Postpartum Depression Symptoms Aren’t Always In Your Head

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Today we welcome Warrior Mom Meri Levy who shares how her postpartum depression symptoms manifested primarily in physical ones like dizziness and nausea: 

Whenever I prepare a list of symptoms of postpartum depression, I always include “unusual physical symptoms.” My experience with postpartum depression, anxiety and panic disorder was quite atypical, and that was partly why it took months of suffering before I got the proper diagnosis and treatment.

I was pretty savvy about mental health. I had been in therapy on and off for years. I had suffered from depression once before, after my mother’s sudden death, so I though I knew what it felt like. During that episode, I was completely numb and couldn’t think at all. I was unable to concentrate or make decisions. I was completely checked out. I took Zoloft for a few months and felt completely recovered, then I went off the medication because I found out I was pregnant.

I was pretty vigilant about postpartum depression after the birth of my first child since I knew I was at risk. It was a high risk pregnancy and I was on bedrest for six weeks. He was a fussy baby and I was not very happy during his first few months of life, but I managed fine and didn’t feel the need for antidepressants.

After my second child was born, though, my stress level was off the charts. My first child got kicked out of preschool because he stopped using the toilet after his brother was born, and my new baby had a set of lungs that had my ears ringing whenever he cried. I never made enough milk for him because he was so big, and he gave up nursing as soon as he started solid foods. I felt guilty about having to give him formula. I was also afraid that I would not be able to go back to work because I couldn’t find full-time daycare that would take my challenging and potty-resistant older son.

In the meantime, I had difficulties in my marriage. My husband was gone for long hours every day, and when he was there he blamed me for my son’s challenging temperament, and criticized my parenting style, my cooking, and my housekeeping. I tried to make everyone happy, but I was clearly failing.

In the midst of this storm, I started to have strange physical symptoms, ones that I didn’t recognize might be postpartum depression symptoms. It started as a feeling that the room I was in was tilting and that I was off-balance. I had to lie down and felt the room was spinning around me. I was told by my doctor it was probably either an inner-ear infection or possibly MS, and I was sent for neurological testing. The neurologist said she didn’t find anything on my tests that would indicate a problem, but that she couldn’t definitively rule out MS and that only time would tell.

My symptoms came and went for a while, but began to include nausea and vomiting, lack of appetite, and an inability to sleep. I had a low-grade fever on and off for a couple of months and my white blood-cell count and my blood pressure were high. When I could sleep, I would wake up feeling horribly sick and immediately throw up. My husband continued working and told me to suck it up, and over the next few months, I lost 16 pounds, got to the point where I slept no more than three to four hours a night, and threw up on a regular basis — out the door of the car driving my son to preschool, in the sink at the pediatrician’s office, etc. The dizziness was sometimes so severe that when sitting perfectly still I would feel that my body was swaying to and fro, and my bed would feel like it was shaking as I was lying in it. At one point I began to leak milk out of one of my breasts when I felt waves of nausea. My skin burned all the time and my hands tingled. I felt sure that I was dying, but I didn’t know what from.

My doctor kept assuring me that he would figure out what was wrong with me, and the theories went from inner ear to hormones to diabetes to thyroid to encephalitis, but every test came back normal. I was living on Ensure and Gatorade, because I couldn’t keep any solid food down.

At one point I was in so much distress that I begged my doctor for an antidepressant (to deal with the stress of my illness, I thought), but he said he wouldn’t advise it because my stomach was already so irritable. The stress of caring for my children was unbearable, so we hired a babysitter and I spent most of every day lying in bed, praying to fall asleep for a couple of hours to get some rest.

After about four months of living this way, I lost it completely and told my doctor that he had to hospitalize me because I was obviously dying, and that I wanted to die if they couldn’t stop the agony I was living in. I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, but my doctor still was sending me for tests, trying to figure out a physical basis for my symptoms.

The fascinating thing was that I stopped throwing up as soon as I was admitted to the hospital. Without the stress of caring for my children and my home and pleasing my husband, I no longer felt nauseous. That was when I finally realized that whatever was going on with me physically was connected to anxiety and depression — they were postpartum depression symptoms. I spent 12 days in the hospital, during which I was put on antidepressants and was prescribed anti-anxiety medication and sedatives that allowed me to sleep. For a few days, all I did was sleep. When I was awake I was no longer nauseous (except, sadly, when my children visited me), but I was filled with anxiety and unbearable emotional pain. I was terrified that I would never be able to care for my children without throwing up. I felt like the worst mother in the world.

After I was released from the hospital I was still unable to care for my children without constant symptoms that I now recognized as panic, but I did a full-day partial hospitalization program for a month and I believe that saved my life. I learned in group therapy about the ways in which I prioritized my responsibility for others high above self-care, in unhealthy and unhelpful ways, and I began to heal.

