SEATTLE — Sometimes the greatest joy of your life can also bring the deepest, darkest pain.
I gave birth to my third child — a beautiful baby girl — in February of last year. We’d waited a long time for our Sloan Caroline, and when she finally arrived, our family felt complete. My older children adored her, her dad refused to put her down and every time I looked into her big, blue eyes I had to hold back tears because I couldn’t believe I was lucky enough to call her mine.
Life was good. My husband took a long paternity leave, the kids stayed busy in school and I spent quite a few hours cuddled up on the couch with my sweet girl, watching the Seattle rain pound against my window. I didn’t mind the gray because I had my sunshine sleeping on my shoulder.
About five months in, the real clouds came rolling in.
The anxiety I’d experienced while pregnant with my daughter came back suddenly and unexpectedly like an unforgiving tidal wave. I struggled to eat, sleep — even breathe. I was forced to breastfeed my baby for the last time after I realized she was starving and my milk was all but gone. I felt like an utter failure in nearly every way.
I hated myself. I hated my body, my beautiful, strong, capable body that created, cultivated and delivered three healthy babies. I lost my hope, my strength, my confidence. I was a firecracker that exploded at the smallest flame. I came to the undisputable conclusion that everyone would be better off without me. The crushing guilt and fear associated with these feelings threatened to swallow me whole.
I was alone. So painfully alone.
But the reality is I wasn’t alone. Not by a longshot. The American Psychological Association estimates 1 in 7 women are diagnosed with postpartum depression in the U.S. annually. That equates to about 600,000 women who found themselves in the same dark, isolated place as I did.
The actual number is likely much higher, considering the official statistics only include women who’ve self-reported their PPD.
Here’s another startling statistic for you: a measly 15 percent of women who suffer from some form of postpartum depression (PPD) actually receive treatment. Why is this?
Perhaps the answer lies in the theory that many of these women don’t realize the crippling pain they feel in the wake of what is often identified as the happiest event in one’s lifetime is in fact a legitimate, even life-threatening medical issue.
That was certainly the case for Alex Davis, a Seattle mother to four boys.
“When you hear about postpartum depression, it’s typically women wanting to hurt their babies,” she said. “I didn’t feel that.”
Postpartum first took hold of Davis soon after the birth of her third son. While her baby served as a source of immense joy, her new body immediately dashed those feelings of happiness.
“Every time I would look at my body or look at myself I would get an overwhelming feeling of sadness and depression,” she said. “I had changed. I was not the same person, I didn’t look the same, and it was hard.”
As she sank deeper into her depression, Davis began to avoid the social gatherings she once loved.
“I knew I wasn’t being the best mom, wife and friend,” she said. “I couldn’t even be around friends and would be so embarrassed of how I looked. I knew I was hurting relationships, but there was nothing I could do. To me it felt vain and stupid, but you’re in a fog and you can’t get out of it.”
It took nine long months for Davis to finally throw up the white flag. Her doctor helped her realize that the self-loathing she’d been dealing with since the birth of her son was, in fact, PPD.
“My postpartum depression took the form of self-punishment,” she said.
Suzanne Yates, an Idaho mother of four, didn’t realize she was suffering from postpartum depression until someone suggested she might need help.
“I’m a super sensitive person, so the way they said it completely shattered my self-esteem,” Yates said. “I felt myself get deeper into a pit of negative self-worth and self-hatred. … It was like they had taken the blinders off of my eyes and put me in front of a mirror and I did not like what I saw.”
Instead of seeking help, however, Yates said she remained in denial. When she stopped breastfeeding her baby at 9 months, she hit rock bottom.
“Instead of being on a roller coaster of emotions with some days high and some days low, every day became a low,” she said.
Instead of saying prayers with her husband at night, she’d curl up and cry.
“Going to bed meant a new day was about to begin, and I didn’t want to have to relive another day,” she continued. “I couldn’t stand the thought that I would have to endure another horrible day of being me and being the horrible mother I was to my sweet boys.”
