Stories We Write in the Dark

Normally, this is a monthly newsletter about my current and upcoming art exhibitions, sales, and the paintings and ideas I've been working on recently. However, this post is about something a lot more personal, so bear with me and I'll get back to my art-focused content next month, I promise.

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One of these embryos grew into our daughter. (image created at UCSF Mission Bay Fertility Clinic)

One of these embryos grew into our daughter. (image created at UCSF Mission Bay Fertility Clinic)

My pregnancy was pretty easy. I had done three rounds of IVF—a process which is in no way enjoyable, although the science behind it is pretty amazing. During each cycle, I struggled with a lot of ambivalence about parenthood: what if I turned out to be a terrible parent? What if I found out I was one of those people who just doesn’t like their own kid? And how could I possibly live with myself if that happened?

When I got pregnant, everything changed. Pregnancy wasn't exactly, you know, fun, mostly because carrying around extra weight and having one's organs squished around to make room for a uterus the size of a watermelon is uncomfortable no matter how great the pregnancy goes. But I felt really good, physically and emotionally. If anything, I was euphoric. I felt curious to meet this new person who was growing inside of me. I probably read more than twenty books about child development. It was exciting.

I tried to have as few expectations as possible: labor never goes to plan, and there is no way to really be ready for parenthood. I did hope I'd be able to go into labor and deliver the baby naturally, and I hoped I wouldn't need any drugs. However, due to some ominous blood pressure spikes (and the fact that I'm higher risk as an over-40 pregnancy), my doctors recommended labor induction a few days before my due date. My wife and I agreed to this, and I happily swam a mile on the day I went into the hospital, with home-cooked food in the freezer, a clean house, and dear friends at home to keep the cats company. I felt I was as prepared as I could be.

My hopes were not realized. I was in labor for 44 terrible hours, and I don't think there was any drug available that I didn't end up having to take at some point. I basically didn’t sleep for four days. And after all of that, I had to get a caesarian, because the baby hadn't moved at all after two hours of pushing. The day of my daughter's birth was not the best day of my life. I heard her voice, I saw her face, and the doctors told us how strong and healthy she was. I was still pinned to an operating table shaped like a crucifix, trying to awkwardly balance her on my chest for the recommended skin-to-skin contact, while they replaced my organs and sewed me up. I was relieved that labor was finally over, glad the baby was okay, and happy for my parents, who were among the first to hold her and who were positively glowing with joy. I didn't feel much of anything else.

 

The night after my daughter's birthday, I completely fell apart. It was Mother's Day, and I still hadn't gotten any sleep. The baby needed to be changed and fed, and I was worried about my wife, who was also very under slept. Breastfeeding hurt. I didn't know how to do anything, in spite of all the books I read. All the fears I had during my IVF cycles now came flooding back, and I started crying hysterically. My mother, who had visited earlier that day, came back to help comfort me. This calmed me, and she went home to bed. I finally got permission to take a shower, and eagerly went to wash off the sweat, blood, and other childbirth-related effluvia. Then I realized the sound of the water had turned into the sound of babies crying. I don't mean that it was like crying, I mean I could hear the individual voices wailing, including the gasping breaths taken in between the cries. It sounded like I was surrounded by twenty invisible screaming infants. I finished showering, but I could still hear them, in the sounds of the water trickling down the drain, in the sound of my own breath, in the swallows of water I drank, in the hum of the air conditioner, in the background noise of the hospital.

I don't remember a lot of what happened after that. I remember my wife holding me while I sobbed on my hospital bed, shrieking “oh my god, I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry" over and over at 1:00 AM. I’m sure my wife was almost as frightened by that time as I was. I remember making the decision together to call a psychiatric consult. The doctor who had gotten me through one of the most painful induction procedures came to our room and talked us down. The doctor reassured me that I didn't have postpartum psychosis, and recommended putting the baby in the nursery for the night so we could get some sleep. She seemed like an angel, like a guidepost at the end of the world. It was my wife who really saved me, though. Everything inside of me seemed to have been destroyed, but I knew I loved and trusted her. It was the only thing left that I knew for sure.

It didn't stay as bad as it was that night, but it would get that bad again and again, and it took a long time for things to get better. In the first six weeks of my daughter's life, I had no good days. There were times when I wasn't terrified, but those times were eerily empty and numb. I felt like a haunted house. I mechanically did all the housework I was allowed to do after my surgery, and I cried, and I stared into space. I was often immobilized between overwhelming fear and equally overwhelming guilt. I remember standing in the hallway between our bedroom and the nursery, unable to get into bed to rest, and unable to help my wife with the baby. I could not move. I was afraid of our daughter. I looked at her and I didn't feel much of anything, and it broke my heart, over and over.

I hated myself.

I wanted to die.