With the help of medication, therapy, and couples counseling, I recovered completely and six months later I started a business with a friend – a store and resource center for new parents. I still had moments of anxiety but I also had joy and passion for life. I became a lactation educator and led new parent groups for several years, and eight years later I went back to school to become a Marriage and Family Therapist. I now lead groups for women suffering from postpartum depression and related illnesses. I still have to be vigilant about managing stress and self-care. I know that I always have to be mindful to avoid a recurrence of depression, but I also know that I am strong and resilient and will do whatever I have to to be healthy and take good care of myself and my children.

The onset postpartum depression symptoms and anxiety symptoms were when my second child was seven months old, and just weeks after abruptly weaning. What amazes me is that I never heard the phrase “postpartum depression” until long after I was released from the hospital and was well on the way to recovery. The fact that no one considered the timing, including my doctor or therapist at the time, shows how many caring practitioners do not have the facts about these disorders. To this day, my doctor can’t say whether I ever had a physical illness or whether all of my symptoms were related to depression and anxiety, but it really doesn’t matter anymore. What matters to me is that both mothers and their caregivers become better educated to recognize postpartum disorders so that they can be treated early. I look forward to the day when women don’t needlessly suffer because information about postpartum depression and anxiety is not widely known.

I now have three children, ages 16, 13 and 11, and they are wonderful and brilliant and funny and a pain in the ass (as all healthy children/teens should be). I love my children more than anything in the world, and yet I know that in order to be a good mother, I have to take care of myself and listen to what my emotions and my body are telling me that I need. I love the metaphor: “put on your own oxygen mask before attempting to assist others.” I saw what happened to me when I felt I didn’t deserve my own oxygen mask, and I won’t let it happen again.

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About Katherine Stone

is the founder & editor of Postpartum Progress. She was named one of the ten most influential mom bloggers of 2011, a WebMD Health Hero and one of the top 25 parent bloggers using social media for social good. She also writes the Fierce Blog, and a parenting column for Disney's Babble.com.

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  1. Thanks Katherine for this article, my sister went into postpartum depression just after when she gave birth to her son last 3 month. I notice she complained about her weight to much that she can kill her baby. She also show signs of not loving herself… even if we bought her clothes that will make her feel beautiful after loosing the baby bump (we bought her transitional clothes from Choo Choo London, topshot, mothercare, etc)… she went into therapy with a psychiatrist and she’s fine now. I realized, body issues affter giving birth is not as shallow as choosing the right clothes, it is more coming from within.

  2. I think you just saved my sanity. I’ve always dealt with some depression/anxiety but it’s never been like this. Last year we had our fifth baby, a girl. She was in the NICU for a couple weeks so that was stressful and emotional. My doc put me on Zoloft but I stopped taking them after a couple weeks since I didn’t feel like I needed them or they were even helping. I just figured, this is normal…I have five kids – what do I expect to feel like? But I was more irritable, more enraged, more erratic, more everything. But then sometimes I’d also be fine…but I was usually my best self when I left the house and got away from it all. Then I added the stress of agreeing to instruct at Zumba parties and also got on a Church committee. Suddenly it felt like way too much responsiblity, all that plus motherhood, and I was freaking out. Surprise, surprise…I got physically sick when my baby was five months old and have been sick for two and a half months now. My baby girl was underweight during this time and the pediatrician looked at ME and asked how I was doing. It made me cry because he was concerned about me, because I knew he was right, and because I had to supplement with formula. I felt guilty, But her weight came on fast once I did that. She is now 7 months old. For over two months I’ve had head pressure, headaches, dizziness, blurry vision, heart palpitations, fatigue and malaise….my docs focused on sinusitis. I went through antibiotics, steroids, tried a netti pot, chiropractor, Naturopath, vitamins galore. Nothing worked. I’ve had every kind of blood test – all normal. My vitals are always fabulous. I’ve had CT scans of head, sinuses, mid-section…all normal. I even had a spinal tap! NORMAL. Saw an ENT, everything is fine. I’ve been to the ER twice. If anything, I’m slightly anemic but I already know that and I take iron. I’ve spent countless hours Googling my symptoms and self-diagnosing because I felt like my docs were doing nothing to figure this out. I’ve thought I was dying. I thought brain tumor, MS, candida overgrowth, mono…you name it. Nope, I had them all checked. I even thought it was a food thing and cut out sugar/dairy/gluten. Nope. To make this long story short, I am now on Zoloft again and I will stick to it. I went in to see my doc and there was a temporary doc who saw me. She was the first one to really go through my history, my results, listen to me, and try to piece it all together. AND the ER doc on my 2nd visit came to the same conclusion. I am finally beginning to believe these awful physical symptoms are from untreated post partum depression and anxiety. HOLY COW. I am going to move forward hoping the best (because being sick like this for so long is enough to cause someone depression and anxiety). I have to believe it will get better from this point on. THANK YOU for writing about this.

