I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was 15. The highs and lows and tweaking of medications are all things I came to expect and work through, but when I became pregnant with my first child, I was terrified of postpartum depression. I learned that women who are bipolar or struggle with a chemical imbalance prior to pregnancy and birth are at a higher risk of postpartum depression, but I struggled with simply accepting the fact that I would be depressed after giving birth.
In order to become pregnant, I had to change or completely discontinue some of my bipolar medications. I did this with the help and guidance of my therapist and medical doctors, but the fear of depression lingered constantly. I did things to prevent any bipolar episodes, like tapering down medications safely when we were trying to conceive, researching safe antidepressants for pregnancy, and increasing the frequency of therapy appointments once I was off my medication. I had to be honest with myself that postpartum depression was a real threat, but my therapist also encouraged me to stop seeing it as a looming definite that was taking over my mind and away from the joy of my pregnancy.
I became increasingly psychotic about things. I was convinced I was going to fall with the baby and hurt one or both of us. I had a real, actual fear that I might accidentally kill my baby.
Once I did this, I was able to focus on taking care of myself and my growing baby, but I admit, once we got closer to her due date, my fear and anxiety about postpartum depression came back strong. Being aware of your feelings is hugely important when it comes to PPD. Everyone made it seem to me like you come into such euphoria when you have a baby, but the truth is it's hard. Like, really hard. Even for women without any preexisting depression or anxiety. So the biggest lessons I learned were to check in with myself, be honest with myself, and accept help.
My doctor, the pediatrician, my therapist, and I researched and discussed medications that were safe for nursing, because breastfeeding was important to me. I went back on my bipolar medicine regimen after giving birth (my OB actually said in the delivery room, "OK, get back on your meds now!"). I was so focused on making sure I wasn't depressed that I completely overlooked any anxiety that came postpartum. After a few months of increasing my depression meds, I was elated I wasn't feeling any depression. However, I became increasingly psychotic about things. I was convinced I was going to fall with the baby and hurt one or both of us. I had a real, actual fear that I might accidentally kill my baby. It seemed crazy to me! I worried every time my husband went to work that he would be involved in some fatal accident. I was terrified of being in the house by myself, convinced some home invader was lurking in the woods outside our windows. I was constantly afraid something awful was going to happen.
When I brought this up to my therapist, she explained that postpartum anxiety can be just as prevalent as postpartum depression but is less well-known and even less widely discussed. I don't think people talk enough about mental health in general, but new mothers need to know that not only is this all normal and OK, but it's imperative to seek help. In the newborn haze of no sleep, a recovering body, and huge changes in all aspects of life, it's crucial to talk about mental health. It's essential for all new parents to know the scary thoughts in your head are normal and treatable and do not mean the thoughts will become actions. My therapist and I worked on thought-stopping exercises and different types of self-care and self-awareness. I would find one terrifying thought roll into another until I convinced myself I was going crazy. Identifying these thoughts and noting they were just that — thoughts, or things I could control if I focused — helped me overcome the almost debilitating anxiety.
When I became pregnant with baby number two, I was intently aware of my depression AND anxiety and armed myself with remedies for both. I had a toolbox full of things to help at the first sign of either, and I made those around me, like my husband and my mom, aware of what signs to look for if I didn't see them myself. That helped take some of the stress off me while also allowing me to be held accountable for my thoughts and feelings. But the best and most important thing was to talk about it. Talk to other moms, other parents, your spouse, your family, anyone. I didn't feel so alone once I began to slowly communicate my experiences with anxiety to see what kind of response I would get. And what I found was that so many new moms had similar experiences. It was like breathing a sigh of relief that I wasn't the only one convinced I was going insane.
So, while there may be a long way to go when it comes to getting society comfortable with talking about mental health and breaking the stigma that often comes along with it, it only takes one mom and one conversation to get the ball rolling. And I will continue to roll that ball all over the place in hopes that my experience can help normalize postpartum depression and anxiety for another mom who may be suffering.