I wish I could cry.
At this moment, with stress bearing down on me as if I am Atlas holding up the world, I wish I could release some of the pressure trapped in my tear ducts. I used to cry at the drop of a pin; all it took was a sappy movie or a cute picture of a puppy to make me weepy, my husband playfully teasing me in anticipation of the watery overflow.
But I don’t cry anymore. I can’t.
The antidepressants I take every morning with my coffee suppress the spectrum of my emotions, including sadness or anger that normally result in tearful meltdowns.
I hate that I can’t cry. I despise my emotionless face that bears no reaction to life’s events. No tears of joy at the news of a friend’s baby or wedding, no crying with the reports of another school shooting, nothing – even when I’m at my breaking point. What a miserable way to live, without the highs and lows of life.
I hate it almost enough to stop taking the meds altogether, or at least reduce the dosage myself without the legwork of consulting my physician first. But I can’t do that either, because I don’t know what will emerge at the other end. I’m scared of who will reappear on the other side of being unmedicated.
My newborn son sleeps in a boppy as my husband opens the door to the garage, heading back to work after the birth of our first baby. I don’t want him to go, despite the fact that the baby solely relies on me anyway at this point. The emotional support my husband provided at home these first few weeks is immeasurable. His happy-go-lucky demeanor almost distracts me from the weight of being responsible for this other person.
Once he leaves for work, I pour myself a bowl of cereal and sit on the floor in front of the snoozing newborn. I stare at his perfect skin and wrinkled hands. I watch the rise and fall of his chest as my body releases a stream of tears into my breakfast. “What have I done?” I think to myself as I sob, “Normal life is gone. No more movie nights, no more dates. Life forever consumed by this stranger.” I cry and cry as he sleeps.
Another morning, I call my mom and detail the anxiety that plagues me. I tell her that, irrationally, I feel like I have a blood clot that will travel to my heart and kill me. The feeling is unfounded in any real facts or data, just illogical hysteria. She only tells me to go for walks when I can and massage my legs to loosen any potential clots.
In turn, I force myself to take a walk with the baby every day. I push the stroller the same few blocks, stepping on fallen leaves to hear them crunch beneath my feet. I feel only slightly better having the autumn sun on my face, but mostly I remain exhausted. I’m worn from the walk, but more so from trying to heal after a traumatic birth both physically and mentally(though I’ve yet to learn what birth trauma can look like). Some afternoons I sit on the deck overlooking the backyard, taking in the beauty of our maple trees in transition. I admire the changing colors and remember our autumnal wedding with leaves in abundance as decoration. But the fog doesn’t lift.
The boys are in the bathtub, playing gleefully with the bubbles that float around them. They send their Hotwheels through a make-believe car wash by covering them with suds, scrubbing each crevice clean with a toothbrush, and rinsing them until they sparkle. I sit on the bathroom floor adjacent to them with my head in my arms, crossed on the toilet seat lid. Tears stream down my face quietly, although I don’t attempt to stifle the sounds despite the presence of my kids. I’m pregnant with our third boy, due in a few short months. The deepest, darkest part of winter greedily approaches, the days growing shorter and shorter, along with my capacity for anything above and beyond merely existing.
The tears are normal now, as are the other extremes of my personality that’s emerged since becoming a mother. I frequently glance at a photo hanging on the fridge, one taken of me with my son as a baby, both of us smiling back, and I think to myself, “Who is that woman? Where did she go? What does she have to be so happy about?”
I’m making dinner for my ravenous children and in the frenzy, drop a spoon on the ground. The clanging noise, along with the impending mess, triggers me.. Rage boils over in the form of another meltdown, a throwing fit, a screaming match with myself. I am like Te Kā, the lava monster from “Moana.” I quietly sing in my head, “This is not who you are. You know who you are.” But do I?
A single spoon is all it took to unravel me.
My husband works the overnight shift, leaving home around dinnertime and returning near 2 am. I’m so anxious at night while he’s gone that I postpone my own bedtime bit by bit, knowing the more I delay going to bed, the less time I’ll have to endure being awake without him. I can handle the separation, but I dream up irrational fears, like break-ins and how I’d defend our kids who sleep on different levels of our house.
Later in the week, a friend of twenty-something years texts me to check in, “I’m worried about you.” I brush it off, explaining to her that life is just hard lately. But she presses on, verbalizing her fear that I might be experiencing depression.
