I am so excited to have this piece published on xoJane.com. Telling my story helps me to come to terms with my mental illness and also allows me to help others with their mental health journeys. Postpartum Depression triggered Bipolar Disorder in me, and I never knew it was even possible until I experienced it.
The “baby blues” were not something that I had heard a lot about, and what I HAD heard came from sources like the movie comedy Look Who’s Talking… campy versions of what ended up being a nightmare. I never thought it would happen me. Sure, I had dealt with anxiety issues off and on, but it never occurred to me that I would be dealt the hand of Postpartum Depression. It’s a hand that no mother wants rocking her baby’s cradle.
Nothing prepared me for the deluge of emotions that engulfed me like a hurricane following the birth of my first son. The pregnancy had been relatively uneventful, with the exception of a false positive on a genetic abnormalities test and the amniocentesis that followed. At 22, I was newly but very happily married when I found out I was pregnant. My husband and I were thrilled and began dreaming the dreams and planning the plans in which parents-to-be immerse themselves. We nervously hoped that we were as ready for the baby as the nursery was that we had prepared for him. I relished the world of blues and greens that had overtaken our little house; prenatal bliss. Hopeful, romantic visions of bringing my child into the world and baby-powder-scented daydreams of cuddling a sleeping baby filled my mind. Blissfully naive, I happily waddled into the hospital believing I would leave it in a couple days as a new mother, with my baby in my arms.
Then reality stepped in, and those fluffy, lullaby thoughts were ripped to shreds.
There were multiple medical fumbles throughout my delivery experience that unfortunately (and uncomfortably for me) resulted in a 27-hour-long labor. When the doctor finally brought my son, Zack, out of the quiet darkness of my body, he was blue, and not because he was a boy. Zack wasn’t breathing. A squad of NICU nurses burst into the delivery room to assist the Labor and Delivery nurses who were frantically trying to coax the oxygen of life into my son’s lungs. As my doctor stitched up the wreckage of my postpartum body and my son’s first moments of life ticked by, I grew more nervous and worried. I strained to see my baby over his shoulder as a myriad of frantic thoughts flooded my mind: “Was he okay?! Was he breathing yet?! Why are there so many people in this room?!”.
I never heard the long-awaited “first cry”, but the team finally managed to jumpstart his breathing. A nurse swaddled him, placed him in my arms for a few fleeting seconds then whisked him away to the NICU. Gradually all of the medical personnel in the room left, taking the frantic chaos of a stressful delivery with them. My husband, who was as bewildered and shell-shocked as I was, offered to get me some food, as it had been well over a day since I had eaten. After he left, I was alone. Painfully I waited for a call from the NICU saying that my son had been stabilized, but that call wouldn’t come for four more hours. The silence was deafening.
My traumatic birth experience, coupled with my already delicate nervous system, pushed me down the stairwell of PPD. I faked a mask of courage and strength to at least APPEAR that I still had some control over the situation at hand. Internally I was crumbling to pieces, held together by the tears I managed to keep inside when others were around. I hadn’t planned on breastfeeding, but when the NICU doctor told me that breast milk would help my baby, I began using the hospital pump in my hospital room. As I mourned the absence of my baby and my lack of access to him, I turned away all visitors. I pumped like a madwoman, determined to do the one thing I could contribute to his wellbeing while being apart from him and wound up over stimulating my milk supply. This strain exacerbated my hormone imbalance which tightened the noose on my already fragile emotional state.
My son’s health began to improve in the NICU, but he was not allowed to be discharged from the hospital when I was released. As I was wheeled away in the mandatory wheelchair exit from the postpartum wing, I felt myself being ripped away from the one thing that would’ve eased my pain. Part of me felt like I didn’t have a right to be upset about my son’s extended stay in the hospital. He was alive and would likely be healthy enough to come home relatively soon, where other mothers would either never get to bring their child home alive, or endure a much more lengthy NICU-mandated separation. But still, as I climbed into our car with the empty car seat in the back, I felt the pain of devastation. Being cheated out of the sweet experiences of bonding in the hospital and bringing my newborn home as I embarked on the journey of parenthood overwhelmed me. The floodgates of my sorrow burst forth, and I started to weep as we drove away. I cried for three days, barely stopping to sleep.
