I’ve mentioned that I had postpartum depression after Forrest was born, but I’ve never shared many of the details. I don’t think I’ve mentioned that I dealt with it again after Darcy was born—in fact, in this post when she was 2 months old, I wrote (chipperly!) that everything was going okay and I didn’t think I’d end up with PPD this time around. (Boy, was I wrong.)
It felt a bit misleading for me to only have a few brief mentions of PPD on my blog--it has been a fairly big, formative part of my life as a mother, and it has started to feel odd to me not to write about it. Not that anyone cares about the details of my experience, I’m sure, but PPD seems to be a silent struggle for many moms. No one wants to be the person to bring it up, but it sure is a lonely path if you think you’re walking it alone.
I’ve been meaning for months—years, even—to write my postpartum depression story, and the day has finally arrived. This is a long post, but I hope it might be helpful as a warning or call to action to others who are expecting, or have new babies, or have friends with babies, or gosh, even if you don’t have kids but you feel like something’s not right, hopefully this will give you a push to do something to fix it. Sometimes making that phone call to the doctor is the hardest part.
I have a family history of depression, so perhaps I should have been better prepared for my own diagnosis. Looking back, I think I had brief touches of depression during big transitional times in my life, like leaving for college or moving to a new area and feeling alone. But it was never bad enough that I considered anything was actually wrong, and I certainly never talked to a doctor about it (although I wonder how much easier those times could have been if I had).
Knowing that I struggle during times of big change probably should have been a red flag while I was pregnant, but I was so excited about having a baby that it barely crossed my mind to talk to my doctor about my family history, or learn about how to recognize PPD, or plan what to do if I found myself depressed.
After a difficult delivery, Forrest turned out to be a very difficult newborn. He was colicky and angry and impossible to please--a perfectly healthy baby, but a very demanding and unhappy one. We lived thousands of miles from any family members (although my mom stayed with us for a week after he was born, which was a huge help), and I quickly felt completely overwhelmed.
There was the issue of trying to care for a crying infant nearly 24 hours a day, plus trying to recover from a hard labor+delivery on top of the sleep deprivation (I don’t remember Forrest ever sleeping, although I’m sure he must have nodded off at some point in his infancy).
There was the guilt of feeling like I must not be taking good care of my baby (surely any decent mother could figure out why her child was crying and make things better!), and the shame that came with trying to hide my stress and unhappiness (heaven forbid anyone find out what a terrible mother I am!).
And I felt guilty about being stressed and unhappy, period—there are plenty of babies who have actual, serious problems beyond some measly crying, so why was I making such a big deal out of it? I knew I should be thrilled and grateful for a healthy child, and I felt so guilty about being unhappy during what ought to be a joyful time. I loved Forrest so much, but the day-to-day reality of life at that time was overwhelming and lonely and exhausting.
The way I felt after Forrest was born seems like textbook depression, and I’m not sure why I didn’t recognize it sooner. Much of the time, I felt completely numb—as if I wasn’t actually living my life, but was watching it from a distance and barely cared what happened. Other days, I was so deeply sad that I couldn’t even function and spent days at a time in pajamas, not eating or sleeping, never ever leaving the house or answering the phone.
There were conversations with friends when I felt so confused and exhausted that I could hardly string sentences together, and later couldn’t remember anything we had talked about. I remember being out with Forrest once when a stranger asked his name, and I couldn’t remember what it was. I stood there, waiting for my baby’s name to come back to me. It’s hard to believe now that I didn’t think something was seriously wrong.
Jeff was as supportive as he possibly could be, but he had a lot on his plate at the time. He was nearing the end of school, and Forrest was born right before Jeff had to take his national boards. He did as much as he could, but even when he was home and helping with the baby, I couldn’t relax or rest.
