I am honored to share Warrior Mom Mariah’s story of surviving postpartum depression and anxiety with you all today. Mariah is another mom I met through a Facebook group for moms organizing Climb Out of the Darkness walks in their cities.
Mariah is also a fellow NICU mom. Her experience of having to leave her baby in the NICU and being anxious about caring for him when he came home was so familiar to me. I didn’t learn until I was doing my work for the Climb that NICU parents are at higher risk of developing a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder (PMAD).
1) Tell us a bit about yourself:
Hi! My name is Mariah Warren. I live in the beautiful Hudson Valley of New York with my husband and our 6-year-old son. I never settled on a career, in large part due to my mental health, so I’ve been a stay-at-home-mom. I love reading, music (both as a listener and a musician), travel, performing, and thrift shopping. I’m a singer- primarily in church- who has performed as a wench at the NY Renaissance Faire, and, more recently, as a choir member with a local professional theater company. I’ve also been a featured soloist on 2 CDs, and a dream of mine is to record my own CD, with profits going to support mental health. Dislikes: conflict, brussels sprouts, being in crowds for an extended period of time (because I’m an introvert).
2) What was your diagnosis?
I’d already been diagnosed with depression and anxiety as a college student (25 years ago or so), and at times it was severe enough to require hospitalization, so I was well aware that what I was experiencing was not the typical baby blues. My current psychiatrist told me at the time (2012) that the DSM had no diagnosis of postpartum anything; it was categorized as depression, postpartum onset. Mine had a severe anxiety component to it.
3) When did you realize something was wrong or that you needed help?
Two days after my son’s birth, when I was scheduled for discharge, I started crying. The nurses told me not to worry, that my son, who was in the NICU, was in great hands. But I told them I wasn’t worried for him… I was worried about eventually having to take him home! My sleep was affected; basically, I couldn’t fall asleep easily with my racing mind. I’d been off of my antidepressant for a year, so I was med-free at the moment and the anxiety snowballed. It got worse in the 3 weeks my son was in the NICU. I remember being so anxious taking him home, not knowing what to do other than feed and change him. I felt like I needed to occupy him, to entertain him, but had no idea how to do that with a newborn. How could I put him in a swing or rocker and leave him alone? But he couldn’t really interact with me. My mind was racing so much that I could hardly sleep. People tell moms to sleep when the baby sleeps, but that was a near impossibility for me, which didn’t help my situation.
4) Were you screened for a PMAD? When?
I was probably screened at my 6-week follow-up, although I already knew I had one. I’d asked my ob-gyn for resources — a support group, anything — and, despite her practice being a large one located right across from the hospital, she had nothing. Just a few names of female therapists who’d worked with her patients.
5) What did your treatment plan look like?
This was the tough part. I was already in therapy with my psychiatrist (at the time), the person who had gotten me mentally to the point of motherhood. It’s a long story, but basically, my husband and I were married for 10 years before I could seriously entertain becoming pregnant without having a major anxiety attack (one that required tranquilizers). My then-psychiatrist is the one I credit with helping me get to that point. He weaned me off my anti-depressants, as he did not believe in any meds during pregnancy — or breastfeeding. I was trying to breastfeed but asked for meds to lessen my racing thoughts. He agreed to prescribe them so long as I agreed to stop breastfeeding. I did, but I forced myself to wait a week until my next session to show that I could be strong and maybe get past this without the meds. I thought he would be proud of my strength, but instead, my doc got angry with me for not following through after he had held an emergency phone session with me and prescribed the strong meds I asked for.
I was stunned by what I perceived in the moment as his lack of empathy, and as I thought about things, I realized I was leaving each session in tears, no better than the previous week. This was probably about 5 weeks after my son’s birth. I decided to try to get in to see one of the therapists my ob-gyn recommended. I asked my doc to continue as my medication provider, with the hopes that once I stabilized and had dealt with the postpartum issues with someone more sensitive to them, I would return to the deeper, analytic therapy I had been doing with him. My doc refused to co-treat, telling me I had to make a choice, to stay with him or find a new doctor. We’d worked together for over 4 years, and he knew more about me than almost anyone. It was painful but we parted ways, without any sort of proper termination. That really sucked, and I’m still not 100% over it.
I did see a new therapist, one my ob-gyn referred me to, and while I liked her, I didn’t feel I was making progress. She did introduce me, however, to the chairman of psychiatry at the hospital where I’d given birth. I was having a meltdown in her office and called on him. He came right in and talked to me, agreed to work with me, and prescribed me a medication that immediately had a positive effect on my mind. Things started to look up, until at about 5 months when the med stopped working abruptly. I fell into a deep hole of despair and anxiety, wanting to run away from my family, start a new life somewhere across the country. I told my husband he should divorce me and find a new wife who would be a better mom to our son. I saw no end, no way out of the shroud of anxiety I wore, and basically wanted to die.