Walking into my house, with all of the baby paraphernalia everywhere, was a slap in the face. It felt so WRONG; the unexpected trauma was so real, so fresh. Extreme emotions, sleep-deprivation, and the hormonal hurricane coursing through my postpartum body resulted in a breakdown. I was pumping milk for the baby around the clock, yet I refused to eat. My husband tried to comfort me, as he grappled with his own disappointment and confusion over how to navigate this unprecedented situation. In desperation he convinced me to call my OB doctor about my inconsolable crying. Thankfully, the doctor realized the depth of my despair and prescribed a hefty dose of an antidepressant. Within hours of taking it I was able to eat and had stop crying, but the emotionally charged cloud still enveloped me. I continued to pray for and obsess over the moment I would be able to bring my son home.
At last we got the phone call that we’d been waiting for, and my husband and I went to pick up our new baby from the hospital. After arriving, we packed away the little things that were hung on his crib by the nurses, and attempted to change his diaper before leaving. We gingerly loaded him into his car seat then buckled him into the car. After arriving at our house, we sat down with him and tried to figure out what to do next. All of the build-up and idealization of this moment lurked in my mind, but as I had already learned at his birth, things rarely work out the way we envision them.
After putting him to bed that night, the evil bastard known as colic decided to show up. My husband was starting a new job that next morning, so I tried to quiet my son on my own, ignoring the importance of my own rest. The baby, whose absence I had so deeply grieved, screamed from midnight to four in the morning, and I wondered why I had ever decided to have a child. “Please stop crying! I’m doing the best I can! Why don’t you like me?!”, I would alternately plead and demand with him. I sank deeper into the murky pit of despair and came to believe that I would never be happy again. These middle of the night marathons of screaming lasted for about three months, but he was a difficult baby around the clock. It seemed impossible that this living hell was something that I had longed for, and that it would never end. I honestly didn’t know how I would make it out alive. While most mothers endure the misery and sleep-deprived conditions of newborn-land, they have adorable baby smiles and sweet little moments that sustain them. There seemed to be very little incentive to keep me from running far, far away; my embattled efforts unrewarded, and my affection rarely returned.
Self-loathing reigned supreme in my poop and vomit-filled reality. I blamed myself for his difficult disposition and constantly wondered if I was doing everything “wrong”; whether someone else would be a better mother to him. There were times that I cried because I felt like I didn’t deserve such a hellacious baby, and then I’d cry even harder because he didn’t deserve a mother that was ungrateful to have him. The unrealistic expectations with which I pressured myself, formed from popular depictions of motherhood, undoubtedly contributed to my bleak perspective, but in hindsight it’s clear that I was suffering from a dire case of the infamous “Baby Blues”.
My outlook and countenance improved slightly when he outgrew the midnight tirades, but I remained depressed and apathetic. When Zack was 6 months old, I got a huge surprise: I discovered I was pregnant again. Part of me was excited, but another overwhelming part of me completely fell apart as I wondered how in the hell I would manage two children when I couldn’t handle the one I already had. All I could do was trudge bravely forward, with an ever-growing belly and a screaming infant on my hip. Money was tight in our one-income household and although my husband and I were madly in love (and still are), tensions ran high. I did the best I could to balance everything, stretching our pennies with coupons and myself way too thin.
Strangely (and mercifully) enough, pregnancy was kind to me emotionally, so some of the depression symptoms lessened temporarily. Things like insomnia and a lack of appetite were overridden by the exhaustion and need for more cookies that my pregnancy hormones demanded. Although I excitedly awaited the birth of my second child, apprehension and fear consumed me. The possibility of having another traumatic delivery and difficult baby was overwhelming. Thankfully, when my second child, a son whom I named Ben, was born the delivery went well and he was healthy. I finally got the “rooming-in” experience I had desired with Zack’s delivery, and the bonding was amazing. Ben was a more relaxed baby with a sunnier disposition, but that didn’t stop PPD from floating back into our lives, much like an ominous thundercloud. Dealing with two little boys that were only 14 months apart in age is supremely demanding for anyone, and for me it was like climbing Mt. Everest… every day. The boys were my world, and all of the shreds of energy that depression didn’t steal from me were used to care for them. My husband did his best to support me, but it’s hard to help someone who doesn’t know how to help herself. He was learning to be a dad, just as I was wading through the muck and mire of early motherhood.
