“Amateur! Amateur! You’re such an amateur,” taunts the critical voice in my head as I sit down to write and get serious about this blogging thing. But the critical voice is overpowered. I might be new to blogging and internet savvy networking, but I’m not new to writing, I’m not new to feeling, and when it comes to the topic of postpartum mood disorders, I have something worthwhile to say.
Postpartum Support International is launching a blog hop for the month of May to raise awareness about maternal mental health. Hopefully, the blog hop will promote inspiring stories about recovery. We need these encouraging stories because when a woman is grappling with postpartum depression (PPD) or postpartum anxiety (PPA), it is isolating, terrifying and impossible to see anything beyond the fog and darkness. Or at least that was what it was like for me.
The depression and anxiety came on quickly and severely when my son was three days old. I was certain I had the worst case of PPD, and even though I read that women recovered from this condition, I was certain I had the first ever incurable case of PPD. (I also didn’t realize at the time that I had PPA more so than PPD). However, I was quite wrong about the idea that I could not recover and despite some complications in my path towards wellness, my mood improved in a few weeks and the anxiety subsided. After giving birth, it felt as though all the confidence, self-assurance and wisdom I had once possessed had slipped out of me along with my placenta. But over time, I regained my sense of self and once again felt whole. I’m fortunate enough to say that I experienced a remarkable recovery.
What helped me?
1) Timeliness – I sought help immediately. As soon as I detected a problem, I called my midwife and she put me on Zoloft. I didn’t wait to see if the sadness, irritability, insomnia and scary thoughts would go away; I took control and attempted to get help as soon as possible.
2) Journaling – I journaled daily, sometimes twice a day. Some entries served as quick check-ins about my mood while other entries recorded my son’s development. I wrote in great detail about my emotions, worries and fears. I even wrote some acrostic poems and alpha poems. The most helpful journaling approach was when I recognized even the tiniest steps towards recovery. I noted every moment that was positive and created many gratitude lists. (For more journaling ideas, visit wisdomwithinink.com)
3) Self-Talk – There’s an old SNL skit about Stuart Smalley who looks into the mirror and repeats self affirmations such as, I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me! Hokey as it may be, I needed this type of positive self-talk to run non-stop to combat the itty bitty shitty committee that had decided to set up camp in my mind. I can do this, I am a good mom and I’m not a whack job for needing constant self-affirmations. Usually, the self-talk reassured me and even gave me a laugh. However, there were times when my confidence was quite shaky and in those moments, all I could do was promise myself, It’s going to get better. It’s going to get better. It’s going to get better.
4) Medication – Without Zoloft, my chemically imbalanced brain would not have been receptive to journaling, self-talk or any other tool I used.
5) Tenacity – I was tenacious. I was driven. I was determined to get over this incredibly annoying bump in the road, this devastating birth complication, this truly humbling experience.
After attempting to receive help, I ended up spending 42 miserable, sobering and confusing hours in the ER and then in a psychiatric institution. PPA is awful, but the absolute worst part is the intrusive thinking. My intrusive thoughts came about as unwanted images of my son in life threatening situations. (I describe these thoughts more in my memoir Dancing on the Edge of Sanity, but I must warn readers that my descriptions might trigger intrusive thoughts for women suffering from this condition, so read with caution.) Not knowing why these images were surfacing in my mind and totally unaware that these “scary thoughts” had a name, I shared them with the staff at the local ER, and I was swiftly placed under observation by an armed officer and then sent to a psychiatric institution. (This was an overreaction due to ignorance and fear.)
When I returned home and was reunited with my son, I was desperate to prove myself. I had been in need of help, but neither the ER nor the psychiatric hospital had offered me any assistance. In fact, those 42 hours were a tremendous setback in my recovery. However, the experience did have one positive outcome: it strengthened my desire to fight the postpartum anxiety and intrusive thoughts head on. I felt a tremendous need to prove to the world that I was not homicidal, I was not weak and I was not a bad mother. I was furious about the lack of knowledge and awareness of postpartum mood disorders in my community so I directed my fury towards the anxiety.
After the incident at the ER, I felt it wasn’t safe for me to share my intrusive thoughts with anyone so I concluded that I needed to fight this demon on my own. When a thought popped up, I would tell myself, This is my anxiety. My brain chemistry is a bit off and I’m tired, but I’m not crazy. Seeing a horrific image doesn’t mean it will happen. I’d also address the intrusive thought and think Silly unwanted thought, please leave! and Hey crazy thought, you don’t scare me. Get out of here!
In the world of talk therapy, there might even be a name for the strategy I was using. However, at the time, I didn’t think I was utilizing a therapeutic tool; I was merely doing what I needed to do to survive. I was in a battle with some dark force plaguing my mind and there was no way I would let it defeat me.
My desire to overcome the PPA was fueled by a spunky relentless voice that was screaming: I might not be myself these days, but I’m not crazy and I won’t let this anxiety destroy me!
6) Acceptance – I accepted that my brain chemistry was off-kilter. I accepted help around the house, with my son and with many aspects in my life. I accepted that babies cried. I accepted that a crying baby did not make me a bad mother. I accepted that my husband wasn’t perfect, but he was still a wonderful man. I accepted that I didn’t need to accomplish anything more than sleeping, eating and caring for my son. I accepted the idea that I needed to be patient with myself and others. I accepted that everything had happened for a reason. I accepted myself.
If you are dealing with a postpartum mood disorder, there is help out there.
•If you need immediate help, please call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
• If you are looking for local pregnancy or postpartum support and resources in your area, please call or email us:
Postpartum Support International Warmline (English & Spanish)