I am not a doctor, a psychologist, a spiritual leader, or a high profile anyone. I am a mother. I am a wife. I am a daughter. I am a sister. I am a friend. I am a survivor of perinatal mood disorders. My diagnosis was a moving target consisting of postpartum depression, anxiety, panic disorder, adjustment disorder, etc. When I was ill, I made a promise in my deepest and darkest moments that once I was able I would write about my experience as a way of reaching out to other women. To cry out, “You’re not alone. It’s not your fault. And there is hope.”
My symptoms came on strong about 7 weeks postpartum with my second daughter Madeline. It caught me by surprise since I didn’t have PPD with my first baby, had a good birth experience this second time around and felt the fuzzy feelings with my little one from the beginning. Then my body started to break down and soon I couldn’t care for Madeline or myself. It started with a common cold and one sleepless night followed by many more.
It was no surprise that for weeks after giving birth, I didn’t sleep much. The problem was not just the frequent awakenings necessary to nurse Madeline. In the beginning, I had been so tired that I would sometimes nod off to sleep while Madeline was on my chest nursing but at some point, after each feeding, I felt wide awake. I was chronically exhausted and yet I couldn’t sleep. Then I had nights of zero sleep.
Through the wee hours of the night, my brain never rested. It was on high alert, unable to shut down. The wheels were spinning, stuck in the mud, and just getting deeper and deeper into the ground. I would lie down, then get up and pace. This had become my pattern when I felt anxious, and sometimes that anxiety escalated all the way into a panic attack. I would force myself to lie down again to try to at least rest even if I couldn’t sleep, but then the whole miserable cycle would start again. Lie down, get up, pace. Lie down, get up, pace. Lie down, get up, pace. My brain was like a record skipping. It didn’t matter where the song ended or started, the pattern kept repeating: hyperventilation, pacing, racing thoughts – full-blown panic. I didn’t want to wake anyone else in the house for help because I didn’t know if I could even explain what I was going through. Most of all, I was ashamed and scared. This was not me. I couldn’t wake up my husband Charlie and tell him his wife was going crazy.
So, I let my panic cycle its way through my body and brain. And in my darkest moments I wondered if my brain had gotten permanently stuck in this tormenting loop, running and running in what seemed a race with no finish line. Was this the new me? If it was me then I’d probably just get worse and eventually lose my sanity completely. What if I hurt someone or myself? That’s what the doctors always asked on those baby wellness questionnaires, I knew what they were getting at. If I confessed to any thoughts of hurting someone they’d take my children away and I’d be institutionalized. I couldn’t bear the possibility of being in a mental ward, all I knew about mental wards were from television; the poking, the probing, the torture. I didn’t want my children, my husband or family to see me like that. My God! I cried thinking about the pain, the fear, the shame, the solitude, the unrelenting mental anguish. One of my worst fears was to be physically paralyzed, unable to meaningfully communicate but still be mentally cognizant of my surroundings and trapped in my own deranged mind forever. In such distress I thought it would be a blessing to just let me die.
With each panic episode, my thoughts became darker. The less sleep I got the worse each episode seemed. I was so ramped up I wasn’t even able to rest. I tried to drive the bad thoughts out of my head and ended up obsessing about my need for rest and sleep so I could care for my babies in the morning. I remember watching Madeline through the night as she was sleeping peacefully, just waiting for any signs of her stirring. If I wasn’t sleeping I could at least do something useful like nurse my baby. I was afraid I wouldn’t have the energy for the day and all its demands, but I looked forward to the morning because then at least I wouldn’t be alone. At least I would be distracted from the dreadful thoughts going through my head.
Though I had more anxiety and panic attacks than depression, I would have days when I woke up, opened the door, and depression would just walk in and become my uninvited guest for the day. More often than not, I would just climb back into bed instead of facing the day.
My psychiatrist said that depression and anxiety are like twins, they usually travel together. Though depression felt very different than anxiety to me. I'm not certain but I believe my depression may have been a side effect of my antidepressant or sleep aid because I didn't seem to experience it with such intensity before going on medication. Like anxiety, depression made me feel tired, robbing me of sleep and appetite. But the main difference was with depression I had no desire to function, I was numb to myself, my surroundings, my world. My biggest challenge with depression was to keep alive my will to live. With anxiety I wanted to live; I still wanted to be functional but was physically and mentally over exerted.
Depression relentlessly attacked my spirit, my soul, my heart. I felt numb even though in my mind I knew I should be feeling certain emotions. My brain still remembered what joy, love, and desire felt like; I just couldn't feel those emotions anymore. Knowing I used to feel and experience such pleasures made my depression much worse because it made me acutely aware of my loss.
I eventually visited my doctor and was prescribed Prozac, BuSpar and Restoril. This was after the vitamins, melatonin, Benadryl and Ambien did nothing for my panic or sleep problems. What worked for me was a combination of medication, cognitive behavioral therapy, diet, family, friends, the passage of time, and faith. I was willing to try anything to feel better; some things worked and others didn’t. For example, I learned that even if I wasn’t hungry, I needed to eat regular meals because low blood sugar created symptoms that seemed to mimic my panic attacks. You will find the combination that works for you. I recommend keeping a list of what works and what doesn’t.
I am not an advocate for any specific medication, therapy, or form of support group. There is no single answer that works for everyone. My experience has made me a believer in informed decision making, compassionate professional care, and unconditional support for mothers suffering from perinatal mood disorders.
Things may not work out exactly as you planned; it likely will not. When I was struggling most, a survivor of perinatal mood disorders told me, “I promise you, it will be better. I promise you will feel joy again. I promise you will be yourself again.” I tried to hold on to that promise, which I now share with you. Perinatal mood disorders which include postpartum depression, anxiety, panic disorder and psychosis are treatable. Please keep finding hope in living every day and hold fast to the truth that you will be well again.