Letting Go Of The Guilt

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shameI suffered from postpartum depression and anxiety with a side of OCD for two years after my first child was born.  And though I sought treatment and began my path to wellness after my baby had her 5 month birthday, it took every last day of that additional 19 months for me to feel like I wasn’t waiting for the other shoe to drop.  If you asked my husband, he’d tell you now that I’ve completely recovered from my PPD and from the antenatal depression that hit when my second child was still baking.  But he’d also tell you that I still suffer.

I know now that I suffered from anxiety and OCD symptoms for years before having children.  My anxiety diagnosis is not going anywhere – and I’ve made peace with that.  I see my doctors regularly, take my medications daily, and make a point to be mindful of my emotional health.  When I have a bad day – a panic attack, a  moment of anxiety, or a day of feeling like I want to just stay in bed – I have the tools and the support now to reach out and ask for help.  I can identify the anxiety and often stop it in its tracks.  My mental illness may always be there, but it’s managed.  And in the last 5 years, the most important thing I’ve learned is that I don’t have to wait to be perfectly healthy to be happy.  So though I still struggle with anxiety, that’s not why my husband would tell you I suffer.  He would tell you of the guilt.

No matter how hard I try, that guilt monster rears its ugly face.  I say “monster,” because that’s what it is – an ugly, twisted creature that deserves no place in my life or my thoughts.  It’s clandestine and voracious and likes to hide until just the right moments.  And though my rational mind knows that I did absolutely nothing to deserve or cause my PPD, I still find myself fighting to let go of the past.

The guilt was amplified when my second daughter was born and I experienced joy.  Unadulterated, life-affirming joy.  I was fortunate to work with an amazing doctor early in my pregnancy and not only was her delivery a happy time, but my pregnancy was too.  Postpartum, I found myself enamored with my new baby.  Bonding came quickly and easily and she brought me a sense of completion.  It was everything that was missing with my first baby, and the shame hit me in waves.  With each gentle nursing session and snuggly late-night feeding, I was reminded of the screaming and the detachment those early days and nights brought with my eldest.

Most recently, the guilt resurfaced while I was struggling with the idea of taking my 5 year old daughter to therapy for her violent outbursts and non-compliant behavior.  It was more than a feeling that I had caused her problems by failing as a parent – it suddenly hit me that she must be this way because of how I treated her as an infant.  I found myself sobbing and asking trusted friends, “how can this not be my fault?  Those early days were so, so ugly.”  And they were.  I have vivid memories of screaming at my 10-day old baby, “what the fuck do you want from me?”  Even now, typing those words is hard.

And then a good friend wrote me a letter and said this:

“I know right now you are worried about E.  Of course you are.  Your sweet, imperfect, first baby.  But you worry that it’s your fault.  It is.  It’s your fault she’s smart, emotional, a touch socially awkward, and painfully self-aware.  Let’s just own that for a minute because really, it’s wonderful.  But that lucky, lucky girl, she has the gift of a mom who sees her, who accepts imperfection, who asks for help.  You don’t know how much I longed for that. I bet you did, too.”

As the hot tears rolled down my face, I knew she was right.  I did not ruin my daughter.

I did nothing to deserve or cause my PPD.  The guilt monster will not own me with its lies.  If my daughter suffered because of my PPD, it was not my fault.  But the triumphant, sensitive, wonderfully imperfect little girl she’s growing into?  That’s all me.  I still regret that it took me so long to get help – but regret is not guilt.  There is no shame in regret… only a wish for the past to be a bit different.

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I think coping with the guilt that accompanies antenatal and postpartum mood and anxiety disorders is a common experience for many warrior moms.  I want you to know that, like me, you did nothing to deserve or cause your PPD.  You are exactly the mother your child needs and wants.  You deserve to be happy and healthy.

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Rach’s Story

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Every Warrior Mom is bound together in a sisterhood of understanding.  We have all been through something that only another PPD survivor can truly appreciate, but our experiences, treatments, and paths to wellness are as varied as the mamas themselves.  It’s important to remember that there is no one “right way” to suffer or heal from a postpartum mood or anxiety disorder.  That’s one of the reasons Postpartum Progress is such a valuable resources for new moms – whatever path your journey to wellness takes, it is the right path for you.

