By Leeba Atlas | JULY 22, 2020
How could I wait while the world moved on and I was a ghost of myself — not a mother, not a daughter, not a wife?
You know me. That woman in the grocery. The one with the freshly washed wig, crossbody, and trendy sunglasses. Super capable, a great multitasker.
I was all of those things. Until I wasn’t.
This is my story.
It’s a story that could’ve happened to anyone.
It’s a story too often silenced and hidden behind shuttered windows because what will people think? And no one must ever know.
But I want people to know, and I no longer worry about what people think. Because it’s a story I so badly needed to hear when I was lost in the darkness, when I believed there was no way I would ever again feel like myself.
I pray it reaches even just one woman who feels as hopeless as I did. I pray she discovers, sooner than I did, that there’s no shame in asking for help, that mental illness can be as excruciating — but also as treatable — as a physical illness, and that with Hashem’s help, she’ll one day be okay again.
My story begins when I was blessed with a beautiful baby boy after an easy, uncomplicated pregnancy and an easy, uncomplicated birth. I came home from the hospital on a high.
I’d had complicated births with my older children, so I appreciated how fortunate I was to come home a healthy mother with a healthy baby. I had a baby nurse, so I slept well at night, and those first two weeks were a joyous blur. I felt a deep sense of peace, gratitude for my family, and for my capacity to heal.
Then, without warning, something changed. Everything changed.
It started with a strange undercurrent of unease. Throughout the day, I felt on edge. I worried but couldn’t express what was worrying me.
I assured myself it was normal: I had a family wedding coming up, my son’s bar mitzvah was approaching, and I had a newborn. But normal or not, I couldn’t shake the persistent anxiety. I just couldn’t relax.
I went to my general practitioner for a checkup and told him how unsettled I’d been feeling. He recommended I take a relatively mild medication to quiet my anxiety, and I acceded quickly. Perfect. I was so grateful that a pill could get me back to feeling like myself.
At first, that pill seemed to be enough. I got through the wedding and the bar mitzvah, the anxiety still present but less intense. But just when life was supposed to return to normal, the anxiety intensified with a ferocity.
My mind raced with unsettling thoughts, and a relentless nausea, far worse than anything I’d ever experienced during pregnancy, consumed every hour of my days and nights. I couldn’t eat and I couldn’t sleep.
Terrified, I made an appointment with my OB-GYN. I wondered, even then, if I was experiencing symptoms of postpartum depression, but my doctor didn’t see things that way. He suggested I had an allergy or a gastrointestinal problem and referred me to specialists in those fields.
His advice didn’t resonate with me, and I made an appointment with a social worker instead. I sat nervously in her office, seeking to convince her — and myself — that I wasn’t experiencing postpartum depression. If I had PPD, I could never have pulled myself together and scheduled this appointment, right? If I had PPD, I’d never have looked as good as I did — with freshly cleaned clothing, makeup, and a sheitel, right?
She reassured me that what I was experiencing was not PPD. She insisted that I needed to go home and rest, and things would start to get better. But things did not get better. They became much worse.
The nausea became so severe that I lost 20 pounds in the next few weeks as I fought to keep food down. But I couldn’t afford to let those symptoms prevent me from running my home, so I tried desperately to find ways to compensate.
If I drank tea slowly in the morning, I could fight the nausea long enough to start my day and help my kids get ready for school. If I put up supper first thing in the morning, my kids would have what to eat, no matter how badly the anxiety and panic intensified.
But even as I convinced myself, I’ll get through it, I can do this, I could feel myself unraveling. I began to have vicious panic attacks that robbed me of my breath. I couldn’t sit still for more than ten minutes. I had this inexplicable urge to pace — back and forth, back and forth — because if I stayed still too long, the panic would consume me.
I was crumbling, yet I adamantly insisted I couldn’t possibly have PPD. I had none of the classic symptoms. I wasn’t in bed crying all day — I couldn’t sit still for two minutes!
As I fought through the haze of anxiety and nausea, I had occasional good days — and I clung to those good days as proof that I was going to be okay. But the good days became fewer and fewer.
I decided to consult with a psychiatrist. When she heard my voice, she knew it was a true emergency. She gave me an appointment for the next day. I walked into her office with an agenda. I repeated, again and again, what had become my mantra: “I don’t have PPD. I’m stronger than that. I just need help to deal with my nausea and my anxiety.”
I wanted to convince myself that I was okay, and unfortunately, I think I convinced the psychiatrist too.
Together, we came up with a plan that felt comfortable to me. I wouldn’t need any intense medications, rather she offered me a combination of alternate medications that she thought would be effective. She was very compassionate and I walked out feeling empowered. Her belief in me helped me put one foot in front of the other for a few more weeks.
