POSTPARTUM MENTAL ILLNESS IS NOTHING LIKE THE “BABY BLUES”: HELP AVAILABLE THEN AND NOW

I always knew I’d write this article someday. 22 years after the birth of my only child, it is still difficult to write about.  Though my son is happy, healthy and we have a great relationship, a tiny bit of shame remains.  I totally bought the bill of goods I was sold about new motherhood. I am not a stupid woman, but I really thought my husband would come home daily to find me rocking our little angel while dressed in the perfect peignoir.  Not only did this not happen (nor was it realistic to expect), but in my wildest dreams I could have never imagined what would come next.

I had never experienced any mental illness, so it was a complete shock when I was depressed from the first day of motherhood and teetered near psychosis before finding help. I choose my words carefully; it was up to me to “find” help.  Though only a little over 20 years ago, not much was known about PPD (Postpartum Depression) or PPP (Postpartum Psychosis); worse yet, women never admitted they had suffered from this debilitating illness. Many, many women (stats indicate that about 12-15% of women) will experience PPD. Postpartum psychosis is rare, occurring in about 1% of new mothers.

Symptoms of PPD are similar to those of clinical depression; what differentiates PPD is it occurs shortly (up to a year) following childbirth. Beginning the day of my son’s birth, I was consumed with excessive, irrational fears about his health.  I could not swallow food. I could not sleep.  I cried every day, many times a day. I thought I was a terrible mother; that only added to my downward spiral.

I believe I had early symptoms of PPP (Postpartum Psychosis), exhibited by my inability to cease movement, memory loss, confusion, and drastic changes in mood. For weeks, I thought every day was Monday, and it was frustrating when everyone tried to tell me the actual day of the week. When my son was about 3-months-old, I ventured into our local bookstore. It was the first time I had taken him anywhere alone.  There was one tiny step that separated the adult section from the kids’. I could not figure out (for the life of me) how to get the stroller down that one, tiny step! I was so frightened; surely I’d lost my mind. I left the store, hurried home and did not take the baby out alone again for quite some time.

I knew something was terribly wrong, but I did not know what to do about it.  By the grace of God, I have the type of personality (even while in despair) to search for answers; they were very hard to find. My family knew something had happened to this usually optimistic go-getter, who was delighted to have a baby after ten years of trying!  We called Psychiatrists and Psychologist looking for answers.  One M.D. actually told me, “Go home and don’t watch soap operas, they will make you sad.” And that, I am sorry to say, was some of the more reasonable advice I received.  I went to the library to search for help; there was one book on postpartum depression that was terribly outdated – written about 30 years earlier. Finally, I found a wonderful psychiatrist at the University of Chicago, who specialized in postpartum illness.  She prescribed the early antidepressants that were available then, talked to me about my shame and encouraged me to see a therapist weekly.  I followed her advice and I did recover.

In the intervening years, I am so pleased to report, much progress has been made. The public is more aware now of these illnesses and how to spot them. There are better antidepressants and other medications available. Therapy has expanded to include cognitive therapy (this type of therapy proved extremely helpful in lifting my depression). To learn more about cognitive therapy, I highly recommend reading “Feeling Good” by Dr. David Burns. There is so much hope and every reason to believe if you show signs of PPD, it can often be turned around very quickly.

What about the women who have no support, who don’t have the personality to go digging for answers or simply don’t have the resources? Is that what resulted in the tragic death of Andrea Yates’ children and others? I do not know the answer to that question, but it haunts me that those little lives could have possibly been saved by the intervention of mental health professionals.

We have made progress in the U.S.A., but much remains to be done here and around the world.  I volunteer at a postpartum support group. We recently welcomed a new member to the group.  She is from a different country and a totally different culture.  She cries about how horrible a mother she is; her husband and mother-in-law agree with her assessment.

If we are, indeed, a sisterhood, it is not enough that American women understand this illness and get help. We must spread the word around the globe.  Since much PPD is thought to be brought on by a dramatic shift in hormones after giving birth, it can happen to anyone. It is often exacerbated by stress; how stressful it must be giving birth in Darfur, Haiti and many other places around the world (Postpartum Symptoms).

I still have not written the final chapter in my own story. I have never discussed my illness with my son.  I remain a bit fearful that he’ll think I didn’t love him enough or that he is somehow responsible for my sickness. Did he know on an innate level that I was not totally “there” for him? How did that affect him? Won’t it be better coming from me than hearing “it” whispered about and imagining something even worse? Also, if I don’t tell him, aren’t I perpetuating the same lie (women are to blame and, therefore, should be ashamed and quiet) that the mothers of earlier generations believed? I am going to have this discussion with him very soon.

Postpartum Pregnancy