An article I wrote for the GoodTherapy.org blog. The important take-away: depression is a serious illness. Mild to moderate depression often can be treated through psychotherapy and improved relationships and self-care. But if you need medication to recover, it’s still important to get better however you need to.
Whenever I talk about the symptoms of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, I always include “unusual physical symptoms.” What does that mean? It means that any new physical symptoms that begin during pregnancy and postpartum can be related to mental health.
My own experience with postpartum depression and anxiety was quite atypical, and that was partly why I suffered for months before receiving the proper diagnosis and treatment.
I had lots of risk factors for postpartum depression: a previous bout of depression, the death of a loved one, a high-risk pregnancy, a traumatic childbirth, an unsupportive marriage, and breastfeeding difficulties. But even though I had suffered from depression before, after the death of my mother, my postpartum symptoms were not recognizable to me.
After my second child was born, my stress level was off the charts. My older son got kicked out of two preschools (he wouldn’t use the potty!) and I was scrambling to find a preschool that would take him. I never made enough milk for the new baby because he was so big and I was so stressed out, and he refused to nurse completely as soon as he started solid foods. I felt guilty about “failing” at breastfeeding and I was also afraid that I would not be able to go back to work after maternity leave because I couldn’t find full-time daycare that would take my challenging and potty-resistant older son.
In the meantime, I had difficulties in my marriage. My husband worked a lot, and when he was there he criticized my parenting style, my cooking, and my housekeeping. Even our challenging preschooler was my fault! I was trying my best to make everyone happy, but I was clearly failing.
During this time, I started to have odd physical symptoms. I started feeling that the room was tilting and that I was off-balance. I had to lie down and felt the room was spinning around me. My doctor thought it was either an inner-ear infection or possibly Multiple Sclerosis, and I was sent for neurological testing. The tests came back normal, although MS couldn’t be ruled out (a bonus for my anxiety, of course!).
My symptoms came and went, and then began to include nausea and vomiting along with the dizziness, a complete lack of appetite, and an inability to sleep. I had a low-grade fever on and off for a couple of months and my white blood-cell count was high. I lost 16 pounds beyond the baby weight, slept about three to four hours a night, and threw up regularly — out the door of the car, in the sink at the pediatrician’s office, etc. I felt that my body was swaying even when I was perfectly still, and my bed felt like it was shaking as I lay in it trying to sleep. My skin felt prickly, my chest burned and my hands tingled. The dizziness made watching TV or reading impossible, and walking or driving became difficult. I felt sure that I was dying.
My doctor considered an inner ear problem, hormones, diabetes, thyroid issues, and even encephalitis, but every test came back normal. I was living on Ensure and Gatorade, because I couldn’t keep any solid food down. The stress of caring for my children became unbearable, so we hired a babysitter and I spent most of every day lying in bed, praying to fall asleep for a couple of hours to get some rest. I was prescribed Ativan, but it just knocked me out for an hour or two and I would wake up feeling even worse than before.
After about four months, I fell apart completely and told my doctor that he had to hospitalize me because I was dying, and at that point I wanted to die if they couldn’t stop the misery I was living in. I was admitted to a psychiatric inpatient unit, but my doctor was still sending me around to specialists, trying to figure out what was physically wrong with me.
I stopped vomiting as soon as I was admitted to the hospital. That was when I realized that whatever was going on with me had to do with stress. I spent 12 days in the hospital, during which time I started taking antidepressants and was prescribed an anti-anxiety medication that allowed me to sleep. For a few days, all I did was sleep. When I was awake I was no longer nauseous, but I was filled with unbearable emotional pain. I was terrified that I would never be able to care for my children without getting sick. I felt like the worst mother in the world.
After I was released from the hospital I did a full-day partial hospitalization program for a month, which gave me time for the antidepressant to start working and allowed me to take care of myself for a change. I learned in group therapy about the ways in which I had prioritized my responsibility for others way above self-care, in unhealthy and unhelpful ways, and I began to heal. With the help of medication, therapy, and later couples counseling, I recovered. I still had anxiety at times, but I also had joy and passion for life. I became a lactation educator, started a small business helping other new moms, and led new parent support groups for several years. Eight years later I went back to school to become a Marriage and Family Therapist.
