The shadowy world of perinatal depression
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Washington - Would I have survived if I hadn't crossed that street?
That thought comes to mind often now that I'm in recovery from a long, dark year and a half of depression that started in pregnancy and lasted after my son was born.
When my baby was five weeks old, I had a chance encounter as my husband and I were out for a walk. We crossed a street into another neighbourhood and came upon a woman and her family who had a son roughly the same age as our boy. As we exchanged pleasantries, we figured out that she and I both delivered at the same hospital, had had C-sections and were patients at the same OB/GYN practice. With all of these coincidences, we decided to get together for a walk while on maternity leave.
On our first walk, conversation flowed easily as we discussed our experiences with our babies in generic, superficial terms. We decided that we would continue to walk together every couple of days.
Over time, we grew closer. We realised we had similar thoughts about life, job interests and hobbies. Yet, it wasn't until we had been walking for about four months that we realised we were both struggling with depression.
Such is the shadowy world of perinatal depression.
Perinatal depression describes both prenatal and postpartum depression. I was not even fully aware of what it was, and because I did not have a history of depression, I didn't think it could happen to me.
Sure enough, I was diagnosed with prenatal depression. During pregnancy, I was stressed out, working full-time, finishing my masters degree in the evenings, and constantly exhausted. Finally, as things came to a head, I started seeing a therapist. My plans to continue with therapy were interrupted by the birth of my child.
But I was consumed and overwhelmed, and the sheer logistics of getting out of the house with or without my child made follow-up therapy sessions seem impossible.
The panic and anxiety worsened. I was terrified to be alone with my son, afraid I might accidentally hurt him. I didn't want to have anyone in our house except my mother and my husband.
Unaware that my prenatal depression had become postpartum depression, I trudged on. I assumed that the feelings of fatigue, anxiety, panic and despair simply were just adjusting to the change of having a newborn.
I soon learned untreated postpartum depression will worsen. I was angry all the time and I was having trouble feeling a connection to my son. One day on our walk, my friend asked me how I was doing. Desperate, I told her the truth. Months of despair and hopelessness poured out of my mouth as I told her how easy it would be just to end it all.
We agreed that I needed to see my therapist again, and then she quietly mentioned that she too was dealing with intense feelings of hopelessness. She spoke of how she felt guilty that it was supposed to be such a happy time, yet she was constantly plagued with anxiety and fear at the idea of being alone with her son.
I can't explain the rush of relief upon finding out that there was someone who understood what I was going through. Together we became each other's lifeline.
Looking back, it's incredible how powerful a support system is. On the worst of those days, if I called up my friend, a glimmer of sunshine appeared. Having a lifeline can give you the strength to get through just one more day. My fatigued body would tell my brain to stay in bed and cancel the walk for that day. With a herculean effort, fighting against all my body's depressed chemical and hormonal instincts, I would push myself out of the house.
Once we had shed all barriers, we shared the most intimate details of feeling anxious or sad. She called me when she felt like she was unraveling. Other times, when I was coming undone, we spoke about my taboo thoughts of self-harm. I told her of how my fantasies about ending my life were becoming more and more real.
We were each other's sounding board. We shared information about the mental health system and gave each other tips about who to see and how to deal with the dizzyingly complex insurance world. Most importantly, those walks kept each of us going one foot in front of the other.
I leaned on her as I learned that when you take antidepressants, there's a period of several weeks as you wait for the medication to kick in. The wait seemed interminable, and it was hard to imagine things getting better, even when friends and doctors told me otherwise. I couldn't remember what it was like to feel happy.
Worst of all, I couldn't connect with my baby at all, making it all feel like a terrible, terrible mistake that couldn't be taken back. That deep sense of hopelessness is what made suicide seem like the only way out. I felt relief when I daydreamed of how I could end this new hell called Parenthood by taking my own life.
But my lifeline and I kept each other back from the precipice. To this day, I know I owe her my life. We helped claw our way out of the darkness with the aid of good doctors, therapists and psychiatrists who prescribed treatment plans that finally worked.
Today I'm in recovery. I am a much happier mom of a bubbly, sweet eight month old boy. I have the energy to pick him up, feed him and cuddle him. I'm able to revel in the beauty of a crisp, sunny spring day. I'm able to enjoy our slow mornings: my husband, myself and our son in bed, watching our son explore his hands and feet.
I still struggle as I shed the trauma and darkness of depression. Hard as it might be to imagine, love for my son is still a work in progress. But every day, more and more, that powerful feeling is beginning to take hold.
My baby boy is becoming my light.
I owe that incredible turn of events to hard work, aggressively pursuing the right treatment, and possibly most of all, to my lifeline.
The Washington Post