How A Diagnosis Of Postpartum Depression Changed My Life
I didn’t plan on being diagnosed with postpartum depression and anxiety. It wasn’t part of my birth prep list or on my radar in a significant way. It was something that happened to other people, not something that I should worry about. And yet.
Our second daughter (dubbed Littlewoods) was born in February 2018 and the birth itself was amazing. Perfection. Ideal. Longtime readers know that our first daughter (Babywoods, who is now almost three!!!!) was born via emergency c-section following a terrifying discovery of cord prolapse during labor. I was whisked into the operating room and Babywoods was out in under seven minutes. Thanks to the fast response of our nurses and doctors, our daughter was born perfectly healthy and, after a week-long stay in the NICU, came home with us and a clean bill of health. After this first birth experience, and the incredible pain and difficulty I experienced in recovering from the c-section, I had high hopes for a VBAC (vaginal birth after caesarean) for baby #2.
Our homestead is 50 minutes from the hospital and I was petrified of going into labor at home, not making it to the hospital in time, and experiencing a repeat cord prolapse (which wasn’t likely, but which I still feared). Given this, my OB recommended we induce baby #2, which I readily agreed to. Scheduling an induction meant that Mr. Frugalwoods and I were able to say goodbye to our first daughter–who was staying at home with my mother-in-law–and enjoy a calm (50 minute) drive to the hospital for the induction. My fears thawed as we checked in, met our nurse, and started Pitocin (a drug administered to induce labor). I could finally unclench my jaw and exhale. This baby would be born in the hospital of my choice and not on the side of the road during an ice storm with no one to help us (worst fear).
However, the Pitocin did not, in fact, induce labor. It caused tiny reverberations as opposed to full blown contractions. After almost 24 hours, I was still decidedly not in labor. We debated what to do. I didn’t want to go back home and wait for spontaneous labor, but I also harbored a deep fear of having my water broken since this can cause cord prolapse. I panicked. Thankfully, my husband was there and able to weed through our doctor’s advice and my largely irrational fear of having my water broken. I came around to identifying that my goal was for a healthy baby and a healthy mom and that the best way to get there was to continue with the induction, which would entail breaking my water.
Five minutes after breaking my water, hard labor started. It was the rush of pain I’d been waiting for and I cried with relief. Finally, we were getting somewhere. After a mere (hah!) two hours of pushing, Littlewoods was born via VBAC. A robust, healthy, screaming person weighing 8 pounds, 2 ounces joined our family and made it complete. Elation is too tepid a word to encapsulate what I felt. Relief, profound joy, and acute happiness washed over me. I cradled that baby against my body, nursed her, and sighed the deepest exhalations of gratitude. I also devoured a cold cheeseburger that Mr. FW had the foresight to order from the cafeteria before I started pushing (smart man). But this bliss and this relief didn’t stick.
As we drove home from the hospital, guilt and fear started to snake through my brain. A cascade of worries descended on me. I worried about how Babywoods would receive her baby sister, I fretted about the baby’s sleep schedule, I was anxious at the prospect of no sleep for me or Mr. FW, I panicked about the baby’s health, about my recovery, about our family’s future.
Anything that assuaged one of these fears–such as the smoothest possible big sister/baby sister introduction or a successful visit to the pediatrician–would only prompt my brain to latch onto a new fear. With pernicious tentacles, anxiety overtook everything I did. If I spent time alone with my older daughter, I worried that the baby would feel left out. If it snowed, I feared we’d lose power and the apocalypse would descend.
When Mr. FW went to the grocery store, I worried he’d be killed in a car crash and would never come home. When the baby slept for long periods of time, I worried that she’d somehow suffocated in her sleep. When the baby didn’t sleep for long periods of time, I worried that my life was over and that I’d never get sufficient rest again ever in my life.
This spiral of disquiet mounted with each passing week after Littlewoods’ birth. My addled brain short-circuited into a continuous loop of panic. When I managed to lift my head out of the fog I felt like I was enveloped in, I could see my life for what it was: perfect. I had a loving husband, two healthy kids, the home of my dreams, and the career I’d always wanted. But I couldn’t hold onto this intellectual understanding of my life. It was divorced from this new depressive reality shrouding me. I knew that everything was all right, but I couldn’t translate that knowledge into how I felt.
I started to hate where we live–our 66 acres of paradise. I worried about our choice to move to this homestead. I questioned every single decision I’d ever made. I lacked confidence. I was so overcome with the idea that everything I did was wrong, wrong, wrong that I could barely pick out clothes for my kids to wear. I was apoplectic about my parenting skills. I no longer embodied the assured calm, firm approach we’d raised Babywoods with up to this point. Getting out of bed every morning (after nursing the baby several times during the night) was tantamount to torture. My head ached endlessly.