    • Ellen….my story is SO similar to yours! i wrote a big long reply, but it must have gotten deleted or somehow didn’t post. i tried SO many alternative tmts/blood tests/specialst appointments /diet changes for all those symptoms you mentioned and more and had NO success at all. a whole year after my daughter’s birth, and after all of this crap trying to figure out what is wrong with me… i was screened for ppd and i am now on zoloft as well. i’ve been on it for about 10 weeks and have seen small improvements in how i’ve felt. the head pressure is still pretty terrible, and my body aches/fatigue are a little better, we are still titrating the dose up…125mg right now. i’d love to hear how you are doing, if your symptoms have improved at all, etc…..i need some encouragement bc i have been SO feeling like i’m dying!

  3. ellen….i can’t believe i just read almost exactly what i have been feeling!! i do not have five kids, but 2. after my first child’s difficult birth and very challenging postpartum period, i knew i had ppd, but managed it w/o professional help and started feeling better when he was around 10 months old. after the birth of my second child, when she was about 2 or 3 months old, i started having many physical symptoms that you mentioned as well; major head pressure, headaches, sore eyes (i thought i needed glasses), terrible fatigue, malaise, achy muscles and sore joints, weight loss (much more than with my first baby), and more later on, awful insomnia, heart palps, racing heart and tremors. i, too, cut out gluten, and then dairy and sugar…all with no relief (i am still gluten, sugar and dairy free 9 months later). my nurse practitioner did TONS of blood work, everything came back fine. i was referred to an allergist, ENT, had breathing tests, everything “normal”. ( all these appts took months to get too). i kept holding out hope that the next specialist appt would find something wrong so that we could just treat it and get me back on my feet again!! i was also treated for sinusitis, used nettipot, naturopath, and chiro. i have tried many anti candida diet/supplements and vitamins as well. nothing worked. i finally saw my doctor in december b/c the heart palps and tremors were out of control ( i thought for sure my thyroid was whacked), but again, all results came back normal. she did a postpartum screen one whole year after my daughter’s birth and that indicated ppd/ppa…..!! i still can’t believe that all these symptoms are a result of anxiety..it’s crazy. i also, was started on zoloft and zipiclone for sleep. i’ve
    started going to a mom’s ppd group locally and it is nice to talk to other moms about it. it has been 9 weeks on the meds (increased the zoloft up to 100 mg now), and i have had a few good days, and a week and a half where i actually felt pretty good! the heart palps and tremors have for sure gotten better. now again, i feel kind of back to where i started with all these physical ailments, but i am holding out hope that the good days will start to out number the bad. it has been so difficult to care for my kids, let alone myself, through all of this. i can’t imagine having five to take care of while feeling SO terrible! i haven’t been able to go back to work yet b/c of all this….
    are you feeling any better? have you noticed any change in how you feel since starting the zoloft? i felt horrible the first 2 weeks on it from side effects, but they are very slowly starting to wear off.
    hope you are starting to feel better.

  4. Im so glad to read this blog entry. My symptoms are almost completely physical as well. Vomiting, nausea/knot in stomach, hot tingles, poor sleep, no appetite, general unease, inability to focus. I also did a stay in the Psych unit. I was only there 2 days, but I felt safe there. It was nice to sleep and have someone take care of me. I am on meds and going to therapy, have been for almost 6 weeks now. Clinging to the hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel!

    • There is definitely light Lauryn. Good for you for getting care – it’s such a difficult step to take but you did it! Just keep putting one foot in front of the other and know that you will get well. It takes time, but you will. ~ K

  5. Samantha says:

    I’m having a hard time figuring out whether I’m suffering from postpartum anxiety/depression or if its antidepressant withdrawals. I just had my baby 2 months ago and have been on 5 different antidepressants in just 5 months none of which I was on. longer than a month for mild depression they all caused me to have panic attacks and anxiety which I’ve never experienced. and stopping them all cold turkey made everything way worse. So now I’m 5 weeks off all meds last one was Bupropion generic for Welbutrin and I can’t tell if its still withdrawals or if its postpartum. Anxiety and Panic is the worst part. Then there is the burning of the skin all over the top half of my body all of these symptoms being present the day after stopping Wellbutrin. Including nausea and diarrhea. I’m suffering and also scared because I’m obviously not great with medication very sensitive and I’m noticing my symptoms aren’t worsening they are just there. Any advice will be greatly appreciated