I would like to introduce readers to a wonderful guest blogger, Mary Helen Leonard. Her postpartum story highlights something very significant: postpartum depression is not always immediate. This momma, no stranger to depression, expected to have immediate issues after the birth of her baby, but was surprised when things seemed fairly normal. Until they weren’t…Mary Helen Leonard gives mommas some practical advice that helped her to “come out of the fog.” This is a must read post for any woman suffering from PPD.
The Eight Month
Mary Helen Leonard
The first three months of my baby’s life wasn’t easy. For a while it felt like I was living out a single endless day. My body hurt. My emotions were raw, and sleep became something I dreamed about while I stared, rocking into the darkness. There were tears – lots and lots of tears. Everyone told me how hard it would be, but I couldn’t have been prepared for the reality of life with a newborn. Still, through it all, the sleepless nights and the sore aching breasts, I felt normal. Exhausted, raw, and drained – but normal.
You see, I know what depression feels like. We’re old acquaintances and I can tell her apart from stress, sadness, and even sleep deprivation. Even as I battled inexplicable insomnia during the few hours that my baby managed to sleep I didn’t get depressed. It felt like a miracle. Having had a history of depression I was sure that post-partum depression would hit me like a brick. I was sad at times, to be sure, emotional too, but that tell-tale feeling of numbness, like being a stranger in one’s own body – it didn’t come.
Or so I thought. Shortly after my son turned eight months old my left eye began to twitch. Suddenly getting up in the middle of the night felt impossibly hard to do. He would wake up in the morning and I would just lay there listening to him fuss for a while before I could bring myself to roll over and get out of bed. I told myself that I’d hit the wall – that eight months of sleeplessness had finally caught up with me and once I got some rest I would feel alright again.
But then one afternoon I was laying down on the couch (exhausted) watching him play on the floor, and when he fell over and started to cry I found that I almost couldn’t bring myself to go pick him up. I’m not a hovering mom by nature – or at least I don’t think I am – but I love my baby. I love him like I’ve never loved anyone or anything before. When he needs me I NEED to nurture him. Normally I could spend hours just being with him – looking at his beautiful face, holding his warm little body in my arms – but that day I just couldn’t.
In the days that followed I felt like a zombie. I woke. I fed him. I watched him. I bathed him. But I wasn’t there with him. I had gone away somewhere inside myself. I started having ludicrous thoughts – like he would be better off being raised by someone else or that I wasn’t cut out to be a mother. The thing is that even as I had these thoughts I felt like they weren’t mine. I knew that I didn’t believe that. If anything I struggled with the opposite – worrying that I would die in a random accident or from a sudden illness and that no one on Earth could raise him as I would have.
That’s how I knew something was up. The first person I told was my therapist. I remember saying to her that if I didn’t know better I would think I had postpartum depression. But wasn’t it way too late for that? It turns out that no, it wasn’t. She told me that postpartum depression can spring up as late as eighteen months past a baby’s birth! In fact, depression during the six to nine month point is often referred to as “the weaning blues”.
Late onset postpartum depression isn’t merely a case of the blues though. Just like early onset PPD, it can spin out of control without help. I immediately reached out to my closest friends and family and let them know, individually, what I was going through. I asked them to check in on me, and watch for signs of things getting worse. I did this because I felt safer knowing that someone was there to back me up – that I wasn’t alone. It was terrifying to think that I might sink further – to a place where I couldn’t find the will to care for my child. Alerting my loved ones felt like having a life preserver handy – just in case.
Still, as anyone who has experienced depression can probably tell you, help from the outside can only do so much. At the end of the day I had to choose to get better. Thankfully, a mother’s love can be highly motivating. To help myself I did the things that have worked for me during previous depressions. Even though I didn’t always want to, I did my best to meet the following goals:
- Get the most and best quality sleep possible. This is easier said than done when you have a baby that still doesn’t sleep through the night. I had to enlist my husband to start taking some night shifts in order to increase my sleep so that I could get well. This meant supplementing him with formula and compromising on my breastfeeding goals – which were really important to me. That part hurt, but I felt that my baby was better off with a well mama that uses formula than a depressed mama who breastfeeds exclusively.
- Again, this was extra challenging with an infant, but even a simple walk to the mailbox every day was better than nothing. When I was feeling especially ambitious I made it out to a yoga class – usually with baby in tow.
- Cut Sugar, Junk Food, and Alcohol. I don’t know whether or not there is any medical evidence to back this up, but I feel like my emotions become more unstable when I eat foods that spike my blood sugar. Staying on a low glycemic index diet tends to help me even out. Of course the catch here is that when I’m depressed all I want to do is eat crappy food. Cooking feels impossible and ice cream just looks like it will help – even though I know it won’t.
- Stay Social. When I’m depressed I tend to hide. To help fight it off I try to force myself to spend time with a small circle of people I feel very safe with: my sisters, my mom, and my best friend. The key for me is not waiting for them to reach out – but reaching out myself and asking for company. Even if it’s just a short visit or a long phone call it can help keep me from sinking.
- Do Things That Make Me Happy. While my depressed brain might crave things like junk food and solitude, these things don’t actually make me happy. Sewing makes me happy. Swimming or going to yoga class makes me happy. Snuggling my baby makes me happy. Forcing myself to do these things when I definitely don’t want to is a big help. Fake it till you make it, right?
- Professional Help. I was already in talk therapy with a psychologist that I knew and trusted. I count myself as lucky for that. Finding a new doctor can be really daunting, but I firmly believe that therapy was essential to my quick recovery.
It took a few months, but little by little the fog lifted and I started to feel normal again. My baby boy is about to turn one year old, and I’m pleased to report that my spirits are high and I’m feeling good. I keep a sharp eye out for any signs of the depression returning though. It’s a crafty devil.
So how did I know I was depressed and not just stressed out or sad? Well, I was both of those things as well, but lucky (or unlucky?) for me I have experienced depression before and was able to recognize its symptoms.
Let’s say you’ve cut your finger. It hurts. It bleeds. That’s all to be expected, but you get it stitched up, you take a couple of advil, and in a few days you should be well on your way to recovery. But what if the pain gets worse instead of better? What if you start to see red streaks running out from the wound or you begin running a fever? That’s when you know that something isn’t right.
The difference between feeling down and actually being depressed is kind of the same thing. When you experience something sad, like heartbreak, or something extremely stressful, like losing a job, it’s normal to feel down. It’s not unusual to cry or become angry, but like a stitched wound, the pain should pass with time.
What’s troubling is when that sadness doesn’t lift and instead turns into feelings of hopelessness or despondency. When you stop caring about the things that you know matter to you the most – or when you find yourself having thoughts or behaviors that don’t match your personality. For me, it’s like being detached from myself. Not even the breath in my chest or the child on my lap feels real.
It can sometimes feel permanent – like there was never and will never be another way of living, but that’s a lie. Depression can hide the truth by numbing you against even the smallest hint of optimism. For me, the only way to beat such deviant emotion is with cold, hard logic. I know I can get better because I’ve gotten better before. I know what I need to do get better. I have it on a list so I won’t forget.
If you need some logic to help you through your own postpartum depression please feel free to use mine. I had postpartum depression and I got better. Getting better is a thing that can be done. It’s a thing that can be done by women just like me and you.
Mary Helen Leonard is a natural lifestyle writer, author, and instructor living in Austin, Texas. She blogs at www.MaryMakesGood.com and has her first book, The Natural Beauty Solution, coming out in June 2015. Follow Mary: Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest.