Welcome to the first post in a series on Postpartum Depression!
Postpartum depression (PPD) is estimated to affect about 1 in 5 new mothers. Too often, mothers are scared to seek treatment for PPD because they’re ashamed. Or, they don’t even realize that postpartum depression is happening to them until things get pretty bad.
For those reasons, it’s vitally important for people like me to tell our stories. When we share what postpartum depression looked like for us, we help other PPD moms know that they’re not alone, and we help them identify whether PPD is causing problems in their own lives.
So I’ll begin this series with my own story of battling and overcoming Postpartum Depression.
Introduction to motherhood derailed by the NICU
My postpartum depression story doesn’t begin with depression. I was happy at first.
After months of longing for the day, I finally met my daughter face to face! I didn’t have an instant connection to her — really, it was quite the opposite — but warm and fuzzy feelings kicked in as the hours progressed.
Related reading: My Breech Birth Story
In the middle of her first night, she was admitted to the NICU for dangerously low blood sugar, and just like that, the first few critical days of new mother boot camp took on a distorted meaning.
The NICU is a twilight zone where much you think you know about caring for newborns gets turned upside down. Weird patterns of thinking were ingrained in me, breastfeeding wasn’t possible, and I often felt like I didn’t get to do anything as a mom.
Related reading: The NICU | Part 1
The other important thing about the NICU is that it gave me something unnatural to work toward—a finish line.
Getting her home.
I’ve always been someone who struggles with life after crossing the finish line. The goal drives me, and once I’ve accomplished it, I no longer know what to do with myself. I crave the structure of finish lines, but flounder once I reach them.
This was a problem with the NICU experience because there is no finish line in motherhood.
It’s a race that goes on indefinitely. Pregnancy — waiting so eagerly to finish that race — hardly prepares us well for the never-ending marathon of motherhood.
The whirlwind of postpartum hormones would have tormented me either way, but the NICU set me up for even more challenge by teaching me a mindset that doesn’t work in real life. What’s more, Lydia’s blood sugar issues would continue to be an obstacle in adjusting to a normal, healthy routine, causing issues with breastfeeding and further increasing my risk for postpartum depression.
We’ve brought her home…now what?
After what felt like forever, we finally got to steal Lydia back from the NICU. We spent the next few days getting used to being home, getting back on the breast (after using formula and pumped milk in the NICU), and driving 35 minutes each way to pediatrician appointments for weight checks.
Within a few days, it became clear that she was struggling to regain her birth weight. I shouldn’t have been so surprised, given the hypoglycemia, but I felt like a failure as a mom. My pumped colostrum had given her such a boost in the NICU, and now my milk wasn’t enough.
Our doctor suggested we supplement with formula, and she may as well have told me to pour poison down Lydia’s throat. We’d finally gotten on the breast after all the formula in the NICU, and now we were supposed to go back to giving her that crap?
Oh, if I could go back and give past me a good slap and a lecture on formula, I would. But I’ll be writing a separate post in this series all about that.
Lydia’s doctor could tell I wasn’t a fan of this idea, so after giving us a couple more days to make progress, she suggested I try pumping for 10 minutes after feeding sessions to boost my supply.
It turns out pumping was a trigger that opened the door for postpartum depression that much wider.
The pressure and pace quickly becomes too much
My life instantly became busier. By now, I was a week and a half or so postpartum and recovered enough from surgery to turn my attention to more activities. We started house hunting in a very competitive market, as our lease was up in a couple of months. We spent countless hours going to weight checks and to stores for baby stuff (hello, first-time parents).
In between all of this hustle and bustle, I was pumping after every single feed. I’d breastfeed Lydia and then hand her off to my husband or my mom, who got to enjoy playing with her while she was awake, fed, and happy, while I’d spend incredibly long, lonely minutes pumping at my desk.
My intense sense of failing as a mother, my tendency toward perfectionism, and being used to exclusively pumping in the NICU drove me to pump until my pump’s auto-shutoff kicked in at 30 minutes. At first, I tried to convince myself I enjoyed this time. It was “me time,” I’d think, and I’d spend it looking at pictures and videos of Lydia and reading my Bible.
But all the while, I was missing out on so much of the fun of having a new baby.
Postpartum depression symptoms begin to creep in…subtly
Before long, we all started to notice my appetite plummeting. This was the first obvious sign of postpartum depression.
