Disclaimer: The following article mentions the topic of suicide or other sensitive subjects, which may trigger negative thoughts and feelings for those currently suffering or still recovering from a mental or mood disorder. Reader discretion is advised.
My Experience with Postpartum Depression And the Lasting Effects After 30 Years
I was married at 19 ½ years, and had my third child by the time I was 22 years old. I had a little baby blues with my first child, none with the second and third. I had my fourth child 5 years later, and suffered a little postpartum blues again, but was ok after about 7 weeks.
It took nine more years to have my 5th child; by that time I was 36 ½ years old. He came three weeks early. He wanted to eat every 1 ½ hours around the clock. I wanted very badly to be able to nurse him, so I was slow to want to supplement with formula. Perhaps because I was older, my milk supply may not have been adequate, and so my little guy kept waking up very often to eat, not leaving me times to get enough sleep.
By the time my son was about 4 weeks old, I was in trouble. One night, after feeding the baby, he went to sleep, but I could not sleep. All I could do was listen to the clock tick, as I began to get more and more anxious. I knew that I HAD to sleep; the baby would be up shortly to eat again, and I was already tired as it was. This went on all night; I didn’t sleep at all.
I was frightened, and very anxious, and mentioned to my husband that I was afraid. He reassured me, and said that my body was programmed to sleep when it was tired enough, and that I would sleep that night, surely.
I did NOT sleep the next night, or the next night. I lay awake between each feeding, and was getting REALLY frightened, and exhausted more than I had ever been. In fact, I was becoming very emotionally unstable. I started supplementing with formula to help my son start to sleep longer than 1 ½ hours, but it did not help ME to sleep any better.
I got with my OB/GYN and told him what was happening. He told me that what I was going through was self-limiting, and that things would normalize soon.
By this time, I started having either nightmares or hallucinations when I would try to sleep at night. I saw a deep, dark universe, with no light, no hope…I began to see dismembered babies….I felt that there was no place anymore for me in the universe, that I did not deserve to even be alive.
Because of these terrifying experiences at night, I felt tremendous panic, anxiety, and absolute terror that would not alleviate during the daytime hours. From the moment I got up in the morning, until I went to bed at night, I would be filled with panic, based on the idea that I would not be able to sleep at night, and that I would continue to experience horrifying thoughts while TRYING to sleep. I was convinced that my very life was very possibly coming to an end, just from lack of sleep.
I kept telling my husband that I was not sleeping, and he was convinced that I would sleep sooner or later, and that I need not worry.
I finally went to a sleep disorder clinic. I was told that I needed to hire a babysitter, and go out on a date with my husband to relieve some stress.
I knew I had to do something to find some help. I was terrified every moment of every day of what I might experience that night. I was convinced that not only would I not sleep, but that I would also experience bizarre and terrifying dreams, and that I might not even live through the night; I was so sleep deprived that I thought I might die just from exhaustion.
I called a psychiatrist that I had heard of, made an appointment, and went in with my husband. The Doctor was able to explain to my husband that I was suffering from depression, and that I wouldn’t be able to just “let time pass” or “think my way out of it.” From that moment on, my husband became my greatest
source of strength, and we were able to face the crisis together.
Over the next 4 months, my Doctor prescribed 4 different anti-depressants, and several types of sleeping pills to help me sleep at night between baby feedings. By this time, I had to abandon all hopes of breast feeding my son. I was very grateful for baby formula!!!! My doctor even suggested electroshock therapy, because I didn’t seem to be responding to the anti-depressants. Fortunately, my husband said “no” for me…I wasn’t thinking too clearly at that point.
My husband and I knew that exercise could greatly speed up the healing process during depression, so I began walking an hour a day shortly after I saw the psychiatrist. That seemed to help a little, but the days were still difficult for me. Even though all the drugs helped me sleep a little at night, I was still very frightened during the daytime that I would not sleep at night, and that the night terrors would come back.
During this period of weeks, my psychiatrist found a psychologist who suggested counseling for me. As all of us together talked about that necessity, it was determined that it would be much more effective to wait until my symptoms were more under control, for which I was VERY grateful. I couldn’t have coped with any more than was already on my plate. However, because of the interaction with the psychologist, I was able to meet a particular Licensed Clinical Social Worker, who made a huge difference in later years, when I needed specialized help to deal with the after-effects of that depression/anxiety experience. I will speak more of this later.
Finally, when my baby was 5 months old, my Doctor put me on my 5th anti-depressant. The first time I took it, I slept soundly at night and awoke refreshed, for the first time in almost 5 months. I did not care whether or not it helped depression. I could SLEEP!
I found out 29 years later that the 5th medication that I had tried actually allowed a person taking it to go into the 5th or deepest level of sleep, which the others that I had taken did not allow to happen. That was why I slept so well. That particular side effect of the anti-depressant was exactly what I needed.
My baby was 5 months old by this time, and I began sleeping well. Since he had been on formula, he had begun sleeping well at night, and with the added benefit of my walking daily, things began to “normalize.”
The experience of not sleeping, and the “terror” associated with the sleeping experience DID indeed have some long-term effects upon me. It took me THREE years to summon the courage to go off the anti-depressant. I had severe anxiety about sleeping for a very long time, and still do at times.
I have heard other women’s stories about postpartum depression and anxiety. We seem to have experienced similar things. Thirty years have passed since I experienced postpartum depression. I would like to share how this depression has affected my life for these thirty years. Perhaps it will help someone to know of my walk in life, after PPD.
