LONG (but good) BLOG WARNING!!!
Just about 15 years ago a truck transporting gasoline through my hometown of Birmingham, AL, jackknifed and hit an overpass. This caused an explosion that completely destroyed the overpass. I remember the State immediately set out to fix the bridge. It took them exactly 32 days to not just fix the bridge but to make it bigger and better. On Sunday, March 17, 2002, around 5pm on what was a beautifully clear evening, I rode across the new bridge for the first time. Why would that day be etched in my memory? Because that was the day I burned the bridge on my postpartum depression and anxiety and started building a bigger and better life for me and my newborn daughter.
The week leading up to March 17, 2002, I remember begging my husband to drive me to my mom’s house for dinner. I truly believed that if I did not get out the house that my skin would not be able to contain everything I was feeling and experiencing. As I rode across that bridge I remember thinking that I felt so alive and FREE!! I honestly was surprised at how the world seemed unchanged. That despite feeling as if my life was at a standstill, the world had continued moving rapidly forward. I wanted to move forward with it. I NEEDED to move forward.
On February 20, 2002, after what was 12 hours of labor, I gave birth to the cutest, sweetest and bestest (my word and I’m sticking to it) baby ever! She had a head full of hair, soft brown skin and a sweet smell that was intoxicating. She… was… perfect!!! She would stare at me as if she was just as in awe of me as I was of her. I loved her immediately and completely. Over the next 2 weeks that love grew but so did an overwhelming anxiety followed by feelings of depression.
I began to wake up and be immediately be filled with anxiety about…… well ….. everything. Five months previously 9/11 happened. Along with managing the feelings I had about the safety of our country I was anxious that my daughter wasn’t nursing enough or I wasn’t nursing her correctly. Was she losing or gaining too much weight? Was I spending enough or too much time with her? Was I holding her enough or too much? Could I with all my faults raise a human being that wouldn’t end up in prison or embarrass me on TV (this Southern moma’s nightmare). Was she going to be smart? Was she going to have an autism spectrum disorder? Was she getting enough sunlight so she doesn’t develop jaundice again or was she getting too much sun? Most of all, did I have the ability to not lose (Yep. I said LOSE), damage, or accidently hurt my beautiful baby girl.
I was trying to figure out why I wasn’t happy with my baby who wasn’t even 2 weeks old? Why, after trying for over 2 years to get pregnant, was I not giddy and falling over with joy? Why did I feel sad when everything was going so well? Was I finally losing my mind? I was enrolled in graduate school full time and working full time while pregnant so losing my mind was entirely possible. Was it hormones? Was it baby blues? I had no clue. I just knew I didn’t feel like myself. I would later joke that I felt as if my DNA had changed because that’s just how different I felt. I had to find out what was going on with me.
The internet wasn’t what it is today so I hit the library whenever I could get out of the house. I learned that my feelings and thoughts fit many of the symptoms of Postpartum Depression or what is now termed Postpartum Depression and Anxiety Disorder (PPD). Somehow being able to put a name to my feelings really helped me become committed to being better. Now that I knew what to call what I was experiencing what could I do about it?
The week after my bridge crossing I gathered as much information as possible and created a plan because I no longer wanted my husband, family and friends giving me the “she’s losing it” look or having secret “what are we going to do about Anjie” conversations. I was completely over my husband being afraid that I would hurt our baby and sending people to the house to “keep me company”. I was DONE. It was time to make some changes.
First thing I did was find support. I had kept my feelings like a shameful secret out of fear of being seen as a bad mom to friends and family, but especially by my own mom. My mother raised 5 kids as a single parent after my father died. She was the epitome of a mom. She nursed all of her kids successfully, cooked, cleaned and even ironed clothes every day (for Christ’s sake). She baked cakes, worked 2 jobs, was my Brownie/ Girl Scout troop leader and my brother’s Boy Scout troop mom, was active in the PTA and was the original Football/ Band Mom. I didn’t want her to see me as less than so I pretended that all was good when it wasn’t. Had I said something maybe I could have the support I needed WAY sooner.
