone you know is struggling with a PMAD – get help today. With treatment – everyone can feel better.
If you are in the NYC tri-state area please contact The Motherhood Center at 212-335-0034 or visit: www.themotherhoodcenter.com
If you are anywhere else contact Postpartum Support International at 800-944-4773 or visit: www.postpartum.net