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How I Survived Postpartum Depression

Let’s be honest. Being a mom is hard. Being a person is hard. Sometimes it’s hard just to “be”. Period.

I am not perfect. I am not happy all of the time. Sometimes I even totally lose my shit…but you might not know that about me because I have a tendency to mostly share just the positive…because that’s what we do. We celebrate what we’re proud of, and we sweep the rest under the rug.

I was at a MOPS meeting the other day and felt such a profound connection with all of the women there as we started sharing stories of postpartum depression. To be honest, I was completely floored when I heard story after story that kept sounding like my story, and as I looked around the room, I noticed not just a room full of tears, but a room full of love and support. It made me realize that none of us really have the answers, but by sharing our stories, we feel connected, we feel like we’re not alone, and it made me feel, well…ok, almost normal even.

The bottom line is that it made me want to share my story. I have tried to write this blog for a long time, but I could never find the right words, and then I realized, there are no right words. There are just words – words that come together to form a story, and that’s what I’m going to do now; I’m going to share my story. Just know that yes, I’m happy now, and I’ll share that part of the journey too, but first I want to take you to some of the darkest moments I’ve ever experienced in my entire life.

Postpartum Depression Round #2

About 9 months ago (when Julian was 13 months old, Ophelia was 2, Elliot was 4, and Ruby was 6), I started writing a blog called, “I’m Choosing to be Happy Today”, as way to work through some of the depression that I was feeling. But while everything I was writing was completely real, raw, and full of emotion, there was no happy ending, and so I had to put it aside until things weren’t so bleak.

Now that I’ve been able to crawl out of the depths of postpartum depression (for the second time), I think I’m finally ready to share my story.

It was the middle of winter and yet another cold and flu season was upon us when I noticed a little bit of spotting, and then a bit more, and pretty soon, I was experiencing the first period I’ve had since…gosh, I don’t even know how long! (4 births in 6 years…hello!) My mom warned me about fluctuating hormones, but I brushed her warning away thinking,

“I’m too tough to get emotional. I’ll be okay.”

At the same time as I got my period, it seemed like my milk was drying up. Julian was up to feed in the night just about every hour, and he would get really rough, pulling on my nipple, hitting me with his arms, and flailing his legs. (On a side note, I think this is what led to my nursing aversion.) When he woke up with a practically dry diaper after an all night nursing marathon, I knew that it was the beginning of the end of our breastfeeding relationship.

This made me so sad – desperately sad. The only way he would go to sleep was with me nursing him, and even though he ate food with us at every meal, I never really had to worry about how much he ate because he would just nurse him all. the. time. (In hindsight, I wish I would have started this bedtime routine with him a little sooner.)

The thought of not being able to breastfeed Julian anymore, the ongoing lack of sleep, the constant busyness and business of our daily lives, feeling overwhelmed and constantly behind, and now these hormonal changes with the onset of my period absolutely turned my head upside down. It was a gradual change for sure, but one day, it felt like a switch had been flipped. Everything that used to make me happy was suddenly driving me bat-shit crazy.

The way that everyone needed me every single moment of every single day made me want to run and hide. I felt like a failure, a loser, and a fraud. I started fantasizing about going back to work and putting them all in day care. I just didn’t feel like I could handle it for one minute more…and then I remembered feeling this same way when Elliot started to wean. I tried hard to pinpoint why I was feeling this way. Was having two little ones 2 and under just too much for me to handle? Did I need to work on creating more of a balance in my life? Did I need more things just for me? I just couldn’t figure it out.

Usually, I’m pretty good about seeing what I’m doing well and planning new areas of growth for my future, but with everything going on…

My self-doubt started to outweigh my self-worth.

I started feeling like I was failing everyone. I started feeling like I was doing everything wrong. I started feeling like I wanted to quit being a mother. I started feeling like I wanted to find someone more capable to take care of my kids and just get a job where I knew I would be able to succeed (as if that would be so much easier).