I had nightmares that people were going to come to our house and steal our children. It was arduous to go anywhere and I’d come home deflated and dizzy with exhaustion. But it was awful to stay home too. I gained weight because I kept thinking I had low blood sugar and just needed to eat more in order to stabilize my mood.
Somewhere in this litany of apprehension, I stopped wanting to write. And this, of all the things I felt, was the scariest. When I found that I didn’t want to write and couldn’t put words on the page, my fears elevated to existential. Had I ever enjoyed writing? Did I understand my purpose and place in this world? I’d just (and I mean JUST) published a book about how I’d found my calling and immersed myself in my passions and here I was, fearing it all. Hating it all. I considered giving up Frugalwoods. Closing shop and retreating into my dark cloud of anxiety. I couldn’t help other people with their money if I couldn’t even organize my own brain.
Trying To Fix It On My Own
I was hungry and exhausted all the time. So, I kept trying different remedies to feel better. To feel like myself. I went on hikes in our woods, which usually lift my mood. I started to eat more protein. I gobbled almonds and cheese sticks. I made massive salads of organic kale, sweet potato, cucumber, green pepper, onion, tomato (I threw in every vegetable I could find in the hopes they might alchemize into a cure).
I did a lot of yoga. I kept going to church every week. I spent time with friends. I went to baby-and-me group. I went on dates with my husband (without our kids!). I even got a massage thinking I just needed some relaxing time alone. I tried everything I could think of to lift myself out of this funk. Nothing helped.
My wonderful in-laws came to visit and to help us with the kids. My wonderful parents came to visit and to help us with the kids. I could barely even register gratitude. I felt angry, defensive, exhausted beyond reason, and fearful. I started to resent everyone around me. I nursed an internal monologue of “no one is helping me enough with the kids and I am over-burdened, exhausted, and starving. No one understands me.” The truth is that I was getting a lot of help with the kids–from my husband, my in-laws and parents, from friends and neighbors. Surrounded by a community of love and warmth, all I felt was alone and desperate. I lost my ability to feel empathy and compassion. I turned bitter.
The scary part is that I couldn’t see the truth in any of this. I thought this was simply how you felt after having a baby: exhausted, ruined, hopeless. It was the lack of sleep, right? It was a lack of protein in my diet, right? It was some combination of organic produce that I needed to consume, right? It was the absence of vigorous exercise, right? It was something I had DONE WRONG. It was my fault. All my fault.
Recognizing The Problem
I wish I could tell you that this was a brief phase. That I figured out what was wrong within a week. A month. Two months. Three months. But I didn’t. I’m a person who pushes through and carries on. I’m a stiff-upper-lip-I-can-HANDLE-this person. In truth, I’m stubborn. I believe too deeply in my own infallibility. In my own power to change things I don’t like about my life. In my own ability to make positive adjustments. In my own advice and knowledge.
After all, that’s kind of WHAT I DO FOR A LIVING, RIGHT?!? But I could NOT see the black spiral I was sliding down. I did NOT recognize it as depression and anxiety. I saw it as a weakness on my part. A failure to live up to my own expectations. After all, I WANTED this second baby. Wanted her DESPERATELY and with every fiber of my being. I wanted this life. In fact, I’d worked doggedly to achieve it, to orchestrate it. Nothing I do is on accident. What right did I have to hate this bespoke existence? I didn’t think I was allowed to be depressed amid such bounty.
I repeatedly told myself that this heaviness would evaporate once the baby was older. Once she started sleeping in her own room. When that didn’t change how I felt, I moved the goal post. I decided I’d feel better once she only got up once or twice a night to nurse. When that didn’t deliver relief, I moved the goal post again. It would all magically transform once she slept through the night. I settled in with grim determination. I just had to keep making it through each day. Everything was a slog and I lost the ability to enjoy my children. They grated on my nerves. Every scream, every cry was amplified in this echo chamber of depression.
Mr. FW and I maintain a calm, harmonious household. We operate on a schedule, we have clear divisions of labor and responsibilities, and a firm, but calm, discipline style (I highly recommend this Simplicity Parenting book on the topic).
But I couldn’t take control of my half of the household like I usually do. I didn’t have the energy, and more pointedly, I didn’t have the confidence. I was no longer resilient and capable. Mr. FW picked up every inch of slack. He cuddled and nurtured the children, cooked and prepared all of our meals (not that he doesn’t do this anyway, but you know what I mean), and desperately tried to help me.
