The struggle of one mom with postpartum depression, anxiety, and how she overcame the stigma of mental illness. By Cassia Hahn
I knew something was off.
Not only hormones and post-pregnancy symptoms. I knew myself, I was not okay.
The pregnancy began with so much excitement. It took a while to become pregnant. Coincidentally, we found out we were pregnant only a few days after we had an initial consult with an infertility specialist. We were thrilled.
I had recently, with the assistance of my behavioral health provider, weaned off my psychiatric medications. I had spent most of my life battling with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), depression, anxiety, and panic disorders. Knowing these factors, I kept a close eye on my mental health. Trying to be patient with me.
During the pregnancy, I experienced anxiety and depression-lite and strong feelings of OCD. The OCD typically surrounded any action I could do (realistically or completely irrational) to result in the death of my unborn baby. This included eating food that could poison her, if I bought a random item (the first box of cereal, the second from the back rolls of paper towels, etc.) and had a “bad thought” while choosing it, and ruminated on the past, confessing every negative thought and more. These were feelings I was familiar with. But now, this all surrounded the health of my unborn child. And were magnified.
I would spend hours per day, sitting in stillness, holding my breath feeling if she was still moving. I became a recluse, continuing to work through crying at my desk at times, coming home, going in my room, and binge-watching movies. My favorite was the movie Knocked Up, which I watched probably two dozen times.
I gained 50lbs and it was hard to walk both with the aches and pains but also the physical symptoms of depression weighed me down.
Fast forward to the final months of my pregnancy, the depression and anxiety symptoms became quieter. I could, at times, think of ruminating thoughts as yappy little dogs and push them down.
September 9, 2009, came, and my water broke! I was thrilled and beside myself with excitement. The delivery went smoothly, had a bit of high blood pressure which complicated things, but overall a good delivery. I remember the moment I saw her, the first words out of my mouth was, “she has hair!”. I thought she’d be born bald as I had been.
A couple of days later, we took our new bundle of joy home.
I had decided to not breastfeed which was controversial in a baby-friendly hospital. I had to explain time and time again why I was choosing not to breastfeed. I wanted to keep my options open for medication, should the need arise. Keeping an eye on myself.
The first two weeks were bliss, with exception to the minor baby blues. Almost exactly two weeks in, the depression hit me like a boulder. Before that, I remember spending the days with the curtains wide open. Letting the natural light stream in. In that painful moment, the light became so cold and bright it hurt my eyes. I knew at that moment that I needed help.
Every time I would bring my newborn in for follow-up during those 2 weeks, and as a long-time employee would be stopped by people who wanted to see the new addition. People love babies. If someone came near her, I would stiffen up. Panic would set in. One time a coworker touched her face with long acrylic nails. That freaked me out. I escaped the medical center through a side door and cried the whole way home. I’d wash her and wipe her face after every touch. I’d bought a huge bottle of hand sanitizer and no one could come near her without washing their hands with soap and sanitizer. I got a cold and would not go near her, finally got some face masks and I could at least be in the same room. The fear was paralyzing. Heavy and painful.
I called my primary care doctor, left a message. She called me within 20 minutes. She immediately called in an order for an antidepressant to help alleviate some initial symptoms. Talking me through the next steps, she had a social worker contact me. She called 20 minutes later. The social worker took my information. I explained as best I could the unexplainable sadness that had overcome me. I could still care for my baby, just not care for myself. Sadness is not a strong enough word. I can feel the weight, just writing this. The social worker scheduled me an intake at Behavioral Health for the next day. I continued to cry and then the OCD came on strong. After the intake, I was referred to an amazing psychiatrist at the Erwin Street Medical Office Building, who specialized in post-partum.
Once I met with Dr. Barrio, and she adjusted treatment, the relief began to come over me. She worked with me, at every appointment, to begin to care for myself so I can be good for my daughter.
The light that streamed in the windows didn’t hurt my eyes any longer. I opened the curtains, I could breathe and begin to heal. Most importantly, I could enjoy being a mother.
Fast forward 2 and a half years.
My daughter was such a joy. We decided to try once more and have another baby. Despite my challenges with PPD and PPA, I knew I could be okay. I knew myself better than ever and had an amazing care team at Kaiser Permanente.
I again went off my medications (with the assistance of my doctor). We quickly became pregnant and were overjoyed. The months passed with typical anxiety I was familiar with from being pregnant with my daughter.
At five months, not only did I find out we were having a boy but the post-partum depression, anxiety, and OCD hit me like a semi-truck.
I was stumped since I was not post-partum yet, I was fully in partum!
The familiar weight hit me. I felt alone and boxed in, not spending time with friends or family. I could go to work, barely dragging myself in most days, and when I was at my desk spent time with migraines or crying. Luckily, I could continue to care for my young daughter through these struggles.
I would frantically try to feel him move. I went to the Labor and Delivery department a dozen times or so to be hooked up to the monitor to make sure he was okay. Each time, he was just relaxing! I wondered how could he relax with me being such a mess!
Once again, I knew I needed help. This time, at only five months pregnant, I desperately reached out to the social services department. I met with a social worker who specialized in PPD PPA and the hospital psychiatrist on duty.
My treatment options were to stick it out, go to therapy and try my best to get through the next 4 or so months or if the suffering proved to be too much, I could try a small dose of antidepressant. There was little research on how antidepressants would affect my unborn son. I had no idea what it could do to him. As bad as I felt, I could not risk his health. I chose to keep close contact with the social worker, my primary doctor, my psychiatrist, and my husband. I talked, a lot, about my feelings. The OCD ravaged my confidence. I cried a lot.
My care team supported me, I felt the strain of the mental illness, but I knew it would not consume me. I wouldn’t let it win. One thing that came out of the meeting was that the psychiatrist at the hospital said he would have a prescription for an antidepressant waiting for me after my delivery.
Too much information alert.
To add salt to the wound, at 7 months, I suffered from severe hemorrhoids. Yes, a very common thing during pregnancy. But horrible nonetheless. Then they decided to become thrombosed or strangulated. The pain overpowered me. I couldn’t take anything but acetaminophen, which provided no relief.
Eventually, I was forced to visit a general surgeon. I cried and bit down on a towel while I was numbed and they were surgically removed. I had to visit three times for surgical removal.
I was so relieved when my water finally broke a couple of months later and I delivered.
The pain reduced. I welcomed the delivery pain over the other pain. The delivery went wonderfully, despite the fact his head was pushing on my spine. I was told he was sunny side up. Which made me immediately hungry.
I immediately took the antidepressant, steering myself away from the heavyweight of PPD PPA. I still had the fluctuations of hormones and my standard OCD and anxiety, but again, they became yappy dogs. I heard them but could quiet them a bit.
I still to this day see Dr. Barrio. She has been a lifesaver for me through two babies, divorce, and other challenges. I still battle with OCD, anxiety, and depression. I have never let it beat me. I have accepted it will always be there.
If I can share my story and help one mother to be kind to herself, to understand she is not a bad mom. I would encourage her to avoid scouring the internet or magazines, seeing the celebrities and social media “good moms” enjoying their motherhood through images. I would tell her to not believe those images. Pregnancy, delivery, and post-partum are not pretty. I would tell her that she is not a bad mom. She is human. She is not perfect and should not aim for perfection. I would encourage her to love herself and remember she must be good for herself to be good for her baby. Most importantly, I would remind her she is a mom, a woman, and she is strong.