May 4 was World Maternal Mental Health Day. In Texas, the month of May has recently been designated Postpartum Depression Awareness Month. Did you know an estimated fifteen to twenty percent of mothers suffer from a postpartum mood disorder? I was one of them, but for a long time I didn’t realize it. This is what the story looked like for me.
Looking back, I see a perfect storm of risk factors for a postpartum mood disorder:
- I had pregnancy-induced hypertension, which resulted in many late-term hospital visits
- Our baby was diagnosed with intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR)
- Due to low birthweight, she spent her first week in the NICU
- When she came home, I was instructed to breastfeed her, bottlefeed her if necessary, and pump every 3 hours around the clock, a process that went on for 2 months and left little time for sleep or self-care
- My husband was laid off from his job when our daughter was 4 months old
- When our daughter was 8 months old, we moved 1700 miles back home to Austin in order to find work and more affordable housing
That’s a lot, isn’t it? Along with figuring out how to care for a tiny human? At the time, it just felt like life. I belonged to some mother’s groups, but I didn’t like to ask for help. I appreciated the company of other new moms, but I told them I was fine.
I wasn’t fine, actually. Nobody had taught me to recognize the symptoms I experienced, but I know them now:
- I suffered from insomnia, despite the fact that I was beyond exhausted
- I kept obsessive logs of sleep and feeding times
- I was sometimes afraid to leave our home
- I had anxiety-induced dizziness and shortness of breath that made it hard to breastfeed
- I sometimes looked at my baby and felt angry or wanted to run away
I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t recognize myself in what I’d always heard about postpartum depression. My mental picture was of a woman who wouldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t stop crying, never got dressed, and hated her baby.
Me? I knew I was taking good care of my daughter and I loved her deeply, despite occasional uncomfortable feelings. I got dressed every day and I wasn’t crying (much). I laughed, I visited friends, sometimes I even cooked dinner.
Still, I went to a lactation consultant and a doctor. They told me to stop worrying, but the doctor gave me a referral to a social worker without saying why. That confused me, but I went anyway. The social worker also told me to relax and said I was fine. She didn’t give me any kind of formal assessment. She never mentioned the words “postpartum depression” or “postpartum anxiety.” I left her office still knowing something was wrong, but even more confused as to what it could be.
Everything was fine until it wasn’t
I fell apart ten months postpartum, after we’d moved back home to Austin. One morning I woke up and knew I couldn’t get through the day. I found myself sobbing, begging my husband to stay home with us instead of going to work. Alarmed, he stayed, and I made an appointment with a family doctor I’d never met before. The doctor talked to me for five minutes and gave me a prescription for Zoloft.
Because I’ve become an acupuncturist since then, maybe you’d expect me to say Zoloft didn’t work. But it did. It wasn’t a magic pill and there were side effects, but it brought me back to a place where I could cope, and I’m grateful for that. However, I struggled with ongoing anxiety and went on and off medication for a couple of years afterward. I learned from a kind nurse practitioner that untreated postpartum mood issues can linger for much longer than they would have if addressed more promptly.
Eventually, I felt better, but the first year of my amazing daughter’s life is a haze in many ways. I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if I’d gotten better help and gotten it sooner.
And I’ll be honest, this is a painful story to share, even twelve years later. So why share it? Because:
- Postpartum depression and anxiety don’t always look like what you’d expect
- Due to a lack of awareness, cultural stigmas surrounding mental health, and inconsistent postpartum screening, too many mothers suffer silently and alone
- I believe one of the best ways we can change things is to speak up!
Today, I’m fortunate to be able to use acupuncture and Chinese medicine as tools to work with mothers and their children in the Austin community, and I hope I can be a resource for any woman who’s having a hard time getting through the day. If you or someone you know is struggling, please reach out to your family, your friends, or a health care provider.
Austin Area Postpartum Resources
Pregnancy and Postpartum Health Alliance of Texas
Any Baby Can Parent Hotline
Postpartum Support International