When Postpartum Depression Makes You a Stranger to Yourself

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for p p dSeeing someone struggling through postpartum depression and anxiety cracks my heart wide open. I don’t care if I’m a stranger to them or not, I want to take their hands into mine and tell them to trust me.

I want them to believe me when I tell them I have been where they are, in that frightening place when you’re filled more with fear and pain than strength. When you look in the mirror and don’t recognize the person looking back.

I want them to listen when I say that I have lived in the skin they are in now, when you are not who you used to be.

I have walked through those days, those hard days, when you’re too frightened to look anyone in the eye because you don’t want them to see straight through to the dark despair and hopelessness that fill your head.

I have been there. The days of pulling clothes out of the closet and letting them fall over my body, wondering where the person is who used to wear them. I remember sitting in the driver’s seat of my car and it didn’t feel like it belonged to the person who now sat there.

These days are anything but easy. Living through postpartum depression is harder than we can ever explain. We struggle to give words to the choking jumble of our thoughts. We want to be heard, but when someone asks us to tell them how they can help, we can only break down in tears.

Postpartum depression is a wall that hides our strength from us. It won’t let light in so we are unable to see how tough we are. The dark clouds of this time block the real view, the one that would show our determination to get better.

We are still there, behind the empty sadness in our eyes, there is the fight and fire we need to recover. We are imperfect in this life, we are lost, confused and we are more scared than we have ever been. When our lives become survival for one moment at a time, our souls can’t rest to see the beautiful spirit of survival that lives within us.

I want those in the heartbreaking midst of postpartum depression to trust me, as hard as it is. We need to believe that inside we have what we need to make it through. It’s a leap of faith, a desperate grab at hope, but it’s necessary.

I want them to hear this message of hope, so that they fight, so that they keep fighting. Because it is the promise of hope that someone asked me to believe in during my own postpartum depression, that saved me.

You will see this through to the other side.
You’re not alone.
You will find yourself again.

Someone once promised me that I would be myself again. I was too scared to believe that who I once was, was still there. What if I wasn’t going to get better? What I would have told the frightened new mom that I was back then, would be this, You may feel like you’re in a thousand irretrievable pieces right now–too broken beyond anything that can be made whole again. But believe that you will heal.

You will find happiness again. The numbness will lift one day and you will hear yourself laugh. The sound of it will surprise you so much that you’ll laugh a second time from the joy of it. You will look in the mirror one morning, and this time the eyes you see back will dance and shine. And you will come back stronger than you ever thought you could be.

You are still there, inside.

Even if now you feel lost, scared and alone, you are there.

Please let my words here be the ones that take you by the hand and hold you until you are back home again. Reach out, ask for help, don’t stop until you feel you are getting the care you need. Believe that with time, professional care and treatment, and the support of your PPD community, that the help you need to find the way back to you again will be there.

The incredible you that you used to be is still there. You will find yourself again. And just as I did, you will smile again.

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Antenatal depression and antenatal anxiety: Jen’s story

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antidepressants pregnancyI struggled with undiagnosed antenatal depression and antenatal anxiety.  I felt like such a fraud.  My husband and I had planned for this baby.  I should have been overjoyed and glowing.  Instead I walked around in a fog of self-hatred, irritability, and unrelenting worry.  My internal monologue consisted of, “I should be happy, dammit!” Why couldn’t I enjoy this pregnancy?  It was my final pregnancy, and we were giving our nearly three-year old daughter a sibling.  Where was my pregnancy glow?  Why did I feel like all I did was complain, vent and whine?

Why couldn’t  I relax?  I felt so much pressure to get my oldest potty trained before the new baby arrived.  I felt like all loose ends needed to be tied up.  I had to finish my toddler’s baby book before the new baby arrived.  I had to make sure I was exercising daily.  I had to maintain a tight control on my blood sugar.  I had gestational diabetes with my first pregnancy, so I spent my final pregnancy watching my food intake.  Every time I heard a comment about “eating for two”, I wanted to rage.  I did not have that luxury of eating whatever I wanted.  The meal plan made me miserable.  If my numbers weren’t within the expected range, I immediately panicked.  I was terrified that my daughter would struggle with complications from my gestational diabetes.  Not even the ultrasound showing a healthy twenty week baby girl diminished those fears.  I felt like I had no right to complain or worry.  I knew what to expect.  I needed to just suck it up and deal with it.

