Silent Sickness: Living with Postpartum Depression
“I remember thinking, if I took enough sleeping pills, my husband would come home in time to take care of the kids, and I just wouldn’t wake up,” Rebekah Branton, mother of four, shares. “Not that I wanted to kill myself, but I just wanted to sleep for six days.”
Postpartum depression affects 1 in 9 women according to the CDC, but for many, it is still a silent sickness. Misconceptions and myths surround the topic because many women are scared to speak up that they are struggling. Others are not even sure that what they are experiencing is postpartum depression.
What Is It?
After you have a baby, life changes dramatically, right? No sleep, whacky hormones, breastfeeding, surges of love, and complete bewilderment combine to produce a concoction of overwhelming chaos. At this point, many mothers are unsure how long these mood swings, or “baby blues,” and spontaneous tears will last.
Postpartum depression is not the same as “the baby blues” or “the weepies,” which occur in the first four to six weeks after the baby’s birth. Dr. Wendy Holden-Parker confirms, “‘Baby blues’ are much less severe and are shorter lived.” Postpartum depression extends past the six week checkup and can even last, if untreated, up to two years. It is a physical result of hormones shifting in the brain combined with the emotional upheaval of having a baby. Kyndal Jacoby, MSW, LCSW and a mother of three, explains the relationship between the brain and postpartum depression, “I want people to understand that your brain is an organ. Hormones affect everything in your body. Your body is changing. If you do not get help or train your brain, it will stay on the same course.”
How Do You Know?
One reason postpartum depression lingers in the dark is its complexity. Symptoms vary from woman to woman, and this vagueness contributes to confusion for mothers who try to understand what they are experiencing. Some women feel as if they are “going crazy” because their symptoms do not match what they read about. Kyndal elaborates on the symptoms, “It’s not what you would see on a Lifetime movie. Major symptoms are withdrawing from others, when normal things feel very daunting, shame, self-doubt, irritability, moodiness. But it can be different for every woman because each person handles things differently.” These symptoms can lead to no interest in previous enjoyable activities, little interest in her newborn, obsessive worry over the baby’s health, and feelings of worthlessness and of being a bad mother. “Women may feel they don’t have the energy to get out of bed and others may have severe insomnia,” Dr. Holden-Parker adds.
Rebekah had her third child the same way as her first two, C-section. The birth was normal for her, but reality once she returned home was anything but normal. Rebekah shares, “At my six week postpartum checkup, I wasn’t sleeping, but not enough that I thought I should say anything. When I read about regular depression it was all these symptoms I didn’t have. I loved my baby girl very much, but I was just irritated. It felt like my skin was crawling all the time. I felt off. I was so irritable and angry.” Even her husband noticed and told her she was not herself. She thought if she lost some baby weight, she would feel better. But in January, four months after having her baby girl, she was still sleepless and still irritable.
Rebekah was quiet about her misery. She explains, “No one mentioned postpartum depression. None of my friends knew what was going on.” She continued to suffer without any help. Finally, it came time for her annual appointment with her OBGYN in June. Rebekah, recalls that day, “I started to cry, and I told her I wasn’t sleeping and my skin was crawling. She told me it was postpartum depression.”
Sarah Thigpen, mother of two, had a similar experience, but wasn’t diagnosed. She lived through the “fog,” as she calls it, for an entire year after her first child was born. “I wasn’t present.
I didn’t care about my personal appearance. I didn’t care about anything really. I was numb. It’s not until looking back on it that I realize how deep into it I was. It was the darkest it’s ever been for me,” Sarah confides. Because this was her first child, she didn’t know what was expected. “I just thought it was all normal.
I didn’t want to get out of bed, but I didn’t realize how bad it was.” Recently after fighting some anxiety, her therapist and primary care physician diagnosed that dark period as postpartum depression.
Kyndal sees women like Sarah often, “They may be functioning so they think they are okay, though things are not right. A lot of time women tough it out for a year, expecting it to go away.”
So many women walk through this illness, but because of the ambiguity of symptoms and the shame they feel, they do not speak up.
More than half of the women with postpartum depression go undetected and undiagnosed because the new mother may be unwilling to reveal how she is feeling to her provider or close family members. Dana S., a mother of two, remained silent. She shares, “I realized I had it when the pediatrician asked me how ‘we’ were doing. I wanted to burst into tears right then and there, but I didn’t. I held it all in because I had been set up to feel so alone. People had told me it was rare. Isolation made it so much worse.”
Feelings of inadequacy pervade the mom suffering from postpartum depression. Rebekah confirms, “I felt like such a failure. I wanted to be a good mom, but I felt like I was a bad mom.”
Maya Angelou once said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Kyndal agrees that silence causes greater harm than opening up to someone you trust. “The biggest thing is talking about it. Everybody who sits on my couch says they feel so much better after they just talk about what’s going on. Being transparent and vulnerable with just one person, as scary as it is, is a huge help and can be life changing,” she emphasizes.
The first step is communicating exactly what is going on. You can share with your spouse, a friend, a family member, a counselor, first, but in order to get healthy, you must speak with your doctor.
How Do You Get Better?
We have no problem taking our children to the doctor when they are sick or making an appointment for ourselves for a sore throat. Seeking treatment from a doctor for postpartum shouldn’t be any different. Rebekah reasons, “If you had the flu or an earache, you would go to the doctor to get it taken care of. This is no different.”
Unfortunately, there is still a stigma with taking medicine for postpartum depression. Rebekah shares, “My doctor explained to me that with postpartum depression sometimes women need some medicine to fill in the gaps and provide balance. I started taking a prescription and after eight weeks, I felt so much better. It felt like the cobwebs had been cleared out. Medicine is a bridge to be made temporarily so that you can enjoy that baby. You can enjoy the taste of food again. You can sleep.”
Rebekah discontinued her prescription after those eight weeks, and her postpartum depression stayed away. Kyndal passionately stresses the importance of talking to a physician. Seeing a counselor can help alleviate the shame by including an “outside perspective not involved in the situation, a strong support, and a safe place,” but medicine really will help the mother move past the most crippling symptoms. She says that trying to go through it alone is like “trying to play basketball with your legs tied together.”
You Are Not Alone
These brave women stand with you. Postpartum depression does not discredit you. Dr. Holden-Parker stresses, “PPD is very treatable. Please seek help and do not be ashamed.” Rebekah declares, “This diagnosis doesn’t come close to making you a bad mother. It makes you human. Having a baby does a lot to our bodies, and sometimes chemicals shift in our brain. Asking for help is never shameful. Asking for help means you’re strong.” ■