As told to Erica Rimlinger
After trying to conceive for over a year, my husband and I were thrilled when we learned I was pregnant with my daughter. I was so excited I read about natural ways to support my changing body, hired a doula and prepared for the birth. My pregnancy was a smooth one, and although I was intimidated by the birth process, I saw it as the culmination of the healthy, happy process of becoming a mother.
But I was blindsided by the reality of new parenthood.
I believed breastfeeding would be an instinctual process that babies and mothers naturally knew or learned. It wasn't. We consulted nurses, lactation specialists, the doula and more. Nothing was working, but I didn't want to give my daughter a bottle and took to syringe-feeding her with pumped milk. I ended up with mastitis and nerve pain in my arms from holding her so long in the nursing position. I saw a physical therapist, who told me to not hold my daughter. Incredulous and frustrated, I stopped going to physical therapy.
Lying awake at night with my arms tingling and numb, I developed anxiety over my inability to sleep. My supportive husband gave me the time and space to take naps, but I couldn't. There was too much pressure. "I have an hour," I'd tell myself. "Hurry up and sleep!" I couldn't. I tried several over-the-counter and prescription sleeping medications but only ended up more tired — and not sleeping. At one point, I went nearly two full days without sleeping.
It took so much energy to just get out of bed and get to the couch. My husband would ask me, "What do you want to do today?" I just wanted to survive. I'd lost all desire to do anything. I saw my baby care duties as a pointless, endless cycle. I used to enjoy all kinds of activities like taking walks, writing, blogging and practicing calligraphy. Now I enjoyed nothing. I would lie on the couch, not sleeping. Something inside of me was broken.
I went to my six-week postpartum visit with my OB-GYN, a work colleague I'd known and trusted for nearly seven years. She looked at me and said, "I'm worried about you." I started crying in her office. In the gentlest way possible, she suggested I had symptoms of postpartum depression. On an intellectual level, I knew I had nearly every symptom.
But the most insidious symptom of postpartum depression is that it lies, telling you this disease is a personal flaw, one you could conquer alone if you were just a little stronger or just a little smarter. I explained to my doctor that if I could just get on top of the "real" issue — which, I argued, was the breastfeeding problem — everything would be fine. I had a plan: I would stop trying to breastfeed. "Once my milk is gone," I told my doctor, "it will get better."
I was suffering from a treatable disease, and my doctor tried to get me to start treatment: a medication called sertraline. I'm a pharmacist, so I knew it was safe for breastfeeding moms and treats anxiety as well. But I refused, saying it would only worsen my insomnia as a side effect. Couldn't she understand? I wasn't able to breastfeed or sleep or even to be a mother.
Through the lens of depression, I saw my supportive husband as "outperforming" me in the parenting department. "He's a better caregiver," I thought. "He's not frazzled. Why can't I enjoy this?"
One day, when my daughter was around 7- or 8-weeks old, I was unable to sleep and felt like a failure. I told my husband, "My daughter would be better off without me." My husband started crying. I'd never seen him cry in the 18 years I'd known him. That was my wake-up call. I knew then I needed to try to fight, but it felt so overwhelming I didn't know where to start.
"Fill the medication your doctor prescribed," my husband said. I did, and the dose was too low. I saw a psychiatrist. It was the best decision I ever made. My psychiatrist asked me, "If you had cancer, would you deny yourself treatment?" She said, "I promise we're going to get you to sleep." I finally felt seen. When you're suffering from depression, you feel like nobody can understand your pain. But when I saw my psychiatrist, there was a tiny spark of hope.
Over the next few weeks, the spark of hope grew into a ray. Working with a therapist and a psychiatrist, my mindset was changing. This is a disease, I realized. It's not a flaw with me. We found the right dose of antidepressants and found a sleep medication that allowed me to get four to five hours of sleep per night. I had to relearn how to sleep. My nerve pain from my arm was treated with one visit to the chiropractor. As I recovered, I didn't feel cheery but like I was getting back my energy and my interest in doing things. And the medication didn't do everything for me: I put in effort too. I stopped self-isolating and began responding to messages and taking walks.
By my sixth month postpartum I felt like myself again. I could taper off the sleep medication. I was able to be in my sister's wedding and another wedding that same weekend! I was able to come off the antidepressants slowly and see my psychiatrist less and less frequently, although I still see my therapist. Even though I started feeling better early in my treatment, full recovery took about a year and a half.
As I look back at my postpartum depression, I know if I needed to go back on medication, I'd absolutely do it. Getting treatment for this disease is what I can do to be the best mom possible to my daughter.
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