Surviving Severe Postpartum Depression

Susan Campbell
Families for Depression Awareness

I started dreaming about having a baby when I was a very little girl. I began babysitting at a young age and played with dolls for far longer than I care to admit. Being a mother was my life’s ambition. I never imagined that when I finally became a mother, I would have thoughts of hating my baby or wanting to hurt her or myself. But that’s exactly what happened and today I am truly grateful that we are alive.

I couldn’t have been more excited, less than three months after our wedding, to learn that I was pregnant. But it wasn’t the magical, transformative experience I’d imagined. It was a lot like turning a year older: you know something happened, but you don’t feel any different.

Though my pregnancy was filled with physical pain and stress, my mood stayed fairly good. At my 41-week postdate checkup, the decision was made to induce me. After 40 hours of un-medicated labor, we welcomed Sydney into the world.

The first three months of Sydney’s life were amazing. It was like she was just always supposed to be a part of our family. I didn’t even experience that “normal” new mom anxiety. I loved my baby, my life, and my marriage. I even loved going back to work at 9 weeks postpartum.

I’ve always struggled with my mental health. I was first diagnosed with depression at 16 and started taking antidepressants at 27. I knew I was at a higher risk for PPD. My midwives and doctors decided that the best course of action was to continue taking my meds during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. I encapsulated and ingested my placenta in the hope of decreasing the risk of PPD. I also started going to therapy again almost immediately after Sydney was born: she came to appointments with me and slept soundly, often in my therapist’s arms, while I discussed my transition to motherhood. Unfortunately, nothing worked to prevent PPD symptoms from emerging.

I started having thoughts of, “Is my baby breathing?” If I couldn’t see or hear her I was convinced she was dead. I would lie in bed and picture myself finding her lifeless body, imagine the funeral and what my life would be like without her. The thoughts were intrusive, intense, and would run through my head in seconds.

Soon everyday tasks became too difficult to deal with, so I just stopped doing them. I ignored our finances and we racked up huge credit card debt. My husband did his best to help with the household chores and Syd, but it was hard on him too. I started experiencing hypomania and mood swings. I would be relatively fine then suddenly start sobbing or become filled with rage. I would go from bursts of uncontrollable energy to depression so deep I couldn’t get out of bed.

I found a new psychiatrist and we talked about postpartum depression, but it wasn’t immediately diagnosed. Because of my history and current symptoms, it was impossible to tell if the hormones were causing the medication to react differently or if the hormones were causing the symptoms and the medication didn’t work. We tried different combinations of medications but nothing helped.

One terrible night I hit my breaking point. Sydney was screaming in my arms and I had a vivid, horrific vision of throwing her against the wall to get her to stop crying. I knew this was it. This was the moment where I had to start making very hard decisions for the welfare of my family. I put her down and told my husband that I didn’t trust myself to be alone with her. He took her while I called my therapist.

When I saw my psychiatrist the next day, I told her I was ready to take more drastic action to address my depression. We decided together that I should enter an intensive outpatient program (IOP) and take disability leave from work. This was terrifying and relieving. I finally felt like I was going to get help.

I remember feeling so grateful on that first day of the IOP to finally be around people like me. People who get it, who need help to function in daily life. But after 6 weeks of intense therapy, I still wasn’t better. I continued to struggle day-to-day and had suicidal thoughts. Even after all the hard work I had done, I still felt broken.

My psychiatrist put me on a mood stabilizer, but it took more than two months to find the right dosage. I was struggling to cope, waiting for medication to take effect, and being back at work even though I wasn’t better. And I waited.

I waited and I talked to my therapist. I realized that I was grieving for the pregnancy and first year with my baby that I didn’t get to have. I mourned for the lost time I spent hating myself instead of enjoying watching my baby grow.

I waited until we added another antidepressant. About 2 weeks after that, the depression started getting better. And it was better, for about 2 months. Then things started to change again. I went from surviving postpartum depression to living with a new diagnosis of bipolar II. But with those weeks in IOP and the help of my therapist, I am able to cope with my changing life much better.

I am finally starting to feel like myself again.

I can laugh.
I can look at my daughter and feel joy.
I can give affection to my husband.
I can be a person again.
I can plan for the future.
I can be hopeful.

I know the road ahead is still bumpy and long, but I feel happy today and that’s a big deal.

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