Our guest, Jana Thomas Coffman, writes with raw honesty about her pregnancy and post-partum depression, and how she found strength in her friendship with the saints.
This is a hard article to write. Talking about post-partum depression and its effects on my life and the lives of the people close to me sounds easy, but it is very difficult, even over two years later. When we write about our weakness and sin we open ourselves to judgment and censure, and we admit frightening truths about ourselves. Yet I will start my story at the beginning, and hope some other woman will read this and know she is not alone.
The story starts when two happily married youngsters, both Catholics and practicing NFP, decided God was telling us we were ready to have a baby. As someone who had long struggled with depression and anxiety, and had more or less been on some sort of medication since I was 19, I went to the doctor to safely and slowly get off my anti-depressant medications and make sure I was 100% healthy and ready to have a baby when the time came to try. Shortly afterward, we were excited to see two little blue lines on an early detection test.
Thus began the most terrible nine months of my life.
Pregnancy was horrible for me, both physically and emotionally. Depression set back in, made even more potent by hormonal changes. Completely forgetting how we had wanted and prayed for this baby in the first place, I railed angrily against God for changing my life forever and vacillated between anger at the baby and paralyzing fear the baby would die. I worried constantly, obsessed with the million ways I might miscarry, terrified to do something wrong, yet contrarily feeling anger and hatred toward my innocent baby.
As I was struggling through this period, the church calendar that year changed to Lent. I had always given up something for Lent, but for the first time, I truly experienced the spiritual wilderness we Catholics observe during Lent. Although my senses told me God had abandoned me, I clung to my faith, which tells us God will never abandon us. Praying became harder for me, so I turned instead to snatches of a hymn, singing “We walk by faith, and not by sight…” under my breath as I moved about the house. This song spoke to me in those dark times.
After I had finally struggled through all of my pregnancy, I arrived at the hospital to give birth thoroughly mentally, spiritually, and physically exhausted, feeling a sense of doom. Labor was hard and terrible; I had a panic attack when the nurse gave me my IV and then again with the anesthesiologist. After 30 hours with no sleep or food, I finally gave birth to a perfectly healthy redhead, but when I looked at her I felt none of the joy and love new parents usually describe. I felt… scared. I did not want to hold her. She looked strange and wrinkly, not pretty at all. I was in so much pain, requiring over two hours of stitches, and so, so tired. When I was finally wheeled into a bedroom at 2:00 am, all I longed for was sleep. When the nurse curtly told me to set my alarm for two hours so I could feed the baby, I almost wept.
My hospital stay was equally difficult. I cried almost constantly. I was afraid to hold the baby and afraid to be separated from her. I had never imagined being in such pain; after five rows of sutures, I could barely move, could not walk alone, and could certainly not use the restroom or shower alone. Still, I refused pain medication, paranoid if I took anything it would hurt the baby. I was overwhelmed by all the visitors, and just sad, sad, sad. My husband helped me limp around the hospital wing and I burst into tears when I saw the room where we’d given birth. The nurse told me it would take three weeks for my stitches to heal and I started to cry. At one point a nurse found me, bleary-eyed with sleeplessness, wandering the halls forlornly in my gown, petrified the nurses would give formula to the baby or think I was a horrible mother for letting her go to the nursery so I could try to sleep.
When we got home, I was paralyzed with fear. I could not sleep because I was convinced the baby would die. I sat awake, exhausted, while my husband and the baby slept. I was so anxious I could not eat a bite, but tried futilely to gag down one bite of bread and butter to help my body support my daughter. When I tried to sleep, the nightmares came, and I saw my baby killed a dozen different, horrible ways. Desperately in need of sleep though I was, I became afraid of night time and the nightmares, having horrible panic attacks when it got dark and fighting sleep with every ounce of power I had. My parents, divorced, put aside their differences and both stayed several nights with us, taking shifts at night to sit up with me and hold my hand through my panic attacks or sleeping in the chair next to me while I stared zombie-like at the clock and could not sleep.
