Driving away from the hospital on Sunday afternoon I was thrilled with my baby and eager to be back with my little girl.... A friend, Kate, was staying with us the night I returned. She gave me a gift that still hangs in our kitchen. Made of a dark metal, it is a votive incense burner to unfamiliar Far Eastern gods. Decorative horses, lions, and elephants dance attendance. If we had known, that night of my return, what dark spirits lay in wait, maybe we'd have lit the incense in a futile effort to appease, though who knew what.
The first few days after Jesse's birth stand like a bulwark against what was to come. For that short time, I felt the unique delight and ordinary exhaustion that were already old familiars to me from Eliza's birth. The flowers that arrived smelled sweet, the cards of congratulation, set out on the dresser, spoke true. But in the space of days, all that pleasure became vicarious. It was not mine.
The woman who began that week, returning home triumphant with her second child, was not the person there at the end of it, or so it seemed. Where did I go to, or come from? Was the despair I felt when Jesse was ten days old something I had lived with unwittingly? Or something invented out of the blue in that short hour of my baby's life?
On Monday I was just a little out of sorts, stuck in a mood of unease that I couldn't shake off. Then I started to cry, more and more often, but I didn't know why. I cried in front of a neighbor, someone with whom I'd only ever been banally cheerful. If Hugh asked me how I was, I wept and had no words. There was no question of parading my new baby in the village, as mothers are wont to do. I wanted to see no one. My mother reassured me on the phone that this was normal after childbirth, maybe thinking of the weepiness people call the "baby blues." I couldn't make her understand, perhaps because I didn't dare describe it to myself like that. It had gone beyond the normal, whatever that is.
I wasn't depressed, I told myself. I had nothing to be depressed about. I simply despised myself. I was making a fuss about nothing. I was putting it on. Why couldn't I snap out of it, pull myself together, in that terrible English phrase? I grappled with words, reaching time and again for any understanding. But though I knew so many, I couldn't find any that told me what I was feeling. The midwives, who visited each day, became worried. Hugh was very worried. I retreated further, my face blank with despair. My body became inert, heavy, and burdensome. Every gesture was hard. I no longer played with Eliza. It was harder and harder to face her infantile exuberance when I could find no mirror for it. I berated myself, stretched myself on the rack of guilt. How could I deprive my own child this way, why was I refusing to give her the smile she needed?
On Saturday I capitulated. The sheets and pillows, bars and baubles, of our brass bed became my prison. I could not leave it. My existence was bared away almost to nothing, except for the self-contempt that bruised my eye sockets and throat, that turned my stomach and made my tongue into some large, coarse creature in my mouth. I sat to feed Jesse, but otherwise lay curled, motionless, in some futile effort to still the pain.... I talked with Hugh, oh so lucidly, I tried to discover why I had stopped my life. And for the first time I could remember, it chilled my marrow to find that words made no difference.
Later that night, Hugh asleep beside me, I wrote down what I could. Perhaps because it gave me no relief, I didn't risk this again in the months that followed. I hadn't kept a diary for years, but found myself somehow compelled to write, to bear witness to my own withdrawal. This is what I set down:
"24th October 1992 (11 p.m.): Jesse is nearly 10 days old and I am passionately in love with her. My feelings about myself:
self-dismay--longing to be mothered--strong fear I'm making all this up--that I've lost my reason for action--wish someone would come in & take all decisions, force my hand--wish to be out of it all, back in hospital even. But horror of being separated from Eliza--fear I'm losing touch with Eliza--fear Hugh won't be able to stand it--incomprehension--
desperation--desire for a close friend--fear I'll be unable to give up this condition--boredom & weariness at having to think about it endlessly, never able to create another perspective. Everything is sucked into this depression's somber glow--time passing so slowly--not understanding myself--trying to write my mind clear, but it's not going to make any difference--fear of the outside world.
I don't want to see anyone except Hugh, Eliza, Jesse, & the midwives....
Everything anybody says feels like another putdown--
What do I want?--the fact that this may all be a hormonal imbalance is no consolation to me--it makes no difference--nor does it make any difference other people saying they suffered post-partum depression or that it goes quickly--so many tears--periods of weeping, about any thing--and then stretches of dried-out numbness..."
I didn't sleep that night. Early the following morning, I tried, once more, to explain myself:
"25 October (6:45 a.m.): Am I just making all this up, to punish myself perhaps? And if I am, why? I can't stand to think of my 2 little girls--why would I do this to them?
...Depression is like an amoeba, altering its shape to take in every corner of my life; just when you think it's left one place, it turns up in another...."
Excerpted with permission from "Composing Myself: A Journal Through Postpartum Depression," by Fiona Shaw. Copyright 1997, 1998 by Fiona Shaw. Published by Steerforth Press.