Okay, so I’m not sure how to go about this. I’ve thought about writing this post for a few months now but have always chickened out, so hopefully this post isn’t too rambling. Up until about a year ago I was very active in this blog, chronicling my pregnancy with my son, and all the wonderful family adventures I was having with my husband and daughter, and then all of a sudden it stopped. The reason for this was that I was going through the most difficult time in my life. After my beautiful, healthy son Charlie was born I quickly sank into the deep dark hole of postpartum depression. And when I say I sank, I mean I sank to depths of sadness I didn’t know where possible, and it was a long hard year long battle to reclaim myself and my life. But I’m getting ahead of myself, I guess I should start from the beginning.
I want to preface this all by saying my experiences are my own, and what I experienced is not the end all be all to what causes post partum depression (hell, I could be totally off about it myself), but this is what I think contributed to it all. I’m not sure if I needed all of these individual pieces to create my PPD or if this was just my personal perfect storm. But in any case, I hope my story offers some light and encouragement to others; and I pray, a spark of hope to those of you reading this and thinking “this is me”.
The Slow Decent
It’s hard to really put a finger on when exactly the depression began, it kind of sneaks up on you, like a bad dream. It’s tricky and lurks in the darkness waiting to get you at your most vulnerable. But, I think the seeds to all of it were planted during my pregnancy. You see, Charlie is my rainbow baby. I had a miscarriage early on with the pregnancy right before his, and that left an indelible scar on me. When I found out I was pregnant I was simultaneously overjoyed and terrified. I was so afraid of going through another loss, I think part of me always held back, afraid to fully connect with the little life inside me. On top of that, I spotted on and off from 19 weeks on, resulting in multiple ER visits and scans, which left me further convinced that he wasn’t going to end up in my arms. I truly believe this fear and anxiety throughout my pregnancy cultivated the ground for the seed of depression to be sewn. Every moment of joy that came with my pregnancy also came with apprehension and fear because the thought of losing him was close behind. So I think in an unconscious effort to protect myself I think I held back my bonding with my tender baby.
Hospital and Birth
Charlie came three weeks early by induction due to my retaining massive amounts of water which was putting stress on my heart (I already have several heart defects so I was being monitored very closely). My labor was rather quick for an induction-five and half hours-with minimal interventions. I had the natural birth I wanted, and with the exception of the doctor using the vacuum to help Charlie be born because he was tangled in his umbilical cord, everything went smoothly. The only thing that was uncertain was how his lungs would be since he was technically premature. I remember being in the middle of pushing and watching an army of doctors and nurses shuffle into the room. My adrenaline immediately went up, and I remember praying “God please don’t take him now”- the fear was still there that I would never get to keep him. Once he was born he was shuffled to the corner of the room where the doctors checked him over. I was in pure terror as to what they were going to say, I remember yelling “how is he?” “how is my baby?!” The doctors weren’t saying anything and I became hysterical until my OB/GYN had to yell at them to give me an update. At that point they gently placed him in my arms and said “he’s just fine”. The sudden crash from adrenaline left me shaking and in stunned disbelief; he was here!
We stayed two days at the hospital which were a constant emotional roller coaster. He had jaundice that was being monitored, and he failed his first hearing test in one ear. I remember being terrified that because he was taken out early that I had somehow damaged him, that if he couldn’t hear it was my fault. I stayed up all night the day he failed his test rubbing his ear almost constantly trying to get rid of the water build up that might be there, which may have caused him to fail. In hind sight, I can see that this was the first case of the obsessive behavior that would dominate a large part of my life for the next ten months. The next morning, Charlie passed his hearing test and his jaundice was getting better…I had done it…at least that's what I told myself, I fixed him and I was the only one that could. The rest of our stay was uneventful, once again in hindsight I can now see that my sudden decision to exclusively bottle feed, when I had been so focused on successfully breastfeeding this time around, was an early indicator that I was not bonding to Charlie.
