GINA CLARK: WHAT PPD STOLE FROM ME
I will always remember how postpartum depression felt. I will always know what it did to me, and what it took away. But I won’t let it win and I want to try to prevent it from striking as many women as possible. That’s why I’m telling you my story.
I am a 36-year-old native of Seattle, WA. I am married to a wonderful man, Andy. For years, I worked long hours as a land use and environmental lawyer. We had a busy social life. Then, we decided to start a family.
I am a woman who is used to getting things done, but getting and staying pregnant turned out to be more difficult than I expected. After two years of trying on our own, and several miscarriages, we sought help from a fertility specialist. We tried artificial insemination several times. It didn’t take. We tried in vitro fertilization. Twice, it didn’t take. On the third IVF cycle, I became pregnant with two girls.
We were ecstatic. Briefly. Then things started to go wrong.
In the first trimester, there were complications that put me on bedrest twice. At one point, the doctors told me that one of the embryos implanted in a precarious part of the placenta and wasn’t getting enough nutrients. If she didn’t start growing, something would have to be done. I was so scared of losing her. But, we took things week by week. She was growing. Then, in week 26, I went into labor. They hospitalized me.
Bedrest in a hospital is so isolating. Everything was so foreign. Alarms beeping all the time. You are lying down, but it is not restful. Your emotions are all jumbled. You are trapped. Isolated. You definitely feel disconnected from the pregnancy, from friends, from family. By this time, I was definitely depressed. I had 5 doctors… and not one of them asked me about my emotional state. Neither did the nurses.
At week xxx, my water broke. The babies were sideways so I had to have a c-section, yet another disappointment. The babies, thank God, were perfectly healthy and didn’t spend a minute in the neonatal intensive care. but I ended up with liver failure and other complications and was moved into ICU, with a crash cart parked outside my room. I didn’t meet my babies for 18 hours.After xx hours, I insisted that they move me to the maternity ward so I could see my babies. They moved me down but gave me little support. I tried to nurse two babies with sick body and had no one there coaching me on how to do it. It was frustrating, scary. Nobody explained to me why I was crying. ..why I wanted to throw my husband out the window… what all these feelings were that came up in a real and scary way… why I couldn’t sleep… why I didn’t have an appetite. It didn’t help that they got me confused with another patient and refused me pain medication for 12 hours straight.
On the fourth day, I signed myself out of the hospital. I said, “I need to get home. I need to recover at home with my babies.” The doctor wanted me to stay another three or four days. She said, “You don’t look good.” I replied, “Yeah, I have liver complications.” “No, are you okay emotionally?” Finally, someone had asked. I broke down. My husband was with the babies. I didn’t feel like I had any support. I wasn’t necessarily scared but I felt alone and sad. The doctor said, “It could be the baby blues or it could be more. I’m sure you’ll feel better when you get home.” There was no assessment of my emotional status. No brochures. No talking to my husband, not at all.
They sent me on my way. Things went downhill from there. Emotionally, I changed. I was hit by a freight train. It was like something came out of the dark and killed the former person I was. I was angry. I was anxious. I was frustrated. Not at the babies. Just at the isolation. What had happened during the pregnancy and the birth. I felt a lot of resentment. I felt guilty for having them early, for possibly pushing nature by doing fertility. What did I do to my babies? Are they developmentally okay? I had no sense of reality. I had no sense of what was wrong.
I didn’t sleep. I wasn’t eating right. Things that used to make me happy weren’t making me happy. I was angry at my husband. I chalked it up to being a first time mom. “I’m tired. It’ll blow over.” I was never neglectful of the babies. In fact, I became overly protective of them. They were my only reason for getting out of bed…Later, my husband said, “Had you pushed the babies away, I would have thought it was something more.” We thought it was exhaustion.
My mom came to visit two or three weeks after the girls were born. She had been depressed after my brother was born and she recognized the symptoms. She took my husband aside and said “This is not the baby blues. I see myself in her and she is not going down a good road.” My husband told me. I brought it up at my six-week post-birth checkup with my obgyn. Nothing was done. Again, no emotional assessment. No brochures.
By this time, I was going through the motions. I was on auto pilot, in a very dark, very isolated place. The feelings kept getting deeper and deeper. I thought about hurting myself, but I never thought of hurting the girls. I thought about leaving, but never hurting them physically. There were times I resented them, but it was through counseling that I learned that many women, with PPD or without, have these thoughts occasionally, whether they talk about them or not. But they weren’t easy thoughts to have.
In January, the girls were 3 1/2 months old. I was sitting with them and Andy and I remember turning to him and saying, “Something is wrong with me. I worked so hard to have these babies and all I do is cry.” I was looking at my kids. “What is happening to me and why? I am not okay. I’m in trouble. I need help.”
I contacted Mary Obata, a therapist I had seen previously. Turns out, Ms. Obata is a specialist in postpartum mood disorders. She went through it herself. At that time she was serving as president of Postpartum Health Alliance, a San Diego nonprofit that specializes in educating people about PPD. Ms. Obata said I had severe postpartum depression. I was relieved to hear the diagnosis, but scared too because I didn’t know what it meant. Over time, she educated me.
