It has been widely reported recently that the United States Preventive Services Task Force now recommends that all pregnant and postpartum mothers get screened for depression. I think this is a Very Good Thing. Early detection could make a big difference for a lot of mothers. My son’s pediatrician actually screened me for it. I didn’t know, at the time, that it was not commonly done. It was just a short survey, buried in a stack of the many forms that I filled out that day when my son was only a week old. It asked a few questions about how I was feeling. I answered them. I lied. I lied, and I passed. Nothing to see here, people. Afterward, I went home and cried for a couple of hours.
I was sure that if I had postpartum depression, I would know it. During my pregnancy, two of my friends came to me—separately—to tell me about their experiences with it. They each had felt so strongly that they needed to warn me about it that they reached beyond their comfort zones and shared their dark secret with me. I was touched. And I thought I was listening—I really did. I thought that if the darkness approached me, I would know it. And I would be ready for it.
I was not ready for it.
Looking back, there were signs all over the place. I was just too messed up to see them.
It started when my son was only a few moments old. My doctor put him on my chest so I could hold him, and when the nurse came to take him away—to clean him and weigh him—I wouldn’t let go. I can’t even remember how long I held him or how they finally got him away from me. In the morning, the baby nurse came to take him to the nursery so the pediatrician could check him. I didn’t want to let him go then either. She said I should let her take him so I could get some rest. Everyone was always telling me to get some rest. I didn’t get any rest. I took a shower. Then I cried until she brought him back.
The next day, another nurse came to get the baby. I thought it would be easier the second time. I tried to be calm. I took my shower, answered emails, and straightened up the room a bit. But he was gone a lot longer that day. With every minute that passed, I got more and more anxious and agitated. I became frantic, and I couldn’t figure out what to do. I woke up my husband, and he suggested we go to the nursery to check on him. Somewhere between the panic attack and the oxycodone, I hadn’t managed to think of that myself. We checked on him. He was fine.
I think it actually got worse after we went home. Adding to my anxiety was the need to hide my feelings from everyone around me. We had different family members taking turns staying with us for the first couple of weeks. Every now and then, I’d ask someone to rock the baby while I went to my room “to rest.” I managed to get by that way for a while. But as soon as my sister’s car pulled out of the driveway, and I was left alone with my newborn for the first time, I lost it. I was freaking out, crying, and gasping for breath. Alone with an infant and out of narcotics. My husband called to check on us, and I told him we were fine. He came home to find me pacing the living room, barely hanging on to my sanity. He put his arms around me and said, “Those baby blues have really got you down, huh?”
That was the moment I finally realized that there was something wrong with me. I really hadn’t put it together before that I was in trouble. And that was when I knew—it was more that just baby blues. I had post-partum depression in a deep and debilitating way. Two different friends had warned me about it—had shared their personal stories with me so that I would know what to do if it happened to me. I guess I didn’t realize that’s what it was because I had always equated “depression” with sadness. I was really sad sometimes, but I was also was really, really outrageously happy. My highs were stratospherically high, and my lows were cataclysmically low. I went from one to the other at a breakneck pace—without much rhyme or reason. I had this beautiful, healthy baby that I had been so desperately wanting, and I was so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so happy that I could just cry. And I did. A lot. And then I would start to freak out that I didn’t know what I was doing! And what I had gotten myself into?! And how could it be possible that I was responsible for keeping this beautiful, fragile human alive?!!
At my son’s two week appointment, when the pediatrician handed me another screening test, I told her I was going to fail it this time. And I did. Spectacularly. She called my OB-GYN and got me on the path to healing. It was a few more weeks before the crying stopped and the panic subsided, and more than a year before I felt back to my old self. Some women suffer for years without treatment. I consider myself lucky that my condition was caught early, but sometimes I do think about how I could’ve gotten help sooner if I had just answered that first screening survey honestly. I’m so very glad people are being more open about pregnancy-related depression and anxiety that I wanted to do my part and share my story. I’m beyond thankful that mothers everywhere will be getting screened so they can get help, too. Don’t do what I did. Be honest on those screening questions. Tell the doctor. Tell a friend. And know that you are not alone.