I started yelling at my husband every night after we put the kids to bed. We are not a yelling family. We don’t even like loud noises and can’t handle background TV or radio. The vacuum grates on everyone’s nerves (I usually just sweep). But here I was, yelling! I’d start in on a litany of complaints every evening, always devolving into tears. Saturating, despondent tears. Mr. FW finally said enough. He is the one who pulled me out of this hole and said that I needed help. I scoffed at him and said, “I can handle this! I can handle anything!” And he disagreed. He quietly explained that I was clearly not ok and clearly not happy and clearly not handling anything very well at all. He did so with compassion and insistence. I resisted. “Resisted” is too weak a word. I argued vehemently. He was steadfast. He said I didn’t have a choice anymore, that I had to seek help.
Encouraged/forced by Mr. FW, I found a therapist who almost immediately diagnosed me with postpartum depression and anxiety. She also wasted no time in encouraging me to visit my primary care physician and get a prescription for an SSRI. Medication, I thought? Isn’t that, like, for really depressed people? But I was entering a level of desperation I’ve never experienced before. I could not make it through a day without dissolving into tears. I harbored intense guilt over everything. I couldn’t relish the simplest moments with my kids. So I went to my doctor, who confirmed a diagnosis of postpartum depression and prescribed a low dose of an SSRI (a class of drugs known as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors). Specifically, Zoloft as it’s compatible with breastfeeding, since Littlewoods is only six months old and I plan to breastfeed her for at least her first year.
I researched side effects and was skeptical at best. But I was also weary of feeling terrible every hour of every day. So I started taking the medication. And as soon as it took effect, it was like being pulled out of a river of panic I hadn’t even realized I was drowning in. I could stop thrashing, stop fearing, stop clawing at solutions. I could breath without struggle. I was me and I was going to be all right. It was like flipping a switch. I went from gnawing fear and sadness to feeling, well, completely fine. I wondered if I’d feel weirdly elated or drunk on medication and I can tell you that I don’t. I just feel like I did before having my children. I feel normal. I feel calm. I still get upset and frustrated with the daily minutiae of raising two tiny people (and the endless dirt and laundry), but I am resilient again. I have a sense of humor. I am optimistic and hopeful. I’m back to loving where I live, to loving my family, to loving to write. I am back to being me.
Now that I’m on the other side, I’m amazed it took me so long to see the truth of my situation. And I’m embarrassed to say that I was ashamed to label myself as “depressed.” I wouldn’t even call it depression for the first month or so. I called it “postpartum anxiety” because somehow that carried less stigma for me. Now I fully own the label of postpartum depression.
In reflecting on my intense resistance to seeking treatment for four months and my shame over starting therapy and medication, I’ve landed on a few revelations:
- I had a skewed perception of what depression looks like
- Mental health is still wildly stigmatized in our culture
My (Previous) Conception Of Depression
Despite how well-read I am, despite how much news I consume, despite how literate I consider myself to be in health-related matters, my own depression fell into a complete and utter blind spot. I’d always thought that in order to be depressed, and certainly in order to require medication to treat depression, a person had to be in a REALLY bad way. I thought you had to be suicidal, to never get out of bed, to stop bathing, to essentially stop functioning.
This misconception is precisely why it took me so long to accept my own circumstances. I wasn’t suicidal, I bathed daily, and I proceeded with normal life–mostly because I had to. With two little kids, there are no sick days. There are no opportunities to stay in bed. There’s no chance to lie around and do nothing. So I slogged through each day, riddled with grief and terror. And sometimes, I felt fine. It’s not like I didn’t laugh or smile or do fun things for four months. It’s that everything I did was punctuated by an undercurrent of sadness.
The Stigma of Mental Health
I am a lucky person. I am lucky to be college educated and to have a master’s degree. I am beyond fortunate that I’m financially independent and able to easily manage crises from a financial perspective. I am blessed to have a loving and supportive husband, children, and extended family. I am privileged in so many, many ways–from the circumstances of my birth and my parents, to the country I live in. I have access to world-class health care and am an enfranchised person. And yet, it took me months and months to admit that I needed help and to seek treatment.
I wouldn’t have let a broken arm linger for that long. I won’t let a weird rash or a cough linger in my kids for more than a few days. Yet I suffered through this mental health issue for months. I’m still coming to terms with this diagnosis and still trying to find the words to describe how I feel now and how I felt. What this tells me is that anyone can suffer from depression. Anyone can have anxiety. It doesn’t matter how successful you are; how wonderful your life appears to others; how good you are at baking a cake or writing a book. This stuff has nothing to do with whether or not you have depression. The sooner we, as a culture, can accept this and promote this worldview, the sooner people can get the help and the treatment they need.