Like postpartum depression, antenatal depression looks different for each mama.  My lovely friend Susan describes her antenatal depression like this.  “I just remember feeling a crushing weight and numbness. I wanted to not be pregnant anymore and had thoughts of throwing myself down the stairs. That’s what sent me to a perinatal psychiatrist. All my joy left like I was in a vacuum – and I was suddenly convinced a new baby was the end of everything as I knew it.”

My experience of antenatal depression differed from Susan’s.  My depression manifested itself in extreme irritability, bordering on rage.  I had no patience for anything – traffic, my husband, my daughter, my parents and my sister, my friends, and my co-workers. One of the triggers for my rage was my daughter’s refusal to take naps on the weekends.  I could barely control my reaction.  I would yell and scream at my husband.  I would need to leave the house to give myself an adult timeout.  I still cringe when I remember an epic tantrum that occurred during my seventh month of pregnancy.  I was at a concert at an outdoor venue.  I cut in front of everyone waiting in line for the bathroom and for water, simply because I was pregnant.  I was rude to everyone that day. I took out my rage on anyone in my path.  This irritability and rage manifested itself in full-blown postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety after my youngest was born.  I wish I had recognized these signs sooner.  I could have treated this during my pregnancy when my initial struggle began.

Antenatal depression and antenatal anxiety are not as widely known as the other perinatal mood disorders.  We do moms a disservice when we fail to screen for depression and anxiety during pregnancy.  We need to focus on both the needs of the mother and the needs of the baby.  Mothers are vulnerable during both pregnancy and the postpartum period.  Ask the pregnant mom how she is doing and really listen.  I read this amazing piece that Andrew Solomon wrote regarding depression in pregnancy.  Thank you Andrew for speaking up for both the mothers and the babies.  If you are feeling fragile, do not read Andrew’s piece.

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Head Vs. Heart: Why Postpartum Feelings Matter

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frostMy (baby) cousin gave birth to a beautiful baby girl this week. The night before her delivery, I got a text from her:

“Is it normal not to be excited?”

My heart sank a little. Just a smidge. She was having a scheduled c-section for breech presentation and it wasn’t the birth she’d had in mind or the one for which she had planned. I knew what she was feeling because of my own experience with a c-section 5 years ago.

“Yes,” I replied. “You get to feel however you feel. No one can tell you to feel any differently.”

As I drove up to the hospital the following morning to be there for her, I thought of what I wanted to say here this week on Postpartum Progress. Then I realized I’d already said it.

You get to feel however you feel. No one can tell you to feel any differently.

I mean, they CAN tell you. They undoubtedly WILL tell you. You don’t have to listen to them.

When you’re in the thick of postpartum depression and anxiety and you open up about your feelings, you’re likely to hear any number of well-meaning (but usually completely off-base) responses.

“But you have this healthy baby! Why are you depressed!?”

“You had the exact delivery you wanted! What is there to be depressed about!?”

“Your baby sleeps all the time and never seems to cry! Why are you sad!?!”

If you’re like me, you’re probably able to see all of the reasons why you SHOULD feel differently than you do. Knowing that you should feel differently doesn’t mean you will. In fact, being able to see all the reasons why you should feel differently will likely make you feel worse because you don’t.

You may not be able to explain it. You don’t have to. It just is. The very fact that you’re acknowledging that something isn’t right, that your head and heart are colliding, is enough.

As Gustave Flaubert once wrote, “one can be the master of what one does, but never of what one feels.”

Because here’s the thing about feelings, especially postpartum feelings.

