I was recently contacted by a high school student named Ashley clear across the country who asked if she could interview me for a high school project. She had chosen to write about Postpartum Depression with the hopes of educating others on how devastating and misunderstood it is. Ashley found me when she came upon this blog and I was so thrilled and honored to help her out. Below are her questions to me and my responses during the interview.
What was your initial reaction to finding out you had Postpartum Depression, how did it impact your life?
My initial reaction, as sappy as it sounds, was crying tears of joy. Receiving a diagnosis of Postpartum Depression had a major impact on my life at the time. I had spent three months suffering horribly, some of that time in and out of the hospital, with so much of my stress wrapped up in the fact that I had no idea what was wrong with me. The doctors caring for me had no idea either, so I felt completely isolated and alone. Being diagnosed was incredibly empowering because at last I could say: here’s what’s wrong with me and it’s treatable. There was a name for my agony. That knowledge literally brought up from the darkest place where I was contemplating suicide to one where I felt some hope.
What symptoms of Postpartum Depression did you have to suffer through, and if you had any, what physical changes occurred as well?
My symptoms were largely gastro-intestinal; mainly comprised of stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea, fainting, dehydration, dizziness, major weight loss, lethargy and nausea. The nausea was far more intense than even the worst morning sickness that I’d ever experienced with any of my pregnancies. The most disturbing symptom was the extreme dizziness. The room would start spinning the moment I lifted my head from my pillow. I would have to literally crawl on the floor to make it to the bathroom. I went from being a very healthy and physically active (former marathon runner) 30-year-old woman to being completely debilitated and unable to function. Even the simplest everyday tasks, such as brushing my teeth, were impossible at times.
What impact did your Postpartum Depression have on your family and friends?
It destroyed my relationship with my parents, who did not understand depression (especially PPD) at all. During my second hospitalization for dehydration, my dad called me on the phone and told me to “get off my butt and start taking care of my babies.” I begged my parents to help me and my husband take care of our babies so that I could get out of the house for doctor’s appointments, but they refused and said it was my choice to have the babies, therefore I must deal with the consequences. When I was finally diagnosed with PPD, I needed some financial assistance in order to see a psychologist who was a PPD expert, and when I asked my parents for a loan they responded similarly. It has been nearly twelve years and I haven’t had a relationship with my parents since. I was so deeply affected by their ignorance of the reality of mood disorders and their lack of compassion that I’ve chosen to keep them out of my life. At the time, I was too ashamed about having PPD to tell any of my friends, so I didn’t share or ask for support from them. I think I feared they would react the same way my parents had.
What treatments did you go through for Postpartum Depression and if there were multiple treatments, which ones do you believe to be the most effective?
Immediately after my diagnosis, my obstetrician put me on an anti-depressant, Prozac, and it started working quickly. In only two weeks I felt nearly like my former self and I was able to take care of my babies and function well around the house. I also immediately began seeing a psychologist who specialized in PPD. Talk therapy helped enormously and I continued seeing her regularly (first once a week and then eventually once every two weeks) for about a year until I felt I was completely recovered. In addition, my psychologist recommended that I start writing in a journal, which I did, and also found very helpful. In fact, I credit that as the official start of what became my career in writing. I had never dreamed of becoming a professional writer, but after journaling and writing extensively about my PPD experience, I found that I loved writing so much that I became a freelance journalist.
In addition to talk therapy and taking Prozac, my psychologist recommended that I take a class of some sort or join a book club, etc, to have an excuse to get out of the house and do something just for me. I signed up for my first yoga class, one evening a week at the time, and that in itself made a major impact on my life. Not only was I getting out of the house by myself, I was doing a wonderfully therapeutic form of exercise that has taught me a great deal about the mind/body connection. I still do yoga regularly and my kids have done yoga since they were small.
Where there times when you would just want to give up because everything just seemed so stressful and overwhelming?
YES. There were many times when I couldn’t raise my head from my pillow and I’d think that I was so worthless that my life wasn’t worth living. I truly believe that if I had gone on much longer without a diagnosis that I wouldn’t be here today.
How do you feel when people assume that Postpartum Depression is just the “baby blues” and that “everyone goes through it, so it’s not a big deal”?
Whenever I hear or read the term “baby blues,” it makes me extremely angry. It's a load of crap. That term was created either by a man, or by a woman who never experienced a perinatal mood disorder. It’s like saying cancer is just a mild discomfort. And PPD is indeed a big deal since women have died from it since the beginning of time. They’re still dying.
Did you ever feel like people would judge you unfairly when they found out you had Postpartum Depression?
Yes, I totally felt like I would be judged since there’s still such a stigma surrounding mental disorders. The reason I began speaking out about my PPD experience is because I got so tired of hearing how women are still suffering every day, being misdiagnosed or left undiagnosed. And their children are suffering, both emotionally and cognitively. I don’t believe we’re any further along in decreasing the incidences of PPD than we were in 1996 when I had it.
Do you feel that after your recovery, you are a changed person or generally the same as you were before you knew you had Postpartum?
I am a completely different person. I feel like I’m more compassionate in general, but especially when it comes to mental disorders. I actually look at my PPD experience as a gift in a way because I’ve learned so much about my body and how to cope better with stress.
A few years after I suffered from PPD, one of my children was diagnosed with both Asperger’s Syndrome and Tourette’s Syndrome. Since I had worked so hard to educate myself on my own mental disorder, it was easier to understand and deal with the challenges that my child faced.
How do you feel about the controversy that erupted between Brooke Shields and Tom Cruise a few years ago?
I’m really glad it happened because it did a great deal to raise awareness of PPD among the general public. (It also demonstrated what an idiot Tom Cruise is and how that particular way of thinking needs to stop.)
Is there anything else you would like to tell the class regarding Postpartum Depression?
The main thing that I would like to express is that PPD is not only treatable, it is preventable as well. Many women don’t realize this, especially if they’ve already suffered from PPD. They assume they’ll have it again, and roughly 30% of women in this category even consider abortion when they find they’re pregnant again, rather than face PPD another time. I write a lot about PPD prevention on my blog and share my story of having a wonderful postpartum with my fourth baby in 2001, several years after my horrible PPD experience. As in most cases, knowledge is power, and I was truly empowered when I became pregnant my fourth (and last) time around. I knew what my PPD symptoms looked like, knew to watch out for them, knew to ask for help, to set up a strong support system of loving family and friends, and most of all, to take care of myself through the pregnancy and birth. For more information and access to some resources that I think are really great, you can always visit my blog or e-mail me.
Ashley, I cannot thank you enough for tackling this important topic and spreading awareness through your work. The more we talk about PPD, the more women and medical professionals will be educated so that one day we can bring an end to this devastating disorder.