Money and Other Stuff
I want to point out that you might need to pause other goals in your life in order to treat your mental health condition. If you’re paying off debt right now and don’t want to spend money on therapy and medication, please reframe your thinking. Your health is paramount and without it, you can’t function to your full potential. Pause your financial goals. Pause your career goals. Focus on what you need to do to heal.
I’m not advocating you go on a shopping spree to boost your mood, but rather to judiciously allocate your resources in service of your health. Cut back in other areas or simply acknowledge that you’re pressing pause until you’re better. It’s OK to do that. It’s important to do that.
Everything Is Better Now
I’m still in the early stages of treating my postpartum depression and I’m still keeping tabs on how I feel each day. I now have the awareness of what I feel like when I’m depressed versus when I’m in my normal frame of mind. I refuse to let myself spiral down again and I vow to be proactive in making sure I’m okay.
Right now, I’m grateful that everything is better in my life. I no longer feel lonely. I no longer feel uninspired. I no longer dread each day. I’m again filled with enthusiasm for my life and I WANT to live it. I want to experience the challenges of kid-rearing and the delights of finding a frog outside with Babywoods (and telling her not to lick it… ). Of watching Littlewoods sit up on her own for the first time (and fall over on her own for the first time… ).
Being in treatment helps my entire family. Now that I’m healthy, I can be the mama, the wife, the homesteader, and the writer I want to be. It feels like my time and my energy has expanded and multiplied. My head isn’t populated with clouds of self-doubt and loathing. I can enjoy picking blackberries with Babywoods, and harvesting the garden, and learning new things–I even learned how to make pickles last week! For someone who could barely get the kids dressed and fed a few months ago, I’m amazed and thankful.
Seek Help If You Even THINK You Need It
What I hope is that through sharing my story, a few people–or even just one person–will be motivated to seek help. If you recognize any of the symptoms I’ve described in yourself or in someone you know, please take action. If you’re a new parent struggling to enjoy your child, struggling to comprehend your new role as a parent, struggling to see the point of life, please get help. Today. Now. Close your computer and call your doctor. I had a degrading interior monologue about how my conversations with my doctors would go. They wouldn’t believe me. They would think I was whiny. They would laugh at me. But none of that came to pass. And it won’t come to pass. All of those negative, ridiculous thoughts were the lies of depression.
My friend Melanie Lockert recently told me that “depression lies to you.” It tells you that you’re worthless, it tells you that you’re hopeless and stupid. But this isn’t true. You can be pulled out of this heavy fog. Please allow yourself to be helped. Yeah, sure, there might be a stigma out there around mental health, but you know what? I don’t care. I needed help and I got it. For that, I refuse to be ashamed. And you should too.
I also want to note that I have a relatively mild/moderate case of postpartum depression. The symptoms can manifest much more severely and the treatment can entail greater interventions. I recognize how fortunate I am that my depression is being treated and managed through low levels of medication and therapy. But if your depression requires more? Then get it. Get the help you need and get it now. If you’re not sure if you’re depressed? Make an appointment with your doctor anyway to discuss how you’re feeling and what treatment options are available. If you’d rather not go see a doctor at this point, refer to the list of resources below.
Please be aware that postpartum depression can affect any type of parent. Fathers can experience Paternal Postnatal Depression. Adoptive parents can suffer from a form of postpartum depression. Kids with two moms, kids with two dads, kids with one mom, kids with one dad–any of these caregivers can experience postpartum depression and all deserve compassionate, immediate care. Additionally, the onset of postpartum depression can occur after your first baby, or your second, or your fifth (source: Postpartum Depression Can Happen to Any Parent, The Atlantic Magazine).
Mental Health Resources
September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month and something I’ve learned through the financial blogging community is that debt, and financial crisis, are reasons some people cite for committing suicide. In light of this, I want to help raise awareness about mental health by participating in the Third Annual Suicide Prevention Awareness Month blog tour. I’ll also be discussing my experience, along with Melanie Lockert and Tonya Stumphauzer, in the September 28th episode of the Martinis and Your Money Podcast, hosted by Shannon McLay of the Financial Gym. I’m a guest on this podcast every month and this month we’ll be addressing mental health.
If you think you might be depressed or are having suicidal thoughts, please seek help right away. Here’s a list of resources on postpartum depression and mental health in general that can get you started:
- Information on Postpartum Depression from the National Institute Of Mental Health
- Postpartum Support International: call 800-944-4773 (please note this is not a crisis hotline)
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: call 1-800-273-8255
- Crisis Text Line: text HOME to 741741
- American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
- Project Semicolon
- Open Path Collective: Contains information about affordable therapy options. You can also check with your local college or university to see if their graduate program in counseling offers discounted sessions.
- Debtors Anonymous
Have you ever experienced depression? What helped you to heal?
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