Today please welcome holistic nutritionist Arja Pennanen Lytle from Balance Body and Soul, who shares how shocked she was to get postpartum depression and anxiety as someone who is so health conscious.
My son is just over two-and-a-half years old, and while I love all (ok, most of) the time I spend with him, our first year of life together felt like a battle I was going to lose.
I thought that my background as a holistic nutritionist, hiring a doula, taking hypnobirthing classes, and practicing prenatal yoga had prepared me for childbirth and life as a new mother. I had images of my future, baby-wearing self happily breastfeeding and prepping healthy meals. Yet, too many hours in labour led to one intervention after another and before I knew it I was being rushed in for an emergency C-section. I spent seven days in the hospital, with my son spending his last few in the NICU being monitored for seizure activity. I left for home traumatized, but feeling like the worst was behind me.
When postpartum depression and anxiety reared its ugly head I refused to acknowledge anything was wrong. I had been struggling with breastfeeding and then my son started to drop off the growth charts. I just assumed that the stress of being a new mother, combined with lack of sleep and these complications was what was leaving me emotionally volatile. In reality, I was terrified that my son was dying and would cry hysterically on my way to yet another doctor’s appointment. I’d then tell her that everything was fine when asked how I was doing. Being left alone at home sent me into a tailspin where I could start to cry, then think about how the stress was decreasing my milk supply, and then work myself into a hysterical mess.
I resented my son and the drain that he was on my resources. I looked on Facebook and saw other mamas posting lovely messages about how much they loved their new babes, and what miracles they all were, yet all I wanted to do was send my son back to where he came from. I told my husband we’d made a terrible mistake and that I didn’t want to be a mother. At one of our weekly weigh-ins, my husband made sure that our family doctor knew that I was struggling. He told her all about my extreme anxieties while I sat there with my mouth hanging open. One part of me was grateful to him for speaking up while I felt so out of control, but another part of me felt shame. This was my problem, my secret, and I was more than capable of figuring out how to make everything better, I thought.
That doctor’s appointment led to a referral to the women’s mental health program at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. I was triaged by a nurse, over the phone, to determine my priority to get a spot in the program. I cried while she spoke to me about my anxieties and intrusive thoughts, feeling so much shame. I spoke in whispers because I hadn’t even told my husband about the thoughts of harming our new baby. What kind of a mother wants to throw her baby out of a window? What happened to that blissed out, baby wearing woman I’d seen in my mind while I was pregnant?
Getting into the program was a relief, but it started the process of testing my beliefs all over again. At my first appointment, it was suggested that I consider taking medication. Having worked through previous mental health issues (depression, panic attacks) I was proud of not needing to rely on medication any longer. The thought of going back there again, while breastfeeding no less, felt like it went against what I had worked so hard for. Surely good food, some sleep, supplements, and therapy was all I needed? No. None of those other things was happening because I wasn’t capable of taking care of myself anymore. I could barely take care of my baby. I took the medication and I’m glad that I did because it helped me get to a place where I was able to start working on developing new coping skills and actually get better.
I spent a year in therapy at Women’s College, and another 6+ months working with a therapist while I tapered off my meds and dealt with residual anxiety issues. Now, as I contemplate having baby #2 I find myself flashing back to the fear and stress of our first week in the hospital. I think about the odds of me experiencing postpartum anxiety again, which, from what I’ve been told, is quite high.
No matter what happens the second time around, one thing is for sure, I’ll get through it without the shame I felt the first time. Education, nutrition, self-awareness, and preparation do not make anyone immune from experiencing postpartum depression or postpartum anxiety, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.