Thursday, April 3, 2008


"Pull off the road!" my mother shouted.

I responded with an animal-like wail. I was in agony. My lactating breasts fought against the attempted strangulation, swelling and throbbing beneath the tight bandage wrap. It was me against mother nature. Me against God's plan. Me against everybody.

I gave birth to my son in June of 2000. Before Marie Osmond came out about suffering from PPD, before Brooke Shields' authored, Down Came the Rain, and before the cause celeb that followed.

My son's first week was out of the baby books. He slept, he ate, he pooped. Nursing was painful as my breasts became accustomed to him latching on but I produced copious amounts of milk and my freezer had stock enough for a gaggle of infant guzzlers. On his eighth day, the day of his bris, something shifted. He became agitated. I became sad and anxious. I reasoned with myself that it was an exhausting day and we both needed some rest. I had no idea of the storm that was brewing.

My son developed colic and didn't stop screaming for five weeks. The pediatrician nicknamed him "the boy with the strong set of lungs" because he didn't merely scream, he roared. I tried everything to ease his discomfort: warm baths, warm compresses, Mylicon, gripe water. I whittled down my diet to avoid spicy, gas-producing foods and within days was eating only boiled chicken and rice. He still screamed. He still writhed in pain. He still had to be held and bounced every minute of every night and day. I developed breast infections and chronically clogged milk ducts. I suffered high fevers, applied ice packs, heat packs, painful self-massage all while continuing to nurse. At one point I asked my pediatrician about switching to formula and her comment was, "Wouldn't it be a shame to stop nursing when so many other mothers want to but can't?" So there I was an exhausted, guilt-ridden, prize-winning cow.

I became an insomniac. I spent nights telling myself I'd make up the sleep during the day. I'd spend days telling myself I'd make up the sleep at night. It was a vicious, anxiety-producing cycle and after weeks of it my brain began to play tricks on me. One afternoon, a friend took my baby for a walk down the street. While in the shower, I heard him scream. I ran out of my room, leaving a trail of water and suds behind, only to find no one home. The loud, piercing, signature screams I'd heard in the shower were not real; they were in my head. Aural impressions embedded in my gray matter. I drove my daughter to pre-school with my head shrouded in a sleep-deprived fog. Passing through intersections I'd turn my head slowly and think, "Was that a stop sign?" My husband and I fought constantly. He did little and what he did do he did wrong. He worked longer hours. I cried and pleaded for him to help me. He felt helpless, out of his league, scared. He used business as an excuse to stay away. When the situation got really bad he left the country.

Tired of slamming up against the wall of ineptitude that was my husband and exhausted from trying to talk my mother's long distance anxieties down, I sought help from others. Friends did their best to help by buying groceries, paying visits, and forcing me out of the house, but their best wasn't good enough. They didn't understand my pain. I didn't understand my pain. I sought out professionals. I love my OB-GYN but he failed me during this time. He dismissed my calls for help when I complained of fire burning in my breasts. I probably didn't push hard enough to be seen, anticipating and creating yet one more rejection. It seemed as if I was shouting but no one was listening. I felt abandoned and alone. I wanted someone to take command, to tell me what to do, to fix me.

I found The Baby Whisperer. A friend of a friend told me she worked miracles with moms and babies so I paid her a visit. I exposed her to to my sore, reddened breasts and my crying boy. She immediately diagnosed me with a breast infection, instructed me in massage techniques and home remedies. She then leaned down to my son who was screaming inside his car seat carrier. She literally whispered to him, talking to him about how she was going to take off the straps, remove him from his seat, pick him up. He quieted down, listened, and stopped crying. Like turning off a switch it was the first time I'd experienced quiet in weeks. The Baby Whisperer was my miracle worker. I gladly wrote a check for that session plus a few follow ups. The moment we got to the car my baby screamed again and my whispering didn't stop him. My breasts did not respond to her techniques or remedies. When I called a few days later to make another appointment her husband told me she was no longer available to help me. His explanations were vague and frustrating. Calls and letters I sent went unanswered. Her book was published shortly thereafter with a huge public relations push including a spot on the TODAY show. Her office closed. My miracle worker abandoned me - just like everyone else.

