Suicide and Postpartum Depression: Why The Church Needs To Do Better

Trigger Warning: In honor of suicide prevention week, I wanted to share my own story of suicide ideation and obsessive compulsive disorder. This post contains content that might be difficult for some readers.

It seems like every news cycle now, my news feeds light up with another victim of suicide.

A Pastor.
A Sports Star.
A Celebrity.
Or maybe a neighbor.
A mommy at play group.

A Dad from school.

And people want to know why, it’s an understandable question. A necessary question. We need to know why so we can hopefully prevent it from happening to another person. So we can understand the process and learn how to help.

But beneath the why, another question is often lingering. What people really want to ask is,

How could they?

Didn’t they care?

What about their family, their children, their parents.

Didn’t they know their pain wouldn’t last?

Hushed whispers, anonymous comments.

It’s a pregnant why.

And whispered or shouted in it’s shadow is the word anyone who has struggled with suicidal ideation dreads;

Selfish.

But I’ve been there. In the icey black grip of suicide’s cold fingers.

And it wasn’t ever my pain I wanted to spare, but my families.

I was 23 when I had my first baby. Young and naive my husband and I had planned a natural and gentle birth. We took the Bradley Method classes, we read every book available, we thought we had control.

Instead I was met with a traumatic c-section after a breached birth. My pain was never well controlled and instead of feeling elation or happiness or anything,

I only felt cold.

A new mother with anxiety holds her newborn in the hospital
What should have been a happy time, instead I was so afraid to hold her.

I was told anxiety was normal, all new moms are anxious, and everyone gets the baby blues. But soon the cold anxious feel transformed into something else.

Fear.

What ifs plagued me.

What if I drop my baby down the stairs.

What if the dogs ate her.

What if I stab her.

What if I put her in the freezer.

So I counted knives every time I went into my kitchen, afraid I may have hidden one somehow. I dodged my freezer and refused to get anything out of the fridge. I was not helpless to feed myself. I wouldn’t leave my house, in case I had to go up stairs. I sent my two small dogs away to my mother’s.

I was a prisoner in my home, and these horrible thoughts were my cruel warden. I felt like a monster. A failure.

My husband struggled. I refused to hold my daughter unless she needed to nurse. I was so afraid I would hurt her. But I couldn’t tell him. What would he think of me? How could he love me, when I thought about hurting our daughter. So he became her primary care giver. I saw how it affected him, confused as to why his wife was shrinking away before his very eyes when she should be blossoming into new motherhood. I isolated. I sent my mom and sister home. I refused visitors.

If I let them in I was sure they would find out what sort of person I was, what sort of horrible things I was thinking.

I lashed out in anger. Because anger was easier to digest than constant fear and anxiety. I hated myself, I feared my mind. What if’s swirled constantly, each one more terrible than the next. I knew I was a terrible burden.

So I planned my death. I decided I would rather die than hurt my baby girl. My husband and daughter deserved better than me. Yes I reasoned, they would mourn. But they would find someone else.

Someone better, someone who wasn’t a monster inside. My disease lied to me. My why wasn’t selfishness, it was cruelly mixed up selflessness.

I thought I would release them from the heavy burden that was me. They deserved a life free from me. Free from my failure. I was an impostor.

A young mother with postpartum depression holds and kisses a newborn baby
Depression and OCD isn’t something you can see from the outside.

The smallest thought changed my mind. Or maybe it was the biggest since it saved my life.

I worried who would nurse my daughter.

No one, if I was gone. It was the one thing I was doing okay. The one part of my birth plan that remained intact. The only thing coming naturally. And I clung to it. I clung to it long enough to call a crisis line. Long enough to scream and sob that I wasn’t okay, when my husband knocked on the bathroom door and asked what was wrong.

He called my mom, and together with the helpline, I was put in touch with a postpartum social worker at the hospital. I was terrified they would take my baby, once they found out I was having these paralyzing thoughts. Instead I was referred to a postpartum support group, and a psychologist specializing in postpartum disorders. Not one professional I met was afraid of me. Or accusing. No one thought I was a monster. Everyone believed how much I loved my daughter.

Many hands make light the load, and though I still  felt like a burden, an army of kind and empathetic professionals rallied around me and my family.

