Postpartum depression, or PPD, is a mental disorder that affects an estimated 1 in 7 moms. Yet despite its prevalence, the heavy stigma attached to it deters women from seeking help. To find out exactly what postpartum depression is, we asked moms who have struggled with it to tell us what it really feels like — and how they beat it.
The emotional tumult of bringing a child into the world can be rough. Classified as a "serious mental health condition" by the American Psychological Association, PPD is often brushed off as baby blues. (Baby blues is the temporary sadness that moms experience days or weeks after a birth, while PPD can last for up to a year.)
But what is it? How does it really feel? We reached out to five moms who told us about their struggles with the disease.
1. Amber Koter-Puline is a part-time working mom of two boys who suffered PPD in 2007.
"Postpartum depression grasped me into such a state of depression and anxiety that I felt like I would have simply been unable to survive in that way for much longer. [I had] feelings of hopelessness, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, irritability, lack of concentration, as well as overwhelming guilt and intrusive thoughts, nearly from the time of birth.
"After several weeks of this process of dealing with difficulties breastfeeding — and the guilt surrounding another failure of a natural process that I thought would come instinctively to me; that women had done for thousands of years; and that somehow, in some way, I wasn't able to succeed at — I was really devastated."
"I began to go further and further into a dark place where I wasn't sleeping, but I also wasn't getting out of bed. Someone else had to care for my son 95 percent of the time. Because of the severity, I knew my feelings were abnormal and got help. I took medication, saw a therapist, did yoga, used alternative medicine and tried just about anything to get better. Though it took a few months, I finally saw a light at the end of the tunnel and knew I would be OK.
"If you have a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder (PMAD), there are some things you can't control. However, there are also things you can do that will improve your health, regardless of your diagnosis. Self-care should be your No. 1 priority. Be open to a variety of treatment options. Make yourself aware of resources for challenges. Please remember that it takes time to develop a relationship. Most moms don't 'fall in love' instantly with their baby, and sometimes an initial blissful feeling is replaced with a bit of confusion over how to bond with this brand-new being that you've just met. Be gracious with yourself."
2. Lauren Hale experienced postpartum OCD with her two daughters.
Hale's pregnancy came with morning sickness, severe pelvic pain and the prospect of mothering with little support in place (Her husband worked restaurant hours and she was often alone).
"My delivery was extremely difficult and rough — something I classify as traumatic. [Seven days in,] I already thought I had failed her. I sought help, finally, when she was three months old, only to have the doctor inform me that my 'hormones should have slid back into place at four weeks' despite confessing to intrusive thoughts involving harming myself and my infant.
"In the end, he refused to medicate me. He scheduled me for a therapy appointment with the therapist in the office, but they only called to reschedule, constantly. I finally told them no thanks. (I should mention that I struggled with intrusive thoughts specifically involving knives — so much so that I was unable to use them if I was home alone and my infant was in my view. To this day, I can't have the handle of a sharp knife arbitrarily pointing at me without flashing back to the knife block in my kitchen when she was first born.)"
"When I became pregnant the second time ... what I wasn't expecting was to be bowled over with depression and anxiety. I was unable to function. My second daughter was born nearly five weeks early with a cleft palate. We were unaware of her issue prior to her birth. Long labor, immediately whisked away infant and husband — I felt abandoned.
"I exclusively pumped for my second daughter, which fed my [postpartum OCD] compulsions. I went on medication just 10 days after she was born, a day after she had her first major surgery. It helped at first, but by day 56, I broke. I landed in the hospital as a result of losing my grip on reality.
"As I healed, I would discover I was pregnant yet again. I prepared this time around. Communication was important. So was being proactive.
"Self-care is not selfish. It's selfless and necessary for mothers. We must mother ourselves if we are to adequately mother and care for those around us. Women who have been through PMAD are the strongest women on the planet. I now know some of the most amazing women as a result of my journey. It's almost mind-blowing the strength PPD imbues one with."
3. Alexandra Rosas suffered from PPD after the birth of her son, Alec.
"I was finally holding the baby I had been wishing for in my arms. He was only five days old, but I was already exhausted. As fatigued as I was, when I tried to sleep, I couldn't. Everyone expected me to be thrilled at this new baby, but what I wanted to do more than anything was run away.
"My symptoms continued nonstop: fear for Alec's health, my anxiousness over feeling so alone in not understanding what was happening to me, agitation that didn't let my mind quiet, awake day and night with overwhelming anxiety. I lost 15 pounds within three weeks. I felt such shame and guilt. Why wasn't I happy? What was wrong with me? I knew no one who was going through anything like this and I was too ashamed to tell anyone."
"But I knew something was very wrong and I was scared enough to call my doctor. I told her my symptoms and she had me come in that afternoon. I began ... a medication that was safe for use while breastfeeding, along with weekly therapy and I was referred to a local PPD support group. There was instant relief in finding acceptance and understanding among these women and no longer carrying the weight of a secret alone.