I’m welcoming Warrior Mom Rach Black today to share her story of postpartum depression and the postpartum anxiety that followed.  

about postpartum depressionHaving a baby brought me to my knees.

Having a second baby broke me.

I don’t mean that it was too hard for me to carry and deliver my children.  And I don’t mean that raising kids is too hard for me, although some days I struggle in that area, just like all parents do.

I mean I wasn’t prepared for the physical, emotional and especially mental changes that can take place after having a baby.  Nobody told me.

I was excited to learn that I was pregnant.  I had easy pregnancies and amazing deliveries.  I was walking on air in the hospital.  But in the weeks and months after, I was sinking and I didn’t know why.

I had always been so capable before.   I was always able to perform, to achieve.  I didn’t lack motivation or skills.

But after having my first baby, I wanted to sleep most of the day and didn’t want to get out of bed.  When I wasn’t sleeping I needed to do everything and anything.  Everything needed to perfect; meals needed to be elaborate, the house needed to be spotless.  I laid the baby on her play mat while I cleaned bathrooms.

I couldn’t sit still and hold my baby.  She cried a lot and so did I.  I detached and found solace in the computer or reading.  Some days I just laid on the floor.

I was angry, scared, lonely and depressed.  It wasn’t until a year later that I realized what I was feeling wasn’t normal new mama tiredness and overwhelm.  I found a counselor who helped me recognize what I was going through was postpartum depression.

When I found out I was pregnant the next time, I promised myself it would be different.  I talked to my husband and my OB, both of whom said they would support me, but both of whom admitted they were somewhat surprised at how I’d felt.  Either I’d hidden it well or they didn’t recognize the signs of PPD.

After my son was born I kept looking for signs of depression, waiting to feel the way I did with my daughter.  Instead, I started having panic attacks and intense anxiety.  So intense that I couldn’t take care of myself.  Everything scared me.  I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sit still, couldn’t sleep.  I tried to stay busy, trying to get out of the house as much as I could.  I pushed myself to stay occupied.  I was convinced something horrible was going to happen to me.

My OB had given me a prescription but I was hesitant to fill it.  Out of sheer desperation, I finally did.  I only took one dose but I had a horrible reaction to it—so horrible that I couldn’t function the next day.  It sent me spiraling even further down.

Somehow I got on the internet and started searching this site as well as PSI and found a counselor in my area who specialized in PPMDs.  She saw me the next day.  It had been 2 days since I’d eaten.

I told her all of my fears, symptoms and behaviors.  She heard me, she comforted me.  I finally felt validated.

I have a wonderful relationship with my OB but I felt let down by the medical community.  I didn’t want to be handed a prescription.  I wanted support, someone to listen to me and offer assurance.  While there is a time and place for medicine, there is also a time and place for talk therapy and support groups.  I wanted a full balanced approach to my healing.  I am lucky that I was able to find that through my faith, women at my church, my counselor, my husband and a holistic MD.  I know other women aren’t that lucky.

I’m passionate about postpartum support.  We need more awareness, and openness.  We need mandatory screening and access to resources.  We need each other.

I am a work in progress.  I am healing every day.  I no longer have panic attacks and my anxiety is more manageable. I am loving being with my children and letting my house be a wreck.  I have learned to let many things go and to take care of myself.  The best thing I can do for my family is to get help and heal.

We still have our hard days and there are days where I struggle.  But I have come a long, long way.  It is possible to get to the other side of this, which is something I didn’t think was possible a few months ago.  I am proof that there is hope and healing.

 

Rach Black is a full time mom to two miracles.  Having battled postpartum mood disorders, she is passionate about reaching out to other women to make sure that no woman gets left behind.  In her spare time (i.e. after the kids are in bed) she enjoys writing, cooking and other creative outlets.  Find her on Twitter as @DonutsMama and reach out to her if you need support.

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How My Doctors Missed My Antenatal Anxiety

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antidepressants pregnancyI was in my first trimester of my first pregnancy when antenatal anxiety washed over me like the tide, insidious and unstoppable.  We were living on our own in the midwest at the time, and the loneliness was crushing.  I compensated for my irrational worries by donning a brave face and making light of my anxiety, to both friends and my doctors, and I assumed all newly pregnant women felt the same trepidation and slight panic I was suppressing.