Going Home and Spiraling
Coming home with a newborn for us was the same as with any family. We were adjusting to life with two children, my husband took time off to help me and I had the wonderful support of friends and family. I was so happy! Things were falling into place and everything was…easy. But, I now see signs that all was not right. Two days after coming home from the hospital I left Charlie and Isabella with my husband and drove an hour out of town to go to a baby wearing workshop. I didn’t see anything odd about leaving my newborn with absolutely no second thought!. I was not concerned about his jaundice number (which were still present, and we just had another blood draw for) I didn’t think he would need me…I really could care less. I went to the workshop, turned my phone on silent without a second thought and went about my day (obvious red flag). When I left the workshop I noticed my husband had called me four or five times, which was weird. I called him back and hear a frantic voice when he answered. I never thought it had anything to do with Charlie, I wasn’t even phased. He told me the pediatrician called and Charlie’s jaundice was at 12 and 15 is when he would need to be hospitalized. I hung up the phone hysterical. It was happening, I had failed my son and I was going to lose him, I was a terrible mother and now the inevitable was happening and he was going to be taken from me, just like I knew he would be.
Thankfully we were able to get his jaundice under control without the need for billi-lights or hospitalizations (thank you God). But I think the emotional ups and downs I had been through up to this point, along with the fact that my hormones were thrown out of whack laid the groundwork for my PPD.
The Rapid Fall
A lot of nuances from the time my husband went back to work to my “aha” moment are lost. Its all a fog of tears, fear, anxiety, and obsessive thoughts and behaviors. Over the couple months following Charlie’s birth I became hyper vigilant, always watching him so I could catch that “thing” that was going to take him away. Because of my previous career working with children on the Autism spectrum, Autism became that “thing”. I had become convinced that Charlie was going to be diagnosed and that only I could catch it early enough to help him. I remember watching him and chronicling his every milestone, I noticed he was not meeting his gross motor milestones (lifting his head during tummy time, weight on legs, rolling etc) and I became terrified of his well baby visits because each one was a reminder that I was failing, I wasn’t helping him (later we would find out he had torticollis and low muscle tone, both of which are immeasurably better through occupational and physical therapy). I recall standing by his crib at night and opening his closed hands. Believing that developmentally his fists should be relaxing when he slept (at about two months) and just opening them, watching them close, opening them, watching them close, opening them, over and over again for at least 15 minutes. I knew it was ridiculous, I knew it was obsered, I knew what I was concerned about had nothing to do with his fists being closed while sleeping, but I could not pull myself away.
Despite my constant watching and hyper vigilance I was also oddly aloof when it came to Charlie. During the day he would cry and scream and I would basically ignore him until I was done doing whatever task I was doing. At this point, loading the dishwasher was more important-and more satisfying- than picking him up, or cuddling him, or feeding him. Looking back I can honestly say that at this point I was indifferent to his overall presence. If he disappeared I would not have blinked an eye. At this point in time he was the equivalent of a noisy piece of furniture. It’s awful I know, and it kills me to write these thoughts down because this is NOT how I feel about my Charlie bear now, but at that time these were the facts.
I also noticed that I didn’t want to hug or kiss him like I did with Isabella. When she was little I couldn’t keep my hands off her. All I wanted to do was hold her and hug her and love on her 24/7. With Charlie, I would put him in his swing or rocker seat and walk away and not look back at him unless he started to cry…and even then it would take me a minute or two. Around this time, about two months post partum, I noticed I was crying all the time, for no reason. I would be driving down the street and all of a sudden I would begin sobbing uncontrollably. Isabella of course would notice and I would try to play it off, I was just so sad! And at the same time I was angry. I was angry at nothing. I was angry at everything. Any little infraction by Isabella would cause me to snap at her and bark orders at her. Charlie’s crying for food would make my blood boil-never to the point of doing anything thank God- but the anger was there. I remember one time when I was running errands with the kids we were in the car and Charlie began to cry. It was time for him to eat and he was hungry, the sound of him crying in that closed space was intolerable. I remember yelling at him: “dammit Charlie, you just ate two hours ago!” my heart was racing and I just wanted to feed him so he would shut up! I’m so ashamed of it now, and I am crying while I type this, I can’t believe I ever thought these thoughts or said those words to my baby! But at this time, this was my life. I thought that it was all stress from adjusting to having two kids. I was staying home with them, keeping up the house, and trying to do everything I needed to do, of course I was stressed…that must be it, I thought.
