by Jessica Martin-Weber, illustration by Jennie Bernstein
I can’t tell you the number of times each day we receive messages or have posts in the community group or on The Leaky Boob Facebook page wall from women just beginning to wade into the waters of acknowledging their struggle with postpartum depression and anxiety. The numbers, if we tracked them, would be staggering.
But they aren’t surprising.
According to the American Psychological Association, it is estimated that 9-16 percent of women who have had a baby will experience postpartum depression. Of those, 41% will go on to have it again after subsequent babies.
Which means chances are strong you or someone you know is struggling with postpartum depression or has dealt with it in the past.
The American Psychological Association describes the symptoms of PPD thus:
For mothers, PPD can:
- affect ability to function in everyday life and increase risk for anxiety, cognitive impairment, guilt, self blame, and fear;
- lead to difficulty in providing developmentally appropriate care to infants;
- lead to a loss of pleasure or interest in life, sleep disturbance, feelings of irritability or anxiety, withdrawal from family and friends, crying, and thoughts of hurting oneself or one’s child;
- be particularly problematic because of the social role adjustments expected of new mothers, which include immediate and constant infant care, redefining spousal and familial relationships, and work role.
The day I knew something was wrong with me was when my second baby was 5 weeks old and I was standing at my kitchen counter, staring blankly into the chocolate milk I was stirring, wishing I could get caught in the whirlpool swirling in my glass. I realized that I was fantasizing about committing suicide in my chocolate milk. That’s nor normal and that’s probably not good, I thought, then I took a drink of the chocolate milk I had just imagined drowning in and numbly turned back to my two children. They needed me, I was the one that was so weak of a person in character that I couldn’t handle it and wanted to die. My thoughts were that I needed to buck up, develop stronger character, and just be a good mom who loved being a good mom.
But I couldn’t try my way out of it. I was certain I was inadequate in every way possible.
The day my husband knew I needed help (he knew something was wrong before then) was when he came home to find me hiding in our closet while the toddler was crying downstairs and the baby was screaming in her bassinet. I had put myself there because I was afraid I was going to hurt my children. Standing above my baby’s bassinet where she was once again screaming, I hadn’t felt sympathy or concern for her, all I had felt was overwhelmed, failure, and the desire to throw her against the wall. Feelings that were so foreign to me and so strong that I became afraid for my children, afraid of what I could be capable of. I hadn’t even known I was capable of feeling that way in the first place. My husband called my midwife and appointment was set that would lead to other appointments and some medications.
Coming through that time was like being caught in a whirlpool, fighting a rushing current that threatened to suck me down. Sometimes I didn’t have the fight for it. Sometimes I did. Sometimes I didn’t but found the fight inspired by my children, my husband, and my friends. In the beginning, that was often the only way I found the fight.
Telling the people around us was a game changer. We were in a transitional time of our life, having just started being a part of a new community a few months before. Our previous community had splintered, we had just moved, and we felt disconnected from friends and never had been very close with our families and I just lost one of the closest family members I had to dementia then death the very day my daughter was born. My family, so far away, was already dealing with a hurt and loss so big I didn’t want to be responsible for adding to it. Hundreds, even thousands of miles and relational fractures separated us from the people in our life that previously had been our people. We were just starting to find that again and I was terrified that this depression, this overwhelming, all consuming inner oppression would drive them away and destroy my family’s chance at having a place to belong and people who cared.
Then something amazing happened. Those people cared anyway.
A small group of friends who we played in a band with and did shared faith with dared to care. Without us even telling them at first, they began to push into our lives a bit, even when I pushed them away. Eventually, we opened up and shared our struggle.
It was then they all grabbed an oar and began paddling my lifeboat against the current of that whirlpool even when I couldn’t. They helped save me. They also helped me find my own paddle not only for myself but to jump in and help when I have friends in the same boat.
As a society we don’t talk enough about mental health and postpartum depression gets little more than a checklist run through with our care providers. So much shame, stigma, and fear comes with admitting struggles with mental health even when we know that it isn’t an issue of good vs bad character. For those of us in the midst depression it can be difficult to express what we need, we may not even know ourselves. For those of us loving someone in the midst of depression it can be difficult to know what our loved ones need, how to be there, or how to help. For those of us with friends and acquaintances we suspect may be floundering, it can be difficult to know. I’m still learning but here is what my friends have taught me in truly supporting someone dealing with mental illness:
- Acceptance. Don’t argue that they don’t feel the way they feel, don’t point out they seem to be ok. Accepting what I admitted was what I was experiencing helped me accept it as well. That is the first step for getting better.
- Listen. Even if they don’t have anything to say. Even if they do and it takes them a while to figure out how to get it out.
- Wait. You may think you know exactly what they need but jumping in with all your suggestions to fix it can be crippling for the one who is not well. Wait with them, along side them but don’t tell them every idea you have for how they can better. Please be quiet about your oils, the diet suggestions, your faith belief promises, your books, your conviction that if they just count their blessings everything will be better, your recommendations for fresh air, and to get moving. Just wait with them. Be with them.
- Be there. One of the many sucky parts of depression and anxiety is that it often tells the sufferer they aren’t worthy, aren’t good enough for love. Messages of inadequacy may flood their spirit and in attempting to avoid that pain, they may attempt to avoid the people that want to be there through it and beyond. Be there anyway. Gently, patiently, persistently. Respect your boundaries while you be there and don’t tolerate abuse, but if you can continue being there even when you are pushed away, you may very well help them anchor themselves enough to fight against the current of depression and anxiety that tells them they aren’t good enough.
- Share. Knowing others have gone and are going through similar struggles can help. Comfort that maybe they aren’t alone, that others may understand, and that they are not a freak can help those suffering with mental health issues find their own inner power. And to know that others have gone through and emerged able to talk about it and having found a path that worked for them is a message of hope.
- Help. Oh this one is hard. How do you help without being pushy? How do you help without trying to fix them? My husband explains it this way: fight along side them, not in front of them (they don’t need a knight in shinning armor), not against them (distracts from the real battle), not behind them (makes them feel they need to watch their back), along side them. My friends helped me most by coming over and playing with my children, holding my baby even when she was screaming (she had reflux, she was often screaming), by sharing their personal experiences with depression and anxiety, by asking me and really wanting to know how I was doing, and by celebrating my good moments when I wanted to celebrate them.
Have a friend or partner you are concerned about? You can help her and by helping her you are helping her children as well. The road to healing isn’t always easy but it’s better when we’re not alone.
Not sure if you or someone you love is experiencing normal baby blues or postpartum depression or postpartum anxiety? This list may help put things in perspective.