My Unknown Battle with Post-Partum Anxiety and OCD

Even though somewhere around 11 percent of all adult Americans are on antidepressants (while certainly countless more battle depression without medication), and commercials try to point out that often we can’t tell who around us is struggling, I think we sometimes still assume that depression looks and sounds like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh.

In the world of pregnancy and childbirth, the term “postpartum depression” has unfortunately become something of an umbrella term which – in my opinion – leads to some misunderstanding about the possible mood disorders and confusion that can follow childbirth.

So if a woman who has just had a baby (or a new dad or partner) seems upbeat and positive and joyful about their growing family, does that negate their risk for postpartum mood disorders?

Most people who know me would hesitate to label me as depression-prone. I don’t try to hide anything, I just really am pretty upbeat and joyful. Even I wouldn’t have classified myself as “at-risk” for postpartum mood disorders – because I only thought of them in terms of “depression”.

So, when my daughter was born and I began having vivid pictures flash through my mind, and fear of bridges, I just thought I was being silly. When I lay awake at night planning how I would safely get us all out of the house during or after fire/earthquake/tree falling through roof etc…I told myself it was my imagination. When I began to put shoes by the side of my bed so that I could run to my baby without slashing my feel on glass – cause certainly there would be broken glass everywhere for some reason – I thought I was being a *little* extreme, but also maybe just well-prepared. This is earthquake country after all.

Sometimes I would get this horrible feeling of nausea, fatigue and panic all over my body. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t eat. It would last for an hour or so. It took me over a year to realize I was having panic attacks.

When my second was born, and I made my husband keep all knives, pencils, and basically anything sharp hidden from my sight – not away from the baby or from our toddler, but out of MY sight – I began to get frustrated.

This was getting ridiculous, I thought.

At six months postpartum I began exercising again, and I cracked down on my diet. I also began to tell my husband every time I was having “thoughts” (that was our code word so that our 4yr old didn’t know mommy was scared). He would pray over me and just listen and say he was so sorry that I was dealing with that.

At 14 months postpartum, as I began to research and read for my upcoming doula certification class, I read Beyond the Blues, a book on postpartum mood disorders. I was surprised to read that 10-15% of women that we know of suffer from PPMD’s (postpartum mood disorders) of some kind. Then, as I read the symptoms of the various mood disorders, I just about dropped my kindle when I saw myself described on the page in front of me.

See, I had no idea that the thoughts running through my mind were symptoms of PPMD. I wasn’t depressed. I didn’t cry all the time. I never had thoughts of regret about having babies. I loved them so much. Technically I was happy, not sad! So I dismissed any question about postpartum depression and I struggled alone (apart from a couple friends and my husband) because I wasn’t informed.

I think one of the biggest lessons I learned, and what I want to share with other new moms and dads is this: if you don’t feel like you then something may be going on.

If thoughts and fears and worries run through your head at what seems like their own will – talk to someone. If you think you may be going crazy because of scary irrational thoughts you are having – talk to someone. If you aren’t sleeping much – talk to someone! (Sleep deprivation is one of the main causes of PPMD’s)

And what do we do moving forward? Do we sit back and accept the idea that the numbers of affected new moms and dads are growing and growing?

No! (that one was easy)

But also don’t be like me and poo-poo your symptoms for 4 years. I learned that postpartum OCD is one of the hardest to diagnose because women are embarrassed to talk about it. And I get it. It feels silly to admit that I made my husband stand by the tub with me while I bathed my baby because I was scared. So talk to your friends, talk to your husbands and your mothers and your sisters if you are close. Find a postpartum doula you can talk with. And pursue counseling and therapy if you feel like you need it. You don’t have to walk through this alone.

I also think that our culture has some room to grow in supporting new moms in the first months and years postpartum. And we mommas can become the first line of defense for our sweet friends:

  • First, we need to know just exactly what Postpartum Mood Disorders entail. If you can, read “Beyond the Blues” or another book, or even an article about PPMD’s just to be informed. We don’t want to be out hunting for who among our friends might be struggling – but we do want to be ready and able to empathize.
  • Then, don’t ask if you can help, ask how you can help. If your new-momma friends are up for it, offer to come over and make her some tea and have a nap, or just sit and chat with her – and encourage her to be in her PJs the whole time.

Our midwife told me that if there weren’t dirty dishes in the sink when she came to visit in the first few weeks she would be mad at me. She wanted me to just sit and soak in the oxytocin with my baby, nursing and napping and cuddling and eating.

When a baby comes, life is truly never the same. But it doesn’t have to follow that life changes for the worse, or even that we have to take some bad with the good. The fourth trimester can be a beautiful time of learning your new baby, exhausting sleepless nights followed by the most adorable gurgles and grunts, baby-wearing, co-napping and finding new routines. I want to do my part to protect this time for myself and my momma friends.

Here are a few good websites and articles to start your research with:

6 surprising symptoms of postpartum depression

Tips for supporting someone with postpartum depression

And here are some local support options:

Birth Network of Santa Cruz – Providers for Counseling

La Leche League of Santa Cruz