After asking my mom for help she did what she does best, supported her baby girl. My mom came to my house every day for 3 weeks so I could get out of the house, get some sun, just walk around Target and most importantly so I could work on being ME again. After I went back to work and school she came by once a week for a year to clean the house and leave a cooked meal. Her support gave me time to focus on my baby and myself. There was no judgement, no disappointing words or looks of pity. There was nothing but love. Living in secret pain for fear of perceived judgement doesn’t make things better. It creates rich soil for PDD to grow. Finding support for yourself on this journey is important to overcoming PPD.
Some women find help and support from medical professionals. I never said anything to the doctors around me because I didn’t recognize them as a resource. When we went to the pediatrician all of the questions were about my baby. I would get the “I know you’re so happy to have this little cutie at home” and the “You’re so lucky to have such a good baby” while feeling like I was going to crawl out of my skin from anxiety. I was afraid to leave the doctor’s office without asking a 1001 questions about caring for her cord, her blood type, her bilirubin levels, suspicious pimples, why she wasn’t losing her hair (#truth), her growth chart, her weight, that bluish spot on her butt or anything else that I saw, felt or heard when I conducted one of her daily safety/ health inspections.
My baby was 6 months old before I even mentioned my PPD to the pediatrician and my OBGYN. Both asked me, “Why didn’t you say something? I could have helped you.”. My answer was, “I didn’t know I should’ve said something” and they didn’t ask. Now pediatricians, nurses, OBGYN and even lab techs are receiving training on recognizing signs of PPD. Signs I was giving out in spades. Medical professionals and other supports such as counselors, social workers, doulas, child birth and breastfeeding educators and midwives will screen new mothers for PPD, provide information on recognizing the signs of PPD, help new moms access information on various support groups and if necessary information on medications that may be helpful in treating PPD. Keep your eyes and heart open. Help may be sitting right in front of you holding a clipboard asking about your baby’s poops and pees.
Most importantly, I learned that individual and/ or group counseling is a very vital part to gaining skills and strategies for managing PDD. I didn’t find any specifically for PPD but I did find a breastfeeding support group that met weekly at a hospital near me. After that first day I would get excited and my mood would improve just at the thought of going to group. I would get up, dress my baby girl in something super cute, and leave the house feeling lighter. The group leaders were a childbirth educator and a nun who were able answer my questions in a way I needed to hear, not one person judged me as a mom, I heard other women express the same feelings I was having, I received a ton of information on books and strategies to help me manage my PDD and most importantly, the group gave me permission to define for myself the type of mom I wanted to be.
I don’t regret nor am I embarrassed by my experience because it helped me become the awesome mother I am today. Who would have thought that crossing over a new bridge would help me overcome what was one of the most confusing times of my life? I overcame many emotional challenges and learned skills that made all the difference for me and my baby. It’s the reason I am passionate about my group for mothers with PDD. It is my hope that my story will help someone find the encouragement or motivation they need to build a bigger, better bridge for themselves and their baby.
If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms you may have Postpartum Depression and Anxiety Disorder.
· Depressed mood or severe mood swings
· Excessive crying
· Difficulty bonding with your baby
· Withdrawing from family and friends
· Loss of appetite or eating much more than usual
· Inability to sleep (insomnia) or sleeping too much
· Overwhelming fatigue or loss of energy
· Reduced interest and pleasure in activities you used to enjoy
· Intense irritability and anger
· Feelings of worthlessness, shame, guilt or inadequacy
· Diminished ability to think clearly, concentrate or make decisions
· Severe anxiety and panic attacks
· Thoughts of harming yourself or your baby
· Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide
Postpartum Depression and Anxiety may begin during pregnancy and last for a few months or even longer. There is help available. Please don’t be afraid to tell someone how you’re feeling, look for help even in the most unlikely places, build a support system and actively participate in a support group or individual counseling. Most of all know that you are not alone.