I seemed to be managing. I was doing my shopping, my carpools, my Purim preparation. But inside my house, I spent my day pacing. Up and down the steps. Up and down the steps.
I paced on my porch, even though it was freezing outside. I paced my bedroom floors, my feet trying to stamp out the anxieties that had hijacked my mind. I was withering away, but I was managing.
Pesach arrived and we went to my parents, but the change in schedule threatened my tenuous attempts to hold it all together. I woke up the first day of Chol Hamoed and couldn’t stop shaking. I vomited anything I tried to eat. I was completely riddled with panic. My husband quickly took the children out on a trip to distract them, and I called the psychiatrist and sobbed.
Her office was closed for Yom Tov, but she encouraged me to keep going. I nodded along as she comforted me, but I knew it wouldn’t be okay. I was at the height of my anxiety — shaking violently and unable to eat even a morsel of food.
Desperate to help me, my sister called a frum organization that advertised support for women dealing with PPD. The woman who answered the phone sent us a list of homeopathic treatments she assured me would work, but they completely overwhelmed me. When I shared those marching orders with my GP, he insisted I disregard them and manage a few more days until I could meet with the psychiatrist.
But I couldn’t manage a few more days. I fell apart. The panic attacks intensified and overpowered me. I couldn’t even get out of my bed because it was the only place that felt safe. The next morning, I told my husband I needed to be hospitalized.
A mother of a large family, an efficient, capable member of the community, was pleading with her husband to take her to a psych ward.
It was as devastating as it was humbling.
When I called the psychiatrist so she could recommend a hospital, she insisted that I come to her office instead. Somehow, I made it there, and she took one look at me and realized she hadn’t understood how badly I was suffering. She could see I was completely malnourished and teetering on the edge of a breakdown.
With confidence and authority, she recommended a new list of medications — powerful, potent medications -—and I was so grateful to have something to try, to stay out of the psych ward, that I didn’t stop to question what those drugs were.
She also recommended that I start drinking Ensure — the meal replacement that would be my sole source of nutrition for the months ahead.
I waited for the medicine to take effect and I also waited to see what side effects the pills would bring me. At night, before I’d fall asleep, I’d tell my husband, “This is what I took today in case you need to tell the paramedics.” I was that afraid of the havoc the pills wreaked on my body.
As promised, I did begin to feel some relief the first week. Once I was a bit stronger and able to regain my footing somewhat, the doctor felt I needed a different medication as well, and I began my next round of medications.
The following Shabbos, one week after starting that new regimen, my parents came to my house for the weekend. Friday night, after the meal was cleared away, my children began playing — and then arguing —and I felt something inside me snap.
The sensory input became too much for my body to bear. Every sound was magnified. If anyone came too close to me, my skin felt like it was on fire.
“I can’t manage this,” I said.
I can’t manage these thoughts.
I can’t continue to pretend for my kids that I’m functioning.
I can’t fake one more smile while my body and my mind are imploding.
Somehow, I made it through that excruciating Shabbos. There was nothing to distract me, and I was entirely consumed by my nausea and racing thoughts. On Sunday, I moved out of my house and went to stay at my parents’ house. I was devastated to leave my children behind, to leave my baby behind, but it didn’t feel like I had a choice.
At my parents’ home, my anxiety was amplified by a thousand. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t stop pacing. I stumbled around day and night like a sleepwalker — drained, defeated, broken.
My psychiatrist blamed my body’s reaction on the new medications and told me to lower the dose and wait.
Wait? How much longer could I wait?
How could I wait while the world moved on and I was a ghost of myself — not a mother, not a daughter, not a wife?
When my head hit the pillow at night, I remember thinking, “What’s the point of waking up in the morning?” The pain was so intense, I thought of making it end. I even begged my mother to help me by giving me all the pills at once. I can’t imagine how horrific it must have been for my mother to hear me say those words.
But even then, I knew I didn’t want to end my life.
I didn’t want to die. I wanted to live — more than anything, I wanted to live.
I just didn’t see how I could exist even one more minute with that nausea, with that anxiety, with that level of pain. I just wanted to make it stop.
I stayed alone at my parents’ house, only going home once to get some clothing. I don’t think I’ll ever forget how it felt to walk into my house and see my baby— my beautiful baby boy who felt like a stranger — cradled in the arms of his baby nurse. The pain tore through me as I walked past.
I wanted to rip him from the baby nurse’s arms and hold him and kiss him and love him and protect him — and yet I couldn’t. I didn’t have the physical or the emotional strength to care for my own child, and it shattered me.
