The Numbers That Convinced Me to Open Up About My Postpartum Depression
Recently, I saw a story on Facebook about a mother who died because of postpartum depression. It made my stomach drop. I ran to the bathroom, shut the door and quietly sobbed while my family was getting ready for dinner. My sadness was overwhelming. From the outside, no one knew what she was going through, but I knew the pain she felt. I instantly decided to share her story and even wrote a heartfelt post as a heading, but as I started to post it, I stopped. I deleted it. I let my fear get the best of me.
This wasn’t the first time. Someone I cared about lost her battle over a year ago. I had promised her as I stood in the grass at her funeral that I would do something to help — but I didn’t keep that promise. I told myself it was because I didn’t know where to begin to help. And even though that was true, I know it was my fear that really stopped me. I honestly didn’t know if I was strong enough to face my own struggles with postpartum depression.
Those who know me best know I am an open book. I have no trouble talking about my struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety, with hyperemesis gravidarum (HG) during my pregnancies and now with chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. But my two-year struggle with postpartum depression makes me stop short. I rarely speak about it. It scares me to even think about it. Partly because it was the most horrific time in my life, and partly because even though I know better, I still feel remnants of shame about it.
After I deleted that post, it followed me around over the next couple of weeks. One evening after my kids went to bed, I went to the website Postpartum Progress. Postpartum Progress is a national nonprofit that raises awareness, fights stigmas and provides peer support and programming to women with maternal mental illness. I had visited their site when I was struggling and it had, among other things, made me feel less alone.
From Postpartum Progress:
Colorado found that suicide is the third leading cause of death in the first year postpartum, ahead of pulmonary embolism and hemorrhage. A 2012 study in the state of Georgia of pregnancy-related and pregnancy-associated deaths found more women died from suicide (8) than from hemmorhage (7), hypertension (4), cardiac problems (4) and embolism (4) during or in the year after pregnancy. A Michigan study of data from 1995 to 2005 found that deaths due to intentional self-harm (11 percent) were at a similar rate to amniotic embolism (11 percent) and greater than hemorrhage (7.1 percent) and obstetric blood clot embolism (4 percent). A Wisconsin review found that suicide represented 13 percent of all pregnancy-associated deaths. You won’t find maternal or pregnancy-related/associated suicide mentioned even once by Merck for Mothers, a 10-year, $500 million initiative focused on improving the health and well-being of mothers during pregnancy and childbirth.
After reading this, I felt anger, sadness and shame. Not the same shame I felt before. This was shame that I was contributing to the problem by staying silent. But again, I didn’t know what I could do. I don’t have thousands of dollars to give to funding, and I don’t have a name I can use to bring awareness. After thinking about it for a while, I finally realized what I could do was face my fear. I could use my voice. I could tell my story.
I struggled in my pregnancies with hyperemesis gravidarum. My second pregnancy was worse than my first. In simple terms, I felt like I had the stomach flu for nine months. I thought I might be at risk for some postpartum depression, but I had been OK after my first pregnancy, and no one was talking to me about it.
That is the really scary part. My doctor, who I saw all the time during my pregnancy because I was so sick, never once said let’s talk about postpartum depression. Not once. Not an offhand comment or a pamphlet from the nurse. Not even as I sat crying in the exam room telling him how bad I was feeling. I had all the signs, there were huge red flags all over the place, and not one single person talked to me about it.
So if no one talked to me about it, then how are moms who don’t have the signs or red flags going to get talked to about it? Because the thing is, every single new mother can be at risk for postpartum depression. Postpartum depression does not discriminate. A new mother can have a wonderful pregnancy and be the happiest new mom in the world, and postpartum depression can still rear its ugly head.
Postpartum Progress says, “Postpartum depression and anxiety are not ‘one-size-fits-all’ illnesses.” Illnesses. You read that right. These are not “dramatic” or “overwhelmed” moms who “just need some rest.” These are moms who are dealing with actual postpartum illnesses. There is postpartum depression, but there is also postpartum anxiety, postpartum obsessive compulsive disorder and postpartum psychosis. And it is important to remember that postpartum illnesses do not have a timeline. It doesn’t just go away after a month or two. Many mothers suffer for over a year or more.
The day I had my baby boy, I was elated. I was thrilled to think my illness nightmare had ended. Within 20 minutes of having him, I was eating everything in sight and did not throw up once. I was on cloud nine.
Two weeks later in the middle of the night, I was trying to sleep on the couch. My son was in his swing sleeping, and I was exhausted. I had been struggling to sleep when he did because I was feeling anxious and agitated. I couldn’t understand why. This was my second baby; I shouldn’t be feeling this way. The red flag that I was struggling did not register for me. I was finally starting to doze off when I had my first intrusive thought. Even now, it is difficult for me to describe. It was as if I couldn’t control my brain. It wouldn’t stop. Intrusive, terrible thoughts kept coming at me. From that moment on, everything changed.
I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. My children were two of the most important people in my life, and I was now terrified to be around them. If my brain could betray me, then I didn’t know who I really was anymore. I was spiraling downhill. Everything frightened me. I felt hopeless. I felt empty and couldn’t imagine ever being happy again. I was in a nightmare I couldn’t wake up from, but I kept going through the motions. All of this was happening inside my head, but no one knew. One friend told me later that the vacant look in my eyes had terrified her, but to my knowledge, no one else noticed anything. I kept up the appearance that I was just tired. I know I never gave anyone a reason to think otherwise. After several scary moments of asking God to help me go and make it quick, I knew I couldn’t possibly continue living this way. I was on the edge and I felt I had only two choices — jump or tell someone.
Speaking up was not easy. I, like many other mothers struggling with postpartum depression, felt ashamed, weak and scared. I told my husband first, my mom second and a psychiatrist third. I am very grateful, because my husband and mom could not have reacted any better. They were calm and understanding. They kept reminding me I was ill, not a bad mother. They made sure someone was with me at all times, and they didn’t allow me to hide. They encouraged me to get help, and my husband even stood by my side as I made the phone call.
Postpartum illness is complicated. I know I am lucky, as I chose medication and therapy and it worked for me. I still struggled over the next two years, but it was not nearly as bad as those first few months. That is not always the case for other moms. If I hadn’t had therapy for obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety previously, I may not have reached out for help.
In a perfect world, every mother would know she is ill, not weak. She would know that feeling the way she is feeling has nothing to do with being a good mom, or being strong, or if she loves her children. She would have people in her life who know about postpartum illnesses. People would talk about postpartum illness openly. Family and loved ones wouldn’t be trying to figure out how this could have happened after the loss of a mother. But the world isn’t perfect, and after writing this, as difficult as it was for me, I feel strongly that we need to make our voices heard.
The more we talk about it, the less stigma it will have. I am looking at you, postpartum illness survivors. Use your voice. Tell your story, face your fear, and you may save a life. Let’s change the ending for our fellow moms, one voice at a time.
And if you are struggling right now, I know you are scared. I know it is hard to understand what is happening. But please, tell at least one person how you are feeling. You have done nothing wrong. It will get better. You are not alone. The Postpartum Progress tag line says “Together, Stronger.” And it is true. There are millions of moms walking beside you, supporting you and giving you strength. Use your voice and get help.
For more information, support and help, visit the Postpartum Progress website.
Image via Thinkstock.
We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.