I had the dream that so many new moms have – a wonderful happy bonding time with my infant and family. I have had three children and unfortunately only had that kind of peace my third time around. The first two were plagued with untreated postpartum depression and premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). PMDD has dramatic mood swings lined up with your menstrual cycle. Both conditions were awful and exhausting, and I endured them for three-and-a-half years.
I am a licensed mental health counselor, and worked in this capacity at the time of my depression. And even with knowledge and professional experience, I was in denial and confusion about what was going on. My first child was born with a condition that was not life threatening, but did require several medical visits and a few surgeries early in life. I didn't think postpartum depression could happen to me. And apparently, not many people around me thought it could either.
All the doctors and nurses I saw for my daughter's medical condition, the medical staff at my local clinic, none of them said a thing. Nobody ever mentioned the possibility of postpartum depression until I had suffered for nearly two-and-a-half years. I was not enamored with the person who suggested this at the time, so I brushed off the comment. My depression thinking was so entrenched, I was actually defensive about it.
I hid my symptoms the best I could, but some people (who told me later) said they could see something was wrong. They didn't know what to say, they didn't clearly put together my appearance and emotionality with my postpartum time frame. I had blamed some of my ups and downs on the stress of being a working mom of two young children. My job had its stress, so that was easy to do. Finally, after I had not been working for about six months, I put together the patterns of awful feelings. I wondered why I was so down and upset about something one week, but the next week it didn't really bother me.
Upon discovering this pattern, I wrote a frantic letter to my doctor describing my symptoms and the timeframe. She decided that I'd had postpartum depression and PMDD. I went on medication that day, which happened to coincide with my two weeks of "up" time. By the time my medication began to take effect, I knew that the calendar showed I should be crashing again. But by a miracle, I wasn't.
I also attended a few counseling sessions. By the fourth or fifth one, my medication had lifted me out of my hole and I was confident to attempt managing it on my own. This counselor was not specifically trained in the details of postpartum depression, but she did so well to validate my symptoms and help me sort it out. I was on medication for about a month before my third pregnancy and was off by the time she was one year old.
I still had a few years of self re-discovery to do before I really felt well-equipped with coping skills. Since that time, I have had to be aware of triggers for bad moods and stinkin' thinkin', but I've been able to enjoy motherhood without a cloud of pain hanging around me. I have often likened this experience to an alien invasion in my head. I wasn't becoming different because this is just how motherhood was. I was becoming different because of something that invaded me, that I needed to get out.
If you are not screened for PPD, ask your doctor about any emotional symptoms that give you concern. Ask for referrals to good therapists that work with women. A solid therapist won't make you stay in counseling for years if all you need is a session or two. Research any medication if it is recommended. No one can make you take it if you are not comfortable, but you may find relief sooner with it. Ask about alternative solutions and current research or resources.
Postpartum depression is real and it shouldn't interfere with anyone's motherhood experience. However, it just might. Having one eye open to it in your first year can prevent months or years of unnecessary suffering.
Here's hoping you have a wonderful, healthy postpartum experience.
Erika Krull, MS, MLHP, is a practicing mental health counselor and regular contributor to the Psych Central blog Family Mental Health. She is a survivor of postpartum depression and a mom of three.