I was 8 weeks pregnant when my OB called me into her office.  My fears and worries were suddenly compounded by a previously-undiagnosed kidney disease.  A giant mass in my abdomen.  And they had no idea what it was.  I taciturnly absorbed all the doctor said and then politely asked for a few moments alone.  When the door shut behind her, something in me broke.  I walked out of there a shadow of myself.  The next 6 months brought a multitude of diagnoses.  I was ultrasounded and MRIed (twice).  I met with several surgeons and had a cathertized void test done.  There were very few cases of pregnant women with my eventual diagnosis of severe unilateral hydronephrosis with 1% kidney function, and so few doctors could tell me exactly what to expect or how it would impact my pregnancy.  And that scared me to death.

Six months into my pregnancy, we moved to the North East.  My need for my family (who had moved up to the Boston area a few years before) outweighed my terror at the prospect of moving, but leading up to moving day, I had increased symptoms of panic attack.  I refused to drive while house hunting, irrationally fearful of the alien traffic patterns of our new-home-to-be.  I fought back waves of nausea at each apartment-hunting appointment, instead playing the part of the happy, expectant couple.  The night before our final flight out of the midwest, I became convinced I had a blood clot in my right leg – and the resulting (unnecessary) hospital trip ended in a 2am leg ultrasound for me and a busted blood vessel in my husband’s eye from the stress.  My husband tells me that when I fainted from panic on the 4 hour flight to Boston the next day, he took special notice of the halfway mark in the flight.  ”At least there was no turning back,” he says, only half-jokingly.

Unfortunately, arriving in Boston alleviated the anxiety only temporarily.  As I neared the end of my pregnancy, I began having irrational, intrusive thoughts about my husband leaving me.  ”He’s only staying until the baby is born,” the lies whispered, “he never wanted a baby anyway.”  I became increasingly irritable and emotional, and finally suffered enough to mention it to my OB, a high-risk, high-profile doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital.  With my mother in the room, I explained my heart palpitations and my trouble breathing.  I outlined my mood swings and my panic attacks.  It took every ounce of courage in my body to admit that I was struggling.

In return, she told me to “stop worrying.  Pregnancy is an emotional time.”

That was it.  We moved on to belly measurements and discussions of pain management during labor.

With only two sentences, she had me doubting my need for help. I suddenly “just wasn’t trying hard enough.”  And I believed her.

Throughout the course of my first pregnancy, I saw 5 different OBs, 3 surgeons, 2 primary care physicians, and a myriad of nurses and techs.  None of them EVER asked about my emotional well-being, and when I did speak up for myself?  I was ignored.  Dismissed.  And the thing that angers me the most is that MGH has a world-renouned Center for Women’s Health, run in part by the incomparable Dr. Marlene Freeman, an expert in the field of pre and post-natal mood and anxiety disorders.  Sitting in my OB’s office, I was one elevator ride away from help.

Instead, it took me 5 months after my daughter was born – five months of intrusive thoughts about shaking my baby or letting her slip in the bath tub (I would like to emphasize here that intrusive thoughts are distinguished from psychosis by a mother’s ability to recognize the thoughts as scary) – five months of obsessively folding and lining up burp rags and matching bottle tops to bottle bottoms by shape and color – five months of rage and of falling apart behind the scenes before I recognized I needed help.

It’s hard for me to think back through that time because I find myself so ANGRY.  My struggle was preventable.  Avoidable.  Not once during or after my pregnancy was I asked about my emotional well-being, and when I mentioned physical and emotional symptoms of my condition, they were ignored.  A few simple questions and an honest conversation with a trusted doctor was all it would have taken.

I want you to know that there are many wonderful doctors, psychologists, and social workers out there.  Many obstetricians and primary care physicians are well-educated and have amazing bedside manner.  But a large percentage of them are still grossly undereducated about antenatal and postpartum mood and anxiety disorders.  Advocates in the PPD community are working towards universal postpartum mental health screening, but in the meanwhile, each mama has to be her own best advocate.

  1. If you are struggling, tell the truth, the whole truth, to someone you trust.  I know how scary this is (really and truly), but it’s vital you are honest about your symptoms in order for you to get the best treatment possible.
  2. Keep telling it until you are listened to.
  3. Ask for help finding a therapist or doctor who has experience treating postpartum mood and anxiety disorders and seek support groups in your area.

