Published on May 17th, 2017 | by Rebekah Olson1
By some miracle, I didn’t get postpartum depression. As a lifelong sufferer of manic depression, wasn’t PPD inevitable? But after my baby was born, not even a whiff of it. In fact, even my normal depression seemed to disappear. For the first time in years, everything was clear. I marveled at how my baby had cured me.
I loved everything about being her mother. I held her all the time, even when she wasn’t nursing. We’d watch Law and Order: SVU and The Closer. When she got bigger, I’d set her in her little rocker and stare at her, video every coo and gurgle. This was life for six months, seven, and on, the whole first year.
Then on the eve of her first birthday, I packed the final bag in the last space I could find in the rental car. I helped the dog clamber up in the backseat and I waved good-bye to Chicago, the city I’d lived in for the better part of seven years.
My husband had accepted a job at a creative, tech start-up in New York, which apparently meant our little family had to move. He would take the 90-minute flight with our daughter, I would drive my plants, our computers, and the dog to our new home. I’m the better driver, plus, I needed the time to while away the hours fuming at him.
He’d applied for and taken this job without my consent. Not real consent, anyway. His previous job was so awful he got desperate enough to not only switch jobs, but time zones. All that sadness and despondency I’d thought was gone ratcheted back up in the form of seething rage during the twelve hours I spent alone in the car listening to Justin Timberlake on repeat.
The trip was uneventful, boring even, in the way you hope cross-country drives are. Long stretches of highway through flat lands, signs for an RV Museum and a restaurant called A Real Burrito, no traffic, not a drop of rain or a flake of snow.
And then six states later, there it was. Manhattan. I swallowed my rage and tried to bury myself in the idea that since I was with my family, everything would be OK. After all, the spire of the Chrysler Building stretching up to the clouds was beautiful.
For a while I distracted myself exploring our Upper West Side neighborhood. I found a dog run near us in Riverside Park, experimented with various routes to Central Park, located a wine store two blocks away on 90th and Broadway and even a Whole Foods I could walk to.
In our tiny kitchen I cooked Coq au Vin and Bolognese to try and normalize this new life. My daughter and I would do these things together. Then while she napped, when the distractions were gone, I’d shut myself in my bedroom and weep. My husband left for work at 8:30 and didn’t return home until 7:30. The TV blasted Castle and Friends all day, so I didn’t feel so alone. Fellow New Yorkers, I told myself.
I trudged on pretending everything was normal and fine, just as I’d done my entire life.
Compartmentalizing is my survival method and this was no different. My husband was desperate for me to like New York, since, as I often reminded him, he dragged me there against my will.
“I don’t get why it’s so hard for you. You’re a survivor. Your ability to adapt blows me away!”
He’d say these things and I chose to believe him because what choice did I have. But then I’d punish him by spending money we didn’t have on French lessons for our 15 month old at the French Institute and $20 bottles of wine.
I tried mom groups, writing groups, yoga studios, praying. None of it was enough to pull me away from the edge. I teetered there, wobbling back and forth, hoping I’d settle with both feet on the ground.
My daughter and I started traveling to Texas, where I’m from, to be cared for in a known place. We’d leave my husband behind, with the life he was happily settling into. I’m sure he missed us, but he never fought me when I booked another trip. Probably, he was grateful for the break from my anger.
When my mom drove us to the airport, to go back to New York, I’d cry. Then I’d see the skyline and feel a glimmer of hope. It is beautiful. I had wanted to live there when I was young. Like millions of people, New York was a beacon. A refuge for those of us who feel they have no place.
I’d pick out the gleaming spire and try to latch on. But as soon as I’d walk through the doors of my apartment and see my husband, the glimmer was snuffed out.
Finally I broke.
On a trip back from Texas my daughter was a nightmare. I’d chosen flights around her nap time to make the four—hour plane ride more bearable. But this time she wasn’t playing along. She screamed and refused to sleep. I tried shifting her back down in the Ergo, patting her back to lull her into sleep, rocking in my seat. None of it worked. I gave up and sat her on my lap. Immediately she calmed, all smiles and bounces. Tears streamed down my face as we arrived at JFK.
My usual tinge of fondness for the bright lights was replaced by a sense of drowning. I got our stroller at the gate, shoved the too-heavy carseat underneath, collected our bags and got in the taxi line, unaware something inside me had snapped out of place.
Once home, I hurried to make her dinner so I could put her to bed and get drunk while I waited for my husband to skip through the door. This husband who didn’t have the inkling he should have already been home, waiting for us after we’d been gone a week. My hands shook as I poured her milk.
Recently I’d switched her from bottles to a sippy cup. A pink one with sturdy handles that had been recommended on the internet. She fucking hated that cup. Every time I gave it to her, you’d think I was asking her to swallow knives or broccoli.
I handed it to her. She screamed. There hadn’t been milk on the plane, I worried about dehydration.
“Please,” I begged, “please, baby, drink this.” She howled and batted it away. My head swam.
“Drink it,” I repeated. She screamed louder, so I yelled over her. “Drink the fucking milk, goddammit, drink it!” I got on my knees and tried to force it in her mouth. She jerked away.
“It’s just milk, you love milk, please just drink it,” I pleaded.
“No! NO! NO!” she screamed back.
“Drink it! Drink it! DRINK IT!”
She hit the cup out of my hand and it clattered to the floor. And that was it. My ability to compartmentalize, to shelve my anger in protection of my daughter, to pretend was gone.
As if on the outside, I watched my fingers wind around her neck. A strangled growl caught in my throat. I didn’t squeeze. I don’t think I really wanted to. My hands barely touched her skin, not that that makes it better.
It was like I needed that initiation of violence, the performance of it, to snap out of the rage. If I could pretend to do it, I could pull myself out.
It worked. Seeing my hands around my baby’s neck shook me, stopped me short. I crumpled and pulled her into my lap, sobbing apologies. Once her hiccuping whimpers quieted, I got a regular baby bottle and filled it with milk. As she drank she gave me a sleepy, satisfied smile. I bathed her, read to her. I sang little songs as she snuggled into her crib, surrounded by her dolls. I called a therapist the next day.
Was it delayed PPD, my regular depression rearing its ugly head? Before I had her, the only person I’d tried to hurt was myself.
Six months later, I was better, but not good enough. I cornered my husband and begged him to let us leave this place. I didn’t tell him what I’d done those months ago. If I did, I wasn’t sure he’d understand or forgive me. And why should he? I’d think.
“I’ll see if I can convince work to let me work remotely,” he said.
They agreed and we fled to Austin where we got a house and a car. My husband worked for his creative start-up from a casita in our backyard. My mother was one half mile away, my sister just as close. I kept my therapist from New York. We had weekly FaceTime appointments. I continued to get better.
One day my daughter and I were in her playroom. She came up to me and wrapped her tiny fingers around my throat. My stomach dropped. Not a trace of anger or fury crossed even briefly over her face. To her, it was a game.
But in that moment, I knew some kind of flesh memory had muscled into her brain. Where else could the idea have come from? Except learning it from me, her mother. I hugged her tight as I scolded her, told her we never do that.
Twice I’ve had friends suffer from PPD. They’ve called in anguish, scared at their rage, fearful of it escaping. I told them what I’d done, confessed my shameful and horrific secret.
Oh, they said quietly, I’ve almost done something like that, too.
A pittance of a silver lining, perhaps. My daughter won’t remember what happened. I will and I’m glad for it. The now-gone memory that wound its way into her mind is tattooed onto my brain. And somehow, it will keep us both safe.