Although I continued to take the antidepressant that was prescribed to me before I was pregnant with Ben throughout that pregnancy and into my postpartum days, the benefits were minimal. My OBGYN decided to prescribe a different antidepressant, and it worked very well for a short period of time, only to stop working altogether. After experiencing this phenomenon with three different medicines in a row, he referred me to a psychiatrist. “Jessica, I’m obviously not handling your symptoms effectively… This is outside the scope of my specialty, and I want you to see a psychiatrist.”, He explained.
Great. Just what everyone wants to hear! What my depressed brain heard was that my case was so difficult that he either didn’t know HOW to handle it or WANT to deal with it anymore. Who could blame him?! I didn’t like being around myself and I hated that my babies and husband had to tolerate me, but at this point I was desperate.
I made the appointment with the psychiatrist. After hearing my symptoms and that multiple antidepressants had abruptly stopped working for me, she promptly diagnosed me with Bipolar Disorder, Type II, which had been triggered by PPD. My OBGYN had not picked up on my hypomanic symptoms, like severe irritability, pressured/rapid speech, and going 24 hours without sleeping on a regular basis. She explained that when a woman, like myself, has a genetic predisposition for mood disorders that frequently childbirth triggers the onset of PPD and accompanying disorders. Dealing with the extreme sleep disturbances that come with caring for a newborn exacerbate those symptoms and trigger mood cycling, which repeatedly took me from the frantic frenzy of hypomania to the pits of hell depression. It all made so much sense, and I asked, “Where do I go from here? What’s the best way for me to be a happy functional mother?”. She responded, “You need to add a mood stabilizer to your antidepressant, and an anxiety medication will be necessary as well. And it’s a good thing that you already have children, because you shouldn’t have any more. Going through those hormonal changes again would be very difficult for you.” I felt extreme relief at having a diagnosis, and that there was a now a new plan of action to help me feel better, but at the same time, the diagnosis was a blow to my self-identity. Even though motherhood had been stressful and hellish at this point, I still planned on having more children, so her words stung and made me question my capabilities. After leaving her office in the mental fog to which I’d grown accustomed, prescriptions in hand, I remembered that I’d spent my life proving people wrong and challenging myself to surpass the expectations of others, including my own. My brain chemistry was a cross to bear, but I didn’t have to let it bring me to the ground.
I’ve learned that a medical diagnosis can only provide limited information, and it doesn’t take into account the personal details of a patient’s desires and willpower to see them come to reality. Just as my doctor recommended I not have more children, she didn’t take into account that I was willing to do whatever I needed to do in order to make that happen. I began researching ways to improve my health beyond my pharmaceutical regimen and found that exercise, running in particular, and dietary changes, like cutting out gluten, helped to keep my moods from cycling. I’ve gone on to have two more children since my diagnosis, and while it’s never been easy, it’s been remarkably “worth it”. With the knowledge of my diagnosis, I was able to prevent the ultimate lows of PPD after my third and fourth deliveries by continuing my antidepressant throughout the pregnancy and quickly returning to my pregnancy-prohibited medicines soon after their births. This prevented me from nursing them, but they had a sane, capable mother and I believe that trumps breastfeeding, at least in my case.
While I wouldn’t wish the hell of PPD and mental illness on anyone, it’s taught me that I can achieve more than I ever thought possible, like running a Half Marathon when I was 32 weeks pregnant with my fourth child (I continued running during that pregnancy because it helped stabilize my moods), and also increased my empathy for others. The blue of my son’s nursery, to his blue face at delivery, to the evil “Baby Blues” have brought me to the blue skies of hope and survival, and I hope that other moms can see hope through my story, knowing that their lows can lead to amazing triumphs. Realistically, I know that there will continue to be dark times, and that mental illness can never truly be “beaten” but now I know I can make it through the darkness, and that there just might be a silver lining. Together with Alyson Herzig, another writer, I recently published a book to connect those suffering in silence with PPD, Bipolar Disorder, and other mental illnesses entitled (link) Surviving Mental Illness Through Humor. By shattering stigma and creating a more open dialogue about mental illnesses like Bipolar and PPD, we can help so many. For a time I thought the birth of my son led to the death of the “old me” and my happiness, never to be the same again. While this is true, in part, a “new me” was born from those ashes and I’ve soared to new heights like a phoenix, knowing that I can conquer other trials that come my way.