I still have to be vigilant about managing stress and maintaining good self-care. I tell myself that this is the “gift” of being prone to depression and anxiety: I don’t have the luxury of tolerating a great deal of stress like some people seem to do, or living life in a way that generally makes me unhappy. I am obligated to do work that I love, to have a healthy relationship with my husband, and to prioritize joy, peace and comfort as well as caring for my family. I know that I always have to be mindful to avoid a recurrence of depression, but I also know that I am strong and resilient and will do whatever I have to do to be healthy and take good care of myself and my children.
My mental health issues began when my second child was seven months old, and yet no one ever considered a postpartum condition. My symptoms were fully consistent with panic disorder and depression, and yet my doctor and my therapist (yes, a trained therapist!) never considered these diagnoses. My hope is that in the future, mothers and their caregivers become better educated to recognize perinatal mood and anxiety disorders so that they can be treated early and mothers can return to enjoying their lives again.
- If you need immediate help, please call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- If you are looking for pregnancy or postpartum support and local resources, please call or email Postpartum Support International:
Call PSI Warmline (English & Spanish) 1-800-944-4PPD (4773)
For individuals who have struggled with depression, the decision of whether to try, or later to stay on antidepressant medication is often a difficult one. Some people swear they will never try an antidepressant, until or unless their depression becomes so debilitating that there seems to be no other option. For others, the promise of relief is so attractive that they jump into the decision to take antidepressants, but then they struggle with the question of whether the medication is a lifelong sentence.
To Take Antidepressants or Not to Take Antidepressants
There are no easy answers to this question (as is true for most important ones!). Studies show that individuals suffering from moderate to severe depression have better odds of recovery with a combination of therapy and antidepressants. However, for some people, changes in diet, additional exercise, and better strategies for coping with stress can work just as well. For debilitating depression, medication can often help to lift a person up enough to be able to meaningfully participate in therapy. But depression generally happens for a reason, and often changes in thinking patterns, relationships or career are necessary for a person to have more happiness and fulfillment in their life. Medication alone may not make these changes happen. Does relying on antidepressants to make life more bearable reduce the motivation to make needed life changes that will improve the quality of one’s life? The answer to that question may be different for every individual, and is something that can be explored in therapy.
Some individuals find great relief on antidepressants, and don’t have any bothersome side effects. But others experience weight gain, sexual side effects or other unwanted secondary effects from these drugs. Sometimes, switching medication can resolve these issues, but in some cases the antidepressants that work for the individual are the same ones that cause other problems. That is a common reason why some people consider going off medication and try to manage their depression in other ways.
Never Go Off Antidepressants Without Consulting Your Doctor
A reminder here is important; never go off antidepressant medication suddenly, or without the supervision of the prescribing doctor. Some of these drugs require an extended period of weaning to avoid serious withdrawal symptoms. And an important factor to consider is the possibility that if you wean off your antidepressant medication, the same medication may not work for you as well in the future. That is one factor that you need to weigh with your health provider when making this decision.
Issues Raised by Weaning Off Antidepressants
Individuals that decide in consultation with their doctor to wean off antidepressants face a whole other set of challenges. The fear of a relapse of depression can be the most difficult part. Coping with the symptoms of withdrawal can be challenging, and often brings up these fears. Also, people who go off antidepressant medication may find themselves more vulnerable to feelings of sadness, irritation, anger and stress than they are used to. Learning coping strategies for these emotions is very important. A really bad day can create a lot of anxiety that the depression may be returning, even if the emotions involved are normal and healthy. Therapy can be an helpful place for reality-testing in terms of what is healthy and what is a signal that depression may be returning.
The thoughts and feelings around the decision to go on or off of antidepressant medication can be confusing. Therapy and consultation with your medical provider to sort through the questions and concerns raised by antidepressants is a good place to start.