“Can you just move that damn thing? It’s staring at me!”
-Lindsey Austin, PPD survivor
Benjamin Thomas Austin was born on September 22, 2011. My pride and joy.
I was a brand-new daddy and on Cloud Nine. But almost immediately, things were not okay – not with Ben, but with his mama. Something snapped, friends. After snuggling my little boy for the first time, singing and praying over him, I walked back over to check on my wife, and something had disconnected. Her eyes glazed over, and I figured she must just be on some really good drugs. But that blank stare continued for the better part of a month, and I feared I had lost the love of my life forever.
There are a million little things that happened in the first week of Ben’s life that clued me in that my wife was not well, but I won’t list them all here. But can I tell you one story?
I called the OBGYN one more time, near the end of the first week of Ben’s life. I was sure she wouldn’t answer this time. But she did – again. “Something’s got to give,” I told her, voice shaky and tears flowing. “Lindsey is not okay. This is only getting worse by the day. She still hasn’t slept.”
“I’ll call labor and delivery and tell them to make room. Pack your bags and bring her and the baby.” There was no psych ward at the hospital where Ben was born, but Lindsey’s doctor wanted to make her as comfortable as possible. The plan was to observe her for a few days, hoping she could get the sleep she so desperately needed and then go home.
With the help of both grandmas, we loaded Lindsey and Ben in the car and caravanned back to the hospital, getting her settled in a room. I remember being scared to death to be in the car with my wife. Would she start screaming? Would she try to escape at a stop light? Would she grab the steering wheel in a panic? Literally, everything was uncertain those days.
Lindsey was eventually transferred from our local hospital to a much larger facility a few miles away, where she was admitted to the psych ward for another week. But during our time on the labor and delivery wing, doctors, nurses, counselors, and social workers kept a close eye on her.
One afternoon during our stay, the scariest thing happened. I was sitting on one of those terribly uncomfortable vinyl couch/bed things, next to Lindsey’s hospital bed. Baby Ben was in a plastic bassinet at the end of the bed, and there was a rolling hospital tray on the other side of Lindsey.
I stood up and walked over to my sweet bride, brushing my fingers through her hair, lightly kissing her forehead. I didn’t say much to her during that week, just gentle whispers. Everything I was doing was in an attempt to wake her up. “Come back to me,” my heart kept begging hers. “Wake up. Come home. We’re right here.” But she was not right there.
As I planted those little kisses on her forehead, she snapped her face around with a stare that must have traveled a thousand miles. She said, “Can you just move that damn thing? It’s staring at me!”
On the food tray, there was a can of baby formula. The label pictured a happy little baby with dimples on his chubby face. It was turned toward Lindsey and me. “It’s staring at me! Move it!” It’s like her eyes were staring right through me.
I’m not sure I’ve ever been more terrified.
Nobody tells you these things are possible when you’re in your early twenties and walking through premarital counseling with the pastor.
That your husband can develop a gambling addiction? That you might not be able to get pregnant? That your baby could be born with one chromosome less than “normal”? (What a terrible word.) No one tells you that houses burn down, and marriages do too. Or that friends walk away when you opt for divorce or your children come out of the closet. Or that perfectly healthy spouses fall off their bikes, bump their heads, and never return to “normal” (there’s that word again).
There are a million different things that no one seems to tell you until the switch flips. Until the lights go out. Until your perfect bride doesn’t sleep for two solid weeks and her OCD-like symptoms are driving the whole house mad, and you wonder if you’ll be raising a brand-new baby all by your damn self.
Sometimes a case of the Mondays isn’t just missing one little hour of sleep and needing an extra cup of coffee. Sometimes it’s being scared shitless because the bottom of your LIFE has fallen out. Sometimes it’s shaky hands and weak knees, sliding down the hall in the hospital, uncertain of any fucking thing at all. Wondering how you got here. And what will tomorrow look like?
In moments like those, there’s not some magic formula to make everything all better, or alright. There is only the moment. There is just the person in front of you, and the person in the mirror. There is only compassion and taking things as slow as you need to, and praying to God that you have an empathetic support system around you who will refuse to leave you alone. There’s not the end result. There is only this decision that you have to make right now.
I know that focusing on the “right now” is not an easy pill to swallow when all you can think about is the end result. You want to hear something hopeful or believe in the miraculous or cross your fingers that you’ll wake up from this nightmare. When you are living your worst case scenario and every ounce of your being is obsessed with the “what if,” it’s really difficult to stay present in the moment. But remaining here, right now, living through this, is the one thing that will keep this hell on earth from consuming you.
To be fair, I’m not sure I actually practiced the advice I’m giving you right now, at least during those first few days. But when Lindsey’s best friend drove through the night to be there with us, she graciously told me to stop trying to do all the things. She could hold Lindsey’s hand just as well as me. She could spend the night at the hospital and let me get a better night’s sleep at home. She was giving me permission to take a breath.
Thankfully, my wife recovered. Lindsey is healthy again. Eventually, she even had another baby. But not all spouses recover. Not all stories have a happy ending. And unfortunately, if we live long enough, we will likely face the shaky and unpredictable darkness again.
Most of us have been scared shitless at least once before. Truth is, lots of people are holding some kind of unthinkable fear on a daily basis. Those very people are riding next to us on the subway, sitting in the cubicle across from us, praying beside us in the pew, or preaching to us from the pulpit.
We may never know exactly who is living their worst-case scenario at any given moment, but we can safely assume that everyone around us is carrying a heavy load. And we don’t really want to trade places or walk even half a mile in their shoes. We all know what it’s like to feel scared to death. Let’s remember that all we have is this moment. And all we need is compassion and understanding to keep this living hell from burning us alive.
I am Steve Austin. As you check out my site, my goal is to encourage you to do things like: silence your inner critic, cultivate a lifestyle of self-care, and recover from whatever has wounded you. Fear, shame, and guilt have permeated our culture for far too long. It’s time to be embraced by Divine love, exactly as you are.
Whether you’re looking for a coach you can trust or a lifeline because your soul has been wounded, you’re safe here.
Steve Austin is an author, speaker, and life coach who is passionate about helping overwhelmed people learn to catch their breath. He is the author of two Amazon bestsellers, "Catching Your Breath," and "From Pastor to a Psych Ward." Steve lives with his wife and two children in Birmingham, Alabama.
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