The first and perhaps most important thing that I have experienced is an increase in compassion. I have a special love in my heart for new mothers. I have also tried to be a resource to mothers who seem to be struggling with anxiety or depression. Women need other women. I have been loved by so many, and hopefully I can pass that on to others in need.
There were also some physiological and psychological experiences that I personally had that were a direct result of the postpartum depression.
About 6 years after my postpartum depression/anxiety experience, I began experiencing mood swings that began affecting my relationship with my husband and family members. I was anxious, irritable, overly-emotional, and somewhat depressed, but the symptoms were sporadic. I suspected that I might be beginning to experience Pre-Menstrual Syndrome.
I came to the conclusion that I needed to see the Licensed Clinical Social Worker that I had met during my depression. I remembered her speaking to me about Dr. Katharina Dalton, a gynecologist in Great Britain, who was a pioneer in research concerning women’s hormone issues. I was able to finally meet with this LCSW, and she indicated that then-current research (including that of Dr. Dalton) had shown that it was becoming more and more apparent that women who suffered postpartum depression were at a high risk of developing symptoms of Pre-Menstrual Syndrome about 5-7 years following the depressive episode. She also shared the name of a Dr. at the University Of Utah Department Of Neuropsychiatry who was pioneering the use of naturally occurring progesterone to help women suffering from PMS. As a result, I saw this Doctor, who after a very thorough study of my history of depression/anxiety, and mood swings, prescribed naturally occurring progesterone for me to take the last two weeks of my menstrual cycle every month. This course of action worked wonderfully for me, and made life for me AND my family so much better. I could really tell a difference in my mental health and outlook.
Interestingly enough, Dr. Dalton’s research also indicated that naturally occurring progesterone could greatly alleviate postpartum depression and anxiety. Her pioneering research and personal efforts were instrumental in legislation being passed in Great Britain that protects postpartum mothers who commit crimes against their babies, families, or society, from punitive legal actions. They are offered counseling and other help to get over the depression or psychosis they are suffering.
I DO believe that Medical Personnel who are serious about helping women through postpartum depression/anxiety would do well to study the research done by Dr. Katharina Dalton, and now, other researchers, who have seen positive results in their use of naturally occurring progesterone. There are other avenues as well, and all avenues ought to continue to be researched (see post-script).
Several years passed after my good fortune of getting help for PMS, and life was good again. My oldest daughter, who had since married and had started her family, had her third baby, and I drove to Montana to help her for a few days. The first night I was there, I lay down to sleep, and because my son-in-law was up late typing a paper, I couldn’t fall asleep for the “clicking” I kept hearing. I just figured that I could fall asleep in spite of the work he was doing, but as the minutes, then hours ticked by, I was not able to fall asleep. He got through with his paper, and I still could not go to sleep. Then I started having anxiety about not being able to sleep, the same as had occurred almost 10 years earlier! All those same feelings came flooding back to me, and I became very much “sensitized” to the anxiety I was feeling.
I didn’t sleep much that night, and in the morning, I felt panicky again. In my mind, I was thinking of all the nights I had lain awake during my postpartum experience, and was very, very frightened. I called home, and managed to have a prescription sent to me to get some of those same anti-depressants that had the side effect of sleepiness. I became very nervous about trying to sleep without that medicine. It was like a huge flash-back, a moment of PTSD. I was totally unprepared for the feelings that came flooding back. The entire time that I stayed with my daughter, I relied heavily on that medication to help me sleep.
After coming back home, I went in and spoke with the LCSW about my experience. I did not need the prescription drug to help me sleep once I got home, but I felt that something was REALLY wrong with me. WHY could I not control the anxiety that had occurred to me in Montana? Why did I have to resort to prescription drugs to help me sleep? What was wrong with me??????
The kindest words that could have been said to me were these words spoken by the LCSW: “YOU HAVE TO RESPECT WHAT YOUR BODY HAS BEEN THROUGH. THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU.”
I went home that day, tears coming freely, as I realized that it was OK for me to accept my reality. I had suffered trauma, terror, mental anguish, anxiety, sleeplessness, and hopelessness. I had come through that experience, and it was ok that perhaps there was some scarring that had occurred.
I have been in some stressful situations since then, and have come to realize that some situations will “trigger” some of those old feelings of anxiety, sleeplessness, and panic. I am careful to plan for those events and DO keep a supply of prescription anti-depressant with me. I take it in a dose that is too low for therapeutic use in depression, but high enough to get the side effect of helping me sleep.
Even now, 30 years later, as I experience the sometimes “normal” sleeplessness that occurs with older age, I feel perfectly at peace using that same prescription drug to help me sleep at night. I realize that even with the passage of time, with counseling, with self-acceptance, I am still affected by that experience of postpartum depression and the attendant anxiety/terror. I have found nutrients that help with anxiety, and use them quite often. I have decided that if I am still anxious about something, it is ok for me to take a little something to help me sleep. AND I AM OK WITH THAT!
I do believe that we have a loving creator, who can and will heal us of all pain and suffering. As that day comes closer, I will do what I need to do in order to be healthy. I will also try to be a resource for others who have suffered, for suffering is easier when there is someone to turn to, and to feel safe with.
My hope is that my experience may help someone else. I write this with much love for any who have also walked that walk of postpartum depression, or who may yet do so.
In recent studies at the University of Utah, the altitude (low oxygen levels) in the Western Mountain States has been linked to depression. Hypoxia, or low oxygen levels, can cause low serotonin levels, which then can prevent SSRIs (Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil) from helping with depression/anxiety. This also needs to be researched more as well, since it may be a contributing factor for PPD.