Unfortunately things just kept getting worse. My moods worsened and became more unpredictable. My anxiety kept getting worse and was generalizing to Isabella. I become terrified that something was going to happen to her as well. I hated going out because I was so afraid that someone was going to take her or she was going to get hit by a car in the parking lot. I distinctly remember one instance where I took her out of the car and brought her to the other side so I could get Charlie out. I told her to hold on to me while I got him out. I didn’t realize it but she was holding onto my diaper bag. I couldn’t feel her so I turned to see where she was, and of course since she was holding onto me she moved to, making it so I couldn’t see her. I screamed her name hysterically instantly almost in tears. She said “I’m here mommy” and when I saw her I had relief which quickly turned to anger. I berated her about listening and how I couldn’t feel her holding onto my diaper bag and how terrified I was. It was beyond what was called for for her age and the situation. I still hurt deep in my heart when I see her face after that. She was crushed, I had never yelled at her like that before and I know she took it as a personal attack, she was bad, mommy’s always right and she was bad. Again, I am sobbing as I write this, but I want all of you to know that these are not normal things, these are signs and to please not ignore them or write them off. You have the right to feel better and so does your family! You deserve to be happy again, you are not alone!
Along with my increased anxiety, I continued to get more and more detached from Charlie. I would have horrible visualizations of hurting him. These were things I NEVER wanted to do and I NEVER acted on. But they would come all of a sudden as flashes through my minds eye. For instance when he was sleeping in the bassinet in our room and would wake up at night. I would have to take him to his room and change him. As I would pass the door frame I would have visions of hitting his head against the frame just because. This terrified my and I quickly moved all of his diapers and wipes into our room so I wouldn’t have to go near the door at night. When he was older and in his crib I remember standing over him watching him and thinking “if he goes away, I’ll feel better, I should make him go away” I was horrified and I literally ran to the completely opposite side of the house and hid in the bathroom in tears. What kind of a monster was I?! I would later find out that these feelings and visualizations are very common in post partum depression and the fact that I was so horrified was actually a good sign. It meant that I recognized it was wrong and that somewhere deep down I had established a bond with Charlie.
About two and a half months post partum, I finally had my “aha moment”. It was the middle of the night and I was sitting in the rocking chair feeding Charlie when it hit me. I realized I was not as attached to him as I had been to Isabella at that age. I guess it was my psychology background (which I credit for being the reason I got help so early) but I started to put it all together: my uncontrollable crying, my anger, my obsessive thoughts and behaviors, my anxiety, my lack of connection with the baby…I had post partum depression!
The next day I told my husband how I was feeling and what I thought was going on. He agreed that I needed to get help and that he would do whatever I needed to help me. I was so relieved to hear this! I was so afraid that he would label me a bad mom or think I was crazy. I know now that that was ridiculous, but there is so much stigma regarding mental health issues, especially when it comes to mothers, I was terrified and didn’t know what to expect. A couple days later I had my check up appointment with my cardiologist. He asked how I was doing and without even thinking about it I broke down sobbing, ashamed of what was going on, not able to hold it together anymore. I begged him for help, I told him I had not idea where to go and I just wanted to feel better. My amazing doctor, stood there and hugged me. And I cried. No, I sobbed uncontrollably on his shoulder until the shoulder of his lab coat was soaked through. Once I regained somewhat of my composure he gently said “Pammy, before you leave here I will have a name for you” and that’s just what he did. I had the name of the woman who would help me through the rest of my journey: Dr. Diana Barnes.