I was never worried that I would actually hurt myself. The thought of how much my death would hurt my family was always so much more unbearable than the idea of going on living—even living without the ability to experience joy, even living as a person I could no longer respect. It was a lot easier to convince myself that I didn't matter to my friends, but I knew that my wife and parents would be devastated. I knew my daughter would grow up without the opportunity to know me. Those things were always worse than anything else I could imagine.

Even after I started getting better, the desire to die would jump up inside me unexpectedly, almost gleefully, even when I was otherwise feeling happy. Me not existing anymore just seemed like a good idea, beneficial to the world, even like a gift I could give to my family. The baby was doing so well. My wife was embracing parenthood, and my mother and father were overjoyed. They all seemed so complete and beautiful without me, and I didn't want to mar their happiness. I wanted to rescue them from this terrible thing I had become, because I loved them so much. These thoughts of suicide, occurring during periods of happiness, were profoundly creepy and disorienting to me. The idea of suicide at least seemed more natural when I felt miserable and alone.

Postpartum depression is quite common, affecting up to 1 in 8 parents in the first month after childbirth. People with a history of depression or anxiety disorders are most at risk, and because I had no such history, I wasn't expecting it to happen to me. In fact, although I didn't have expectations about labor or the new baby, it turned out that I had a lot of expectations of myself. I was planning to take on most of the baby care on my own, since my wife needs more sleep than I do. I was planning to accept only minimal help from my parents, since they are older and I didn't want to overload them. I was planning not to need much outside help, so we could save our money for things that were more important. I was planning to be a full-time mom for at least the first few years (and somehow also have time to continue my art career? Because art isn't a real job that deserves dedicated time?) I was planning to avoid costing anyone any extra stress, or money, or burdens of any kind.

Obviously, none of those plans came to pass. Thankfully, we had already lined up a wonderful postpartum doula, Rosangela Brancaga, an old friend of my mother's (and a person I cannot recommend highly enough for baby care, sleep training, and educating new parents) to help us with the nights. My parents came over often, and gave us both so much love, understanding, and support. An astounding number of our friends reached out, offering company, babysitting, and home cooked meals.

Most importantly, I got professional help very quickly. Because my depression came on with such speed and severity, my doctors believe it was mostly due to the hormone crash after childbirth. I didn't know this when I went in for the induction, but Pitocin (a synthetic oxytocin used to induce labor, and of which I received the maximum dose) is associated with a 32% increase in postpartum depression in women without a history of depression.

Slowly, things started getting better. I had my first good day somewhere towards the end of June. I had more emotional space, more room to develop my own feelings. My moods felt very much like the weather: entirely outside of my control, but like an environment to which I could learn to adapt. I seized every opportunity I had, when the clouds lifted, to learn to care for the baby. Panic and guilt continued to consume me frequently, but I started having a few good days a week. By July, I was only feeling really bad at night. It could still get pretty awful (for instance, I had an hour-long panic attack during this period) but it became clear that I wasn't always going to be like this.

Seven weeks postpartum, on the first good day since the delivery.

Seven weeks postpartum, on the first good day since the delivery.

One day, I was taking care of our daughter (by myself!) and playing with her, while listening to one of my favorite songs by the Ditty Bops, “Wishful Thinking”. This song is about new relationship ambivalence, about the weather, about the seasons and about giving yourself time. Suddenly, it was a song about me and my baby. I could feel my heart pry open, grains of rust dissolving into powder. I shuddered as my heart gave itself a little shake (rust flakes drifting off in all directions), and shimmied free of the iron vise that had been squeezing the life out of it for months. I felt it beat again, making me warm all over, as I looked into my baby daughter's eyes. I fell in love just as the song ended, still singing along, barely choking out the last words before bursting into tears.

Depression is really good at unearthing all our deepest fears about ourselves, and I think it’s hard to know what to believe when we are in the middle of it. Professionals and people who love us will say that depression tells lies, and they're right. But aren't our deepest fears also founded on at least (at least!) a grain of truth? What if that conviction of worthlessness and meaninglessness is real, and joy itself is nothing more than a vapid illusion?

I know there are no easy answers. It would be foolish and presumptuous to propose a way out of the darkness that works for everybody. However, I have learned something that I think might be universally useful. When the demons come whispering their message of hopelessness, we don't have to stop our ears. We can listen without having to believe them. In particular, we ought to listen for something familiar. Aren't the demons forever plagiarizing our own personal stories? I can't say that the demons always lie, but I can say this with confidence:

Beware of believing in a reality that you wrote by yourself.

We can't reasonably decide to listen to our demons without also listening to everyone else. The truth is that our worst fears are likely to be every bit as overblown as our grandest aspirations. Most importantly, there is always hope. I really believe that. Things can always get better.

Always

always

always.

 

If you'd like to listen to "Wishful Thinking", here's the official video, starring the immortal Ditty Bops Abby DeWald and Amanda Barrett, who are actually married in real life and have been together since 1999.