I had friends I could have talked to, but I felt too ashamed to ask for their help or be honest about how I was feeling (although I suspect a handful of them figured out what was happening anyway, and I thank God for those sweet friends who saw past my ‘everything’s okay’ facade and were loving and helpful even as I did my darnedest to push everyone away). I couldn’t figure out why my friends—many with two or three kids of their own!—were handling things so well while I was falling apart with just one child, and I was humiliated at the thought of telling them what was going on and asking for their help.
After months of this, I finally called my doctor about it. I don’t know why that phone call was so difficult and took so long to make—maybe because I was finally admitting, out loud, that something wasn’t right. I wanted so badly to be a good, normal, happy mother, and I think it took a long time to let go of that idea and just admit, out loud, that something was wrong and I needed help making it better.
My doctor was so kind and gentle and helpful, and wrote me a prescription for an antidepressant and a referral to see a therapist. And, stupidly, I did neither. The idea of being medicated scared me so much that I never filled the prescription, and after one uncomfortable visit with a therapist, I never went back.
I can’t think of a worse way to handle depression than what I did. I turned down all offers of help, I refused to talk about it with people who could have helped make a difference, and I didn’t take my doctor’s advice. I’m not qualified to give mental health advice (obviously!), but this was definitely a very poor way to deal with depression.
As Forrest got older, though, he was becoming so much happier, which was making a difference in how I felt, too. Then we put him through sleep training, and after I started getting some rest for the first time in months, I finally felt a glimmer of hope—maybe being a mother could actually be enjoyable. Maybe Forrest wasn’t going to spend the next 18 years of his life screaming and crying full-time. Maybe I wouldn’t always feel exhausted and on the verge of a physical and mental collapse. Maybe our lives could actually settle into some sort of predictable, happy rhythm.
As the weeks went by, Forrest became more and more pleasant and predictable, I got more sleep and (prodded by Jeff) focused on doing things that helped me feel better (like exercising, getting out of the house without Forrest, and spending time with the friends I had spent the past few months shutting out), I slowly returned to normal.
I feel very fortunate, as I look back, that things worked out the way they did. I regret a lot of the choices I made at the time, and the way I thought about myself—I should have listened to my doctor, I shouldn’t have blamed myself for Forrest’s colic, or been ashamed of being depressed. I made all the wrong choices in handling my depression, and I’m just very glad that things worked out in spite of those wrong choices.
I was nervous about having a second child, in part because I was worried we’d have another difficult baby and I’d end up with postpartum depression again. But the more Jeff and I talked about it, the more we convinced ourselves that Forrest was probably a bit of a fluke—of all the babies we’ve met over the years, we haven’t known many who were as difficult as Forrest, and he did outgrow that difficult stage, so maybe we’d have some perspective if we had a second colicky child. We thought that I probably wouldn’t have PPD if we had an easier newborn. Very optimistic of us.
We felt so lucky when Darcy was born—she was such a sweet, happy baby. She certainly had her tough days and moments, but compared with Forrest, she was practically a different species. Exactly the sort of pleasant little cherub a pregnant mother expects.
I was exhausted, of course, but I felt like I was handling things pretty well in those early weeks. When I wrote that post 2 months after she was born, I was telling the truth—I certainly had days when I felt upset and depressed and frazzled, but overall, I was doing okay.
On top of the baby stress, though, we had a lot of work stress—within weeks of Darcy being born, Jeff left his job and we decided to start our own practice. Definitely not a low-pressure time for either of us, and the timing was terrible. Jeff was incredibly busy and stressed himself, and we had so much to do that had to be done quickly so we could start making money.
As I grew more and more sleep deprived and stressed about taking care of the kids plus dealing with the work and stress of opening a business, things went quickly downhill.
With Forrest, my symptoms felt very ‘typical depression’—no energy, no motivation, sad, withdrawn, numb. But after Darcy, they took a different form. I discovered there’s such a thing as postpartum anxiety—I would wake up in the middle of the night with panic attacks (I remember waking Jeff up at 2AM, sure I was having a heart attack). Many nights, I’d lie awake all night long, too anxious to fall asleep at all. I would have irrational, scary thoughts that I felt powerless to stop, and would have vivid images of terrible things happening to the kids that I couldn’t stop myself from thinking/seeing. I was so anxious and worried and upset about everything that I could hardly function.
