I was already on the verge of tears as I listened to the phone ring. I had finally called my doctor to make an appointment. I wanted to get blood work done to rule out anything I could. I was still slightly in denial that I had postpartum depression/anxiety. Surely I had something physically wrong with me and that’s why I was feeing so terrible. Hearing I had hyperthyroidism or low blood cell count would have made my suffering acceptable. A diagnosis of mental illness is one of the last things I wanted to hear.
A diagnosis of mental illness is one of the last things I wanted to hear.
A secretary picked up and asked what I needed to be seen for. “I think I have postpartum depression.” My voice cracked. She immediately replied, “Oh, I’m so sorry. How old is your baby? Is it your first?” No, I thought. It’s my fourth. I should be a pro. I should be strong enough to handle all of this. After all, I chose to have so many kids. I wanted this. This is all my fault. That’s not what I said, but it’s what I thought as I started sobbing. (By the way, I hardly ever cry so this was very out of character for me.)
“It’s ok,” she said. “I had it too. It was many years ago. My kids are grown adults now but I still remember how hard it was. We didn’t really talk about it then the way we do now. I didn’t get any help from a doctor or a therapist and it was the hardest experience of my life.”
These words were exactly what I needed to hear at that moment. I still tear up thinking about it, a year later. Her compassion for me as I sat there crying on the phone was so unexpected. She said, “Don’t feel bad about crying. It’s so so hard. But it’s so treatable and you will feel better. We have a lot of mothers come in that need medication and they typically get very good results.”
“Treatable” was such a scary word. I didn’t want “treatment” because that meant there was something wrong with me. Thinking about taking medication was even scarier. But hearing this from someone who not only worked in the medical field and heard people’s medical problems every day, but experienced it herself and sounded so “normal” was such a powerful experience. It gave me so much hope that I would return back to normal and feel like myself again.
I didn’t want “treatment” because that meant there was something wrong with me.
This isn’t the only instance where another woman told me her story about postpartum depression or anxiety. In fact, way more women than I had ever imagined have told me stories of their struggles, many of them older women who’s children are grown adults. I can only imagine how difficult it was for them to go through it without the knowledge and awareness of postpartum mental health that we have today.
As I sobbed while on the phone with that woman, feeling sad and defeated and scared, I also felt sorry for her. I imagined feeling the way I felt for so long without proper treatment and it sounded like hell. It’s why I finally got the courage to call and get help in the first place. I could no longer bear the weight of this crippling mental illness. (Read more about my experience here.)
We can still do better. Postpartum depression is talked about a lot but not enough. It comes up in the medical world, like when you take your baby to the pediatrician and fill out a short survey about their development. There’s a short quiz on the end about how you are feeling. “Are you feeling more sad than usual?” Yes. “Have you been crying more frequently than usual?” Yes, multiple times a day, every day, for weeks. “Are you sleeping or not sleeping more than usual?” Yes, I wake up every hour of every night even when the baby is sleeping. I had taken the quiz after having each of my babies but never really gave it any extra thought until now.
Postpartum depression is written about in parenting magazines and websites, with available hotline numbers at the bottom. It’s awareness, but it’s cold. There’s rarely much emotion behind the story and it sounds so matter of fact. “If you are not feeling like yourself after the first few weeks, make an appointment with your practitioner for help.” Ok, great. Thanks WebMD!
I often thought, “What can my doctor do about it? Don’t I need to see a therapist or psychiatrist or something? How do I even know if I’m calling the right person? Maybe they’ll laugh at me for thinking they can help me. Or they’ll think I’m a terrible mother because I’ve had four kids and don’t know how to cope. Maybe I should just deal with it on my own.” This was the running story in my head.
Mothers are often met with conflicting advice and opinions. The most well-meaning person can say something like, “I’m sure once the baby is sleeping more you’ll feel normal again” or “Maybe your hormones are just out of whack.” I know I’ve made similar comments to myself and others. And then there’s comments from people that just don’t get it at all. “Well, she chose to have so many kids. Of course she feels overwhelmed” or “She shouldn’t have had children so young.” I’ve heard people say hurtful comments like this about other women and have often wondered how many people have said it about me.
The truth is, it doesn’t matter what people say. Postpartum depression is a real mental illness that occurs way more often than we think. It can affect anyone and it’s not an indication of how good of a mother you are or aren’t. You can get it after having one baby. You can get it after having your sixth. It doesn’t occur because you are weak, or not good enough, or not strong enough. Just like after getting a diagnosis for strep throat, or a broken bone, you need treatment to get better. You can’t will yourself to mend a broken arm and you can’t will yourself to not be depressed.
You can’t will yourself to mend a broken arm and you can’t will yourself to not be depressed.
Other than acknowledging this in the medical world, we need to hear stories. We need to hear the woman on the other end of the phone say “I know how you feel. It happened to me too.” We need to hear stories of women who had postpartum depression and made it out ok. Most stories the general public hears are tragic ones on the news and they are not a good representation of this illness. They are on the news because the story is uncommon and therefore shocking. In reality, many women have suffered from postpartum depression and never uttered a word to anyone because they were too scared or didn’t have access to treatment options.
So this is why I share my story. Not to scare new mothers or get attention. If anything, I would prefer that everyone think I am a perfect mother and I always know what to do. (Of course that’s not even possible!) I share my story so that maybe another mother will be reading this, thinking “I am not alone. I need to get help.”
You are not alone. You should get help. You will feel better. You are a good mom. Let’s talk about it.