I didn’t know my son had special needs when I brought him and his twin sister home. I was told he was perfect. He certainly looked perfect to me—that is, until he started projectile vomiting after every feeding, and screaming 12 hours a day nonstop. It wasn’t just any scream, but the scream that signals your child is in agony. I couldn’t help him. “It’s colic,” the doctor said. “I know it’s hard, but hang in there. He’ll stop in a few weeks.” But he didn’t stop. He got worse.
And so did I. I spent the following year drowning in depression and anxiety.
It wasn’t just stress. Sure, there was plenty of stress. After all, I had newborn twins, one of whom had “severe colic,” and my mother’s intuition was telling me my son really had special needs. And there was no way for me to help him. But it was more than that.
The sleep deprivation alone landed me in the hospital twice with chest pains. Then I started losing a lot of weight in a very short time. Most of the time I weigh 165 pounds, but by the time the twins were three months old, I weighed 130, because what I was going through was so intense I couldn’t digest solid food.
“It’s postpartum depression,” the doctors said. “Here’s an antidepressant, sleeping pills and Xanax. Good luck!”
I took the pills for a while, but for fear of becoming addicted I switched to vodka. (Because, after all, alcohol’s not addictive. Yeah, right.) By his sixth month I was drinking half a bottle a night just so I could sleep. Didn’t even bother with a glass; I drank it right out of the bottle.
On the rare occasions I left the house, people I barely knew would stop to tell me how fantastic I looked. “There is no way you just gave birth to twins! What’s your secret?” everyone asked. I can’t remember what lies I told, but I can remember thinking, “How can I look so great when I’ve never felt so ugly?”
I think a different type of woman would have thought, “Oh my God, they don’t see it. They don’t! I look happy on the outside. The agony doesn’t show. I can hide it and no one will ever know!” But not me. Each time I accepted a compliment on my appearance, I sank deeper into the abyss.
As I said “thank you!” over and over again, I thought, “Please see through me. I’m dying. I don’t want to live anymore, and I don’t want him to live, either. For months I’ve been lying him down at night thinking, ‘Please, please don’t wake up.'”
Meanwhile, my son still struggled to sleep. He could not sleep on his back, no matter how long or hard he cried. But the doctors insisted I could not put him on his stomach because of SIDS. Finally, my mother said, “You and all three of your siblings slept on your stomach, and you didn’t die. He’s exhausted, Rachel. For Christ’s sake, put him on his stomach!” So I turned him over, and he fell asleep instantly. I can remember feeling euphoric in that moment. I’m certain my mother thought it was relief she saw on my face, but it wasn’t. It was pure joy at the thought he might die peacefully in his sleep.
I didn’t know it, but by the time Kevin was four months old, I had become psychotic. Terrifying thoughts swim around your head when you are psychotic, but because you’re psychotic, they sound perfectly reasonable. Thoughts like:
“Maybe I should suffocate him. I’d be doing everyone a favor, right? I’d go to jail and it would be hard for Chris to raise the girls alone, but at least Kevin and I would be out of his life, and he deserves that. I can do this, it’s the right thing, for everyone, even Kevin.”
I can’t tell you how many times I walked over to that bassinet, determined to push his head down into the mattress, only to scoop him up in my arms and beg his forgiveness.
“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry!” I’d cry. “Please forgive me, please!” And then I would rock him as tenderly as my withered arms could. “You deserve so much better than me. I don’t know why God sent you into the arms of such a monster. That’s what I am: a monster. You’re so unhappy, and it’s my fault. If I loved you enough, you’d be happy. Everything would be right for you if only you hadn’t been born to me.”
One night, I cried so hard I vomited onto the hardwood. Nothing came out but a pool of bile. I can remember staring at it as my tears and snot mixed in. I ran my finger through this mixture (which felt like paint) and started to draw with it as I talked to Kevin. “Want me to paint a pretty picture? This is a mommy, a good mommy holding her baby. She doesn’t want to die, this mommy. She loves her baby. She doesn’t think about killing him. It’s not your fault, Kevin. It’s mine, because I’m nothing like her.” Then I felt my head rush, so I put him back in bed just before I collapsed.
This happened to me nine years ago. Today, I understand I wasn’t suffering from postpartum depression—I was being eaten alive by postpartum psychosis, a debilitating mental illness.
I knew I was sick, but I didn’t recognize the severity or understand the danger of my condition, so I hid it, well, from my husband, family, and friends. Some of the greatest actresses of our day don’t have a gold statue, just a life they think they have to lie to protect. I’m a good liar, but I’m an excellent actress. For over a year, I put on one hell of a show.
At 12 months, when he still couldn’t crawl, walk, or make sound, Early Intervention agreed to assess Kevin and he qualified for speech, occupational, and physical therapy. He was finally getting the help he needed—and at long last, so was I. Once he was able to move, Kevin became a much happier baby, and I could leave him with a sitter once a week to see the psychiatrist who saved my life. I stopped drinking. I stopped taking pills. I got a little better every day, and so did he.
I’ve forgiven myself for all of it. I know now it wasn’t my fault. The exact cause of postpartum psychosis has not been determined, but it’s believed to be a combination of genes, psychological factors, and life stressors (such as malnutrition and sleeplessness).
If you’re thinking the terrible things I was nine years ago, it’s not your fault either—but you MUST get help. I could have saved myself a year of anguish if I’d been honest with my family about what I was feeling, thinking, and considering, but I was terrified. Please be braver than I was.
450 children are killed every year by their parents. More than a third of all victims are under a year old and were killed by their mother. When mothers kill, they are far more likely to kill children under the age of 1 than children of any other age. Nearly 40 percent of all children killed by their mothers were less than a year old.
Make no mistake: I am NO better, NO different, than any mother who killed her child as a result of untreated mental illness. Kevin is alive because I had a husband who loved me, family, and health insurance, and because I live in a state where Early Intervention Services are virtually free. I was lucky—that’s it—and most women aren’t.
Someone loves you. Call them, now, and tell them the truth about what’s going on in your head. Take that first step for you, and your baby, in honor of the 450 children who are killed every year by their parents.
If you suspect someone might be considering suicide, or you have struggled with those thoughts yourself, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).