Thankfully, I wised up a bit this time around. I called my doctor as soon as I realized that the way I was feeling was more serious than just a few bad days in a row, and when he wrote me a prescription, I took it religiously. I told my family and close friends what was happening, and they stepped in to help me with the kids and household stuff (help that I gladly accepted this time, instead of pretending I could handle things alone).
It was very difficult at first to open up and tell people what was happening, but it made the journey so much easier—I had the help and support I needed to focus on getting better, and talking about my PPD with others helped take away the shame of feeling like depression was my fault, or a secret I should hide.
And that medication was nothing short of miraculous. Within about 2 weeks, I felt normal again. I could sleep at night, and I could think and act the way I normally would. I still felt the typical stress and tiredness of having a new baby, but I felt like I could handle it, and that I wasn’t giving stress and anxiety more time/attention/worry than it warranted. Now that I know how well that medicine worked for me, it’s hard to remember why I felt so scared of it the first time around.
As we got closer to Darcy’s first birthday, I started feeling like I could stop taking the medicine and be fine. We had fallen into a steady, fairly predictable routine at home, everyone was sleeping, our business was doing well, and our lives felt more or less normal again. I talked to my doctor, and he agreed that this would probably be a good time to stop taking it, if that was what I wanted.
Over the course of a few weeks, I slowly weaned myself off the medication. I definitely experienced some withdrawal symptoms—the anxiety returned for about a week (although it wasn’t debilitating like it had been before—more of an annoyance than a real issue), I felt irritable and had mood swings, as well as some nausea and headaches.
After a few weeks, though, I felt fine. I can’t say I’m 100% awesome all the time, but who is? I doubt I’ve gone more than 2 weeks at a time since weaning off the medication without having a totally crap day and thinking, “Jeez, maybe I should get back on my happy pills.”
But overall, I feel good now—I have stressful days (sometimes weeks), but I feel like I am in control of how I think and feel instead of being at the mercy of depression/anxiety, and that I can handle stress and emotion without crumbling. I’ve figured out some ways that work for me in handling stress, I’ve learned to recognize what things are likely to trigger depression and anxiety for me, and what I can do to get on top of it as soon as it starts before it has the chance to spiral into something serious.
I had a few reasons that I wanted to put all this out there.
I think I’m about as open and honest as I can be on this blog . . . except that I hadn’t ever really talked much about depression. And that seemed like a big thing to not discuss. Blogging about my kids and my family and my life as a mother without talking about depression felt a bit like I was putting up an image of myself that wasn’t quite right. I feel like we’re friends here . . . and this is something I don’t hide anymore from my friends.
I also hope that by posting this, anyone who might recognize some of themselves here can find a little hope. I was ashamed of having PPD for too long, convinced that it was a sign of some flaw in myself as a person and as a parent. I spent years feeling like it was something I couldn’t/shouldn’t talk about. As I’ve accepted it for what it is, though, and opened up about it to friends, I’ve realized that so many people are dealing with depression/anxiety and just aren’t talking about it. If that means I have to be the one to bring it up so we can talk it over and get better together, that’s okay with me.
I’ll mention depression casually in conversation now and have a friend reply, with huge relief, that she is/was depressed, too. I’ll occasionally get emails or phone calls from friends who know I’ve struggled with depression and are going through it now themselves, and I’m honored that they feel comfortable discussing it with me. I don’t think it should be a topic we’re scared or embarrassed to talk about.
If you recognize yourself in this post, I hope you’ll know that you aren’t alone, you don’t have anything to feel ashamed of, and that things can get better. Call a doctor, talk to family and friends. Take steps to make it better. Would you sit at home with an ear infection, too ashamed to call the doctor and ask for antibiotics, too embarrassed to tell a friend that you were sick? This isn’t any different. And it can get better.