“How can I be depressed?” I reply back, “I have an abundance of blessings – a good home, a wonderful husband, our third child on the way.” She is gentle in her accompanying replies, which thread together her own experience with mental health and the knowledge she’s gained along the way. “Depression has nothing to do with your circumstances. It’s not a choice or based on your environment. It can pick anyone.”
I collapse into my husband when he arrives home and tell him I’m not myself. I’m ashamed when I unveil to him that I’ve considered the relief I’d feel if I was in a car accident – not to be dead – but hospitalized for a week or so. He embraces me, confirming my suspicion that I’m truly sitting on the threshold between remaining a lava monster and missing out on this life I’ve been given.
Shortly after, I start taking Zoloft.
Rolling out of the operating room with my third and final baby, I gently give thanks for the squishy newborn baby in my arms. He’s swaddled in the traditional hospital blanket with thin pink and blue lines, a matching hat atop his slightly fuzzy head. A C-section was not part of the plan, but the relief of his arrival outweighs the grief and disappointment of the operation. Anxiety plagued most of my pregnancy, bringing a persistent fear of losing him – miscarriage, stillbirth, SIDS. His arrival means he’s safe for now. I have him here in my arms.
We order food to the recovery room and attempt to soak up the quiet; a welcome reprieve from older brothers anxiously (loudly) awaiting their baby brother’s homecoming. But my waned anxiety rears back each time we change the baby’s diaper or clothing. His flailing arms look frantic, unintentional, scary. Newborn babies have reflexes, but this was something more. Something they had warned me about.
Multiple medical professionals had previously mentioned this side effect to me. Zoloft may cause the baby to have tremors after their birth, lasting from hours to days. Seeing these effects firsthand sent me back to the depths of my guilt and shame.
“If I wasn’t depressed and on medication, he wouldn’t be broken. I ruined my son,” I sob. My husband and doctor reassure me of the normalcy of the reaction and the sureness of its subsiding. It does nothing to wane my sorrow.
One night in the hospital when the baby’s hunger was seemingly unquenchable, the nurse offered the use of donor milk to top the baby off. I agreed to it, but as he gulped less than two ounces of a stranger’s milk, I sobbed to my husband, “I guess that other woman is his mother now.” Hormones, depression, fatigue – I was undone yet again, unable to see the truth.
It’s often only in hindsight that we can clearly see how the experiences we’ve been through shape us. I undoubtedly suffered from postpartum depression and anxiety after the birth of our firstborn. My induction and unexpected vacuum-assisted birth were the first dominos of a continuous topple for years to come. I was sent home after a week in the hospital, stitched and sore, with a stranger I was ill-equipped and uninterested in caring for. I loved him, sure, but there was no infatuation, no swooning or obsession.
Undiagnosed, I endured my first maternity leave with uncertainty, despair, and grief. I felt so alone all the time, regardless of visitors. The slight smile on my face was only a mask, discarded immediately when our guests went home. My son and I eventually grew to enjoy each other more, fell into a rhythm, and created a routine. But the lack of support specific to mental health meant I struggled instead of thrived. It meant I went undiagnosed for six more years, threatening my mental well-being and life again when I was pregnant the third time. That text from my friend, urging me to get help, saved me from an even darker stage of PPD appearing once he was born.
For my sake and for the sake of those I love most, choosing to get help for my mental health was the only way for me to feel whole again. There was a huge part of me missing in those seasons of life; I knew it, my husband and kids saw it, and my friend caught it. Being on antidepressants has allowed me to soak up the seasons of motherhood with more grace than grit, and has taught me to embrace the mundane along with the magic.
Motherhood is relentless. It’s a continuous avalanche of emotions. It’s beautiful, heartbreaking, electrifying, jubilant. I want to be present and feel the emotions that accompany each and every stage of motherhood.
But I also need to know how to contain that avalanche – to protect those I love from being smothered or hurt. Containment means I rely on medicine, one that allows me to slowly re-learn how to display emotions in a healthy way. Because once I have that down (does anyone?), I’m hopeful my kids know they can be vulnerable and express their emotions too.
So for now, I can’t cry.
I won’t sob and puddle when a romantic song comes on the radio or when my son says something extra sweet. But maybe one day, when I’m out of the weeds and on my way back to myself, I’ll shed a tear or two of pride for how far I’ve come and the strength it took to get here.
Rachel resides in Minnesota with her family. Her three boys keep her busy and her house messy. Any snippets of free time she finds, she enjoys amateur gardening, easy puzzles, and listening to live music. You can find her at www.rachelschuehle.com and instagram.com/rachelschuehle