Perinatal mental illness can be hard to diagnose during pregnancy, as it’s sometimes written off as “Oh, you’re just pregnant.” When I was pregnant with G, I was told several times “You had a miscarriage, it’s normal to feel anxious” when my husband and I tried talking to our OB about how I was feeling. These assumptions not only affect the mother but the baby as well. Untreated pregnancy mental illness can also manifest into something more severe when the baby is born.
Today’s Surviving the Darkness parent is Monika, a mom who has experienced depression and anxiety both postpartum and during pregnancy. The obstacles she faced are ones that many parents have faced in trying to find help, and her advice to struggling parents is spot-on.
1) Tell us a bit about yourself.
I am a mother of two girls, ages 7 and 3, in the Bay Area, California. I work part-time as a freelance graphic designer, but most of my days are spent as a stay-at-home-mom. My interests include (but are not limited to) strong coffee, The Cure, poke bowls, naps, Tahitian dancing, collecting seashells and rubber duckies.
2) What was your diagnosis? If you weren’t officially diagnosed, what do you believe it would be?
I had postpartum depression (PPD)/postpartum anxiety (PPA) twice. The first time I was diagnosed with PPD, I was given an RX for an antidepressant and sent home with no follow-up. That time it lasted for about a year.
The second time around it started much earlier (six weeks into the pregnancy) and it lasted until a year after birth, so a total of almost two years. That time I got officially diagnosed with severely cycling anxiety and depression. It was similar to Bipolar disorder, but instead of mania and depression, it was overwhelming anxiety to severe deep depression. There was no rest between the cycles.
3) When did you realize something was wrong or that you needed help?
After my first daughter, I knew something was wrong the instant we came home. I wasn’t able to eat much because the anxiety was so bad. Sometimes I would vomit from the nervousness. I couldn’t sleep, even when the baby slept. It got progressively worse and worse until, at my six-week visit, I got help.
During my second pregnancy, it just hit me when I was 6 weeks pregnant. I was unable to function. Again, I couldn’t eat or sleep. The doctors all just blamed it on the pregnancy.
4) Were you screened for a PMAD?
5) What did your treatment plan look like?
The first time I was given a prescription for Celexa and sent on my way. They recommended seeing a therapist but they had no referrals.
The second time I went through 2 obstetricians, 3 therapists, and 3 psychiatrists before I finally found the help I needed. This took about 6 months. SIX MONTHS. Once I finally got to that point, I was seeing my therapist once a week. My psychiatrist put me on a high dose of Celexa and also sleeping medication for the insomnia when needed. About 8 months postpartum, she noticed the severe cycling I was experiencing. I would have 4 weeks of severe anxiety followed by 4 weeks of severe depression. She put me on a low dose of an antiepileptic called Lamotrigine. Used off-market, it was known to help pull people out of severe depression. It turns out that was just what I needed. I was feeling better within weeks.
The one thing that helped pull me through was my faith in God. I never knew I even had faith until I was thrown into this situation. I read devotionals daily and the community at our church prayed for me constantly. That support was essential to my recovery.
6) Did you face any challenges on your road to recovery? What were they?
The biggest challenge was finding health providers who understood what postpartum depression/anxiety was. Even obstetricians. It took over 15 appointments to finally find someone who knew what they were doing. This finally happened 6 months into my pregnancy.
Finding clinicians who took insurance was another issue. So many of them refuse to take insurance because of the extreme hassle it is for them. I witnessed it with my own eyes. It’s a complete racket so I don’t blame them. I should mention that I had “good” insurance. A PPO with Aetna at the time.
7) Did you come across any resources that helped you?
Postpartum Progress was by far the best website I found. They use “plain mama English” so that moms can easily get the information they need, and they have an amazing online support group that is strictly moderated to keep out any negativity or false information. It’s the only group I’ve seen like it. They are truly there for the mamas.
I also read Shoshanna Bennet’s books Pregnant on Prozac and Beyond the Blues. The Mother-to-Mother Postpartum Depression Support Book was also very helpful.
A friend of mine also wrote a blog called Higher Highs, Lower Lows, about the ups and downs of pregnancy and parenthood. It was a Godsend for me. I read it religiously.
8) What is one thing you try to do each week as self-care?
I attend a dance class every Saturday while my husband watches the kids. Every day I try to take some time for myself. Sometimes that means drinking a cup of coffee and staring at Instagram. Sometimes it means having some chocolate and wine. Many times it means going to bed early with a good book.
9) What advice would you give a parent struggling with a perinatal mental illness?
Be your own advocate. Doctors may brush you off or not take you seriously. You need to make them listen to you. Be loud if you have to be. Too many women are falling through the cracks of this disease.