Whenever I would hear the little voice of self-doubt in my head, the one that said, “You’re not good enough. You are a fat, frumpy, disheveled mess. You are a failure.”

I would scream, “NO!” and I would try to quiet that little voice and instead look at my sweet little darlings, and I would choose to be happy.

I felt like I was at the edge of a precipice and could go either way. With one more little negative event or thought, I knew that I would tumble into the abyss of sadness, but with every conscious choice placing me into the world of “happy”, I saved myself from that doomed path.

Then one day, I woke up, looked in the mirror, and noticed a giant zit on my chin. That was it. It was the zit that broke the camel’s back so to speak. Everything came crashing down around me, and all of those little walls of happiness that I had worked so hard to build suddenly came crashing down.

I tried to choose to be happy again like I did before, but I just couldn’t. Every little thing was making me cry, and I felt like a complete and utter failure.

Usually, I have a long list of things that make me happy – things like making a healthy meal from scratch, cleaning out and organizing a drawer or cupboard, designing a new learning activity, cuddling up and reading with one of the kids, getting the house clean and organized, writing, or researching a new blog topic,- but no matter how many times I went through the motions, NONE of these things were making me happy.

And then I couldn’t even go through the motions.

I would find myself just sitting there on the floor, looking out the window with a blank stare while the kids played around me, feeling like I was in a fog, and like I could just start bawling at any second.

When my husband came home for lunch one day and didn’t say the right thing, I snapped. I got angry and told him to LEAVE. We fought via texts until he came home hours later, and I just bawled about all of the things that were making me sad.

He was very kind and supportive, but he said,

“It doesn’t make any sense. None of these things were making you depressed a few weeks ago. Where else could this be coming from?”

Those words really struck me because he was right. I didn’t have a reason to be depressed. My life was good, and I was surrounded by things that should make me happy. Why couldn’t I see that? Why couldn’t I feel that? And of course…that just made me even more depressed.

But I kept thinking over and over again about choosing to be happy. And even as the tendrils of depression tried to reach out and pull me into oblivion, I kept thinking, “NO! YOU’RE NOT TAKING ME!!!”

I tried thinking about all of the things that were spiraling me into depression in a positive way, and so instead of thinking, “When will Julian ever sleep through the night?” I started thinking about his sweet little smile, the feel of his body tucked into mine, and how I was the only one who could comfort him at night.

That evening, I cracked a beer, slipped into a warm bath, and just thought about all that was good in my life. Then I pulled my daughter Ophelia into the bath with me. She was so happy to pour water and to “swim” in our sitting Jacuzzi tub. I looked at her face, really looked, and noticed how she was happier than ever just by being with me. She didn’t need any special activities or toys, she just needed me.

The more I started to think about how I was enough, how just the mere existence of me was enough to nourish and sustain all of my children, I could feel the veil of sadness begin to lift.

Where before every thought had been in a muddled in a fog of sadness, suddenly everything started to look so clear, so simple, so…attainable. And just like that, I felt my breasts fill up with milk. I almost wept with tears of joy! It was almost like all of my worry, self-doubt, and depression had inhibited my milk supply. I was overjoyed to feel my milk let down as Julian nursed hungrily. In the times of nursing him after that, I noticed that if I wasn’t present in the moment, I couldn’t make any milk, but as I became aware of his warm body, his sweet eyes looking up at me, and my love for him, I could feel that old familiar fullness of milk.

And that was that. It wasn’t a long list of things that helped me to lift my head up, it was a moment. I forgot about my insecurities, my fears, the future, and my past, and just really and truly tried living in that moment. Noticing the smells, the sounds, the textures, the sensations…just being in the moment…it was my life preserver.

Now, it wasn’t a completely magical fix after that. I still felt like I was at the bottom of a deep dark well, but it was like the sun finally came out and illuminated a step that I never noticed before. Every day, I worked hard to see the sunshine at the top of the well and the light that illuminated the way, and brick by brick, I found a way to climb out.

Postpartum Depression Round #1

Now, before I delve more into what helped me come out of my postpartum depression for good, I want to step back in time to my first experience with postpartum depression because this was truly my darkest time, and I never even thought that this could be connected to postpartum depression until my experience after Julian.

Before we had children, I loved being a teacher, and I mean LOVED it. After I got my Master’s degree in Linguistics, we were blessed with our first child, and the year after that I landed my dream job as an ESL coach working with teachers to help make input more comprehensible for English language learners. Little did I know, however, that I was pregnant again. After only one year on the job, I knew that I just couldn’t leave my sweet babes in daycare anymore, and so I quit my job to be a stay at home mom. (Read more about that story here.) We decided to move back to our home state, lived with my parents for 8 months, and then finally moved into a rented house in the city (which we would later come to find out was a pretty rough neighborhood) while my husband worked over an hour away.

Instead of feeling like we had made it, I felt completely lost. Who was I? How would I fill my days? And what was there to stimulate me besides poopy diapers and preschool activities???

I mean sure, I was loving being home with my little ones and really enjoyed challenging them with creative learning opportunities, but I started to get depressed…and I mean REALLY depressed. I thought that by moving “back home” we would be surrounded by the positive support of friends and family, but what they had to give just wasn’t enough to fill the deep whole in my heart. I longed for adult interaction and the need to be challenged intellectually, I wanted to own a house in the country, I wanted a good friend group, I wished my husband worked closer to us, I felt like I was missing so many parts of me…and then, just like with Julian, my period returned, my milk started drying up, and I started slipping into a really really deep and dark state of depression.

Because it was so long after giving birth, I never thought of it as “postpartum depression” or even “depression”. (I think technically it’s called postpartum distress syndrome.) All I know is that I would cry…a lot. I would check the mail ten times a day hoping for something exciting to happen. I felt listless, restless, lost, and worst of all…empty. I hated that I couldn’t lose the last 10 pounds of belly fat, and I hated how I looked in the mirror. I used to have all of these dreams and aspirations, but then, I felt like I had nothing, and then I would feel so GUILTY! I mean, I was able to be home with my two golden treasures, wasn’t that enough? I got to cuddle them, read to them, take them to play groups, build forts with them, go to the library for story hour, put them down for naps, feed them healthy food, and just BE with them.

But it wasn’t enough. I didn’t feel whole, or complete, or even like me really.

Then one night, my husband and I got into a HUGE fight that ended up with him driving away. I wasn’t sure if he would come ever back because he’s usually never the one to leave. I was so relieved when several hours later he came back. We were finally able to talk without screaming, and we decided that we didn’t want to end our marriage. I also knew that I wanted to find happiness as a stay at home mom, and so that’s what we set out to do. It wasn’t always easy, but we just took things one day at a time.

After that conversation, I started discovering the new me. I read Nourishing Traditions like it was my Bible, got really into feeding my family healthy food, I started working out and eating a better diet, we found out we were pregnant again, we moved one mile away from my husband’s work to a beautiful home in a safe neighborhood where he could come home for lunch every day, and I started my blog about embracing the new me…embracing motherhood. After Ophelia was born, I was prepared. I encapsulated my placenta into pills and started taking them after she was born. Whenever I felt the first signs of depression, I would take a pill, and I would immediately start to feel better.

Now, as you know, postpartum depression did find me again after our fourth child, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as the first time, and somehow, I found my way out of it once again.

What is Postpartum Depression?

After going through all of this, I started to realize that it was more than just a choice of being happy or not. Yes, that was a battle going on in my mind, and yes all of the chaos of my life made me more susceptible to depression, but there was something going on with my hormones that made it the perfect storm.

