It’s been five days since I’ve been able to sleep. My two-month-old daughter coos softly in her bassinet. My husband sleeps soundly next to me. But I lay awake, hijacked by thoughts that I am a bad mother, wife, and doctor. This unwanted torment consumed me. All I wanted was to remain still and make this stop.
I lay awake; time stands still.
I am swept by flash currents beyond my control.
I swim to stay afloat.
But I am becoming tired.
Pass me by, please.
Currents roar—I say, do not take me with you.
I sink, splayed out, swept to abysmal depths—reaching out for the ones beside me.
Every movement and every thought I had felt to be through thick molasses. It took every ounce of energy I did not have even to change my daughter’s diaper.
Guilt. That’s all I had. Call it mom guilt. Call it wife guilt. Call it need-to-get-back-to-work guilt. I felt guilty that I was not—or rather—could not—fill these roles I always knew in my heart I always wanted. So I went through the motions—I got up in the morning and forced myself to take a shower. Every day, I prayed there—leaning against the wall, for God to give me myself back.
I made formula for my daughter. I held her in my arms all day. I sat on the couch in our quiet house all day with her in my arms. I fed her when it was time to be fed. I changed her diapers whenever she soiled them. Years before, during my pediatrics rotation, I had read that a baby needed the human touch to survive, thrive, and feel loved. So I held onto my daughter always—singing her songs when I didn’t feel like it. Rocking her even if that took my last ounce of energy. Telling her I loved her—though, my emotions numbed.
I received phone calls when I was going through these motions: “Why don’t you get out of the house, go for a walk, check the mail, go grocery shopping, go out with your friends, visit your sister, sister-in-laws who are all worried about you.”
People from every front, who meant well, didn’t understand that I had no energy left after feeding and rocking my daughter in my state. Even taking a shower was a feat of strength. I felt relieved whenever my husband came home from work, so I could just lay down. Be still.
Mental health has been a topic swept under the rug for way too long. Only until covid did mental health awareness gain traction.
We hear of youth, medical professionals, teachers, and more who have suffered the unwanted effects of shared isolation every day. Hopelessness. Poor concentration. Racing thoughts. Fatigue. No interest in activities that were once enjoyable in the past.
As a physician, I kept my struggles with postpartum depression known to just a close, trusted few. First, I felt ashamed that I did not feel the overwhelming joy of motherhood. I told myself how lucky I was to have a loving husband and a beautiful baby girl, especially after suffering miscarriages during residency. Why did I not feel blessed and grateful?
Most of all, I did not want anyone to feel sorry for me. I did not want to be thought less of—to be deemed weak. For me, being a physician made it even worse—I pushed myself to be strong. In residency, I stayed up all hours of the night, admitting patients helicoptered in from smaller community hospitals. I put in central lines in crashing patients. I ran codes when patients crumped, and I became accustomed to being part of a team that saved lives. I was living my dreams.
Up until that point, life moved linearly. College. Medical school. Marriage. Residency. Then I had a baby—and all hell broke loose. I reached the depths of inexplicable despair, and I could not climb out myself. Though I trained as a physician and knew the steps to take to wellness, I became a helpless patient. My postpartum journey was not without roadblocks, frustration with the medical system and doctors. I consider myself lucky that I happened upon a physician who listened to me as a patient (not a doctor trying to self-diagnose) and gave me hope that I would be living my dreams again—it would just be a matter of time. By luck and many shower prayers, I was led to the medical team that fought for me, my husband, and my baby. I am forever grateful.
In my 41 years, I have realized life can often be detoured into unexpected valleys of pain. During my postpartum period, I did not recognize who I was. And all I could do was exist.
I suppose those who have not had any struggles with mental health have difficulty understanding how it feels to have one’s personality, hopes, and dreams derailed by severe changes in frames of thinking and energy levels. But I can say that severe postpartum depression is akin to grief—but grieving for the loss of self. I am thankful for my family and medical team fighting for my health. I am here, back to me—now a mother of three and all the wiser.
Leslie Mattson is an internal medicine physician.
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