Heather is the mother to two young daughters. She struggled after giving birth to both babies, but in two completely different ways.
When she brought her first daughter home, she felt very down and isolated even though she had a great support system, but didn’t realized she was suffering from postpartum depression.
“I just felt really ashamed and sad. I was there and going through the motions and doing the best that I could. When you hear the term postpartum depression, the stigma is that you want to harm yourself or harm your children. I didn’t have that at all. So for a really long time, I felt like this is just the baby blues and I should pull myself together. I’m a type A person, and I have my ducks in a row most of the time – why can’t I now? One of my best friends had twins and was taking them everywhere like it was no big thing and I just couldn’t pick myself up. And when it went on for a while, my family started to notice a personality change. My mom always called me her joyful child, and I was so sad. I just felt very ashamed and I couldn’t shake it.”
When Heather gave birth to her second baby, she was expecting to go through something similar. But the feelings this time were completely different.
“It was debilitating anxiety. I had insomnia. I was hyperventilating. I was getting maybe two hours of sleep, and I was up shaking. I had chills up and down my legs, and I couldn’t breathe normally. Nothing I did would allow me to rest.”
She tried medication, and while it helped a little, she still couldn’t find enough calm to sleep or fully relax. In December, after she and her primary care physician had tried everything they could think of, Heather called Women’s Behavioral Health at AHN.
“I will never forget the day. I had called and they weren’t seeing patients that day, because it was the ribbon cutting ceremony and everyone was moving boxes in. But I remember them saying, ‘Can you be here in an hour?’”
Heather drove the hour from her house, and met with a psychologist and a psychiatrist, and mapped out a plan with appointments. They adjusted her medication in a way that hadn’t been done before, and it was instantly helpful. At first she was reluctant to try therapy.
“I was the biggest skeptic, and they saw it. I didn’t say anything negative, though, because they were so gracious to me, and they took me in so quickly. I thought I’d go a couple times, just to be polite. And did they prove me wrong. It was unbelievable – it was a complete mindset change that was so incredibly helpful, and it allowed me to back off on my medication.”
Because she lives so far away, Heather had the option to conduct some of her appointments over telemedicine, so she could share the homework she had done and speak with a therapist without taking the two-hour round trip.
Heather says she has a different view of the postpartum experience, and how it can be so different even for the same woman. She has become more vocal in making sure people understand that postpartum mental health is something that deserves medical help.
“I always say it is as real as breaking your leg – you can’t see it on the outside. I feel like a lot of people brush it off, or they say it’s the baby blues, or they wait for it to go away. But it is like asking somebody with a broken leg to go run a mile, and you just can’t. You can’t pull yourself out of it. And this center pulled me out of it, for sure. Just in time for Christmas.”
In Her Words
“This week, we will hold off on practicing changing diapers and swaddling. Instead, we will be discussing common warning signs should you be faced with postpartum depression.”
Cue the eye rolls. Was it too late to pretend to have morning sickness and sneak out the back door? Ha, that’s funny. I had only been puking the majority of my pregnancy anyway. Sitting through a long discussion on PPD during parenting classes on a hard cold chair didn’t sound like my idea of a good time.
My husband and I were thrilled to find out we were expecting our first child. Everything had gone according to plan: graduate college with a job lined up, get married, finish graduate school, start a family. We were thrilled that this little one had been so timely as well, due in May, leading right into my summer break from teaching. We wanted to be as prepared as possible for our new adventure, so naturally we enrolled in parenting classes. So far, the classes had been very practical. On this night, however, I knew it was a complete waste of time. Postpartum depression would not be happening to me. That only happened to women in an unplanned pregnancy or with a family history of mental illness. It only happened to women who clearly weren’t prepared for the heavy responsibility of being a mother. I was more than prepared.
I wish I could tell you these terrible (completely false) stigmas were not a part of my beliefs, but then I would be lying. I was so ignorantly naïve.
Fast-forward to the end of May, as I rock my sobbing, colicky newborn at 5am, after yet another sleepless night. I could feel myself slowly losing my mind. I had been feeling this way for about a week. Baby blues are normal, I told myself, pull yourself together, Heather. Millions of women have had babies. You have a master’s degree. You can handle a newborn.Unfortunately, my master’s degree was not at all going to help in this situation. And any amount of ambition or desire to want to push these feelings and thoughts away was not going to happen on my own.
Very quickly, I learned that I should have sat up, paid attention, and taken detailed notes that night during our parenting class. And if I would have been that smart, this is what I would have written down:
Postpartum depression does NOT discriminate. All of those stigmas previously mentioned are a complete lie. PPD can happen to anyone, anywhere, and at any time. It does NOT mean that you are a bad mother, and it does not reflect your future connection with your child. It does mean, however, that you need help and support.
PPD is unique to each woman suffering with it. Postpartum depression was not a part of our picture-perfect plan. I knew what to expect when having a baby, but I didn’t expect how my body would react to it. Postpartum depression comes in many shapes and sizes. In my circumstance, PPD did not result in any harmful feelings or thoughts at all, which is why I pushed it aside for so long. It came as an overwhelming feeling of sadness, inadequacy, shame, guilt, suffocation, and isolation.
Postpartum anxiety was not even in my vocabulary when it crept up on me with our second daughter. Hearing every little noise she would make throughout the night would send me into a complete panic attack. I slept in our basement for three months just to get through it all. This time, we were more prepared, but I wasn’t expecting PPD to manifest itself in the form of anxiety. It looks and feels different to each mother.
Postpartum depression is as real as having a broken leg. Would you tell someone with a broken leg to go run a mile? PPD is beyond your control. In no way could you have done anything different to avoid it. Treat it as any other medical condition that needs your attention and treatment. Don’t downplay it or wait until your next appointment.
Taking medication does NOT mean you have failed. It means you are brave. It takes an incredibly brave, strong, selfless mother to admit that she needs help in the name of her sweet babies. Many times, that help requires medication and/or therapy. For me, I was never able to fully overcome this disease until I discovered both through the Women’s Behavioral Health Center at Allegheny Health Network. I thank God every day for my doctors at that facility. Find people who specialize in PPD. They will help you create a treatment plan that works for you.
Postpartum depression is normal. Talk about it. Is it embarrassing for me to admit that I almost hyperventilated the first time I even attempted taking my daughter to Target, while my best friend was hauling her twin newborns around like it was no-big-thing? Sure. I would prefer to put my experiences with postpartum depression and anxiety in a neatly sealed box at the top of my closet forever. But when I FINALLY found someone who understood what I was going through, it was the first time I felt like I wasn’t alone. From that moment on, I promised myself I would be an open book. Ask to speak to those who have been down this road before. They will reassure you that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Heather Peterson is a wife and mother of two daughters. She is a former reading teacher and current stay-at-home mom. Her family resides in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania.