Initiation: a postpartum unravelling
I became a mother at the break of dawn. Sky glowing pink and orange, light spreading, room brightening. On the floor, moans and guttural wild noises sprang from deep within - loudly, so loudly. I buried my face into a pillow to muffle the sounds. I was probably waking the man upstairs. He’s a nice enough guy, but we have a healthy respect for his need for peace and quiet. Dawn comes early. And birth is feral business.
The baby was born on the living room floor, and not without challenge and fear. Not without pain. The agony. The ecstasy. The miracle.
We loved that babe at first sight. And the carpet actually stayed white.
People came - friends and family, too many to count. They brought gifts and food and blessings for the wee one. My baby was amazing, and smelled totally intoxicating. Endless was my fascination for their perfection. I was high, euphoric. And within six weeks that high had spiralled into mania, insanity, postpartum psychosis.
It was nearly Easter - death and resurrection and new beginnings and all that bullshit… But first the madness, the descent.
I've always wanted to be a mother. Always known, with certainty - deep in my bones and blood and womb. Known that for me, it was the most important thing. That I would be great at it, I would be an excellent mother. A perfect mother, even. And maybe I was, in those first sweaty, intense weeks - a feverishly perfect mother, attending instantly to my baby's every need, 24 hours a day. Until I wasn't. Until I was a decidedly, objectively, unfit mother. The pain of admitting that still brings tears to my eyes, and I've been trying to write this damn essay for a year now. Now, where I endeavour to be a good enough mother, a pretty good mother.
I struggle with describing my crazy, trying to paint a picture of it - the outward erratic behaviour catches only the faintest glimpse of the inner experience. Gone is the resonance - the layers of understanding that hit you like a mind-blowing ‘aha!’. It’s psychedelic, not as visual hallucinations, but in that felt sense of knowing, the expansive consciousness, the sense of tapping into something so much greater than material, mainstream human lives. Don’t get me wrong, it’s also terrifying and exhausting for everyone around me and completely unsafe for a newborn baby. I never had any desire to hurt myself or my babe (a common stereotype about postpartum psychosis), but I was far too distracted to feed or care for a child, and as things escalated, my actions and thoughts got really unpredictable.
And there’s that disorienting piece - the loss of control of one’s self, one’s thought patterns, actions, emotions, experience. Perhaps this can be felt to some extent in a healthy (ie nonpsychotic) postpartum period - on day 3 when all the hormones go into overdrive and your milk comes in and you can’t sleep and you’re sweating buckets and simultaneously bawling your eyes out and hyperventilating because you’re laughing hysterically (no? just me?). Puberty, PMS, postpartum, perimenopause - those magical times when our hormonal systems play puppets with our emotional world. The raw intensity of having a womb up in this.
I weave with words, threads of story only half remembered - scenes of an altered experience.
Vaccines, mercury and autism, oh my!
Falling down, down the endless virtual rabbit hole
Waking to the footfalls of ants, the buzz of bees,
The vast embedded intelligence of the colony, community, the mother as queen
And our history of shrinking small to stay inconspicuous and safe.
Initiation, insanity, birth and rebirth,
following the brick road made redder with blood
Who’s driving this train, anyway?
Wait and see
Wash, rinse, repeat
Up and Down
In and Out.
Everything begins the same way
You catch my drift?
Establish rapport and trust,
ground rules and safety.
All together now
the sound of one hand silently snapping.
Are you speaking my language yet?
Woken from the dream in a rush of energy, she dashes through the house, this way, now that way, caught, performing a role - the damsel in distress, trapped and reckless. Impulse reigns. She races to the bathroom - watch me, follow me, what happens next? Nowhere to go, the treacherous porcelain trap. She slips in the tub, one foot out and one foot in, ankle twists in the toilet, as she falls to the floor, caught in the arms of the one who loves her. Left knee and ankle scraped and bleeding, shower curtain torn down all around. The wounds, scabbed over, joints swollen and stiff, discovered a week later as she emerges from sedation. The truth so often stranger than fiction.
Mama needs a nap
So tired of doing everything around here
And it’s too early or late for this nonsense.
Don’t be silly
Except when it’s fun
Cause fun is good for you, and pleasure is healthy and blah blah blah
Shhh, shhh, there, there
Let’s get to work now, shall we? The babies, they’re waiting to be fed, and it’s the most important thing. Quickly, quickly now. Breast or bottle is besides the point. Doesn’t matter how. Doesn’t matter who. They all need nourishment. We all need nourishment. And any good mother provides. She just can’t do it all by herself anymore. She’s been ploughed and carved up and dumped on and drained and depleted and left untended for ages and ages. It’s not about her anymore. It hasn’t been about her for far too long. Because the little ones are so very very small. And so very precious.
“Look up at the sky! Look!” she yells, over and over again, shouting maniacally as they haul her away in four-point restraints under the bright midday sun.