I took an anti-depressant for about six months. I saw a therapist for several years. My mom and grandma, my best friend (who suffered from PPD with her first child) and my husband supportive and helped me through it more than I can say. My best friend was my sounding board, my shoulder to cry on and one of the only people I could honestly tell how I was feeling without feeling shame or guilt. My husband stood by me every step of the way. He educated himself about PPD and he, too, sought counseling. He was my caregiver. My mom and grandma were my stabilizers. I could call and they would make me feel like I wasn’t a failure at being a mom. They would remind me how healthy, happy, normal and wonderful my girls were and that it was due to me. I may have been falling apart inside, but my girls didn’t know, and my mom and grandma were always there to listen.
I was VERY guarded who I told I had severe PPD. When I did, the reactions were mixed. Some people either didn’t believe me, they minimized it or they didn’t understand how I could be feeling that way (alone, sad, guilty, angry, ashamed, anxious and in such a dark place) when I had exactly what I wanted…two beautiful, smart, healthy, wonderful girls who I fought so hard to have. Some didn’t understand and that made me feel even guiltier and more ashamed. I would over compensate that guilt by hiding my emotions even more, by always having an outward appearance of the perfect body, the perfect home, the perfect kids, the perfect marriage, when inside, I was breaking. I was a master of illusion.
I would also try to lessen the guilt by giving everything I had to my girls. All my time, all my energy, all my love, all my feelings went into them. While this protected them from my own personal downward spiral, it made my spiral worse. A mom who doesn’t take care of herself eventually has nothing to give back. It is only a matter of time before she cracks.
I used to be very angry. Angry at myself, my husband and the situation. That someone this sneaked up on us and in some small way we let it happen. Now, I’m angry only at PPD. I’m angry that it takes so much away, particularly at a time when a woman has enough changes in becoming a mom and she should be adjusting free of illness. She should be enjoying as much as she can being a mom and caring for herself and child free of the darkness and loneliness of PPD.
Now instead of blaming myself for getting PPD or for not addressing it sooner, I blame PPD itself. I get angry at this condition, this affliction, which took so much away from me and my family. It took away a time in my life that I can never get back, a time that was and continues to be the most precious, despite all the heartache.
But it robbed me. It robbed me of joy, it robbed me of memories and it robbed me of me. It shifted my focus from my new babies, from my new family, completely away from my career and alienated me from myself. It devastated my foundation and left a shell to pick up the pieces and rebuild. When I wasn’t angry or sad, I was numb. I was broke.
There are times I still resent getting PPD. But I get mad at the disease and not at myself. I wonder the “what ifs” from time to time and try to focus on the good that came out of the experience. It is my path, my road, my journey, and it has purpose and meaning. Sometimes the darkest and longest roads lead you to the most amazing places.
I am SO lucky that my outcome is unlike some others. My thoughts of suicide were more of an escape. They started when the girls were about two or three months old. I would “fantasize” about driving my car into the ocean. Peace. Quiet. No guilt. No anger. No shame. No exhaustion, terrifying thoughts, anxiety or pain. Just peace.
I have met people, family of women, who are now left alone. Whose wives, moms, daughters, sisters followed through on those thoughts, and I know how truly lucky I am to be here.
PPD picked the wrong person to try to ruin. I want back at it and the best way to eliminate it is to educate health care professionals, moms and the public about the warning signs and what can be done to stop it.
PPD is a health issue. It should be addressed as such by medical professionals and others including midwives, lactation consultants, etc. Pediatricians should also be required to disseminate information, post it or know the warning signs.
People need to know about it. They need to know how serious it is and the warning signs. They need to understand that it impacts many more people than would ever guess. They should know that it is treatable.
As you are approaching the holiday season, please consider making a donation on behalf of all the women in your world.
Postpartum Health Alliance is the only San Diego nonprofit dedicated to educating health professionals and others about postpartum mood disorders. With a shoestring budget, they operate a warmline where volunteers field calls from women in crisis. They maintain a referral list of health professionals trained in postpartum mental care. They work with health organizations to create PPD programs.
PHA volunteers are currently organizing a conference for health professionals. They need your financial support to make this happen. Send a check to Postpartum Health Alliance, P.O. Box 503396, San Diego, CA 92150-3396. Your donation is tax deductible.
GINA CLARK’S ADVICE TO WOMEN GOING THROUGH PPD
GET HELP! Talk to someone, anyone, but hopefully reach out to a trained professional. Get rest when you can. Seek to take care of yourself, even if you feel like you can’t lift your head off the pillow. Try to exercise and eat right, take vitamins, and if need be, find a medication that will help through the darkest times. Find the right combination that will work for you.
Try to stay active.
And try to turn any resentment you might have towards your children into a focus for being. See them as a reason to live, a reason to heal.
And let go of the anger. Under the anger is a lot of pain, but you have to peel away those layers before true healing can begin.
Remember you’re not alone. Ever.
Finally, accept it. It took me a LONG time to accept that PPD invaded my life. That it changed my being. It changed who I was, who I am and why I’m here. Once you start to see light, once you start to let go and find some strength again, begin to understand that even in your darkest hour, there are things that happened that were good. Pull from those moments. Recreate the happiness PPD tried to take away. Remember the first smiles, the first steps, the first tooth, and know that once the cloud has been lifted, those memories are once again yours and no one or no disease can take those away.
Recovery from PPD long and bittersweet. Those nice memories don’t come easy and you have to dig deep to find them. But they do become a defense against PPD when it tries to creep back in.
And it takes time. The scar will be there. While I no longer have PPD, I still have the scar and it will be with me forever. The key is not letting it win, not letting it debilitate you and your family, to not let it take away any more memories or minutes from your life.