You deserve to be well.  We’re here fighting with you and ready to help you find the care you need to feel like yourself again.

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The Importance of Screening and Support: Jenna’s Story, Part 2

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fighting postpartum depression, Warrior MomJenna’s story differs from my own in one key area: support.  She did not receive the support she so desperately needed from her husband.  Warrior Mamas need our support and love.  Jenna needed to hear that she was not alone and that she would get well.  My husband told me that he would do whatever it took to help me get better. That unwavering support helped me so much.   

With my Postpartum Depression and anxiety continuing undiagnosed, I became more and more emotionally detached from my family. I couldn’t handle everyday life without reacting to even the smallest things in explosive anger. And as soon as I flew off the handle, the shame from my out of proportion reaction punched me in the gut. I felt helpless to react any other way, and the spiral of shame was almost paralyzing. I felt unsupported, misunderstood, and like I was a failure as a mom and a wife every single day. But you would never have known, because my facade was one of a happy, pulled together, suburban wife and mom. If other women could do it all by themselves, I didn’t want them to think I couldn’t keep it together. So I kept silent, soldiered on, and gave up thinking that life could be any different.

 My PPD and anxiety went untreated for a total of almost 7 years, by which time I’d had two more children with my ex. Eventually the rage, dissociation, self-loathing and isolation became more than I could bear.  I couldn’t stand the numb, closed off feeling any more, and something had to give. I decided that my children and I deserved a better quality of life. So, I went against my then-husband’s wishes and made an appointment with my family doctor. I didn’t go into any depth about the severity of my emotional issues, but casually inquired whether rage and detachment were possible features of depression. Without much discussion, I was prescribed my very first anti-depressant, and it quelled the rage substantially.  

Unfortunately, the intrusive thoughts and anxiety continued to exhaust me at night, and a few months later, I approached my doctor about additional medication. I was prescribed an anti-psychotic, and I have to tell you, that first pill was really difficult to take. For the first time in a very long time, the intrusive thoughts that had plagued me went completely away. Every night for all those years, I’d panicked about being murdered in my sleep, and my children being kidnapped because I didn’t deserve to be their mom.  Every night, there was a video loop in my head that replayed my failures as a wife and a mom.  With the additional medication came a degree of apathy and some significant weight gain, but it was still a relief.

 I no longer live in that place of crippling overwhelm, and not just because of the medication.  I sought out a therapist on my own, and I eventually weaned off all of the medications I was taking. In the couple of years since my diagnoses of depression and anxiety, I’ve come to a place of peace with who I am as woman and as a mom. I know my limitations for dealing with stress as well as sleep deprivation. I started making self-care a priority. I’ve (mostly) stopped comparing myself, my parenting skills, and my particular children to others. As my confidence has grown and my healing has continued, I’ve done a lot more sharing, a lot more reaching out, and a lot more self-analysis. I’m involved with the PPD community on Facebook and make time to read blogs authored by women who suffer with Postpartum Mood Disorders. I have a support system now. Those closest to me (including my boyfriend of 18 months) are familiar with anxiety and depression.  After dealing with so much on my own, it’s important to me that I can be real with those I allow close to me, and that they get me, can identify with my struggles, and respect my story.  I can trust them to encourage me, and when I feel ashamed, they can remind me that it takes strength to reach out and be vulnerable. Trusting people who can give validation to my emotions has been instrumental in my healing and helps a lot with my day to day stability.

I’ve often wondered how I survived those dark, lonely years when I was coping with PPD and PPA on my own. It was certainly by the grace of a higher power. Having traced the onset of my symptoms back to my second pregnancy, I also wonder whether my quality of life might have been better if I’d been screened for PPMDs during my pregnancy or at any of those six week checkups. The truth may be that I’d have hidden my feelings from my provider, if I’m honest.  I would have at least had the opportunity to decide whether I wanted to reach out if anyone had asked. 

Thank you so much Jenna for sharing your story.  I appreciate it so much.  Again listening and validating a Warrior Mom’s struggles is so key to stomp out the stigma that surrounds perinatal mood disorders.  Consistent screening coupled with strong social support can help ease the struggles of Warrior Moms.

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