Depending on the kindness of strangers didn't work for Blanche DuBois and it didn't work for me. The more desperate I got, the more I gave over my power to them.

During my son's six week pediatrician visit, after reviewing my son's "progress", the doctor looked into my eyes and asked how I was doing. She forced me to focus on her despite my son screaming and wriggling in my arms. I responded with a perfunctory "fine" and then broke down and sobbed.

"You're not fine," she said. "I've known you for a while. You're a capable mother. This is not you. You are not fine." She gave me the name of a psychiatrist in the neighborhood and urged me to see her right away.

Despite the lesson of The Baby Whisperer, I didn't hesitate seeking out the kindness of another stranger. What alternative did I have? In the doctor's waiting room I filled out forms with questions like:

  • Do you have a decreased appetite?
  • Are you often agitated and irritable?
  • Do you have trouble sleeping?
  • Are you often sad or tearful?
  • Are you withdrawn and isolated from family and friends?
  • Do you have negative thoughts about your baby?
  • Do you have thoughts of suicide?
I checked all the boxes "yes" except for the last two and for the first time it dawned on me that I might be part of something bigger than myself. PPD was not part of the cultural zeitgeist back then. It never occurred to me. The doctor confirmed it and recommended medicine. We discussed my concerns: the side-effects, how long before they would work, how long I'd have to take them, the stigma. Ultimately, I decided to try them and after researching the effects of medication and nursing I chose to stop nursing cold turkey.

So I visited yet another stranger, a lactation specialist. Who, as kind as she was, proceeded to strap my tender, swollen bosoms into a wrap so tight that I discovered what it meant to see stars.

"24 hours," she told me. "Keep it on for 24 hours. Do NOT take it off or loosen it or you'll have to start all over again."

"Pull off the road!" my mother shouted. "You shouldn't be driving! Where is (my husband)?"

I answered with an animal-like wail, "He's in Montreal."

My mother ordered me to get home safely and hung up to call my husband. Barely able to see through my tears to the road in front of me, I heaved and sobbed all the way home praying I wouldn't black out.

The next day, my husband returned home and after a full day on formula my son stopped crying.

Just like that.

He was a different baby. A happy baby. It was my milk after all. Something I knew in my gut but refused to heed because of pressure. In this day and age with numerous studies showing the benefits of breastfeeding how could I consider not?

After a few weeks of trial and error, my doctor and I found the medicine that worked best for me and I returned to the world of the functioning. I slept, I ate and, best of all, I enjoyed time with my baby.

There are times in one's life where it is necessary to depend on the kindness of strangers. But in this particular case I felt like Dorothy on her journey in The Wizard of Oz - I had the power to go home all along.


InTheFastLane said...

Wow. I could feel your pain in that post. Breast infections alone are so much pain. What a tough, tough time for you. And I think it shows, that sometimes we have to do what is best for us and our babies, regardless of the pressure around us to do otherwise. I am glad you made it out the other side.

Dawn said...

Just reading your post brought back all the brutal memories of what I went through and brought me to tears.

I'm glad you survived and found someone to help you.

ByJane said...

Wow--it amazes me how what to feed a baby has been turned into some horrendous competition, where everyone else knows best. The things we do to each other in the name of 'I know best.'

Manic Mommy said...

That was an amazing story. I'm so sorry you had to experience that. Given my history, I was positive I'd end up with PDD. I am very happy to have been wrong.

I hated your pedi for you on the breastfeeding advice but she earned points back for getting you to a therapist.

cpckqueen said...

Can't believe I have known you thru all of that and more! Seems like a distant memory but your Blog brought it all back to me!!!

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