Insanity was different the second time around. Instead of relishing the energy, the intensity, instead of trying to get higher and higher, I fought it. Fought it hard. But it was like standing in front of a huge freight train, trying to slow it with my meagre frame once it had already gotten rolling. I didn’t stand a chance. The momentum was already well underway.
And so, I lost my mind again. Was crushed under the tracks. But this time I also lost my baby.
Grief and Shame and Sadness and
Guilt, so heavy
Love and Fear and Anguish
In all its physical aching
This is the work.
No one ever said it would be this easy.
I remember lying there on my bed in the psych ward, unable to sleep, staring up at the ceiling, stacking pillows on my chest and stomach, trying uselessly to recreate the familiar weight of a fetus in my abdomen, an infant on my chest, feeling only the emptiness there instead.
No words can accurately describe the depth of pain, the visceral agony, of having the child that grew within you for 9 months, who you held to your heart for 6 weeks of life in the world, ripped away from you.
But she wasn’t really taken from me, was she? I was taken from her.
The depression and grief that persisted for a year following my hospitalisation was torturous. I wanted so deeply to escape from my inner experience, to tune out, disconnect from my pain. But to disconnect meant I wasn’t present for my growing infant. And they grow and change and learn so very fast in that first year. I was caught - feeling like I should want to soak up and absorb every moment of her quicksilver existence … but experiencing overwhelming psychological suffering and agony within.
I have so much love and ache for fellow mothers who experience postpartum depression and anxiety. It’s such a destabilising time of change and transformation at best ... and it’s often worse.
We’re thrown into this thing we’ve never done before, and often haven’t even seen done well before, and more often than not have very little physical support and help with. Our bodies are stretched and torn and cut open and swollen and inflamed, maybe prolapsed or incontinent from birth. We have a gaping wound the size of a dinner plate on the inside of our uterus. Our nipples are chapped and cracked, and yes - sometimes bleeding. Our breasts are leaking and engorged or painful and blocked or infected. And if we can’t breastfeed our babies and we felt the desire to? There’s agony, there’s grief and loss. Even if your baby is fed formula by choice there’s all the never ending goddamn sterilisation of bottles and then having to warm them up while your infant screams with hunger. And nearly all parents get to experience a newborn waking up every 90 minutes in the early days - all night long. The potential for colic and the purple screaming and the shit explosions and so much vomit on pretty much everything.
This. This is the experience of new motherhood.
And it’s somehow pathological if new mothers are anxious or depressed. We’ve also had a shift or loss of former identity through bringing life into the world, a process that can take time to grieve and re-orient to. While simultaneously experiencing torturous levels of sleep deprivation. And a never ending amount of often thankless and unpaid domestic labour.
And so much isolation for far too many of us.
I was lucky and with the help of a supportive co-parent and antipsychotic medication, I got much needed catch up sleep once I got out of the hospital. I had ongoing support from a mental health team, amazing public health nurses, nearby family and friends, online and in-person support groups… but still the depression persisted, punctuated only by the anxiety, the panic, the despair, the overwhelming sadness. Still I felt so alone.
A long, dark, and lonely journey through the underworld. Hopeless and terrifying, desperate and disorienting. Frozen. They say it’s only initiation if you don’t expect to make it out alive.
And then comes the thaw. Slowly clawing, climbing. Rich, dark dirt beneath her fingernails. Exhausted and filthy and sweat-streaked. Hair matted and dishevelled, wild and unrestrained - a living thing unto itself.
Feet still on the ground, rooted firm, the muddy tap root of her belonging to the earth. To its cycles of birth and life and decay and death and on and on and on and on. An endless re-renewing.
Wolf howls. Chills run up and down her spine. And something stirs deep within - stretches, awakens. Begins to prowl about the wilderness.
We, who have been asleep for oh so long.
Sleepwalking, dream living. Dulled, silenced. A deadly forgetting.
It’s time to get up now. The curse has lifted. And you are not alone.
An Initiation reminds us of our destiny
Reminds us of our History. Or of Herstory.
Wakes us up.
Roughly, Violently, Without Warning
a gong going off.
who are you?
Start Again. Take it from the top. Maybe with a 5,6,7,8
We are Strong. We are Brave. We Have Survived.
We have been knocked up, knocked down, ripped through, cut open, worn down, fed up, burnt out, restrained physically, emotionally, chemically,
Burned, Buried, Resurrected.
We are not alone.
You Are Not Alone.
Who. aRe. You.?
do you know Who, What, Where,
You may wish to go wash your hands,
splash some water on your face,
Brush your teeth or Take a bath?
These are all good things to do. When the time is right.
Who is good? What is right? Are you - are we- there yet?
Do you need any help?
Let me know.
am I am
Your Sister, Your Mother, Your Friend?
Those are all good people to talk to, too (two?)
We are all in this
All Together Now
Look in the Mirror.
Mirrors are Everywhere.
And I see you, too.
Photo Cred: https://www.sheridaraephotography.ca/