To say my faith was all I had left at that time is no exaggeration. In the throes of despair, I lost sense of time and reality. Family members who tried to help me could only look on as I struggled. I became suicidal and so sleep-deprived I feared my husband would have me committed.
I was in the worst spiritual crisis I had ever encountered. I realized what I needed now were friends—faithful people of Christ who would pray for me, lift me up, and plead before God for my case.
I had never been a Catholic who prayed to saints, and I wasn’t even really sure how, but I knew I needed an army of prayer warriors on my side. Yes, I had people here on Earth praying for me—but what about people in heaven, people who had already successfully overcome Earth’s obstacles and were right now in the throne room of God, ready to pray and interceded for me? People whose example I could follow and whose faith I could emulate. I knew I needed all the prayer I could get.
One night, a few nights after the baby was born, I was limping out of the car and preparing to head into the house while my husband unbuckled the baby from her car seat. Suddenly, I felt another attack coming on. Terror flooded through my body and my eyesight went black. I was still conscious; I could hear the sounds of night and feel the concrete of the driveway under my feet, but I could see nothing. Waves of panic began to envelope me.
Still blind, I groped out and felt the car. Leaning against it for support, I called out into the darkness, “Mary, mother of us all, pray for me!” She is a Mother; she will know what I’m going through. She has been here before. “Saint Joseph, father of us all, pray for me!” He was the earthly father of Jesus and our spiritual father; surely he must care for me. “Saint Michael, leader of God’s armies, fight for me!” He fights for God’s people; he will defend me with his sword.
A woman lost and alone on a chilly night, I reached out my hand into the darkness and called out blindly to friends when I needed them, friends I had never called on before but whom my faith told me I could rely upon. And I trusted my faith.
With the intercession of Mary, Joseph, and Michael, I was able to make it into the house and calm down. I can’t say that night was the end of all my depression, but it was a turning point. Slowly, the anxiety subsided and gradually became manageable. I was able to sleep, first just in snatches, and eventually more and more.
Through God’s blessings, I had a wonderful OB who, thankfully, realized what was happening was not just a normal case of hormones. When he visited and found me sitting in bed next to a perfectly healthy baby, crying my eyes out while my husband and parents looked helplessly on, he diagnosed me with post-partum depression and referred me to a psychiatrist. She listened to my story, diagnosed me with not only post-partum depression but also post-partum Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and prescribed me some nursing-friendly antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications.
Life wasn’t easy for the first several weeks of my daughter’s life, and I did not return to normal for several months. But I was, at least, able to cope with my worries and fears. As the Bible says, “perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18), and as my anxieties slowly melted away, I began to have room in my heart for love: love for this tiny baby girl, healthy and beautiful and glowing, things I had not been able to appreciate before when I was so unhappy and worried.
Moreover, my newfound prayer warriors have never left me. Grateful to the first three saints who’d so generously helped me, I began to turn to saints more when the need arose. When my daughter had her first bout of illness, I looked up the patron saints of children, illnesses, and throat maladies and prayed before her crib. I looked to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton for help with family members, St. Giles for increasing my nursing supply, and St. Francis for my ailing cat. Now, St. Anthony helps me find lost phones or keys and I call upon St. Christopher during my travels. I’ve gotten to know St. Joseph as the giver of a happy death and St. Mary as the wife and mother I ask for advice when I’m ready to scream.
If you are a mother-to-be or new mom and you think you might be struggling with depression or anxiety, you’re not alone. Do not let Satan lie to you: you are not alone. Others have been there. I have been there. I have been lost and blind and weak and alone. Yet in my weakness and sin, Jesus conquered. As He says to us in 2 Corinthians 12:9, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Jana Thomas Coffman lives near Kansas city with her husband, Chris, and their daughter, Kaylie. Jana and Chris serve in their parish as marriage prep counselors and Extraordinary Ministers of the Holy Eucharist, and they are an NFP (Natural Family Planning) teaching couple through the Couple to Couple League. She holds a B.S. in Spanish with a minor in religious studies from Missouri State University, as well as a M.S. in Spanish Education and a graduate certificate in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). Jana teaches high school Spanish and college ESL.