I didn’t realize why it was happening, so I chalked it up to pumping and feeding, thinking, “I’m getting so much sucked out of me and can’t replenish it fast enough, and that makes me too exhausted to eat.” This didn’t really make sense at all, because breastfeeding women usually complain of being constantly hungry.
I didn’t feel hunger. I didn’t have any desire to eat. In fact, within a few days’ time, the thought of chewing anything made me want to vomit. So I started desperately looking for ways to drink my food, buying Ensure shakes and soup I could sip out of a coffee mug.
Even that became too much, though, and I could feel my body starting to waste away. I was shedding baby weight incredibly fast, and at two weeks postpartum, I didn’t look like I’d had a baby.
My family did everything in their power to get me to eat. My mom would make small plates of food for me and cut them up into tiny, manageable pieces like when I was three years old or sick, and I’d try to force them down but never finish them. My husband would tell me, “If there is anything at all out you could imagine eating, I will get it for you,” despite us living half an hour from anything other than rural, small-town restaurant options.
My body caught in a vicious cycle of pitifully refueling, Lydia’s weight gain suffered. My body was feeding on itself for her needs and mine, and it simply wasn’t enough to keep up.
Basic capabilities begin to diminish
Postpartum depression was creeping up on me in other ways, too.
Every little thing became too much, too overwhelming. The smallest tasks felt next to impossible.
Anything that didn’t go smoothly or went unexpected sent me over the edge in little freak-outs. For instance, one night around 9:00 P.M., I’d gotten Lydia down in her crib and had just started to fall asleep when she woke up for no reason at all.
Desperate and angry, I flung the covers off and marched over to pick her up. I spun around to my husband and cried, “What does she want?!?!?!?” and started rocking her back and forth, exaggerated and exasperated, almost violently.
My husband insisted on taking her, and I went to sleep. Lydia hadn’t even been crying; if I’d just left her there, she may have simply gone back to sleep.
Beginning to realize something is off
I started to notice that motherhood wasn’t feeling the way I’d expected it to feel. I knew it would be hard, but I didn’t know I’d feel so much negativity and misery. I tried desperately to kick my feelings into shape. I bought a onesie that read, “I make mommy smile,” not because Lydia made me smile, but to remind myself that I liked her.
But it wasn’t working. I gradually wanted less and less to do with her. I started to “rely on help” more, letting my mom or husband give her a diaper change while I “settled into my nest” for a feeding session. As soon as the session was done, I’d hand her off again so I could go pump.
I didn’t want anyone to see my growing avoidance, so I put the bare minimum of effort into taking care of Lydia just to seem like I was doing something, when all I wanted to do was pretend she’d never happened.
A few life-saving moments of clarity
Probably the only thing that kept me from some kind of intervention was the slow awareness building up that something was very wrong. Postpartum depression had crept up on me and though I didn’t know to call it PPD, I knew something wasn’t right. I knew I wasn’t feeling warm and fuzzy about Lydia. I wasn’t enjoying her. But it was worse than that.
I no longer liked her. I regretted having her.
Sometimes I even hated her.
What kind of mother was I to be feeling like that? I beat myself up and tried as hard as I could to hide from my family what I was feeling, hoping it would just pass. I was scared of what they would think of me if they knew. But I wasn’t getting any better—only worse and worse.
I had to tell someone.
Saying it out loud helps take back some control
One day, my husband and I left Lydia with my mom and met our friend/realtor to see a house. The place was a bust, and since we had some extra time our hands, we went to Hardee’s for chocolate milkshakes, the only thing I could imagine eating.
Sitting in the parking lot sipping our treats, I worked up some courage and, bracing myself, opened up to my husband. I told him I regretted having had Lydia and I wanted my old life back. I’d worried that my family would think I was awful, but it was actually a huge relief to admit what I was feeling.
My husband suggested I call my cousin, who’d had a baby half a year before me and had struggled with postpartum depression. Calling her on the way home, I was startled to hear her say I probably have it. I didn’t even quite believe her.
Postpartum depression had crept up on me so subtly that, like a lobster in a slowly heating pot of water, I’d had no idea what was happening to me. It didn’t look and feel like what I’d imagined it would.
My cousin implored me to make an appointment with my OB-GYN, but I didn’t want to make a fuss if things weren’t really that bad. I already had a post-op appointment scheduled for the end of the week, so I decided to wait until then.