Las Vegas mom Stephanie Valdez can relate. After the birth of her first child, she mistook what she was experiencing as a new-mom learning curve. When her second baby was born, the storm hit.
“I felt completely overwhelmed and inadequate, and I wanted to shut everyone out to prove I was capable,” she said. “I cried constantly, sometimes to the point of screaming, and wept from being consumed by guilt.”
Valdez didn’t recognize herself anymore. She distanced herself from family and friends for fear of burdening them with her pain.
“The fog kept me from recognizing, requesting or utilizing their help,” she said.
Virginia mom of four Amy Cheney had a history of anxiety and other mental health issues even before she got pregnant for the first time. When she discovered she’d be having a baby, she took steps to prevent slipping into postpartum depression because she knew she’d be vulnerable.
After delivery, Cheney’s subsequent recovery went well. She was relieved she hadn’t experienced what she feared she might. It wasn’t until after the birth of her second daughter that she felt something was inexplicably different this time around. She began to isolate herself and often wanted to just sleep the days away.
While she worried what she felt was PPD, the guilt kept her from giving into the reality.
“I had a perfect, healthy, gorgeous baby,” Cheney said. “I would be ungrateful to be removed or ‘unhappy.’”
Cheney found herself overwhelmed with the smallest tasks — such as doing the dishes — and constantly doubted her abilities as a mother.
“My days were long and dark,” she said.
When she’d cried to the point that the tears stopped coming, she realized she needed help. So she reached out to her doctor, who confirmed that she indeed was suffering from PPD.
“After a few weeks of adjusting to my medication and a couple of visits to my therapist I finally found a little light and it felt so good,” she said. “I realized the feelings I had and the darkness I experienced were all chemical. It wasn’t because I was an unfit mother or emotionally weak person.”
While each woman’s story is different, often the underlying feelings are the same. The most common symptoms of postpartum depression include excessive crying, severe mood swings, withdrawal from loved ones, changes in appetite and sleep patterns, extreme irritation or anger, severe anxiety and feelings of inadequacy, according to the Mayo Clinic.
The thing is, you don’t have to suffer in silence.
“We know too much, we have too many resources that can help a woman with postpartum depression, she need not suffer alone,” clinical psychologist Liz Hale said back in 2015. “It is too damaging to everyone.”
When I asked for help with this story, I was overwhelmed by the number of women who were eager to share their postpartum experiences. Women from different phases of my life — childhood friends, college friends, grad school friends, etc., came forward with brutal honesty and a sincere desire to help other women who may be living their own personal hell and feeling as though they’ve been forgotten.
As I read through each brave, beautiful and powerful experience, I couldn’t help but wonder if things would have been easier for me if I’d known how many of my peers understood what I was going through.
Davis says she’s found so much healing in just talking about it.
“I feel like we need to be very clear that it is different for every woman,” she said. “Talking about it, normalizing it, knowing that you’re not alone is one of the best things that you can do.”
Valdez says that looking back on her experience, she wishes she’d just accepted the help that had been offered instead of bearing her burden alone for so long.
“This isn’t your fault, it was out of your control, and you didn’t do anything to deserve it,” she said. “You aren’t alone. There’s no shame in getting help either, whether through therapy or medication. It’s worth every effort so you can get back to being yourself again.”
For Yates, it was learning to trust her body through exercise that helped pull her out of the fog.
“I started to notice myself feeling more energetic and feeling less likely to cry when the boys cried,” she said. “With my body feeling stronger, I felt stronger mentally to handle the day. I don’t know how, but that’s when I knew I was going to be OK.”
I’m less than two weeks from my daughter’s first birthday, and I wish I could say that I was totally in the clear. I still have days that seem too difficult to conquer. I still have sleepless nights plagued by irrational thoughts, insecurities and fears. But I’m not alone.
None of us are.
Seek and accept the help you need, because I promise you, you deserve nothing less.