When you’re pregnant, your body produces extraordinary amounts of estrogen and progesterone to help you grow your new baby. The moment the placenta leaves your body, however, estrogen and progesterone return to pre-pregnancy levels. This hormone crash is why up to 80% of women feel the “baby blues” in the first few weeks after pregnancy. About 10% of women will suffer from a more severe form of the “baby blues” in the first year, and this is what is known as postpartum depression (PPD). After the baby is a year old, postpartum depression is actually called postpartum distress syndrome (PPDS), but is still primarily related to fluctuating hormones. A more serious form of postpartum depression is postpartum psychosis (PPP) in which the mother may suffer hallucinations, thoughts of suicide, and thoughts of harming the baby. This is more related to a bi-polar disorder and should be treated immediately.

The reason why postpartum depression can affect mothers so long after birth is because many of the hormones present during pregnancy still remain afterwards. Relaxin, for example, takes about 5 months to leave, which is why you are more prone to sprains at that time, and prolactin, that hormone that produces milk, will stay present during the entire phase of nursing. Proloctin is also what suppresses the production of the fertility hormones estrogen and progesterone (which prevents ovulation and menstruation). Once the baby starts to nurse less, estrogen and progesterone levels will increase, ovulation will resume, and the menstrual cycle will return. If there is an imbalance with these hormones and there is too much progesterone, anxiety can occur, and if there is too much estrogen, depression can occur.

The bottom line here is that after you have a baby and when your period returns, your hormones can get out of whack and make you feel crazy, especially if you already have a history of depression.

Tips for Overcoming Postpartum Depression

These are the tips that have helped me to completely pull away from postpartum depression, or postpartum distress syndrome, or just plain old depression, or whatever the heck you want to call it.