Looking back, I definitely should have made an appointment for the very next day. While waiting for my doctor’s appointment to arrive, I got worse and worse, more irritable, had my first hyper-ventilating, the-world-is-ending panic attack, and basically stopped eating entirely.
By the grace of God, I did make it to that day, and my doctor started me on sertraline, the generic for Zoloft, and referred me to a counseling office because “I’m not going to have you on a medication without seeing a counselor.”
Clarity and calm washes over me for the first time in weeks
We filled the prescription on the way home and that afternoon, I took the first dose.
Within hours, I found relief. (This is not the case for everyone; for many, SSRI’s can take around two weeks to show any effect.)
It was like a raging storm had been blown away.
For the first time since having a baby, I felt true calm. I didn’t feel like every tiny little thing was summiting a mountain. I felt capable.
And most of all, I felt quiet.
I hadn’t even realized that I’d been plagued by this constant, unnamed sense of chaos. It had been like a howling wind endlessly blowing in my ears, drowning out my senses and making it impossible to really connect with the world around me.
With the medication working to smooth out imbalances in my body, it was like emerging from a pounding rainstorm, turning off the windshield wipers, feeling the tension melt away from my body, and noticing how quiet the world is.
For the first time, I felt hope.
If this was what the medication could do in just a few hours, I’d be okay. It would get me back on track. It could empower me enough to do basic life while my body worked on regulating itself. My doctor had said we’d keep me on it for 3-6 months and then wean me off.
It all felt achievable.
I went to bed that night at peace, ready to take on the night and the tomorrow.
Hitting rock bottom
That night was one of the worst nights of my life.
I woke up for Lydia’s first feed, and after getting her back down, I could not sleep.
For five straight hours.
There across the room was Lydia, peacefully slumbering away, and there I was, with no reason to be awake, unable to fall asleep. No matter what I did—deep breathing, trying to relax my muscles and stop thinking—I was just wide awake.
It was the medication.
The next morning was horrible. Utterly exhausted and desperate, I wondered how on earth I was supposed to get any better when the very thing meant to help me stole my sleep. You can’t just not sleep when you have a newborn.
I felt like the lifeline they’d thrown me was both saving me and drowning me. My hope was shattered; I thought I’d never get better and be stuck this way for the rest of my life, and the thought of spending each and every day like this, giving this shred of a person to my daughter as a mother, and to my husband as a wife, and to my parents as a daughter, was enough to make me want to not exist anymore.
And then I remembered my doctor’s words the day before: “I’m not going to have you on a medication without seeing a counselor.”
So I saddled my mom with Lydia duty and I looked up the office on the referral slip on my insurance.
It wasn’t in network.
So who was in network? I looked up and called office after office after office. Every time, they either weren’t accepting new patients or didn’t even answer the phone.
Meanwhile, I grew more and more distraught.
My mom called my husband to come back home from work, seeing the train wreck I was quickly becoming.
How was anyone with a desperate mental health condition supposed to get life-saving help? They say to get help, and here I was trying with everything in me, and the system was failing me. What a sham, it felt like.
I was reaching the point of absolute hysteria.
My mom brought me a plate with a small handful of raspberries on it, one of my favorite foods, and I couldn’t even touch it. I couldn’t put anything in my mouth. I started wailing out loud my frustrations about not finding anywhere to take me.
The madness was growing and growing because, in the irrational line of thinking that postpartum depression can cause, I felt like “they” were going to take away the medication if I couldn’t immediately find a counselor.
And though I hated the medication for what it had done to my sleep, I clung to it. Because I’d tasted this little piece of quiet and calm, and that quiet and calm was everything.
All options spent, I honest-to-God thought that my future was over.
There was no way out.
Everything that was meant to help was unattainable, unsustainable, or about to be taken away. There were no more options for me.
There was no more hope.
I was hysterical. I was mad. I was the closest I’d ever been to just giving up and ending it. My mind was rushing all over the place.
My family would be better off without this basket case in their life. I was a total failure, my chance at motherhood wasted. I was leaving my husband to be a single dad, which he never signed up for. I was inflicting incredible pain on my parents, as their only living child, only a few days before the anniversary of my brother’s passing, because here they were, watching their other child tinker on the brink of death. Lydia would never know me for what I could have been, only the mother who wasn’t enough to keep up.
