Unexpected Journey

The baby was a dream come true for one new mother. What happened next was not.

Health & Fitness

March 28, 2004|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,Sun Staff

I am cleaning my refrigerator like a madwoman, from the overstuffed freezer to the drawer where vegetables go to rot. Two weeks after giving birth by Caesarean- section, I am supposed to be relaxing, watching Lawrence of Arabia on the couch with my husband while our baby girl sleeps. But the opening credits roll and I start scrubbing. Lawrence takes Aqaba and I'm still at it. Hours later, the marathon movie and cleaning continue. The war-weary Brit approaches insanity. And I'm way ahead of him.

Within a week I would land in a psychiatric ward, suddenly and painfully separated from my newborn -- and reality.

Hardly the outcome I had expected when, at long last, I became pregnant at age 36. We'd been trying for five years, gave up, then spent months filling out paperwork for an adoption agency. We turned in a mountain of papers on a Friday. That Monday I learned I was expecting.

I felt great for the next nine months. I jogged a mile and a half two days before the baby was born. I swam laps at the YMCA the day before. Labor was difficult and concluded with a complicated cesarean, but I was on top of the world.

Who knew I could climb higher still -- or that feeling so good could be something to worry about?

HOME from the hospital, the baby had her days and nights mixed up, sleeping all day long but just two hours or so at night. People told me to nap during the day. I rearranged furniture instead. I wasn't even tired. Who needs sleep when there's a beautiful baby in the house, not to mention a phone ringing off the hook? Every congratulatory call fed my excitement.

After a week and a half with only snatches of sleep, I crashed early one evening. Collapsed on the couch, I asked my husband to bring the baby to me because she needed feeding and I was too tired to get up.

No sooner did Anna start nursing than I felt a surge of energy -- proof, a psychiatrist later told me, that hormones were triggering my mood swings. At the time, I certainly felt strange. "This is like a drug," I marveled over and over as Anna nursed. "I feel like a million bucks." But I never dreamed there was cause for concern.

Wide awake the rest of that night, I was mystified but enormously happy.

I knew I needed to sleep eventually. But I could not relax. Someone suggested a glass of wine, and that did the trick for one night. I had another glass the following night, and that helped, too. The next evening I wanted more but was frightened by the strength of my craving. "This is what it must be like to be an alcoholic," I thought.

A friend I confided in much later joked that I, a very light drinker, am the only alcoholic who has never been drunk. But in my overwrought state, I was ready to sign up for AA. I couldn't even look at the half-full wine bottle on the counter. I put it on top of the refrigerator to keep it out of view.

I couldn't get the wine out of my mind as I sat in the adjacent living room that night, where Lawrence of Arabia was about to come on TV and I was supposed to stay put. My husband, Jeff, figured a good, long movie was just what I needed to settle down. But the bottle beckoned.

I wanted to pour it down the drain but didn't want to explain myself to Jeff. So I decided to get rid of the wine by adding it to some spaghetti sauce in the freezer. I thawed out the sauce on the stovetop, dumped in the wine, then proceeded to clean the freezer and refrigerator for the length of the movie.

Jeff and I recognized this was strange behavior in a house where the vegetable crisper is more accurately called "the rotter." But we laughed it off, joking that the baby had somehow ushered in a new era of high housekeeping standards.

A day or so later, Jeff heard what he thought was sobbing and rushed downstairs to find me laughing hysterically. What was so funny? I had absolutely no idea. Jeff cracked up, too. We thought I was just punchy.

Beyond boundless energy, some good laughs and a sparkling Frigidaire, there wasn't much of an upside to my mental state. As the days wore on, I became more anxious and emotional. I dragged the baby to the doctor with a minor diaper rash and sobbed throughout the appointment. I started having scary thoughts: Picking up an empty plastic diaper bag, I pictured it over my head. More terrifying, I imagined the baby inside.

Frightened but ashamed, I told no one. I gave the diaper bag to my husband and implored him to put it someplace where I couldn't find it. Sleep-deprived himself, he threw it in the trash without giving much thought to my odd request.

Jeff did catch on that something was wrong, though he assumed sleep was all I needed. He took time off from work so he could help care for Anna. But I wouldn't rest. Time and again, Jeff sent me to bed but I would not stay. I needed to check on the baby. I wanted to have long, emotional conversations with Jeff, revisiting every twist and turn in our 10-year marriage. I didn't want to be alone. Increasingly, I was afraid to sleep.

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