My Journey With Postpartum Depression
Sara Nelson | SHE RECOVERS® Foundation
“With postpartum depression, I couldn’t stop my mind from telling me stories of fear, unworthiness and despair.“
It was World Mental Health Day 2018. I was scrolling through my phone seeing other brave and courageous women sharing their battles with mental health online and knew I had something I needed to say. With my hand shaking I started to write. For me, this was the first time I had ever shared something real and vulnerable out loud. Until that point, I had perfectly painted a picture of my life to the outside world. I had never shared the struggle and shame I held inside. I had never before publicly spoken about my experience with postpartum depression.
I typed and erased what I was going to say about my battle with postpartum depression and anxiety at least 5 times before I pushed send. I immediately threw my phone down and hid under my covers for the next 12 hours wondering what I had just done.
There is something so raw and vulnerable about sharing your struggles out loud. It was the first time I felt like I had truly let myself be seen. After the initial vulnerability hangover (as Brené Brown so accurately describes it) subsided, this incredible thing happened. It was like the shame and guilt I was carrying slowly started to melt away. By the next morning, I had multiple messages from other women who also had struggles with postpartum depression. Women who had never told a soul that they too were struggling.
CDC research shows that 1 in 8 women suffer from postpartum depression and 1 in 5 women suffer from postpartum anxiety. Women of color are at an even higher risk of experiencing postpartum depression than white women and less likely to receive the care they need. It is believed that at least 50% of cases go unreported.
This Time Was Different
I can remember scrolling through my phone the day I shared my story looking for the picture of me taken 3 years prior that captured what I wanted to share. As I stared at the photo, I couldn’t believe I could look so happy and “normal” on the outside, when on the inside I was silently screaming. My daughter was 5 in this picture. With her, I had what most would consider a normal postpartum experience. Of course, I had all of the exhaustion, hormones, and normal anxiety that come with a newborn, but I was a mostly happy and proud new mom.
I had an entirely different experience when my son was born.
I knew almost immediately after he arrived earthside that something wasn’t quite right, but I kept going through all the motions of what I was supposed to do, waiting for that sense of “normal” to return. I didn’t feel the connection I was “supposed” to feel in those first couple of days. I asked the nurse to take him to the nursery every time she could. I sent my husband and family away and sat in the hospital bed alone and cried. As they handed me my perfectly healthy, swaddled baby and wheeled me out of the hospital to go home a couple days later, I knew something wasn’t right.
I felt completely numb.
Despite this being my second child, it was like I forgot what I was supposed to do. Over the next few months I went deeper into the hole of what I now know was postpartum depression and anxiety. I would lie awake night after night, while my new baby soundly slept, wondering what was wrong with me. I would run every awful scenario of what could happen to him through my head. I felt like I was in a dark, black tunnel with no way of seeing out. I spent innumerable hours scrolling on my phone desperately searching for any other parent who had experienced this to tell me I was going to be ok. Someone who could tell me they had felt this way too, but I couldn’t find anyone.
About 6 months into my postpartum depression, I finally went to see my doctor. I laid in a puddle of tears trying to explain what I had been feeling. I was desperate for an answer and quick fix. She very calmly told me, I had “textbook postpartum depression and anxiety” and prescribed me an antidepressant. I was so upset. How could I be depressed!? She was wrong! I didn’t need medication (or so I thought). I truly thought I could fix it, that I wasn’t sick enough to need medication to cope. I told myself she was wrong and I vowed to never see her again.
I threw the prescription away.
The depression and anxiety of course got worse. I was back to work by this point working a high energy corporate job and trying to keep it all together. I would hustle all day long to try and avoid what I was feeling and then come home exhausted, depleted and desperate for sleep, only to lie awake restless and discontent for most of the night.
I couldn’t stop my mind from telling me stories of fear, unworthiness and despair.
I was barely getting by on 2-3 hours of sleep a night. I tried every natural and alternative remedy to “fix” myself that I could find. “This is it” I would tell myself. And it didn’t work, so I would move on to the next thing. This vicious cycle continued for the next few months.
The Turning Point
One morning I was rushing out the door for an appointment. I grabbed my nearly 1 year old baby, strapped him in his car seat and ran out the door. As I was running out, I tripped and fell down the stairs on my front porch, sending my baby and his car seat toppling down the stairs in front of me. He was fine, but there I laid looking at him and him looking back at me. I couldn’t move for a few minutes. I felt paralyzed. It was like everything came crashing down on me in those couple of minutes. I got up and hobbled on my way with a twisted ankle and soaked in shame through the rest of my morning. When I got home I picked up the phone. I knew it was time.
I finally accepted I needed help and that I could not do this alone.
I found a mental health professional who specializes in postpartum anxiety and depression. I walked into the Institute of Psychiatry for my first appointment wanting to disappear. Not only was I loaded with shame for having to be there at all, I was walking into the very hospital where one hour earlier I met with their senior administration for my job. I was praying no one would recognize me or ask me what I was doing there. At this point in my life, I didn’t know many people who were openly talking about their mental health struggles and I felt so alone. But, week after week, I showed up in that same room. I started being honest with myself and started sharing my struggles with the people I love. I told them I was not ok. I started what would be months of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and I finally agreed to take medication. For me, part of my anxiety had manifested into anxiety around taking medication. After a few weeks, the medication began to work.
The Healing Power of Owning Our Stories
I felt a glimmer of hope that I might just be ok after all.
I was also introduced to mindfulness and yoga as tools in my recovery. I attribute all of these things to my healing and also want to acknowledge how privileged I am to have had the tools and resources I needed to heal. It is my greatest hope that all women have access to the support they so deeply deserve and I hope through non-judgemental and welcoming communities like SHE RECOVERS they can begin to find it.
Day by day, I started to feel like myself again. It was like little micro shifts back to feeling like I did before my son was born. As I began my healing journey, I promised myself that one day, I would share my story. I wanted other moms, who were scrolling their phone in the middle of the night wondering what was wrong with them, to know they were not alone.
I still to this day feel some guilt and shame come up when I think of that first year with my son. I feel ashamed that I don’t have good memories of his first year and that I don’t even remember much of it. I feel guilty that he would ever think this was his fault, which of course it is not.
But, each time I share my story out loud, the guilt and shame fade a little more.
I believe that when we are ready to recover out loud and share our stories, we shine a light on the path of recovery for other women seeking healing. When we lean in towards our pain and suffering, really listen to what our bodies, minds, and spirits are yearning for, and share our struggles, we open up for so much transformation and growth.
You Don’t Have to Recover Alone
I am here to tell you, we DO recover. You don’t have to do it alone. Little by little you will start to feel better. One day you will look back at this time in your life and realize how strong you are. If you are struggling with postpartum depression or anxiety symptoms, please don’t ignore them. Reach out for help. Talk to someone, when you are ready, share your story and know you are not alone!