Serious suicidal ideation landed me in the psych unit of the same hospital I gave birth in. I spent about a week and a half there, attending basic group therapy, having my meds adjusted, etc. The hospital is a good place to be when you’re a threat to yourself because it’s safe, but it’s not somewhere you will get deep therapy. The unit chief wrote into my treatment plan that my husband would bring my son in daily for visiting so I could feed him and socialize with him. I am grateful for three nurses who sat with me and talked one to one, taking the time to listen. After I left the hospital, I went to their intensive outpatient program, attending group therapy (mostly CBT, which I don’t find helpful for myself because a lot of times I’m not aware of my thoughts as much as how I’m feeling), solo therapy, and meds management. Probably a week or two later, I was back in the same suicidal place, so I went back and was readmitted to the psych unit. I felt like I was doing the walk of shame when I re-entered those locked doors! I was there for another week and a half or so. And did more intensive outpatient. And was facing a third hospitalization when…
–ok, I need to backtrack here. When I was not as bad off, when my son was about two months old, I found a group called “Adjustments to Motherhood” that met at a local baby store. While not specifically for PMADs, it was led by a social worker who had experienced PPD and trained at the Postpartum Stress Center with Karen Kleiman. I finally felt understood meeting her and the women in the group. She remained in touch with me between hospitalizations, and she recommended to my husband that we look into the intensive day program at Women and Infants’ Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. I had found the program online months earlier, but my husband dismissed it, saying I just wanted to run away. I did want to run away, but I would’ve had to bring our son with me, and since he was the cause of my anxiety, I wouldn’t really be running, would I?–
Anyway, when he heard this recommended months later by my group leader, he agreed to give them a call. We went to Rhode Island for an intake interview, and I was accepted into the program. At Women and Infants’, they work with both pregnant and postpartum women, offering group and individual therapy and medication management. Women are encouraged to bring their children with them, and so I did, staying for three weeks. (A special thank-you to the Providence Ronald McDonald House for allowing us to stay there. I can’t say enough about them and the generosity of all who support them.) Working with the professionals at Women and Infants’, I finally began to heal.
Back home in New York, I began therapy with the woman who ran the group I’d attended months ago. I remain in therapy with her to this day, as it’s been quite helpful to me. I was able to come off of many of the medications I was taking during my first year postpartum, and for the past four or five years, have been on two antidepressants which work well, together, for me. Given my history of mental health issues, I find it worth my while to remain on the meds. My faith community (I am Christian) has supported me throughout my mental health journey; my pastor and several church friends braved the locked psych unit to come and visit me when I was there.
6) Did you face any challenges on your road to recovery? What were they?
I did have some difficulty finding the right combination of medications. I think the biggest challenges were in finding the right therapist for me, and with family. My family was very helpful in being over the house, helping with my son, but I also received negative feedback: i.e., comments about how good my sister was with my son, when I already felt like a failure as a mother. I think they thought I was being a bit overdramatic, like “of course motherhood is going to challenge you, it challenges everyone.” I was told “it’s not all about you anymore,” a statement that left me feeling both selfish and indignant. Did I ever say it was all about me? I was definitely surprised by the lack of concrete support systems, especially when asking my ob-gyn. After learning how prevalent PMADs are, it blows my mind that so many people act like it’s nothing, or that if you pretend it’s not there, it won’t be.
7) Did you come across any resources that helped you? What were they?
It was helpful to me to read Karen Kleiman’s book This Isn’t What I Expected. I also found the website and community of Postpartum Progress. Through their Facebook groups, I met so many survivors of PMADs, and we helped each other as we shared our stories. I am grateful for their friendships and to have met so many of them in person. Although Postpartum Progress (the organization) no longer exists, we do have Postpartum Support International and in New York, the Postpartum Resource Center of NY.
Blogs I have resonated with include: Small Time Mum by Eve Canavan, S. Paige Writes by Stephanie Paige, Good Girl Gone Redneck by Andrea Bates, and Birth of a New Brain by Dyane Harwood. The Self-Care Squad Facebook group, run by Graeme Seabrook, is an amazing group where I can always find support.
8) What is one thing you try to do each week as self-care?
Listen to my favorite relaxing music and read (books, magazines, internet, whatever). And take naps!
9) What advice would you give a parent struggling with a perinatal mental illness?
First off, know that you are not alone!!! There are many amazing communities online, including on Facebook, where you can meet people who share the same feelings/experiences.
Second, it’s important to get help, however you can. Therapy, maybe medications, whatever works for you, but don’t try to go it alone. Reach out, or ask someone to reach out for you. You’ll get better faster if you do.
Third, you are not a bad mom/parent/whatever. You have an illness, one that is treatable, that you did not bring upon yourself. You need to take care of yourself, in order to be the best parent/person you can be. There’s a reason airlines tell passengers to put on their own oxygen masks first before putting on their kids’ masks: we can’t do anything if we’re not functioning.
Thank you so much for sharing your story with us, Mariah! You can also find Mariah at her blog, Living in Sanity.
If you have survived a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder and would like to share your story, please visit this post and fill out the form.
If you have any encouraging/kind comments, please leave them below.