Maternal Mental Health week was in April. Not many people know this. Why? One big reason is that many people who experience maternal mental illness are too scared to talk about it - for fear they will be seen as a bad mother.
My personal battle with maternal mental illness was against postpartum depression. An illness I describe as a slow-moving fog of blackness that sneaks up and completely consumes you, and by the time you realize it... it’s already too late.
PPD symptoms can vary from person to person so that’s why noticing you have it is complicated. There is no one size fits all when it comes to PPD.
Having a predisposition for depression I have always tried to be very self-aware. Psychologists have been a part of my life on and off since I was young. Anytime I felt emotionally imbalanced I would go to therapy for a bit, talk about what was going on and quickly get the all clear.
Because of my predisposition, I told my OB/GYN that I feared I might experience PPD. He recommended a psychiatrist and I started my sessions before I even gave birth to our son.
I was “prepared” and PPD still caught me by surprise.
My psychiatrist told me I was having PPD symptoms and I still spent months thinking it was baby blues that would be gone soon. I always handled my emotional imbalances without medication, this would be no different. I didn’t need help, or medication, or even therapy.
When I gave birth I felt that I had to be this perfect mom and nothing was ever allowed to be wrong with me.
I thought I wasn’t supposed to feel anything except wonderful. Denial and fear didn’t let me accept what was actually going on. I was thinking I would be considered a bad mother, bad spouse, and weak person if I admitted I had PPD.
My PPD presented itself in the form of extreme sadness followed by emotional numbness with a hefty side dish of OCD and Anxiety.
In the beginning, I cried a lot and I got angry when things didn’t go exactly as I expected. If something came up last minute, it meant canceling everything else I had to do that day. I would make any excuse if it meant staying home in my PJ’s.
Later I would swallow the lump that built up in my throat to avoid crying so I would seem ok. After swallowing my feelings for so long, my emotions just shut off.
Eventually, I was a robot going through all the motions but never truly absorbing any of the moments.
My OCD had me thinking if I didn’t rock my baby exactly 10 times before putting them down or if I didn’t sleep facing the nursery something terrible would happen. Not your "average" terrible, I mean out of the bloodiest horror movie terrible.
Anxiety would keep me up at night checking to make sure the baby was okay, even when I had a 24-hr nurse 6 days a week. The fear that something bad was going to happen wasn’t a first-time mother anxious feeling, it was anxiety that would send me into full-blown, chest constricting, hyperventilating, panic attacks.
How could I be that anxious and be emotionally numb at the same time?
One day day I was in the car with my husband and explaining to him what I was feeling. I said I was feeling like,
“There is a boulder weighing down my emotions…I can’t be as happy or even as sad as I want to be.”
I loved my baby, I just wasn’t able to push that rock off my heart that kept me from experiencing love fully and to enable me to outwardly express it.
That thought that people looked at me with anger, hatred, disgust, and disappointment made it so much worse. Like I was a monster.
Even though I had an incredible support group, that was probably almost as afraid as I was, I felt incredibly alone.
I waited. Waited the eight weeks I was able to breastfeed, waited the 4 months past it. I waited. I spent almost 6 months locked away in my brain before I agreed to take medication.
That was whole other scary scenario. I had to take something with side effects that might be worse than the symptoms I was having and had to pray that I wasn't part of the 2% who feel those extreme side effects.
One thing I cannot emphasize enough is…DO NOT STOP THERAPY WHILE MEDICATED! My psychiatrist helped adjust the medication, work out any problems I had with side effects; and once I was ready, we worked together to get me off the medication. DO NOT DO THIS ALONE!
Two weeks after taking the medication I felt a literal weight lift off my shoulders.
The boulder holding down my feelings floated up like a light fluffy cloud on a sunny day. The fogginess around my brain disappeared. When I was thinking a little clearer I found other things that would be able to support my emotional state once I went off the medication. I got into yoga, started taking vitamin D, and changed my diet among other things.
That was when I realized I had to fill my cup first.
I learned that nourishing myself was vital to my well-being and vital if I wanted to be able to nourish anyone else.
Once I was better and more outspoken about my PPD I had people say things like, “I could NEVER be sad after having a baby,” or “how could you act that way when you have a baby to care for,” or even, “why would you want to feel that way.”
That’s right because I chose to feel that way. When I gave birth a magic birth fairy came to my hospital room and told me, “‘You can feel happy and great or miserable and not yourself,’ and I said, ‘ You know what? I am happy enough all the time I will take the miserable, thanks.’”
I was feeling better and these people said these awful things looking directly at me with no concern of how incredibly hard it was to go through. It’s hard for anyone to understand that we don’t choose to be sad or anxious.
Nobody wants to feel that way, nobody chooses to feel that way, it is not their fault.
I believe I still deal with the effects of PPD and the medications I took to this day. Sometimes I find myself sitting at the edge of a black hole dangling my feet and looking at shiny objects at the bottom wondering how far I can scoot down before I am not able to get back out. I know better now, though, than to go down there if I can help it.
PPD doesn’t define me, but it will forever be a part of me.
I try to fill my cup full whenever, and however, I can. Not just because being happy and confident is awesome, but because I know the alternative is frightening.
I am so thankful to my support system for helping me through that scary time in my life.
I still feel guilty when I think about the quality time I lost with my family because of PPD.
So how do you know what you are going through is PPD? Talk about what you are feeling. Talk to your spouse, to a therapist, your OB/GYN, to a family member, a friend.
YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE ASHAMED!
It happens to so many of us, and so many of us go off to cry quietly in a dark corner and it can’t get better if we don’t get help.
The faster you speak about maternal mental Illness, the more others will know they are not alone, and that it’s okay to say “I need help!”
The faster the stigma goes away, the more these mothers will be able to enjoy motherhood.
Speak up for you, speak up for them!
About the Author:
Rachelle lives in South Florida with her husband and 2 kids. After going through Postpartum Depression she started to blog about her journey from empty cup to full and how she learned to nourish herself so she could nourish others. She is a maternal mental health advocate sharing her story in hopes other women will know they are not alone and that it’s okay to ask for help. You can read more about Rachelle and her blog at www.theplentifulcup.com.