A short personal account of facing postpartum mood disorders.
Before my first child was born, I had all kinds of dreams and expectations of what motherhood would be like. Like many others, I imagined days of pure joy and fulfillment following the birth of our beautiful baby girl. My then-husband and I talked often about how wonderful parenthood would be and on the day she was born I quietly promised my sweet newborn that I would be the best mom I could be. I never would have imagined that no more than 18 months later, following the birth of my second child, I would be suffering from crippling anxiety, rage, insomnia, racing and intrusive thoughts and an increasing sense of hopelessness or that I would have to fight for my mental health every day thereafter. My name is Rebekkah Traptow, and I am overcoming postpartum depression and anxiety.
Get up. Be anxious. Overreact. Feel guilty. Repeat Daily.
The day I recognized (or perhaps admitted) that something was seriously wrong is among the most shocking days I have ever had. After yet another sleepless night, I rolled out of bed with a familiar tightness in my chest. I had a feeling it would be a bad day and dismissed the feeling that I should get in touch with someone just like every day prior. “You don’t want to be a bother. No one wants to hear you whine about feeling overwhelmed. Suck it up” I thought to myself, convinced I was being silly.
My daughter was 2 and a half and my son had just turned one. At this stage, it felt more like I had two babies rather than 2 toddlers. I had gotten used to feeling extremely exhausted and assumed it was a normal part of motherhood. "It will get better once I am able to get more sleep," I thought to myself, even though my youngest had been sleeping through the night for some time already.
After a hectic morning, I sent my kids off to play in the playroom while I tidied after breakfast and tried to enjoy my, now cold, coffee. For me, cleanliness was among the few things I felt in control of and I felt that if I could just get on top of the housework, I would feel better. Of course, no matter how much housework I did or didn’t get done, I still felt angry, anxious and utterly overwhelmed.
As usual, I could hear what sounded like the mother of all disasters being made in the other room and I tried to ignore the feeling of rage building in my chest. “Relax,” I told myself. “You can clean it up later.” Just then I heard the familiar sound of Playmobile (the toy that must hold the world record for small pieces) being dumped all over the floor and my heart began to race. I rounded the corner into the playroom to find that, unbeknownst to me; my children had also been into the diaper cream, smearing it all over everything within their reach.
Now, this type of situation is enough to make even the most patient parent lose their cool. Unfortunately, my reaction was far beyond reasonable even for the massive disaster that lay before me. I began to shout at my children, as I had many times before, but almost immediately I realized something was wrong. My face and neck became hot. I could suddenly hear the sound of my own heart pounding in my ears. My hands were shaking and the tightness in my chest had become so severe that it felt as though an elephant was sitting on me. For a moment I thought maybe I was having a heart attack. I became lightheaded and sat down to try and catch my breath, putting my arms above my head and counting 5 deep breaths. After a few minutes, I felt relatively normal again. “What on earth just happened?” I asked myself as I brought my children into the living room (so that I didn’t have to look at the disaster I was sure almost killed me).
It can't be PPD/PPA. I'm not sad.
This wasn’t the first time I had felt extremely angry or had a physical reaction to stress. In fact, I had become accustomed to the cycles of rage, outbursts, guilt and depression that were becoming more and more frequent. However, this was the first time it had stopped me in my tracks. I called my family Dr and set up an appointment to see if it was normal for a woman of my age (22 at the time) to be affected by stress or possibly exhaustion in that way. After all, “It can’t be PPD or PPA. I don’t cry all the time and I don’t really feel all that sad. I’m probably just not getting enough sleep”.
After our meeting, my Dr informed me that what I had experienced was likely a panic attack. She was clear about the fact that what I was experiencing in combination with racing and intrusive thoughts, insomnia and feelings of hopelessness was more likely to be a postpartum mood disorder rather than a normal stress response. At first, I was confused because I had done the screening for PPD and PPA at my 6-week postpartum visit after my son and had no concerns other than what would have been considered “normal” for someone with a newborn. But the more I thought about it and talked with my Dr and referred counsellor, it became clear that I had been suffering PPD and PPA for some time.
The winding road to recovery.
Fortunately for me, I had an amazing support system that stepped up and helped me out in the following months. My village brought meals, watched my children, visited me and made sure I got out of the house every so often; something I never would have done on my own but made a huge difference in my recovery. I attended counselling, made changes to my diet and began practicing more intentional self-care.
On paper, it sounds pretty simple but in truth that really doesn’t even begin to touch on the hard work, I had to do to champion my own mental health. I really had to make an effort to get sleep and rest when I felt my body telling me I needed it. I had to set reminders to eat and at times force myself to put food in my body as I battled feelings of guilt or selfishness for not spending every ounce of my time and energy caring for my children. There were days when I would feel like I was back at square one and days when I would feel like I had licked the problem and was "myself again".
Needless to say, I didn't "feel better" overnight. It would be an entire year before my sleep returned to normal and I no longer felt a strong physical reaction to stress or constant feelings of anxiety. Today I have a healthier relationship with my children and the level of stress and tension in our home has decreased tremendously.
My story is unique, but I am not.
This, of course, is only a short account of what my personal experience was. Every parent who suffers from a postpartum mood disorder will have a different story and experience, and every one of them is valid and deserves to be heard and recognized. Trust your instinct. No matter how mild or severe, it is ALWAYS worth talking to your healthcare provider if you suspect something might be wrong.
Are you wondering if you might be suffering from a postpartum mood disorder? Here is a super helpful graphic to help you decide whether you should seek out help.
XO - Rebekkah