Aiming Low Does Good is talking about mental illness in March. Mental illnesses affect people from all walks of life and can strike in many different forms. It’s estimated that more than a quarter of all adult Americans will suffer from a mental illness at some point in their lives.
Today, we’re taking a look at one type of mental illness that can be temporary and often affects women at a time when they are least prepared to cope with their own health crisis: before or after they have a new baby.
The following article about perinatal mood and anxiety disorders has been generously provided to Aiming Low by Katherine Stone.
My husband and I were never having kids. Like Time magazine says, what’s the point! Instead we were having a blast, sleeping late, traveling the world and spending our money frivolously on kitchen gadgets and new cars. It took eight years before we had had enough of adult playtime and decided perhaps our lives needed something more.
Choosing to have a baby was a mutual decision, thankfully, and it only took a month of trying to get pregnant. We were very excited about this new chapter of our lives, and the pregnancy was pretty uneventful, other than the fact that I was obsessed with keeping my baby safe.
I had a lot of rules: No standing anywhere near someone smoking. No eating tuna. No eating certain types of cheese. (I can’t even remember why, but cheese equaled bad, so NO CHEESE.) I was careful how close I was to my steering wheel in case the airbag went off. I walked 10 feet away from the gas pump so I wouldn’t breathe in any fumes, as though that would somehow protect me. I just couldn’t stop reading all of the dire baby books and following every single suggestion down to the letter. I should have known my obsessions were more than just the typical precautions most pregnant mothers take, but I didn’t.
Then my son came, and it wasn’t long before my world started falling apart. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I was filled with nonstop worry that I would never be a good mother and that he would never love me. I felt I had to keep myself busy at all times, so when he napped I would arrange and rearrange the changing table. A few weeks later, the terrifying thoughts came … unwanted thoughts that would force their way into my brain as I was trying to care for my baby. What if I dropped my son down the stairs? What if I drowned him in the bathtub? What if I smothered him with the burpcloth?
I had heard about postpartum depression, but it was only glossed over in my childbirth class and the nurse who taught it said none of her patients ever got PPD. Plus, I thought of postpartum depression in “television commercial” terms: I should be sitting on the side of my bed, unwashed, in sweats, with a far-away stare on my blank, un-made-up face. No one had ever said anything about being anxious, or not being able to eat. They certainly never mentioned thinking about dropping my kid down the stairs. I thought I’d gone irretrievably crazy. I was sure my life was over.
Many women experience what are called perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, which include everything from depression and/or anxiety during pregnancy, to postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety/OCD, postpartum PTSD and postpartum psychosis. The problem is, most women don’t know this. They don’t realize there is a spectrum of symptoms one can experience. You might feel overwhelmed and disconnected with life. You might feel angry and full of rage at everyone around you all the time. You might be having flashbacks of a traumatic birth. You might want to crawl in bed and cry all day, or you might feel like you can’t take a moment to crawl in bed because you have to keep busy every single second of the day.
There are three things I want every mother to know:
- There are a variety of illnesses with a variety of symptoms when it comes to perinatal mood and anxiety disorders like postpartum depression. One size does not fit all. If you had a baby more than two weeks ago and you are suffering from symptoms that are making you miserable and preventing you from functioning on a daily basis as you would like, call your doctor. You didn’t do anything to cause this and you are not to blame.
- All of these illnesses are temporary and treatable with professional help. If you could get better by pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, that would be great, but you can’t. None of us can. So don’t be ashamed about asking for help. We all need it at some point in our lives. Reaching out for help is a gift to both you and your baby. (Oh, and if for some reason you can’t find a doc that is able to help you, email me and I’ll connect you with specialists from around the country.)
- Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders are very common. If you have one, it’s not because you are defective. You are not some weird anomaly. You are among approximately 1 million women who fall ill with them each year. Reach out to those of us who have been there so that you can see you are not alone.
I got the help I needed. I was scared to death, but I made the call, and not longer after that I was diagnosed with postpartum OCD and was working with a therapist and a psychiatrist on a treatment plan. I got better and I’m not ashamed to say I’ve had a mental illness. I’m also not ashamed to say that I’m a kick-ass mom.
Katherine Stone is the author of Postpartum Progress, the most widely-read blog on postpartum depression and other mental illnesses related to pregnancy and childbirth. She also writes the weekly column “If Mama Ain’t Happy” on AOL’s ParentDish. Follow her on Twitter at @postpartumprogr.