“I’ll be down in a little while,” I say. “I just need some space.”
She continues to look at me with her wide, blue eyes, while I struggle to find a way to break my PMDD down into child-digestible chunks.
“You know how sometimes we get a tummy ache and we go to the doctor? Well, other times when we feel sad, we have to go to a feelings doctor. Today Mama is feeling sad. Do you understand?”
She nods, seeming to accept this explanation, but I wonder if she’s just eager to get out of the gloom of the bedroom and back downstairs — where she can race toy cars with her dad in peace.
My daughter was born in November, in the dead of winter — which I quickly learned was the most abominable season to have a baby. It wasn’t dreamlike; it was dark. It wasn’t cozy; it was cramped. The sun went to bed early every afternoon, and it was hard to find any light to cling to after five o’clock — which just happened to coincide with my daughter’s witching hour.
After the first week of motherhood, I already felt like I wanted to escape. What is wrong with me? I wondered. Why do I constantly have this dark cloud over my head? I had waited to become a parent for so long, and now that I was, all I wanted to do was run out the door into the blizzard. Instead, I stepped into the bathroom and turned on the shower, wondering if I’d get a break from my daughter’s constant crying.
When I came back into the living room, she was sleeping in her swing. I sat on the couch and stared at the 24/7 news channel. I felt completely disconnected from the rest of the world. I wondered: How can it still be spinning as if nothing has happened?
Dark, intrusive thoughts wound their way into my head as I sat with my hair dripping and my hands shaking. What if I drop her when I pick her up? What if the one night I don’t check on her, she just stops breathing in her crib? How can my husband just sit in the den working? How can he survive on a few hours’ sleep, and then ask me if I want spaghetti for dinner, as if everything is normal?
Six months later I sat on my psychiatrist’s fancy white couch, perched on the edge of sadness. I’d already been diagnosed with postpartum depression and anxiety, and prescribed antidepressants, but I still felt unstable. Zoloft was helping me cope with the chaotic day-to-day life of new motherhood, but I was still struggling.
I couldn’t figure out why it seemed to be worse at certain times of the month. There were days when the dark clouds descended as soon as I woke up, and they usually happened a week to 10 days before my period. I didn’t remember ever feeling like that before I had my daughter.
I waited quietly for the doctor, feeling like a specimen on display. How do I compare to the rest of the patients today? Am I a mild case, or do I need to up my dose?
I heard her high heels click across the wooden floor and tried not to cringe. She always seemed so put together and sophisticated, professionally remote and dressed to the nines. Is she a mother, as well as a doctor? Does she know what it’s like to do daily battle with chemicals and hormones?
It seemed to take her forever to evaluate my answers on the mood questionnaire, and all I could think about was my beautiful baby girl, waiting for me at home. Why am I here with this stranger and not there with her?
The answer appeared in the form of an acronym: PMDD. The doctor explained that while the majority of women experience only mild or occasional premenstrual syndrome symptoms before their period, a “lucky” few (less than 10 percent of us) suffer from a severe, darker form of PMS called premenstrual dysphoric disorder.
The symptoms she rattled off read like one of my journal entries. Increased irritability? Check. Volatile mood swings? Yep. More chance of interpersonal conflicts? Definitely. Weepy for no real reason? Exactly. Intense food cravings for anything sweet or salty? Totally.
When I mentioned my diagnosis to my immediate family, I found myself offering it up like a doctor’s note. See? This is why I haven’t fallen in love with my baby at first sight. It’s not just something lacking in me as a mother, it’s an actual psychological disorder.
Most people I know have never heard of PMDD, and don’t know what it stands for. Others just downplay it as run-of-the-mill PMS or laugh it off as something normal that all women experience at that time of the month. But that’s not right.
For me, it’s like I become someone else. Someone I don’t like. Ordinary challenges seem insurmountable. I feel like I am basically failing at everything — including parenting.
I often need my own psychological timeout, but that brings on the guilt. I wonder what could be more important than looking after my daughter, but then I remember: looking after her mother.
It’s been five years since I was diagnosed, and it’s still a challenge when it comes to parenting. On bad days, it feels like my blood pressure constantly skyrockets. Sometimes the slightest irritation sends me into a haze of rage. On other days, a low-level hum of anxiety surrounds me.
The first-line treatment for PMDD is often antidepressants, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. They aren’t the perfect solution, though. They can make me feel strangely numb and have also caused weight gain. I certainly don’t feel as amorous in my relationship. But for me it all comes down to what’s more important: my mental health or my looks? My peace of mind or my sex drive?
I don’t want to be at a loss or feel like an emotional write-off. I just want to feel like myself for the whole month.
After my daughter heads back downstairs to play toy cars with her dad, I force myself to take a deep breath. Then I allow myself 30 minutes.
All is not lost.
There is still sunlight to be caught in my daughter’s hair as she lies on the floor, lining up her cars. I watch her from the doorway as I hover on the edge of family life, half in my head, half in the room.
She glances up at me, as if sensing my presence, and a surprised smile lights up her little face.
“Mama, do you want to play with us?”
I look into her eyes, so like mine yet all her own, and smile back.