They’re rarely rational, frequently inconvenient, and almost always uncomfortable, for us and for those with whom we share them. But giving voice to them anyway is important for healing.

Take a look at this:

The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things you get ashamed of because words diminish your feelings – words shrink things that seem timeless when they are in your head to no more than living size when they are brought out.”–Stephen King

Read that again. Really read it.

Owning your feelings, speaking them, bringing them to life, that’s what makes them manageable, defeats them when they need to be defeated.

It’s okay to feel your feelings. They are yours. It’s okay to acknowledge them and process and then decide what you accept and what you toss out. That’s your starting point on your way through it and through it is the best way out of it.

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Katie Sluiter: On Depression in Retrospect

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postpartum depression, mental health, maternal mental healthDear you,

So you found your way to the Postpartum Progress Mother’s Day Rally, huh? Maybe it’s your first time here, maybe (like me) you come back year after year to read the stories. No matter how you got here, you’re probably reading this because either you are struggling, you struggled at one time, or someone you loves is/was struggling.

I fall under all of those categories.

This spring marks four years since my diagnosis of postpartum depression and anxiety. This fall will mark four years of being in therapy for depression and anxiety that was probably with me since my first miscarriage seven years ago (and maybe even before that). After my first son, Eddie, was born in 2009, I developed PPD, PPA, and PTSD. During my pregnancy with my second son, Charlie, I developed antenatal depression and after his birth, another round of PPD. I also developed OCD after Charlie.

I’m in a good place now. One where I can see the pitfalls coming, prepare for them, brace myself when they hit, and heal with a lot more speed. I can write about the darkness and the suffocating loneliness that sweeps in blankets my mind, heart, and soul. I can articulate the rage that bubbles below the surface just before I throw up my hands and seek out my bed to crawl into to try to escape the world.

I can look at depression in retrospect.

This is not a comfort everyone has. In fact, as I work to strengthen myself, I have noticed that my eyes have been opened to others who struggle. As my scars fade, I can see the fresh wounds in others.

And I can listen.

My suffering and the destruction of my mind, heart, and soul have left me with an acute sense of empathy for others who struggle. My experience in finding light after every single fall into darkness has helped me see that there are others in the darkness too.

I am never alone.

They are never alone.

YOU are never alone.

If you are in the darkness, there are others there too. Chance are you can’t see them because the pit of depression is so dark, it’s thick. It’s like a black velvet blanket. The darkness should be comforting, but it’s not; it suffocates, it terrifies.

But you are not alone.

Reach out your hand. There is someone there who desperately wants to hold it.

Reach up. Someone in the light wants to pull you out, or at least offer you a connection to life. To remind you that you have not left. That you are there.

Walk forward.

The darkness is not endless. Those holding your hands will walk with you. They will emerge with you or, if they are already in the light, they will rejoice when you join them.

Know your strength.

When you can’t go anymore, take one more step. And then another. Grab at hands. Reach farther for the light.

The light is always out there somewhere. If it wasn’t, you would be dead. But you’re alive, so keep being alive.

Depression stole moments, days, even years from my life. But those stolen moments that were lived in the dark were replaced by experiences in the light so radiant, sometimes I have just had to close my eyes and feel it, rather than see it.

I want that for you too.

I want you to feel the light on your face.

Keep living.

Someday too, you (or the one you love) will look at depression in retrospect.

You will be the hand that someone else grasps.

~ Katie

Katie Sluiter is just a small town girl…wait no, that is a Journey song. Although she does live in a small town. She is a wife, a mother, a teacher, and a writer. She and her family have joys and they have struggles. Just like you. Follow her on Twitter @ksluiter.

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Postpartum Progress, the world’s most widely-read blog on all things related to emotional health around pregnancy & childbirth, is a service of Postpartum Progress Inc., a 501c3 nonprofit devoted to raising awareness of postpartum depression and similar illnesses. Please consider making a donation today, Mother’s Day, so we can continue and expand our work supporting maternal mental health. Thank you!

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