I was diagnosed with postpartum anxiety and postpartum obsessive compulsive disorder, It’s lessor known, insidious cousin.

And my thoughts that I was sure made me a monster?

They had a name:  Intrusive Thoughts.

They didn’t make me a monster at all, they made me a human mother suffering from one of the hallmark symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder. They didn’t mean I wanted to do any of those things, rather, they meant I cared so much, I worried so much, my brain could not process all of the stimuli, and fleeting thoughts that warn a regular person of danger, instead got stuck on replay, playing louder and louder each loop, until I become obsessive over them.
My support group became my life line. I met other mothers who were all experiencing the same thing. I wasn’t alone. I was so much more than the names I was calling myself.

But when we told our church, something happened.

Their reaction was the antithesis of my caring providers. They looked at me with fear. They stopped inviting us to small group. I was told I needed to be more grateful, more thankful. Other women dreamed of having babies, it was selfish to be depressed when I had one. As though suffering is mutually exclusive. I was advised against medication, because this was obviously spiritual. This was life threatening advice, that by God’s grace I didn’t take.

And yet calls for small groups stopped coming. Meals dropped off. I distinctly felt an invisible wall rise up around us, like my mental illness was catching. A few times, I was brave enough to take our daughter to church on Sundays, and was told to leave service to the nursing room. Another time I was brave enough to try a new moms bible study. I was called out to get my daughter because she was fussy.

Normal things I realize for any new mom, but the fear I had to overcome to drive us, to get us ready, to pack for every eventuality, to silence the intrusive thoughts, was exhausting.

Everyday I was fighting for my life, and yet I was often told to leave.

It devastated me.

I wasn’t met with open arms, but cold shoulders.

I was a spiritual leper.

So for a time, for my own mental health, I had to step away from the church, in a time when I needed it the most.

Jesus found meJesus found me of course. In books, and music and private worship. In my home and through my family and doctors.

This is a tragedy to me. Because I wonder, what if I had reached out to them first? What if my first call hadn’t been to a crisis line? But to my church?

Six months later, after medication, therapy and an amazing support group at our hospital, I looked down at my daughter, and she smiled.

And I saw her.

I finally saw her, like it was the first time.

A young mother holds a smiling baby on her lap
One of the first pictures of my daughter and I, when I was myself again.

I finally felt that warm motherhood feeling I had dreamed about. I didn’t miss that moment, it wasn’t stolen, only delayed.

And I’m thankful everyday, I was able to see it. To feel it.

It’s been eight years now. I’ve had two more children, and experienced much more mild PPD with each one. But I had resources in place.

Providers, allies. A life I wouldn’t have had, if I didn’t make that call, if I didn’t utter those words. I’m not okay.

And I’ve found amazing churches too. Churches that have allowed me and my family to come as we are, our broken leprous bits and all. Churches that have been life giving support when we have faced more hard times.

So friends don’t ask why. Instead, reach out to those around you. Look up. Love more, reach more, notice more. Step in. Because even in what should be the happiest moments of our lives, people can fracture inside, right in front of our eyes, without you noticing.

When someone feels like less, stand in the gap and love more. Remind them that the promise of their smile tomorrow, is enough for today.

A woman in black and white

And Church, we have to do better. When someone comes to us in pain, we need to meet them there. Pat answers don’t work. Often just sitting with someone is enough, acknowledging their pain so they aren’t alone in it. We don’t have to be mental health experts, we just have to be kind and willing to mourn with those who mourn, even if we don’t understand it. You can’t fix it, but you can offer to sit with someone in the dark until the sun rises.

And if you are there dear friend, if you are stuck in the blackness, if you feel like a burden or your pain is so encompassing you can’t see your way out, you aren’t alone. This world needs you. We need you. Your light, the promise of your smile. Tomorrow needs you, in shapes ways that only you can fill. This world is better with you in it, even if it doesn’t feel like it right now.

Reach out, let someone know. Help is only a text or call away.

If you or someone you know needs help with suicidal thoughts, there are resources, please tell someone, take the first step. 

Call 1-800-273-8255
Or
Text HOME to 741741 in the United States.
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