May 09, 2005 12:00 PM

Married to writer Chris Henchy in 2001, Brooke Shields weathered seven IVF treatments before giving birth to Rowan Francis on May 15, 2003. Instead of joy, however, she experienced a postpartum depression that left her barely able to function. Two years later she has written a frank account of her ordeal and hopes to help other new moms struggling with the disease. Now in London starring in Chicago, Shields, 39, says depression “doesn’t go away without damage. On a bad day you think, ‘Is this another episode?’ ” Happily, she adds, “I feel better than I have in a long time.”

Over the five days that I was in the hospital with Rowan, I was in a bizarre state, experiencing feelings that ranged from embarrassment to stoicism to melancholy to shock. I didn’t feel at all joyful, but I attributed this to being tired.

Rowan was a complete stranger to me. I had always thought there would be an instant bond, but no matter how long I stared, I couldn’t seem to feel one. I kept leaning over and smelling her to see if I could recognize her scent. She was able to look directly at me, as if she had everything all figured out. She seemed pure and honest and raw, and it unsettled me. I tried to talk to her when we were alone.

“Baby girl, please be patient with me. I’m having a hard time here, and I don’t want you to be sad because of it. I promise I’ll try to get better.”

Back in her Manhattan apartment, Shields descended further into despair.

Rowan kept crying, and I began to dread the moment when Chris would bring her to me. Although I didn’t dislike her, I wasn’t sure I wanted her living with us. Every time I have been near a baby, any baby, I have always wanted to hold the child. I didn’t feel like I wanted to get too close to Rowan.

Chris and I couldn’t seem to get on a schedule that allowed one of us to sleep while the other tended to the infant. Plus, I was afraid to let Chris sleep, because I was scared to be alone. I thought I might try to escape or wouldn’t be able to stop myself from swallowing a bottle of pills. I even thought I’d welcome being kidnapped. These were strange, irrational fears that still felt real to me.

Around this time, Chris took a photo of me. I’m holding the baby and looking at the camera. My hair looks like it hasn’t been washed, and I’m slumped heavily in a chair. My eyes have a distant look. To this day it makes my mother-in-law cry. She told me recently that she calls it “Vacant Eyes,” and it breaks her heart.

At times I even had trouble holding Rowan because of my choking sobs. It felt like an appealing option to erase myself from this life. What would stop me from acting on any of these thoughts?

At her lowest point, Shields contemplated jumping from the apartment’s window and had visions of seeing her baby thrown against a wall. Terribly worried, Chris called his parents and Brooke’s mother to come and help out.

The parents came and went, and I retreated to my bed. I would sometimes get mini-lectures from my mom about how lucky I was and how I was going to be fine.

“But Mom, it has gotten so bad that this morning I made Chris cry.”

My mother misunderstood me. “I made him cry?”

“No, Mom! I made him cry, this is not about you!” I started to scream at her. “GET OUT NOW OR I’LL JUMP OUT THE F—-ING WINDOW!”

She sat in stunned silence. She didn’t leave, and I was relieved by her decision not to.

[At a visit to my gynecologist,] he said the hormonal shifts that occur postpartum are often a shock to women, but it was very normal. He said that once my hormones equalized, I would start feeling better. We left the office and I tried to feel encouraged.

At her stepsister Diana’s suggestion, she decided to hire a baby nurse to pitch in.

I told my mother about my decision, and I could tell she wasn’t thrilled. Maybe she thought that hiring a baby nurse meant I didn’t value her opinions or her help. [But] I needed help, and I would have to overlook the fact that my mother was insulted.

I phoned [an] agency and asked if they had someone. [Later that day] in walked [Gemma], this little power-house of compassion and organization. Her real title should have been “mommy nurse.” I began talking to her about my feelings, and she listened. When I told her how I felt disconnected to my daughter, she looked right into my eyes. “Come on, Brookie, you are a very present mother and not like a lot of the ‘Hi, bye’ moms of today. We will get Sweetie Pie here on a schedule and help you feel strong, and it will all be better.”

Somehow, hearing the opinions of this unbiased person made me relax. Gemma didn’t act alarmed by my more gloomy disclosures. I told her about wanting to jump out of the window. I even shared my thoughts about terrible things happening to my little girl. Gemma kept reminding me that having a baby was traumatic, that a C-section was a big deal, and that I needed to be easier on myself.

Chris called from the West Coast, where he was on business, every few hours. “Are you feeling closer to Rowan?” he’d ask. I defensively told him not to pressure me; I was doing the best I could.

Convinced by her gynecologist that she had true postpartum depression, Shields began taking the antidepressant Paxil.

[As time went on], I felt less hopeless. I don’t know if it had anything to do with the fact that, as I’d promised my doctor, I’d been diligently taking that little pink pill, but I was no longer crying morning til night. I had always been a big believer in mind over matter, so I thought I was strong enough to will myself into feeling better. [Without telling anyone I stopped taking Paxil.] I felt no immediate change in my mood. Obviously I was ready to go it alone, without drugs.

She was wrong. One day while visiting friends from her old sitcom Suddenly Susan, she had a frightening setback.

I began feeling uncomfortable, as if I would never again be accepted as part of this world. After having worked my whole life, here I was without a job. Walking to my car, I began to cry. I got the baby in the car seat and left the lot. Then the tears flooded down. I called my mother. She tried calming me down. I told her I had to keep driving and couldn’t talk anymore. I hung up leaving her desperately concerned.

Next I phoned my friend Stephanie. I told her I wanted to drive the car into the wall. I sobbed to her about feeling crazy again. She made me promise I wouldn’t do anything rash. I promised not to, but the desire was overwhelming. When I told Chris, he looked broken. He just said, “Please do something to feel better. Please!”

Why did I think I could go off the medicine without seeking medical assistance? [When I called my doctor she said] “You went off Paxil cold turkey? Oh boy, Brooke, no wonder you feel the way you do!” Postpartum depression is a real affliction, she said. I didn’t need to try to endure something that was out of my control.

Back on Paxil, Shields also began seeing a therapist weekly.

Exploring the issues surrounding motherhood was revelatory and cathartic. As time passed, I was beginning to feel more and more what I thought a mother would feel. Rowan’s voice became much more for me than a bark or a cry. She’d laugh when tickled, and I’d feel a surge of pure joy.

I did have nightmares about the black cloud descending again. I dreamed that I had lost my daughter, or that I couldn’t complete a task that involved her care. Chris reminded me that the dreams did not mean I was spiraling out of control. I was probably experiencing the angst that comes with being a mom.

I could tell my husband was relieved. His whole demeanor was lighter. He had even returned to making fun of me for things like my malapropisms and the fact that when I drive, I sit too close to the steering wheel. We had great talks over dinner. We were finally having fun being parents.

I have come so far in my love for and appreciation of my unique, incredible child. Instead of feeling numb to her or envisioning her being hurt in some way, I now crave her and want to protect her with my life. Whether she is giving flyaway kisses, or hailing a taxi with her chubby little arm in the air, I am filled with happiness.

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