I am particularly reflective at this time of year, as my youngest son is turning six years old. It was just that many years ago that I experienced the joy of his birth and then the ensuing terrifying abyss with postpartum depression.
I love my little angel boy more than life itself. And I loved him with all my heart and soul when I lost the serotonin in my brain. Two weeks after my sweet 10 pound son was born, the sleep deprivation caught up with me. My baby was hungry, and I was not producing enough breast-milk for my little cherub…I quickly realized I wasn’t getting enough sleep, my hormones catapulted to haywire and my mood quickly cascaded into a depression like nothing I had ever experienced in my life. It shocked me and took me by surprise, terrified me and my loved ones.
For me, postpartum depression was insomnia, depression, and panic attacks all hitting at once like a Mack truck. I never had any urge to harm myself or my baby. I was so terribly sleep deprived and exhausted to the degree that my memory, focus and concentration were impaired, which then led to more anxiety, which then led to the vicious cycle of insomnia and sleep deprivation.
A brief primer on postpartum depression: Perinatal depression/anxiety (clinical term: Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorder) typically is a combination of symptoms that can include anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and intrusive thoughts. For each woman who develops a PMAD, her symptoms are as unique as her personality. There is no one-size fits all cookie-cutter episode for all women. However, there are many symptoms that cluster together commonly under the umbrella of PMAD.
As I have mentioned in prior articles, 20% (or more) of all child-bearing women develop PMADs. The cause can include hormonal fluctuations around reproductive life events, sleep deprivation, family or personal history of depression/anxiety, among other factors. I want to emphasize that perinatal/postpartum depression is not perinatal/postpartum psychosis, the latter of which is significantly more rare in the general population. Psychosis is generally what is broadcast on the news, which then in turn confuses people and further stigmatizes “postpartum depression” as “that woman who killed her children.” I am not minimizing the seriousness of psychosis, as tragedy has befallen women and their families who were not treated during such an acute medical emergency. I thank the heavens I was not in that situation. What I do want to emphasize is that perinatal/postpartum depression (which can include anxiety and depression and does NOT include psychosis) is much more common and also very treatable.
As I look back, I realize how fortunate I was in so many ways…as a therapist, I knew I needed help, and I got it. Right away, with psychotherapy, medication management, an incredibly supportive husband, and fortunate to be thoroughly embraced by my mother, father, and mother-in-law. I was lucky. I got treatment immediately and I recovered relatively quickly. With self-care regimes in place (restoring sleep cycles, exercise, good nutrition and support/help with the baby), I was on my way to healing and recovery. The growing attachment with my son fortunately proceeded forth without any obstacles. Again, in my situation, I was lucky because I got help immediately. I share this story to encourage any woman who suspects she may be experiencing a PMAD to get help immediately. It is not her fault and her situation is very treatable. Her depression/anxiety will resolve with treatment, just as mine did. Positive outcomes (like solid mother-baby attachment, harmonious family relationships, and resolution of symptoms) are inevitable with prompt treatment (psychotherapy, social support, self-care strategies, and in some cases, medication management).
The number one complication of childbirth is postpartum depression. We screen for gestational diabetes and high blood pressure during pregnancy, but we don’t do a good enough job of screening for biochemical imbalances in the brain during pregnancy and after delivery. This needs to change. Women and their families should not feel ashamed to talk about this potential complication, plan preventatively for it, and have strategies in place in the event that a PMAD surfaces. It is no woman’s fault if she develops a PMAD, and she deserves swift, compassionate treatment.
My sweet Sagitarius is now turning six. He is thriving in kindergarten, has many friends, loves karate, singing, dancing, and bugging his beloved big brother. He dazzles me every day with his dimples and the twinkle in his eye that tells me he is scheming to do something silly. Like a true Sagitarius, he is exuberant, adventurous, and gregarious. He is my little firecracker, who has grown me in my journey of motherhood, along with my precious, thoughtful and kind 10 year old son. I am a blessed woman, surrounded by the love of my children and husband, who all challenge me to be a better person every day. I thank the heavens every day for my angel boys. For it is their loving, enduring presence in my life that has allowed me to connect with the passion for the work that is my calling, being a mother and also being a therapist for women/families on the journey to parenthood.
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