I walked past him, my heart breaking, and then I walked out the door.
That Shabbos, my husband came to stay with me at my parents’ house, and I broke down and sobbed to him, “Please, please help me. Please. I can’t do this anymore.”
It was pouring rain outside, but my husband saw the desperation in my eyes. He walked in the downpour to the home of a therapist who lived in the neighborhood. In an act of incredible kindness, she too walked in the pouring rain to see if she could help me.
I begged her to take me to the hospital, but she spoke soothingly and comfortingly. She assured me that I’d be okay — the medications had hijacked my body, and I needed to give them time to pass through my system.
After Shabbos, I called the psychiatrist, and she instructed me to stop the medications altogether. I was relieved and devastated at once. Without this medication, how could I possibly get better? I couldn’t wait another minute! My kids didn’t have a mother!
As the days passed, I didn’t seem to be getting better. I started to believe that people were encouraging my husband to leave me and take my children away from me. I was completely irrational, imploring my mother to help me keep my children. I was losing my grip on reality. My psychiatrist cautioned me that I’d likely have to be hospitalized over Shavuos, and I was terrified.
It was then that my sister found Yad Rachel, a Lakewood-based organization dedicated to supporting women with PPD. The woman who returned my sister’s call was patient, understanding, and knowledgeable. She spoke to my husband too, and insisted it was time for us to seek a second opinion.
She wasn’t the first person to recommend that I find a new psychiatrist. But I was too sick to hear it. I kept insisting that my psychiatrist was an expert and the only person who could help. My husband was also too frightened to consider a new doctor. I was on such a complex regimen by this point, we felt we had no choice but to stay.
Seeing that we weren’t ready to switch doctors, the woman guided me to ask my doctor for a different medication that should at least provide me with immediate relief. I listened. I was so worn out from medication, but I knew I needed to do something. I took one pill and fell asleep almost immediately.
And then the miracle happened.
After weeks and weeks of suffering, I finally felt like a human being again.
I remember telling my husband and my parents, “I didn’t know what peace felt like anymore. I feel like I’m reawaking to a world where I can breathe because I no longer have thoughts running relentlessly through my head.”
It was the greatest gift. The pill was only a band-aid, buying me time, because the anxiety would return with a vengeance. But it gave me the clarity I needed to make an appointment with another psychiatrist.
When the new doctor heard my story, he shook his head with frustration and said, “You’ve suffered so unnecessarily. The other psychiatrist took you down the wrong path, but im yirtzah Hashem, we are going to find the right one.”
I nearly sobbed with gratitude. For the first time in months, I believed I’d finally get better. Still, the doctor cautioned me that the medication regimen he was recommending could take 4–6 weeks to start working, so I needed to go easy on myself and be patient.
That journey back to health was like climbing up a mountain with just my fingernails — brittle, bloody fingernails — hanging on for dear life.
I wanted to be a mother and wife again, but there was so much I could not yet do. To begin to heal, I had to accept how ill I was. For so long, I’d been urging myself, “You need to try harder! You need to push yourself more!” but now I finally appreciated that I couldn’t. That I shouldn’t. That I needed to heal
After moving into my parents, I stopped fighting to keep my struggle a secret. A few of my closest friends made suppers for me for months, organizing a small rotation to ensure my children’s privacy. My sister who lived nearby became a mother for my children, tending to their every need. My mother put her own life on hold, driving me to appointments and pharmacies, encouraging me when I felt like I couldn’t fight anymore.
And my husband was the silent hero, patiently and understandingly holding our family together as I clawed my way back. He missed countless days of work, did nightly homework, and attended parent-teacher conferences without me. He ensured that my children could hold onto their sense of normalcy — or as close to normalcy as possible — living in their own home and sleeping in their own beds. I don’t know where we’d be without him.
The healing process was achingly slow. One week, my sister came to my house to put up cholent for Shabbos. It seems so ridiculous. Why couldn’t I? Why couldn’t I empty a bag of beans and a bag of barley into a crock pot like I had done easily for years? But I couldn’t.
As the medication began to work, I met with a therapist to strategize how I could slowly establish a routine and relearn the tasks I’d once done without thinking. She, together with Yad Rachel, helped me put my life together piece by piece.
For example, she suggested I drive to a supermarket far from my home, where the aisles were spacious and I wouldn’t meet anyone I knew, so I could shop at my own pace. There were times I left behind a full wagon I couldn’t quite bring to the register, but that was okay.
I celebrated each of those tiny steps forward. Once, my sister invited me to come with my children to her pool, and I remember telling her, “I can bring my children, but I can’t bring towels and I can’t bring snacks.” It sounds absurd, but it was all I could manage then, and that had to be enough.
The Yamim Noraim were approaching, and I worried they’d send me ten steps backward. My psychiatrist recommended a more aggressive dose of medicine, as well as adding yet one more medication.
While I’d grown to trust him, I was terrified. I couldn’t afford another bout of what I’d been through. But something pushed me to listen and with my husband’s support, I took the new medications. And that was the beginning of my real recovery.
The fog finally began to lift. I made it through Rosh Hashanah, and I was able to do some cooking for the first days of Succos. I even made it to shul for hakafos because I wanted to see my kids dancing, and more importantly, I wanted my kids to see me pushing myself to be there for them.
It was an amazing victory to get dressed and go out in public, but it was also a painful reintroduction to the real world. I heard people whispering about me, and I felt so exposed. A respected member of the community came up to me and said, in an effort to be encouraging, “You just need to make the choice that this is over. If you want it enough, this will be over.”
After Yom Tov, I called the woman from Yad Rachel on the verge of tears. She was angry at those women for their callousness, but she urged me to focus on my own healing. “Don’t worry. You’re doing great. Tune it out.”
And I did.
Slowly, I felt myself getting stronger. I started cooking supper once a week. I started making one salad for the Shabbos meal. When my family got together for Shabbos Chanukah, I couldn’t join because it meant too many hours of socializing, but I went Motzaei Shabbos for an hour or two.
It was a draining fight and I’d sometimes ask the woman from Yad Rachel, “What happens when I can’t fight anymore?”
She’d tell me, “There’s no giving up,” and she was right.
I had to relearn how to make a shopping list. I had to relearn how to play with my baby. I had to relearn how to be a friend, a mother, a wife.
But I’m doing it.
It’s been a difficult, humbling journey, but rewarding as well. I’ve been through so much, but I’ve also learned so much.
I learned from my family and friends to be a giver with grace and a taker with grace.
I learned that PPD, or in my case, postpartum anxiety, is deeply misunderstood. It was bashert for me to be misdiagnosed so many times, but I beg everyone in the healthcare field to better inform themselves of the varying symptoms of postpartum mental illness. It’s so common, but so often unrecognized.
I learned not to fear the strong medications utilized to treat mental illness. Yes, the initial regimen I was given was not right for me, and those medications wreaked havoc on my body. But the right medication — and not homeopathy or just trying a little harder — was what I needed. It’s critical that people suffering from mental illness appreciate that medication need not be feared. Certainly, in my case, medication was the only way out.
I also learned to trust my gut if something isn’t working. I hung on to that first psychiatrist for too long because I was afraid to listen to instincts that were screaming, this isn’t working! You need a different plan!
Most importantly, I learned that no miracle is too big for Hakadosh Baruch Hu, and only He can provide the refuah we seek. Even when I was at the depths of my despair, I clung to Hakadosh Baruch Hu so tightly. At the peak of my panic and delusions, I noticed a worm crawling along my parents’ porch. I remember saying aloud, “If Hashem takes care of this little, insignificant worm, it cannot be that He has forgotten about me.”
As I began to heal, I started reading Living Emunah by Rabbi Dovid Ashear, and each word helped me hold on to Hashem a little bit tighter. I began to believe that Hashem is Hakol Yachol, and he could ensure my complete recovery, even if it seemed impossible. That belief gave me the will to continue fighting.
Today I’m enjoying a miraculously sweet recovery. It took 16 months of suffering and surviving, but I’m testimony to the nissim Hashem performs for us. I’m grateful that I can make a cholent, that I can make an entire Shabbos meal. I’m grateful to hold my baby, to play with him and marvel at each new thing he learns, to take my girls shoe shopping.
It’s tempting to move on and focus only on my healing. But I know there are so many women like me — women who are drowning and don’t see a way out — and so I share my story to give them hope.
When people assured me things would go back to normal, I knew they didn’t understand me. It was the tzadeikes from Yad Rachel whom I finally believed. She spoke with a conviction that told me there were women as lost as I was who had come out better and stronger. Today, I want to be for other women what this woman was for me.
I fought for so long, and now I continue to fight. I’m fighting for other women who are desperate for help but just as desperate to keep their secrets. I urge these women — and the people in their lives — to put down their defenses. The greatest gift I gave my children was my willingness to be open and to seek help, to let my family and my friends see me at my worst so they could hold my family together.
To help sufferers of postpartum anxiety, we need to bring postpartum anxiety out of the shadows. We need to be open to seeking help because it’s not a struggle we can fight alone. We need to be open enough to share our battle scars — and our recoveries — because our healing gives others hope.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 702)