Somehow getting out
I don’t entirely know for sure what got me through that incredible low. All these violently menacing thoughts probably coursed through me in a span of a few minutes. I still lacked adequate communication skills, bogged by the fog of PPD in my mental clarity, so I think my husband and mom didn’t even know just how bad things got for me right then.
Probably what pushed me through it all was the persistence of my family, fueled by the powerful mercy of God.
My mom, a doctor, told me to give the medication another chance. She said that taking it in the morning this time would give it a chance to work through my system by the time I went to bed, and promised me I’d sleep better. She asked me to give my body more time to adjust to it.
My husband and mom managed to peel me from my phone and computer, to take a break from the counselor search and pick it back up later. They convinced me that I didn’t need to find someone right that second.
Just like that, they gave me breathing room. They distracted me.
I didn’t sleep perfectly that night, but I slept a whole lot better. It was enough to give me hope that the medication could truly bring relief without jeopardizing my basic needs.
And I found a counselor the next day.
Life starts improving
Bit by bit, things got better. I started talking to someone, I gradually had better clarity of mind and more regulated mood, and I slowly felt like I could handle my own life.
As part of focusing on my own healing, I had to stop breastfeeding because the demands of it were too much. It was better for Lydia to have a sane and living mom than to have my breastmilk. With the extra time on hand afforded by drying up my supply and having other people who could feed Lydia, I started to find myself again.
Eventually I got to the point where I could take care of both myself and my baby. I could eat again and keep up with the pace of a newborn. My mom’s time off from work ended and she had to head back home, and the real test of what I could manage began.
We bought a house and moved when Lydia was two months old, and I spent my days unpacking during her naps and feeding and playing with her when she was awake.
I was finally starting to thrive!
Not a storybook ending
Here is where we could wrap up if we wanted a good story and a good plot progression. It would sound hopeful and you’d feel like we reached a resolution, and maybe you’d feel encouraged to seek help if you see yourself in my story.
But life doesn’t always follow a good plot line, does it?
In real life, recovering from postpartum depression isn’t a straight line up and out of the lowest point. Our bodies are complicated and we may experience many ups and downs as we try to heal. We may feel like we’re finally on top of the world, and then find ourselves right back in the grips of irrational thinking and despair.
My postpartum depression story has such another low point.
Intense mom guilt = intense PPD trigger
Around three months postpartum, I was taking the dog to the vet and I had to bring Lydia with me. I strapped her into the carrier on my front, got the dog out of the back of the car, and manually brought the hatch door down to close. Only I didn’t account for the extra space Lydia took up in front of me.
I slammed the hatch door down on her head.
She screamed and cried. She had a welt. I felt like the scum of the Earth.
And then she was fine. She was alert and looking around, and I kept checking her for signs of concussion, calling my mom and asking for help.
I made the soonest appointment at the pediatrician’s office to get her checked out that afternoon.
Once we got home after the vet appointment, I lost it. Again, I was back in that place of desperation where I felt like I couldn’t do the smallest of tasks. Any noise Lydia made would send me covering my ears with my hands, wishing it would stop. I did the bare basics to keep her alive, crying every step of the way.
Surprisingly, I didn’t actually connect this regression in my mental health to the mom guilt of accidentally hurting my baby.
I called my OB’s office and asked if it was normal for people to need to up the dose of their medication. The nurse on the line asked me if I was having any thoughts of ending my life, and I lied to her and told her no. I was scared of someone trying to hospitalize me or take Lydia away. She made an appointment for me for right after the pediatrician appointment to see whoever was free that day.
I called my husband to tell him I was probably going to be increasing the dose of my medication, and he asked if I should wait to talk it over with my counselor. This was a totally reasonable question, but to me, it felt like he was embarrassed of me and that he didn’t want me to get the emergency help I needed because it would embarrass him. It was a hot mess of irrational thought. I picked a strange fight with him over it in which he had no idea what was going on and I couldn’t articulate feelings that made any sense. In the end he just told me to do whatever I felt I needed to do.
I left Lydia on the floor with some toys hanging over her and went to the nursery, where I doubled over in the rocker, shaking and crying.
The time quickly approached when we needed to leave for the pediatrician’s office, and I knew I needed to change Lydia’s diaper and drive her to the doctor. The thought of changing her diaper had me in hysterics—it was the most impossible task I could imagine doing.
Scratch that; driving a car without crashing it into a tree while she was in there was the most impossible thing I could imagine doing.
