The Reality of Postpartum Depression: You Don't Just Get Over It
An Unexpected Outcome
In 1994, I received a life saving kidney transplant. My daughter was five years old and I had accepted that she would be my only child. Now the doctors were telling me that medical advancements had made pregnancy after transplant a possibility for some women. After monitoring my health over two years, my husband and I were given the go ahead to get pregnant again.
Although I had lamented not being able to have a second child, once it became a real possibility, I had mixed feelings about it. My daughter was now seven and I had been grappling with the idea of applying to graduate school. On top of that, I had concerns about the effects my medications would have on my developing baby because they had caused so many unpleasant side effects for me. I also had to consider my own health; after all, I was already a mother to a beautiful daughter and she needed me.
After months of research and soul searching, I decided that I wanted to have another baby. My pregnancy was uneventful and I carried my baby full term.
But something strange happened during the morning of the day I went into labor. I took the phone off the hook and got into bed. I didn't want to see or talk to anyone. I had no idea why I had this urge to cut myself off and I certainly did not realize that these events were a foreshadowing of things to come.
When the Baby Blues Didn't Go Away
I was completely unprepared when I had my first panic attack. It happened about two weeks after my son's birth, and thankfully I was not alone. There had been a tragedy in our extended family. My cousin and his wife lost their unborn son; he and my son would have been the same age. I knew that they were devastated, but all I could feel was regret that their child was the one that had died. I pushed the guilt to the back of my head and continued taking the pain medicine I was prescribed under the guise that it would fade away the "baby blues" I was experiencing. My attempts to live a normal life and drown out the unsettling thoughts inside my mind came to a head one evening when I looked at my new baby boy and felt nothing but a desire to make him go away. I began screaming - just screaming. There was no explanation for what was happening to me except that I had gone psychotic. I couldn't fathom what had taken control of me; my thoughts became twisted and corrupted by an invisible and undetectable force. My behavior became irrational and uncharacteristic. My family didn't recognize me; I terrified them. I terrified myself. I felt like I was possessed , scratching the words 'help me' from inside my own body, a body that had become appalling to me because of the demons residing within my brain. There is no way to explain it to others without sounding completely irrational; how can you lose possession of your own thoughts and feelings?
Answer: The same way a person might lose their speech or motor functions after having a stroke, except it is a different part of your brain affected and different functions that are compromised.
AND...it wasn't my fault anymore than if it had been any other disease.
The Road to Recovery
Over the next month, I needed round the clock care. I went through day after day with a cloud over my head, forcing myself to take a shower every day and doing as much as I could to feel normal. The thought of committing suicide was ever-present in my mind; I felt hopeless, helpless and completely useless to everyone around me, especially my new baby. I was lucky. I had and still have a wonderful support system. Still, this was a major turning point in my life, and it took time for my family to understand that we all had to navigate our way to a new normal. You don't just get over depression, you have to manage it the same as any chronic condition and it begins with getting professional help. I waited an entire month before I finally told my doctor that I was in bad shape, although I think he began to figure it out when I refused to let him close the exam room door for fear of being locked in the room and unable to escape. What I began to realize was that I needed to be selfish and help myself first, before I could focus on anyone else.
Women who are experiencing "baby blues" will usually recover within the first few weeks after giving birth, and the symptoms are fairly mild. Hormonal changes associated with pregnancy and giving birth are usually the cause and should self regulate without intervention. The symptoms of "Baby Blues" can include:
- Mood swings
- Difficulty concentrating
- Trouble sleeping
Postpartum depression is more serious, interferes with a woman's ability to function on a daily basis and does require medical intervention. Along with hormonal and chemical changes in the brain, other causes can include emotional stress such as marital or family problems. The symptoms include:
- Loss of appetite resulting in rapid weight loss
- Insomnia or sleeping too much
- Intense irritability and anger
- Overwhelming fatigue or intense anxiety
- Lack of joy in life
- Feelings of shame, guilt or inadequacy
- Feeling hopeless and/or helpless
- Severe mood swings
- Difficulty bonding with your baby
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- Thoughts of harming yourself or your baby
There is much more conversation about mental illness today than there was when I was diagnosed, but many people still try to hide it, especially new mothers with postpartum depression. It is so important that you speak up and ask for help; if you love your child, you owe it to him to take care of his mother. Medication may be the answer; it helped me tremendously during the first year. I stayed on it as long as I needed it and continue to this day to make lifestyle modifications to stay healthy and manage my depression. Through over fifteen years of experience and education, I have developed some personal guidelines for addressing my depression symptoms.
Knowing my triggers This is where talk therapy can be a huge benefit. I have come to know myself and what will send me spiraling down. Now that I have insight into what can set me off, I try avoid those situations as much as possible and have developed coping strategies to regulate my affect. For example, if I am at home by myself and can't get motivated to do anything productive, I know that I need to force myself out of the house; things like bringing my Kindle to Barnes and Noble to be around people and read or do some writing will keep me from having an episode.
Exercising as regularly as possible It gives me energy for the whole day, not to mention the benefit of increased self-esteem and improved overall mental/physical health.
Developing regular sleep habits Lack of sleep is a huge trigger for me, and when you're a new mother, it's a given. You may eventually be forced to ask others for help until the baby's sleep patterns are more manageable. I try to go to bed and get up at the same time each day, even weekends and vacations as much as possible.
Eating a healthy diet Try not to get sucked in by fad diets. One of the big drawbacks to taking anti depressants is that they can cause weight gain, which can lead to more depression. No matter what medication I took, it caused me to gain weight. I consulted a nutritionist to help me make an eating plan that I could stick to, but I won't lie, it was hard. Avoid alcohol and drugs They can make your depression worse and lessen the effects of the anti depressants. Seek professional help if you can't do it on your own. I was self medicating with prescribed pain medicine; once I realized what I was doing, I got the medicine out of the house.
Seek out the sunlight Go for a walk on a sunny day or at least sit outside. There are special lights made for helping people with depression and "Seasonal Affective Disorder" which may be an option if you live in an area that gets little sun or if you tend to become depressed during the winter months.
Stay social Your family and friends can be a great source of support, but you can also stay social by joining a book club, attending support meetings, planning weekly lunch dates with friends, etc. Some days I have to push myself, but it's worth it. One of the hardest things to do when your depressed is to be around others because depression is such an isolating illness. Surrounding yourself with positive energy is the best thing you can do, especially on those days when you're getting ready to throw yourself a pity party. Get therapy Depression often does not exist in a vacuum. Like type 2 diabetes, which can be caused by external factors such as obesity, depression can have underlying emotional origins. In my case, talk therapy was very beneficial.
Do a mental health inventory You know yourself better than anyone. If things are feeling a little off, not quite right, take some time to inventory your symptoms. And if you decide that you are slipping back into depression, make sure you get in touch with a supportive family member or friend immediately. The WORST thing you can do is keep it to yourself. And LET PEOPLE HELP YOU. You don't need to deal with this by yourself.
Remain Calm and Reclaim Your Life
Having a baby is a joyous occasion. This sentiment unfortunately adds to the anxiety new mothers experience when they are feeling blue or desperately sad. It's important for women to feel comfortable talking about the challenges they are facing after childbirth. If I didn't have the support from my family, friends, and doctors, my recovery would not have been possible. I reclaimed my life and have been blessed to watch my children grow into amazing young adults. It is possible through education and understanding.
Take care of yourself. You are worth it, and you deserve it.
Causes of Postpartum Depression
- Postpartum depression Causes - Mayo Clinic
Postpartum depression — Comprehensive overview covers symptoms, diagnosis, treatment of depression in new mothers.
© 2015 Michelle