I hope that you all had a wonderful Mother’s Day celebrating the amazing moms in your life. While Mother’s Day is generally a wonderful, happy day honoring the women who make the world go round, it always simultaneously reminds me of the women who are struggling. The women who want to be pregnant but are struggling with fertility, the women who have lost babies, the women trapped in the dark grasp of depression…and so I was finally inspired to sit down and write about my own battle with PPD.
Postpartum depression. It’s something we all know about or have heard of, but is rarely discussed except within our most private circles. Mental health is such a taboo subject in our nation-we have no issue discussing at length our back problems or tendonitis, yet when it comes to depression, anxiety, FEELINGS, we shut down. I want to open up the discussion about postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety, to break the silence and the shame. When we start talking openly about hush hush subjects, they by default become less secretive, less dark, less burdensome. When we share our pain and our stories, we help others, and we help ourselves. So let’s stop suffering in silence and start talking.
I have been there. I have stood in the depths of the isolation that is PPD. I know what it’s like. I know how it feels. I know the darkness and the shame and how truly ALONE you feel when in its’ grasp. For some time now I have wanted to share about my experience with PPD but always digressed because it was just too painful to think about, let alone put down in writing. Revisiting those first few months of my daughter’s life are panic-attack inducing, and that in and of itself breaks my heart. It kills me that it took me as long as it did to get help. My hope is that if I can help even one mother out there get some relief or suffer for a shorter period of time than I did, then at least my experience will have not been futile.
I had a normal pregnancy. No complications, no issues save for my induction due to a loss of amniotic fluid. There were no real “warning” signs for me, nothing to indicate what was to come. I do remember standing in the shower the day after I gave birth and looking down at my stomach, deflated and empty, and sobbing. I cried because I missed my baby, I wanted her back inside of me where I could protect her from the world, where she was safe and always WITH me. Something about my empty body made me feel incredibly alone and I cried like I had never cried before. But I attributed that to hormones, to lack of sleep. Never did I think for a moment that my reaction was in any way related to PPD.
As all mothers know, those first weeks after baby comes are marked by sleepless days and sleepless nights, diaper changes, blowouts, and leaky breasts. Those first few weeks for me were a shock-Little C had latching issues and breastfeeding was so hard. SO SO SO hard. I felt like I was failing her, like I was failing myself. The harder I tried, the worse I felt. I went to numerous LCs, read books and online articles. I tried desperately to figure out how something that should have come so naturally could be so impossibly hard. I started to feel panic every time she nursed-my neck would go numb and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I literally started to have panic attacks.
My husband was working long hours, and I simply did not know what to do with this baby that cried and cried without end. I am a creature of habit, and I love structure. For the first time since I started working at 17 years old, my days were open and endless and I desperately missed work. I missed normalcy. I counted down the days until I could go back from maternity leave. I felt terrible about myself, what sort of mother WANTS to leave her child? What kind of a person was I?
The panic and anxiety that I felt was constant. I was so anxious that I couldn’t eat; I forced things down whenever possible because I knew that I had to keep making milk, but anything in my mouth made me feel like vomiting. The anxiety was so palpable that I could not sit still, I wanted to crawl out of my own skin. The times when my daughter did sleep at night, I would lay in bed, my mind racing racing racing, wishing that I could sleep but unable to stop the spinning in my head. I heard her, even when she was asleep. I heard her crying for me, needing me. I would step into the shower and the white noise from the water hitting the tiles sounded like her screaming-I heard her crying in the spray. I would repeatedly jump sopping wet from the shower to go to her only to find silence; she was still asleep and I was losing my mind.
Along with being unable to sleep or eat, I started to become terrified. Everything scared me. I had terrible thoughts-I worried constantly about earthquakes or tsunamis, armed gunmen who would hurt her or I. I became unable to leave the house-even venturing to the car was too daunting of a task. I stopped going outside of our apartment at all. Even a walk around the complex was panic-attack inducing. And at some point, this anxiety turned into a deep, deep depression. I could not stop crying-I felt like my soul had been ripped out of me. I felt incompetent, like a failure. I would look at Facebook and try to figure out how all of my other friends with infants were able to be out doing things, living their lives, enjoying their families. It crushed me. I stopped even checking social media at all-it was too sad and too scary to look at my phone. The problem with this is that I just sank further into the recesses of my PPD. I disengaged even from those who were virtually around me.
I knew that I needed medication. I knew that I needed help. There were moments of clarity while I was in the midst of the PPD where I saw how badly I needed to get better. I had been resistant to taking medication, the idea of putting something into my body and then nursing my daughter just made my panic attacks worse, but the thought of continuing on in the state I was in made me literally want to die. Thank goodness that my mother was able to fly down to care for me several times, to help me take care of my daughter. Thank goodness that my husband was willing to stay and put up with me as I struggled.
I finally made an appointment with a psychiatrist-I had to break the anxiety cycle, stop the panic attacks. I needed to start sleeping. I was put on a regimen of Zoloft which is the safest anti-depressant out there for breastfeeding. The dose was upped to 200mg (the max dose for Zoloft) after a few weeks, and I started to feel better. I started to sleep again, not much, but sleep nonetheless. I started being able to eat again, to leave the house and walk with my daughter around the complex where we lived. I slowly ventured out, even taking her in the car for her doctor appointments, or to go visit my husband at work.
The medication was not a quick fix, but it was the catalyst necessary to put me on the road to recovery. I went back to therapy, I went back to work. Slowly but surely I started to regain my footing, to feel like the “old” me. Through this entire ordeal the one thing I knew at my core was that I loved my daughter SO SO much, that underneath all of the anxiety and fear and sadness all I wanted was to be a good mom. I wanted her to feel loved and secure and safe. I knew that I had to be well so that I could have a chance to be a great mom to her. I can tell you that there are still times when I feel panic, there are still days where I cry. Even now, two and a half years later I am not sure that I am really “back to being me” completely. Who knows, maybe I’ll never be, perhaps this is parenthood and this is what it happens when a piece of your heart lives outside of your body; you spend the rest of your life feeling just a little bit worried because our love runs so deep.
What I can tell you is this: get help. Don’t wait. Don’t wait to see how bad it can get, don’t test yourself to see if perhaps you can “think” your way out of it. I always believed I could will myself to do anything-but PPD/PPA was stronger than anything I had ever experienced. And your experience with PPD may not be like mine-it may be more or less intense but just because it isn’t the same story as the one I am sharing it does not mean that it is any less valid, or any less heartbreaking. Getting help does not mean admitting to some sort of failure as a mother, it means that you are strong enough to recognize that you can not do this all on your own. Talk to a doctor, to your OB, to your family. Allow people in so that they can help and support you. There is a brilliant, shining light at the end of the dark tunnel of depression, and to do anything but run towards that light with everything you have is foolhardy. Trust me when I say that there is a better way to live, an answer to the way that you are feeling. You will NOT always feel like this. This is a temporary hell, and when you come out on the other side you will look back in awe and wonder how it was ever possible that you made it out. There is joy and love and happiness to be felt, and you deserve to feel every ounce of it.