From a young age, I have suffered from anxiety and panic attacks. As a child, I merely dealt with them, not really knowing what they were, and went on with my life. As an adult, despite being able to finally affix a label to what I had been experiencing, I found myself with more questions than answers.
The birth of my first child, Charlotte, was picture-perfect, and I was an anomaly of postpartum recovery. Less than a week after she was born, I was cleaning house, getting up early to see her, and walking every day while pushing her in the stroller. Things couldn’t have gone any better, which is why I was so caught off guard by the challenges I faced the second time around.
The week my son was born, I knew that something was wrong. My husband had to return to work the next morning and I was up every hour trying to breastfeed. I was so exhausted, and when my son slept or napped I couldn’t rest. My mind raced and no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t turn it off. I lay in bed thinking my son would never be satisfied and I would never to be able to sleep again. I was up for almost forty-eight hours before I called my OB to see if he could prescribe any medication to help me sleep.
Giving birth was like being peeled apart from myself. The pregnancy was far from what I had imagined. High blood pressure made the last weeks a constant trip to the doctor’s office, and my body retained so much fluid that I couldn’t fit into my husband’s shoes, let alone my own.
It’s been nine years since I first had postpartum depression. Today life is great and feels real again, but it was a struggle to get there. I had to fight for it. Now I can appreciate the good and the bad, the elation and the devastation, and everything else that comes with the journey. But it wasn’t always that way.
My son was born on a Friday morning. On Saturday morning, my husband went home to feed our dogs and shower, and I decided to take my first postpartum shower. As I got in the shower, I began to sob. It came out of nowhere, like someone had turned on a switch. I have no idea why. I sobbed as hard as I have ever sobbed in my life, and I couldn’t stop. My sob session lasted at least fifteen minutes.
The events leading up to the birth of my second child set the stage for the perfect storm that occurred after he arrived. Around the time I found out I was pregnant, I was offered a rare opportunity to buy the physical therapy practice where I had been working for the past five years. The owner was terminally ill and could no longer maintain an ownership stake. The sale occurred when I was seven-months pregnant.
In 2008, Carla O’Reilly, Tania Bird, and I wrote and released The Smiling Mask: Truths about Postpartum Depression and Parenthood (www.thesmilingmask.com).
The book encourages women and men to open up, share their experience, and ask for help. Each of the authors tells a story. Peggy Collins, our publisher, wrote our husbands’ perspectives, and Marlene Harper, PhD, wrote the medically-based preface.
The difficulty in dealing with postpartum depression, in my experience, was that my husband and I were blindsided. We had no knowledge of how to deal with the symptoms. The obsessive thoughts were scary, and without a second thought by the doctor I was put on medication that only numbed the surface. We hadn’t dealt with the trauma I experienced while I was pregnant.
In May of 2000 I had my daughter and the first month and a half was all right. Then I started noticing that things were going wrong. I was anxious, unable to sleep—unable to do much of anything—and I worried about everything. I feared harming my baby. I could not handle having her near me, crying all the time. I new I had postpartum depression based on what I had heard and read.
I had wanted a child for so long. My husband and I tried for several years to have a baby, and we had practically given up. So when we found out that I was pregnant we were overjoyed and taken by complete surprise. I prepared thoroughly for every step of my journey ahead. I read up on everything. It was wonderful. But no one prepared me for what it would be like to actually be a mom.
There was a specific, glowing image in my mind of how the hours following my son’s birth would go. He would be placed tenderly on my stomach and the midwife and nurses would leave the room while my husband and I bonded with our new baby. The baby would begin to nurse and we would look on in total awe and wonderment at the beautiful creature we created.
It took two severe postpartum depressions to get me to where I am today, which is a very good place. In both cases I thought I would never recover and feared things would end badly. I thought I was lost for good. Each episode lasted over a year and I was hospitalized both times.
When I found out I was pregnant with my only child, I was twenty-four and single. I lived in a cute beach cottage in San Diego and worked hard every day at a job where I felt important. In fact, I scheduled everything around my job. My job was my life.