I sat in the dark, watching my sons sleep. My older boy had fallen asleep hours ago, and a few shaggy curls lay carelessly across his forehead. The baby had finally worn himself out after he’d spent the last four hours screaming in my face.
I was worn out, myself.
Crying silently, so as to not wake anyone up, I wondered why this baby was so much harder than my firstborn had been. Although I was exhausted, my brain was running around in circles and wasn’t ready to let me rest just yet, even though midnight had long passed.
As I wished for sleep, one thought kept circling in my brain: I want to cut myself.
I tried to shake it away, but the thoughts persisted. “Release. Relief. A few quick minutes, a few little cuts, and I’ll feel so much better,” my brain urged me.
“Just do it. No one has to know.”
I didn’t. But I wanted to.
After my last baby was born, I’m certain I developed postpartum depression (PPD).
I had a stressful, high-risk pregnancy that involved numerous invasive procedures. It culminated in slightly premature labor, eleven days in the NICU, and more than a month of follow-up blood work for my little guy.
To cap it all off, the baby developed what I’ll call colic (for lack of a better diagnosis) within weeks of coming home.
For those colic months, I rarely got to bed before midnight. Instead, I spent my evenings rocking the baby in the bathroom, hoping the white noise of the fan would be soothing while also masking the wailing so that my older child and husband could sleep.
Is it any surprise I developed depression?
Dealing with a newborn is always stressful. Postpartum hormones, sleep deprivation, learning to breastfeed, balancing the needs of the baby with those of an older child — all these issues are tough to handle after birth.
I remember facing some challenges during the “fourth trimester” with my firstborn, but that period can’t hold a candle to my troubles this time around.
Many books and articles have explored the insidious nature of postpartum mood disorders in our society. Depression, in particular, can cover a wide range of feelings, and my experience spanned the spectrum: sadness, anxiety, anger, and more.
I didn’t expect an urge to self-harm. I had a history of cutting, and I had managed to avoid it for a decade – but those urges were returning.
As a teenager, I used self-harm to cope with my depression and anger.
A few years later, I started dating a wonderful man who insisted I find better ways to manage those feelings.
But when I was in the thick of postpartum depression after my youngest’s birth, the urge to take a knife to my flesh hit me. Hard.
I craved that physical release badly. I was struggling with my emotions, and I understand very well how a physical injury can somehow make the emotional pain seem easier to bear. But I did not do it.
Even in the deepest throes of anger and despair, when I was desperate to feel something even remotely positive again, I abstained.
Eventually, the colic left. Eventually, the haze of depression lifted.
I’m definitely not the only person who’s struggled with the urge to self-harm because of PPD.
So why are so few people talking about it?
Lots of people talk about PPD and thoughts of hurting the baby. Anywhere from 10-20% of women experience PPD, while postpartum psychosis — the kind of PPD that often includes physically hurting baby — is much rarer, with 1-2 in 1000 women experiencing it.
Many women admit to having thoughts of hurting their babies, but very, very few actually act on those thoughts.
Maternal suicide gets a fair amount of attention, but definitely not enough. It’s estimated that approximately 20% of maternal deaths in the postpartum period are due to suicide.
Self-harm and PPD is discussed less than suicide. Sometimes, there is a desire to feel physical pain that is in no way connected with any desire to actually escape from it all.
There do not seem to be any solid studies regarding PPD and self-harm, so it’s unknown how common the connection may be.
If that’s you, know that you are not alone.
Talk to your doctor. Talk to a therapist. Find a sympathetic ear: your significant other, your own mom, a friend, even a stranger on the Internet. Care for yourself as best you can: meditate, try aromatherapy, exercise.
I am so thankful to be living in an age where some of the stigmas of PPD is starting to fall away. PPD takes many forms.
Let’s make these conversations open and accepting of all of those forms.