The Dangerous Path of Self-Medicating for Postpartum Depression

I’ve always felt as though I have an addiction-prone personality. When I find something I like, I latch onto it until I own it, have mastered it, or have tired of it. It only took me a few weeks to fall in love with my husband, and we were married within six months of the time we started dating. When I pick up a new hobby, I work at it for hours and hours on end until I can’t stand it anymore, then leave it behind for a new obsession. This happened with scrapbooking, crocheting, cooking, swimming, and so on. As a teenager, I dabbled in several substances (which I won’t write about in depth here), and I became a habitual user of the ones I liked.

I was 19 or so when I had my wisdom teeth removed, and I didn’t use any of the prescription painkiller that was given me. The memory of the person I was when I was using was too close, and I didn’t ever want to be that person again. After I delivered my first son, I begged the nurses not to bring me Vicodin; I didn’t want to touch the stuff, but they brought it to me anyway. I ended up taking it because I was in so much pain from a large episiotomy plus a tear. I felt so sick afterwards that I flushed the rest of the pills down the toilet and went the rest of my hospital stay with no medication.

I’d promised myself after I got over the issues I’d had with substance abuse that I would never use any type of “mind-altering” drug, including pain killers*. So the fact that I was nearly forced into using one at the hospital was a little devastating to me. But I was just thankful that I had the presence of mind to flush all the pills down the toilet.

When I had my second son, I got yet another bottle of prescription painkillers at the hospital. But this time, I’d been dealing with antenatal depression for the past six months. I was emotionally fragile, in physical pain from labor, and terrified that I might have another round of postpartum depression to deal with now that the baby was outside of me.

I don’t remember when I took the first painkiller from that bottle. Maybe it was the day I got home from the hospital, maybe it was two months later for some random ache or pain. I don’t know. But what I do remember is that I fell asleep. I fell into a deep sleep that lasted eight hours, and I woke up refreshed. It was the first time in months that I’d slept through the night, and I nearly cried with relief that morning.

I told myself that I would just take half a pill until the pain was gone. But I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t give up the sleep. I tried to go a night without taking the painkiller, and I was up all night, hardly a wink of sleep. The very next night, I took two pills and knocked out so hard that I didn’t even hear my husband leave for work in the morning.

Not only was I sleeping, but I felt none of the anxiety, sadness, or mood swings that I’d been feeling for the last six months of my pregnancy. I kind of just floated on a cloud, oblivious to everything that was going on below. I totally checked out of my life, my kids’ lives, my husband’s life. I was on autopilot, just waiting until the day was over so I could take a pill and fall into a dreamless sleep. The PPD I had was bad, but this was worse; I was taking myself out of my own life by choice. At least with the PPD I knew it wasn’t my fault.

The guilt was immense, though. I kept telling myself I would tell my husband, but I’d make an excuse and put it off until the next night and the next night, until finally I only had two pills left; I’d gone through my entire prescription, plus a nearly-full bottle we had in our medicine cabinet from some surgery.

Telling him was mortifying. I was so ashamed that I had fallen back into an old, old pattern: medicating my pain with a quick fix. I cried as I told him what I’d done, and he tried to comfort me and encouraged me to flush the rest of the pills. I couldn’t do it, though. I laid in bed and sobbed as he found the pills where I’d hidden them in the back of the cabinet and flushed them for me.

I only share this story because I know it’s relevant to other women with PPD. Self-medicating is all too easy in the world we live in, where you can get a prescription from a doctor by just mentioning that you felt a twinge in your lower back. And for a person with a mood disorder who has contemplated suicide and is on antidepressants (i.e., me), narcotic painkillers can be especially dangerous.

Of all the things I’ve written about regarding PPD, this is probably the most difficult for me to communicate. It was a very risky thing I involved myself in, it was completely irresponsible, and when I think of all I could have lost if it had devolved into a full-blown addiction, I lose my breath.

The road to recovery from PPD is lonely, it is unpredictable, and it is full of temptation. Temptation to give in to the demons and accept life as it is, even though you know it’s not what it should be; temptation to get up and walk out when things are too much to handle; temptation to use a substance to make it all go away, even if only for a few moments.

In sharing all this, I just wanted to let you know that giving in to the temptations for one day (or even a month, or a year) doesn’t mean you’re a lost cause. It is possible to take a good look at yourself, think, “What the hell am I doing?” and make things right.

*This is, of course, excluding antidepressants and other medication used to treat mood disorders.

~Alexis Lesa