I saw the water tower jutting into the bright blue October sky as I coasted down the hill after dropping off my son at day care. He had fallen asleep in the car, once again, after screaming at me since 4 a.m. The day care providers cooed over my “little angel” as I wrote them a check — a check I hoped they wouldn’t cash until my payday at the end of the week.
As I drove past the water tower, I found my eyes drawn to the ladder. If I wanted to, I thought, I could pull over, climb up the tower. ...
And do a swan dive off the top.
But not today. I had an important meeting in 10 minutes. “Keep it together, Jenn,” I chastised myself. I didn’t want to leave a clue that something was wrong. So I filed away the thought for another day.
In truth, it wasn’t my first suicidal thought. It wasn’t even my first since my son was born two months earlier. But it was the first time I’d felt a true urge to follow through.
‘I wanted out’
When we announced we were expecting our second child during Christmas 2006, my husband and I knew that both of our fathers were in poor health. We knew both men hoped for a grandson, but neither lived long enough to meet him.
My father-in-law was the first to pass, and I tried being the rock for my husband. When my own father died two months later, I was trying to be strong for my mother and daughter. During that time, I convinced myself that this baby boy would fill our lives with joy and help alleviate our sorrow.
Enter Hurricane Brendan, who came into this world via emergency C-section on his due date in late August. It was the scariest 20 minutes of my life — from the announcement of the needed procedure, to hearing the pterodactyl screech that would define my life for the next three years. This wasn’t the cuddly, content baby his sister had been. He only tolerated being held long enough to feed. And then he would screech and wiggle until he was put down. He was colicky. And he was a night owl, leaving me too tired to focus once I returned to work.
My mother, who had happily provided child care for my daughter, didn’t feel strong enough to care for two children. That meant scrambling to find infant care and a way to pay for it. Meanwhile, my daughter was demanding more attention from me, and my husband was coping with grief by throwing himself into his work.
Well-meaning friends and acquaintances showered the children with attention. They told me how blessed I was. But I never heard anyone ask, “How are you doing?” If they had asked, I probably would’ve burst into tears and made them regret asking.
I felt alone and drained. I hit the depression trifecta of helpless, hopeless, worthless. I wanted out.
Two weeks after my water tower fantasy, I hit rock bottom. Criticism at work and another sleepless night took their ultimate toll. That morning I crawled under the pile of unfolded laundry on the couch and starting weeping.
“I can’t do this anymore,” I confessed to my husband. “You guys deserve better.”
Later that day, my doctor took one look at me and could tell something wasn’t right. (Why couldn’t my husband do that, I thought in frustration.) I was given a prescription for antidepressants. An appointment was booked with a psychologist, and I quickly received the official diagnosis: postpartum depression. My case was on the borderline of moderate and severe.
“Have you had any suicidal thoughts?” read one of the questions on my evaluation. I checked “yes.”
Next question: “If yes, do you have a plan?”
I froze. If I counted that moment thinking about the water tower, what would that do? Would Child Protection Services be called? Would I be committed? What if the insurance company informed my workplace?
I chickened out and checked “no.” Even in the place that was supposed to help me, I still couldn’t bring myself to admit how bad it was.
“Do you love your children?” my therapist asked.
“Of course,” I snapped, almost offended.
“That’s OK,” he said. “Not every mother feels that way.”
There was no miraculous moment when I knew I was “over it.” The situation slowly became more bearable with months of counseling, adjustments to medications and me trying to be more honest about my emotions. There were many heart-to-heart talks with my husband and my mother in attempts to reconnect. We didn’t always find solutions, and sometimes my mom and I simply cried together.
It helped when Brendan started sleeping through the night, though he never was an affectionate infant or toddler. At 18 months, he was diagnosed with a developmental delay that eventually led to an autism diagnosis.
Several years later, I found myself chatting with my cousin, a brand-new mom, on Facebook. It was a late hour. She struck me as a little too quick with the typical stats people want with new babies. She knew exactly what people wanted to hear.
That’s when I typed, “So how are YOU doing?”
I could see that she had read it. A few minutes later came the reply:
“Can I call you?”
But it was too late. I had already picked up the phone and was dialing her number.
Jennifer Brookens is a former staff writer for the Fairmont Sentinel newspaper. She is currently working on her “great American novel,” and resides in Fairmont with her husband and two children. She works as a substitute teacher for the Fairmont area school district and as an on-air personality at KSUM-AM and KFMC-FM radio in Fairmont.