[Editor’s Note: Today we welcome Warrior Mom Meri Levy who shares how her postpartum depression symptoms manifested primarily in physical ones like dizziness and nausea. -Katherine]
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 medication 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 bed rest 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 nauseated. 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 nauseated (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.