One of the most misunderstood parts of motherhood is the emotional roller-coaster you’re on right after giving birth. Everyone expects you to be settling in blissfully while staring doe-eyed at your bundle of joy. But sleep deprivation and the unpredictable hormonal whirlwind of post-pregnancy can throw even the most even-keeled woman into some real instability. Western society expects women to adapt and overcome, to run the house and the family all day every day without much help from friends or family. And if you can’t handle that responsibility while parenting a new baby, it can wreak havoc on your self-confidence and sense of competency, resulting in guilt and shame. I can attest to the fact that its very isolating to be ashamed of your emotions, and have them not make sense to you. It’s hard to imagine that anyone would understand.
My longest lasting episode of depression began during my pregnancy with my second oldest child. It was marked by anxiety and irritation, and a loose cannon rage that would come out of nowhere over both big and little things. I was ashamed of my lack of ability to control my anger, and that I’d become a parent who yelled often. I attributed it to being pregnant and hormonal and having a high need 2 year old, but I didn’t connect it with depression at all. I didn’t make that connection because I wasn’t sad, tearful, lethargic, or unmotivated. How could it be depression if there were no tears?
After my baby was born, things only got worse. She had colic for 3 months, screaming from 11 pm to 2 am most nights, while I walked a groove into the living room floor. Once the colic abated, she was a terrible sleeper. She woke as many as half a dozen times a night for the first two years of her life, and I was the primary caregiver. Due to the chronic sleep deprivation, I was detached, ragey, and anxious, I also began having intrusive thoughts and paranoia, most often involving fear of home invasion or replaying the worst parenting moments of my day. Some were worse and more vivid than that.
I mentioned my anger and detachment to my ex (who I was still married to at the time) when she was about 10 months old, and he told me, “If you had a closer relationship with God, you would not be in despair.” Medication and therapy would be a waste of money, he said, because the problem was in my head and was rooted in sin. I was devastated and felt even more shame as I internalized this possibility. When you’re already feeling worthless and ashamed, it’s easy to believe unkind words about why you feel the way you do. Because of his reaction and invalidation, I never told anyone about how I was feeling. I didn’t have the courage to admit to the intrusive thoughts and paranoia once he told me that I was the problem. But I knew my feelings were real, and I knew they weren’t normal. I didn’t know I could look for support or help because I didn’t really know what to call my emotional state other than angry, detached, and overwhelmed. It didn’t seem like any depression I had ever heard of.
Because of the shame, I became more and more emotionally detached and couldn’t handle everyday life without reacting strongly to even the smallest things. I felt unsupported, misunderstood, and like I was a failure as a mom and a wife every single day. But you would never have known, because my facade was one of a happy, pulled together, suburban wife and mom. If other women could do it all by themselves, I didn’t want them to think I couldn’t keep it together.
My PPD and anxiety went untreated for 5 more years, by which time I’d had two more children with my ex. Eventually the rage and dissociation, self-loathing and isolation became more than I could bear emotionally. I felt that my children and I deserved a better quality of life. So, despite the protests of my ex, I went to see my family doctor. I was prescribed an anti depressant, and that quelled the rage substantially. But I continued to feel detached, and I continued to have intrusive thoughts and anxiety. A few months later, I approached my doctor about anti-anxiety medication, and for the first time in a very long time, the intrusive thoughts went away. With the additional medication came a degree of apathy, but it was still a relief. I didn’t go into any depth about the severity of my emotional issues with my doctor during those visits, and was never encouraged to seek additional help.
After I left my ex, I added weekly therapy appointments to the medication I was taking. More and more emotional healing occurred, but despite the counseling and prescriptions, I continued to exhibit symptoms of panic, paranoia, and varying levels of depression. It wasn’t until I started participating in the Monday evening #PPDchat on twitter in the spring of 2011 that I realized my detachment and rage were valid symptoms of post partum depression. Then I read this blog post about intrusive thoughts, and finally had a name for what was happening in those episodes of repetitive circular thoughts and terrifying/guilt inducing video-like moments in my head that I never spoke about. While I was on anxiety medication, I didn’t have them. When I’ve gotten off medication, they come back sometimes. But I have an easier time dismissing them now that I can recognize them. Depression and anxiety are issues I’ve dealt with for my whole life. I’ve had periods where I’m not so affected by them, but they always seem to recur.
I no longer live in that place of crippling overwhelmedness because I’ve come to a place of peace with my limitations. I removed myself from a toxic marriage, and I started making self-care a priority. I’ve (mostly) stopped comparing myself and my parenting skills and my particular children to others. I’ve also done a lot more sharing, a lot more reaching out, and a lot more self-analysis, since I have gotten involved with the PPD community on twitter and become a regular reader of blogs from women who suffer with Post Partum Mood Disorders. I have a support system now. They encourage me, and remind me that it takes strength to reach out and be vulnerable. Trusting women who can relate to my story and give validation to my emotions has been instrumental in my healing and helps a lot with my day to day stability.
There are more than half a million mothers each year, in America alone, who don’t realize they have a post partum mood disorder. I was one of them. Post Partum Mood Disorders are real. The feelings you have are real. You are not making a big deal out of nothing, and your emotions and fears and thoughts should not be taken lightly and dismissed as “just being hormonal and overtired”. Find women who will listen and support you, and take the risk of opening up to them in a safe environment, and share with those people who have earned the right to hear your story. In the meantime, know that you are doing the best you can. Know there is help, and there is hope. You’re not alone.
• If you need immediate help, please call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
• If you are looking for pregnancy or postpartum support and local resources, please call or email us:
Call PSI Warmline (English & Spanish) 1-800-944-4PPD (4773)
Author’s Note: I’ve shared this story in bits and pieces over the course of the last several years, in the hopes that it provides validation, insight, help, and hope to other women and their families/partners. You’re welcome to share this post and the information within it to anyone you think might benefit from it. Thanks to my readers and friends for continuing to provide the safety and security I need to risk vulnerability, share my story, and keep healing.