A Light Within the Darkness
My meetings with Dr. Barnes are a blur to be completely honest. It was a safe haven for me to cry, and vent, and where most importantly I had someone who truly understood and would constantly remind me that I wasn’t bad, I wasn’t horrible, I wasn’t a terrible mom…I was human and I was struggling and I was normal. I would leave my sessions with her feeling lighter feeling freer, and even if I slipped back into the darkness later that day or week, I had that glimmer of light, that hope to hold on to. Along with seeing Dr. Barnes I also saw a psychiatrist at UCLA where they prescribed and monitored my while I was taking different medications for my depression and anxiety. A lot of people are afraid to say they took medication to help them overcome their depression, but I refuse to be ashamed. I had tried everything: moms groups, exercise, forcing myself to get out of the house, and while they all helped a little, I needed that extra push to truly get back on track.
After ten long months I finally started to come out of the darkness. It would still take a total of a year or so for me to feel completely like myself. It was a long and difficult struggle, that in all honestly I sometimes fear will come back. I don’t feel like it is, but this has been such a difficult and quiet frankly traumatic, struggle that in the middle of the day to day mom struggles there are times when I become afraid that I will be pushed to my limit and fall back into that deep, dark pit. But, every time I am able to turn around and realize that this is just the typical life of a mom, but that I am okay and strong. I hope that this has helped some of you. If you are struggling and think you might have post partum depression (or any mental disorder at all) don’t be afraid to look for help. You are NOT weak, you are NOT less than, and you are NOT alone!
Things That Helped Me
So here is a list of all of the different things I did during my journey that helped me. I’m not saying that each and every one of these will help you, but I hope it gives you a jumping off point. If something doesn’t work, don’t get discouraged, keep trying…you will find a combination (of these, or other things) that will help you.
- I joined a moms group, specifically moms of preschoolers (MOPS). This helped me get more connections with other moms, and gave me a great support system of other women who were going through similar things.
- Exercised. I joined a mommy and me exercise group call Fit 4 Mom. It is very affordable and let me spend time with my kids (because I was too anxious to let them out of my sight) but still get exercise. It was also another support group where I could be with other moms. And of course exercise brings up your endorphin levels which then help to elevate your mood
- Forcing myself to go out. At one point my anxiety was so bad I didn’t want to leave the house. I just wanted to hide where I was “safe”. But I knew that that wasn’t healthy for the kids or myself. So I would make myself leave the house every day. It may have been a walk, going to the park, running errands, anything to get me out to face my fears. Because each time I faced them and nothing bad happened it was proof that everything was going to be okay.
- Tell people. I thinking telling select people was very helpful. It gave me people to confide in and talk to. Post partum depression survives by keeping you in silence, when you talk about it you bring light into the darkness and that, even in a small way, helps.
- Taking time out. I started making sure I would take time out every week for myself. It may have been mommy only outings with my friends from MOPS, or taking a hot bath at night. This is when telling others about whats going on will really help. When people KNOW you need help, they are more open to helping, allowing you some extra time for yourself.
- Talking to a professional. I can not stress this enough. When I started talking to Dr. Barnes and the psychiatrists at UCLA it was so refreshing! For the first time in a long time, I had hope that I would make it through this dark fog. If you are going through this you NEED to find a trusted professional to talk to.
- Medication. I think for me personally, medication was the tipping point. All of the other things I listed above definitely helped me. All of those collectively helped me to begin feeling like I was myself, but they weren’t enough to get me fully back to myself though; and that is where the medication came in. If you end up going this route don’t feel bad about it. The medications where designed to help you. Also, don’t get frustrated if the changes aren’t instant. These medications take time and need to build up in your system. You might also be switched to different medications based on side effects you're having or how well they are working.
I hope my story and these suggestions helps you. Like I said before, this is my personal story of post partum depression and not a strict guide. Everyone’s journey is different but I hope that by telling my story I can make you not feel so alone, and to know that it does get better.