May is Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month. Here, one of our PMAD Support Group leaders shares her story with us.
In October 2013, I attended a volunteer training seminar with Postpartum Support Virginia. The information I include in this post came from that training and can be credited to Postpartum Support Virginia.
Postpartum mood and anxiety disorders are different from the baby blues. The baby blues usually occur within the first week after giving birth and can last up to 2-3 weeks. Up to 80% of women experience the baby blues. Some of the symptoms include sudden extreme mood swings, crying spells, restlessness, anxiety, and sadness, sleeping problems, irritability, loneliness and loss of appetite. Although these symptoms may bother the mom, they do not inhibit her ability to function, and therefore do not require treatment. These symptoms usually go away when the mom is able to receive support from family and friends and is able to rest. When a mom is suffering from PMADs, these symptoms are increased and do interfere with daily life. Additional symptoms include a lack of energy and focus, persistent anxiety, phobias, feelings of guilt, worthlessness and incompetence. The mom may also feel uncomfortable around the baby and find she is disconnected and unable to bond with her child. Physical problems and a change in appetite are also signs of PMADs.
Probably one of the scariest symptoms for the mom is intrusive thoughts. These thoughts feel very real and can leave a mom feeling guilty, helpless and out of control. Images of hurting herself and/or the baby, or of impending harm due to natural causes inevitably fill the mom with fear and anxiety and can hold such a tight grip as to “paralyze” her and keep her from responding to her environment with reason and rationale. Experiencing intrusive thoughts (which often pairs itself up with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) is quite normal with PMADs, but must be addressed by your medical doctor and/or a professional counselor. Often, when we verbalize what is happening in our mind, those thoughts and ideas lose their power and we are able to process and discern what is real and what isn’t.
If you have a history of depression or other mental illnesses, you are at a higher risk of suffering PMADs. Those who have experienced abuse and trauma are at a high risk, as well. Other environmental factors include loss of a loved one, job loss/change, relationship issues, medical complications, breastfeeding struggles and financial difficulties.
If you find yourself suffering with postpartum mood and anxiety disorders, please seek help. Connect with your support system and be open and honest about what you are going through. Get the help that you need. Talk to your doctor and discuss if medication is right for you. Find a professional counselor (particularly one who is familiar with PMADs) and begin talk therapy. I encourage you to not just treat the symptoms, but to find the root cause. That cause may “just” but hormones, but you may also find that it has been caused by something buried deep inside.
My story began nine years ago when I gave birth to our first child, but it wasn’t until we were expecting our third child that it began to surface. I had tried to breastfeed our first two children, with very little success. I was absolutely determined to make it work for our son. Third time’s a charm, right? I was far more educated on the mechanics of breastfeeding and I even began taking (horrible-tasting) liquid herbal supplements as soon as I was able to work on promoting milk supply. When our son was born, we spent his first week in the living room and I engrossed myself into endless feedings and pumping, even hand-expressing and attaching an SNS feeding tube while nursing. I drank a ton of water and ate too much oatmeal. I wrapped up my entire identity as a good mom and as a quality woman in my ability to breastfeed…and I couldn’t. I became a postpartum zombie and my family suffered as a result.
With every child, my husband would ask me to stop breastfeeding. He saw what it was doing and how it was affecting me. Sometimes I think I saw it, too, but I didn’t want to admit it. I had to breastfeed. I wanted to prove it to myself, to him, to fellow moms. I longed to be that all-natural, organic kind of mother who cares for her baby by producing her own milk. I wanted to prove that even though I am not as blessed as other woman are, that I could at least do this.
I hate to admit it, but I hated it. And that began the spiraling down into some deep, dark months of my life and the life of my family. But I don’t want to tell you about that. I’d much rather tell you that I let it just roll off my back and it wasn’t a big deal. That I moved on.
I don’t want to tell you about the moments of rage when I would slam the bedroom door in my kid’s face because I didn’t want to hear of another need to be met…Or about the time I had an anxiety attack while trying to breastfeed my son.
I don’t want to tell you how my marriage cried out in pain, hungry for unity and love, or how many times I had to apologize to my kids.
And I don’t want to tell you how often my husband would stand there in shock, unsure if he needed to take the kids and leave for a while…or how many times I thought about leaving, one way or another.
No, I don’t want to tell you about that. But I have to. I have to because not many do. I know I’m not the only one, so please don’t hide. I hid for a long time because I was embarrassed and ashamed. I believed the lie that I had to be supermom and because we purposefully had this child, I just needed to suck it up and deal with it. I hated that I couldn’t juggle the baby and the other two kids, and all we ever seemed to do was watch TV. I hated myself for not being able to produce enough milk to provide for my child. I wasn’t the mom I wanted to be, or felt I had to be.
My husband was the one who brought my depression to light and when he said the word, I felt relieved. There was a name to what I was experiencing. We discussed medication a few times, but felt it wasn’t the right choice for us. Once I was able to recognize and acknowledge what was going on, I began the healing process. I came to the understanding that the root of my depression and anxiety came from an incorrect identity of who I was as a woman. What made me a good mom, a good wife, a quality woman was not an ability to breastfeed, or make all our baby food from scratch, etc…I came from me being rested and well – physically, mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually. A healthy mom is what my family needed, and what every family needs. Depression and anxiety are very, very real. Intrusive thoughts are very real. But with help and support, we have the power to kick them to the curb and THRIVE.