One of the biggest things I’ve learned through my own journeys through postpartum depression and anxiety is how good we humans can be at looking like we are okay. That’s partly why if I know you, and you have had a baby recently, there’s a good chance I will do my best to check in and ask you how you are doing. And, based on my own history, I might ask you more than once to make sure things haven’t changed, or to give you another chance to tell someone if something is wrong and you’ve still been keeping it to yourself. And if I’ve missed any of my friends because you seemed to be doing fine, I’m sorry. I know better.
And that’s also why I feel it’s important for me to be honest about my own experiences. I hope that women will be able to talk about postpartum issues easily and without shame and get the help that they need before things get too serious.
You see, this isn’t my first time at the postpartum depression/anxiety rodeo. But, there are some very significant differences in how things are going for me this time, versus how they went for me before.
The first time I had significant postpartum issues that required intervention was after the birth of our son, August. The second, right now, after the birth of our little Mary.
I stayed silent. Even after I knew something was terribly wrong, I kept it inside for weeks.
I started seeing a psychologist 2 months prior to Mary’s birth. She taught me strategies for dealing with depressive feelings and anxiety that I could later put to use if needed. I knew I had a significantly higher risk of dealing with depression/anxiety this time because I had experienced it before. I didn’t want to be silent if it happened again.
Postpartum anxiety and depression hit me like a freight train. I was having panic attacks, which I had never experienced before. I was driving erratically.I felt like I was stuck behind a wall and couldn’t access my own life. I was spending time thinking about the least traumatic ways to make myself disappear. All very abnormal for me, and all very scary. And I didn’t see it coming.
We knew exactly what to look for, and didn’t take it lightly. JP and I monitored my mental state regularly after the baby’s birth. I kept my counselor updated. I was honest. When, early on, I had some depression, and now, when I’m still dealing with anxiety, the conversation had already been started.
My treatment plan included me needing to take Zoloft for approximately 6 months. I also did every. single. thing. that I was told would help me recover. I saw a counselor, I exercised, I made myself shower, I started eating right, I let family help. Looking back, I don’t think if it were up to me doing it for myself, that I would have had the strength to do what I needed to do to heal. But as I read about depression, I learned about the effects of a depressed parent on her children. And so I took the medication for their sake. I did what I was supposed to do to recover for their sake. And, after a few weeks, little bits of my normal self began to peek through.
My treatment plan started before Mary’s birth with developing a relationship with my psychologist. I still see her regularly. I also began implementing all the things I learned the first time around, and the new tools I’d acquired as early as I could. I’m using a light therapy box and taking extra vitamins. Once I was cleared to exercise, I started to exercise. I journaled so I could track my mood and anxiety levels right from the get-go. We hired a postpartum doula to help with cooking, cleaning, laundry, and baby care. My mom comes to help for 3 days every other week. And when I started having symptoms, I put into place the strategies I learned from counseling. I wasn’t hit by a freight train this time around. I knew what to do, and was already getting the support I would need. So, overall, things have been less scary and less severe.
I considered myself fully recovered by the time my son was 7 months old. I put a lot of hard work into that recovery. And, thankfully, postpartum depression and anxiety is not a chronic issue. It might be reoccuring, depending on whether or not we have any more children, but it is not something you live with forever. And I held on to that hope that first, long, dark time through. Thankfully, it was true. I was totally back to my normal, functioning self. Morning had broken.
I don’t know how long I have until I will be fully recovered. I’m hopeful that based on the timing of my recovery the first time, that my body chemistry will level itself out by mid-summer, maybe sooner, especially with all I’m doing to help the healing process. I’m managing right now without medication, but I’m needing to keep things really simple. I know from experience that if I try and do too much on a given day, my anxiety will be worse. I know if I don’t get enough sleep, or can’t make up sleep with a nap my anxiety will be worse. I know if I don’t exercise, it will be worse. And, because of how I’ve been able to manage my symptoms much more effectively this time around with this treatment plan, and because we know that pace of life is a huge contributing factor in how well I do on a given day, we’ve had to make a difficult decision to extend my leave from work while I make sure I continue to recover well. This time I’m able to know that I want to recover fully and as soon as possible not only for my children, but also, for myself.
Beyond The Surface
Having postpartum depression and anxiety has helped me to desire to look more deeply in situations where people that might otherwise appear to be fine. We often put our best face forward for the world to see, and that best face can hide some deep pain or struggle underneath. I want to give a couple of personal examples of that, in the hopes that it can continue to remind me and others to extend compassion, and to encourage vulnerability.
Anyone who spotted me driving in the car last week with the kids would have seen what appeared to be a woman, simply driving. But they wouldn’t have known that I overscheduled myself on that day, and we were running late to get Felicity to theater class. In reality, we were going to be 2-3 minutes late. Which for normal Lorelei wouldn’t be a huge deal. But the hustle of trying to get there on time when I had attempted too much triggered my anxiety. I was working very hard to stay calm with the kids, but I assigned more blame on their lack of speed getting ready than I should have. My mind was racing as I tried to utilize the strategies I had learned to keep from panic taking over. And someone looking very closely would have noticed that as I drove, my hands were shaking.
Also this week, friends of mine on Facebook would have seen this picture of JP and I waiting for a concert to start:
Cute pic. But what this picture doesn’t show is that not even ten minutes later, one of the opening acts came on, and the way the music was mixed was very heavy on the bass. It was so much bass that my insides were shaking. And my thoughts started racing… I thought the building was going to come down, or that something inside my body would stop working from all the shaking. There were people on all sides of me and I felt trapped. I tried to breathe, and tried to ground myself, and stick it out, but I just couldn’t.
None of those thoughts were rational. But that’s how anxiety works. So I used another strategy. I removed myself from the area, and sat out that act’s entire set in the concourse where the sound was much more muted. I told JP I was worried if the main act had that level of bass that I would struggle to be in there during their concert. Thankfully, their sound mix was very different and we were ok. But… the point is, that picture of me didn’t tell the whole story of the night. I didn’t put nearly running out of the area in a panic as my Facebook status for the evening.
I hope to be able to continue to be honest about what I’ve been through with others. Perhaps it will help someone feel less alone. Perhaps it will help someone make a decision to reach out. Because postpartum stuff is nothing to mess around with. Suicide is way up there with other leading causes of maternal death. But, taken seriously, it is so, so very treatable. And you totally get yourself back after you’ve done the hard work to recover, whether that be taking medication for a while, or excercising, or therapy, or any combination of the many, many tools available that help you get yourself back from the darkness.
Below are 3 resources I have taken advantage of at different points in my own postpartum journey, and that I found to be very helpful.
This Isn’t What I Expected. This is an amazing book that helped to normalize my experiences, and start me on the path of having tools to recover. It also has a whole chapter devoted to helping husbands know how to help their wives.
Postpartum Progress. This website contains stories from women about their postpartum experiences. It also has articles and links to resources for help.
Postpartum Support International. A hotline that connects women to resources for help.