So I actually called friends who lived nearby to see if anyone could drive us there instead. The only person I managed to reach was free in an hour, but I had two minutes to leave if I wasn’t going to be late for the only appointment the doctor had free that day. So my friend stayed on the phone with me, distracting me and making sure I was alright, until Lydia and I pulled into the parking lot of the pediatrician.
By this time, the height of the intensity had passed and I felt like I could manage adequately again.
Feeling like they think I’m crazy
Lydia was deemed okay, and at my OB’s office, the doctor agreed to up the dose of sertraline, but told me I should transfer the management of the medication to a psychiatrist.
It felt like he was telling me this was no longer an issue of my hormones regulating after the birth and that instead, I was a nut case. I left feeling relieved to have more help in regulating the chemical imbalance I knew was going on, but incredibly discouraged and ashamed.
My counselor told me a few days later that I should consult my regular OB before transferring care, and though my OB had originally said she’d wean me off in 3-6 months, she ended up agreeing with the other doctor. I was only 3 months postpartum, hardly healed entirely. I felt like she’d given up on me and just wanted to pass me off to someone else.
(OB-GYNs are not psychiatrists. They fill many kinds of roles in their work of managing both a mother and a child, but they aren’t specialized to treat mental health long-term. I see now how my OB probably suspected I would just need more time to recover and that care would be better suited to someone who doesn’t primarily handle pregnancy and women’s health.)
Making a decision for myself
I decided then that I didn’t want this to go on forever, because it felt like it was headed that way. I didn’t want to get stuck in a place of needing to use an SSRI as a crutch. I knew in my gut this wasn’t a long-term mental health issue; it was just my body slowly getting back to a normal state after having a small human cut out of it.
I could tell that episodes of desperation and irrational thinking were getting way less frequent and less intense. I could feel my hormones settling down. They needed help from the medication to do so, but they wouldn’t need it forever.
Before long, I weaned off the medication and embarked on a new stage of my life where I embraced the normal highs and lows. My body had reached a state of equilibrium again, where the lows weren’t so abnormally low as they were when I was not in a good place. I’d recovered enough to start living my life again without that added crutch.
Reflecting on my postpartum depression journey
Postpartum depression was one of the most intense experiences of my life. I never knew just how bad it can get and how hard it can be to heal from. I never realized it could be so hard to even identify it as the culprit. I’ve never felt more out of control of my own self, unable to handle basic life.
It was scary.
I live with regrets that I’ll probably never shake, even knowing they weren’t my fault. I wish I could get back all those times when I didn’t want anything to do with my daughter. She may be no worse for wear now, a thriving toddler, but I know I failed to nurture her as I should have in the beginning of her life.
I can’t get those times back. I can’t go back and relive the snuggles of her sleeping on my chest, or recover the triumph of nourishing her from my own body.
In some ways, I failed myself myself more than I failed her.
I failed to be the kind of mother I wanted to be. I failed to see what was happening and get help when it could have saved my breastfeeding journey or given me more time with Lydia. I failed myself by not enjoying that squishy little creature. I failed by scorning the precious, precious gift she is, hating her when I should loved her more than life itself.
But it wasn’t my fault.
I live my life now thankful to have her. I cherish my time with her and soak it up, because it’s so, so fleeting.
I treasure her more for having thrown her away and gotten her back. And I fight every day to give her the best of me, like any mom.
Does my story sound like yours?
If any of my story is relatable for you, please let it reassure you that you’re not alone. Many of us have experienced postpartum depression. Many of us have battled it and won.
If this sounds like you right now, please get help. Please open up to whatever support system you have and make an appointment with your doctor as soon as you can. Even if your child is several months old now. A lot of women don’t understand what’s wrong until way after having their baby.
If you’re a support person thinking that maybe this is what’s wrong in your relationship right now, please be patient with the mother and help her get treatment. She isn’t trying to be this way. She isn’t suddenly crazy. She really has no control of this and needs your kind and patient love.
Where we’re headed in this series
Much traction has been gained in recent years regarding postpartum depression awareness, but there’s plenty of room for growth. The more we discuss it and bring it into the light, the quicker moms will get the help they need and move into the enjoyment of motherhood.
That’s why we’re going to do a whole series on PPD here at Breeching Baby. We’ll explore postpartum depression from many different angles, including help for support people, how your pediatrician plays a role, newborn products that can help take the edge off, my story of how PPD killed breastfeeding, tips for bonding with baby even through PPD, and more.
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