  1. Find happiness in the moments. At first, you just have to find the happy moments…the moments that make life worth living, the moments that make you smile, and the moments that make you see that being on this earth is where you need to be. After awhile, you can find the happy days, and then the happy weeks, and eventually they will lead to happy years and a happy lifetime, but you have to start small. Baby steps. Find the happy moments first.
  2. Build a support system. Talking with other women who have experienced the same thing is so valuable, and something I simply can’t even express enough. Now, if you talk to someone about what you’re going through, and instead of listening to you, they try to “fix” you and tell you all of the things that you “should be doing”, RUN! You need to find someone, anyone, who can just listen to you and let you talk about every feeling you have, every thought, and every idea without judgement, and without trying to fix you. All they need to do is listen. Sometimes, the best option might be to speak to a therapist or psychiatrist about what you’re going through.
  3. Know that the cause of (and the solution to) your depression lies within. Does it seem like your husband, your kids, your job, your appearance, etc. are all contributing to your depression? If you fall into this trap of thinking, it can make you think that if you leave these things, then your depression will simply end, but it’s not that simple. The way you perceive the world and interact with the world is controlled by you and only you.
  4. Have open and honest communication with your significant other. My husband has been there with me through the good times and the bad, and through it all, I have learned that he cannot read my mind, he cannot always pick up on subtle clues to figure out what I am thinking and feeling, and that I need to share my feelings openly and honestly on a regular basis. If I bottle things up, they will eventually explode, but when I share my feelings often, it helps me to figure out why I’m feeling what I’m feeling, and that’s what open communication is all about.
  5. Feed your intellectual adult brain. Yes, being a stay at home mom is a very rewarding, thrilling, and amazing experience, but I needed something to stimulate my adult brain too. By creating a reading system for young children and blogging, I feel like I have an outlet, a voice, and a form of expression. It continuously motivates me to research, learn, stretch myself, and grow.
  6. Accomplish something. Sometimes you need to see something checked off a list that isn’t part of your daily routine. For example, once I found my niche of blogging and creating a reading program for young children, I have continuously needed to see myself making progress in order to be happy. Sometimes, I need to complete something as small as making a list of blog ideas in One Note, collecting some research based articles online, drafting an outline for a blog, or perfecting the rough draft of a flashcard sketch. But whatever it is, I need to feel like I’m moving forward.
  7. Know that sometimes you might need a life preserver. Have you ever physically felt what it’s like to drown before? I have. When we lived in Colorado, we stupidly went tubing down a river that was full of spring rain with no life jackets and cheap little inner tubes. As I went over a mini rapid, my tubed slipped out from underneath me, and I was immediately pushed to the bottom of the river by the very powerful pressure of the rapid. I tried desperately to reach for the surface, but it was so so hard, and I thought, “This is it”. I could feel myself slipping, ready to let go. I could literally see my life flashing before my eyes, and suddenly I thought, “NO!!! I’M NOT READY TO DIE!!!” With every last bit of strength, I reached for the surface, and as if by some miracle, my hand latched onto something. It was a kayaker, my guardian angel, there to save me. As my head exploded to the surface, arms flailing and mouth gasping for breath, he yelled at me to STOP panicking, to hold on, and to kick my legs. When he brought me to shore and then disappeared down the river as if he were some sort of apparition, I felt as though I had been given a second chance at life. That story is pretty much the best analogy I can think of to describe depression. When you’re in the depths of depression, it literally feels like you’re drowning, and sometimes you just need a life preserver, something to rescue you so that you can tread water again. Maybe it’s a trip to the spa, maybe it’s making a big change in your life or many small ones, maybe it’s seeing a therapist and/or taking some medication, but the important thing is that you need to grab ahold of something so that you can tread water again.
  8. Don’t be afraid to facilitate change. If it bothers you that your house is continuously messy, find a way to keep it clean! Get rid of the clutter, get your kids and spouse to pitch in more, or hire some cleaning help. If you hate your body, find a way to work out, cut out the sugar, or count calories. If you’re upset that you haven’t accomplished anything, find something to accomplish! Try a new recipe, sign up for an online class, or do a paint by number. If you’re mad at your husband because he won’t help out enough, TELL HIM!!! How else is he supposed to know? If you are frustrated that your kids don’t help out enough, TEACH THEM HOW! How else are they supposed to learn? Anyways, you get the point. 😉
  9. Create healthy habits. This may sound simple, but it is so so important. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep and plenty of sunshine, eat a healthy and well balanced diet, make time for mediation/yoga/reflection, and find something to be thankful for every day. Before you can take care of everyone else, you have to take care of yourself.
  10. Take placenta pills. I didn’t learn about encapsulating my placenta into pills until my third pregnancy, and boy what a difference that made! Whenever I would start to feel a little depressed, I would pop a couple of placenta pills and feel like a completely different person. Now I just to remember to save some to see if they’ll help when my period comes back.
  11. Know that sometimes, it’s just hormones. Sometimes, not all the time, but sometimes, it’s just hormones. After Julian, when I realized that it was actually the hormones making me sad and not my entire life, it was a lot easier to mentally switch gears.

In Conclusion

I have been very hesitant about sharing my experiences with postpartum depression because I don’t want people to judge me or feel sorry for me. I don’t want people to look at me like I’m weak, and most of all, I don’t want people to look at me with pity and say things like, “Are you really okay,” while touching my arm in a consoling but also slightly condescending way. I’m tough, I’m strong, and I’m capable, but I’m not stronger than postpartum depression, and I think I’m finally okay with that.

I’m glad to share my story because I think that we all need to share our stories. It’s the only way we can feel – it’s the only way we can know – that we’re not alone. So, if you have a story that you’d like to share, share it. Share with your loved ones, share it with your girlfriends, or share it here. If you’d like to submit a guest post about your experience(s) with postpartum depression, that would be awesome! You can even post it anonymously if you want. The important thing to remember is that you’re not alone, you’re not a failure because you’re depressed, and there is a way out, you just have to find it.

Additional Resources

  • Click here to see a map of the United States to find someone to talk to about what you are going through.
  • Tools for Mom – Here you’ll find checklists, questionnaires, support groups, and more.
  • Postpartum Support International – This is a great portal to learn more and to find many additional resources.