"I remember one spring morning when I took Alec for a walk. There was a light drizzle and as the mist fell on my face, I began to smile. I finally felt a bit of me coming back. My doctor, my therapist and my support group saved me.
"To any mothers lost in the frightening world of PPD, the most isolating aspect is how it makes you feel you have to hide in shame. Seek help. Postpartum depression is not the baby blues and will not go away by itself. If things don't feel right to you, see a mental health therapist, ask your OB-GYN for a PPD referral, ask your nurse practitioner, pediatrician, midwife, ask anyone and everyone for help. With medical treatment, professional care and community, you will find the way back to yourself again. Just as I did."
Alexandra Rosas is a published author and storyteller with the nationally acclaimed storytelling organization The Moth. She blogs at Good Day, Regular People.
4. Kimberly Morand went through postpartum depression with her son.
"It was after the commotion in the labor and delivery room had died down and I was left alone with my son that I knew that something wasn't right. My tiny miracle was absolutely perfect, but I felt nothing. I couldn't feel love.
"I began to vigilantly chart feedings, changings and baths just like the books said. I tended to the house and made dinners right on time. Visitors commented on how utterly spotless my house looked and how amazingly put together I appeared. But what they didn't know was my mind was falling apart.
"When the house slept, I was wide awake with tortuous thoughts. I was angry, then anxious, then angry again. I punched walls, broke plates, put my foot through a wicker chair and gouged at my own skin. I couldn't make simple decisions and the panic attacks were so bad that I began to isolate myself in my house. I was out of control and no one but my husband knew.
"We were both terrified. I didn't fit the 'cookie cutter' list of symptoms of postpartum depression that came in a hospital pamphlet, so we had no idea what was going on.
"When my son was 6 weeks old, we left him with my parents overnight so that we could attend a friend's wedding. I remember watching how effortlessly they loved him and how my husband kept checking his phone to make sure he was OK. I hated it. I hated that everyone just loved him instantly and I didn't. I wanted that. I wanted to feel love for him. I knew I loved him. I was his mother.
"That week I asked for help from my OB."
"I used to say that I would give anything to experience what moms who didn't have postpartum depression do when they hold their child for the first time, but I don't anymore. Every day I get to experience what it's like to feel your heart explode with love for something so amazing. My son is the best thing to ever happen to me.
"I won't lie — there will be setbacks in your recovery. There will be times when you get to the end of the month, week, day or hour when there is nothing left in you.There will be times when it seems as though you need to start back at square one. Sometimes, you may have to. During those times, stop and look at how far you've come. How much hard work and determination you had. It is still in you, take hope in that. Each time you stumble, you get stronger, you get wiser. Each step will get easier because you have done it before."
Kimberly Morand is a mom, wife, nurse, mental health advocate and blogger at her personal website, All Work And No Play Makes Mommy Go Something Something.
5. Ivy Shih Leung experienced PPD after the birth of her daughter following a successful in vitro fertilization.
"A traumatic childbirth experience and the events occurring up to my sixth-week postpartum — extreme blood loss from the removal of my uterus, sleep deprivation in the hospital, anxiety with respect to colic, eczema and cradle cap — preceded the first sign that something wasn't right, which was when I suddenly could not sleep despite mind-numbing exhaustion. My OB-GYN shrugged it off as a symptom of the 'baby blues' and prescribed Ambien, completely overlooking the fact that insomnia at six weeks is a clear sign of PPD.
"Within a couple of weeks, I developed full-blown panic attacks that scared me into thinking that something was seriously wrong with me. I experienced a loss of appetite and weight loss. I felt completely debilitated, lost interest and pleasure in most of my usual activities, and had difficulty thinking, concentrating and making decisions. I felt disoriented and in a haze. I turned into a shell of a person.
"I was completely blindsided by this experience, never once thinking that I would be one of 'those' mothers who would 'let' themselves get depressed after childbirth, especially after what my husband and I went through to have a baby."
Ivy Shih Leung
"After it was determined that my issue was beyond difficulty sleeping and the Ambien that my OB-GYN prescribed was not the correct course of treatment, my [general practitioner] prescribed me Paxil for the depression symptoms and Xanax for the panic attacks. As soon as the Paxil kicked in, I was able to sleep, my appetite returned and I was even able to return to work.
"What I would like [to tell] mothers who are currently suffering from PPD [is that] you are your own best advocate, so it is very important that you arm yourself with knowledge about it. Different treatments work for different people.
"The longer you wait to seek help, the harder it is to recover. Prolonged and untreated depression may not only prevent you from bonding with your baby and enjoying motherhood, it can also negatively affect your baby's cognitive and social development [as well as] your relationship with your partner.
"Postpartum Support International's mantra: You are not alone, you are not to blame for the way you feel (and PPD is a real illness that's treatable), and you will be well again with the right treatment. You may feel like you are alone in your experience, but you aren't!"