The Light Went Out–My Postpartum Journey

Trigger Warning: suicidal thoughts

The Light went out.

“You’re glowing!” – I heard it so many times during my pregnancy. I felt the glow; I really did. I could feel the abundance of love and happiness that beamed from my face; the happiness that embraced me. That same glow followed me through childbirth, through the long, sleepless nights of nursing a tiny human and the dreaded witching hour that came in the evening. That glow got me through, but that glow dissolved. My light went out and this is the story of my recovery. I promise, if you keep going, you will also recover from your time of darkness. The light will return.

While growing up, I suffered from a mild form of OCD and some anxiety, though those things never inhibited my ability to live.  I loved to live, to smile, to laugh, to joke—but that all changed. After my third baby, I felt the shift. If you have ever gone through a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder (PMAD), you know that feeling and the very words you’re reading are likely filling your soul with the feelings you once felt. The dark, all-encompassing hole of spiraling thoughts, that you were sure had no end. The hole that completely swallowed you and and made you feel as thought there was no way out. I can look at pictures that I forced myself to take with my sweet newborn and remember the thoughts going through my mind—not feelings of harm, but of hopelessness. PPD/PPA stole my shine at one point; it took the light from within me. The light that once was illuminating my every move—it went out and with little warning.

I remember waking up one day and everything within me was off.  It was as though I had left my physical body and I was walking in a dream, but that dream was my reality. Every second felt like a mini-panic attack.  My brain was in a constant battle of fight and flight, circling itself with thoughts that nothing was real, but it was, it was so real. There was a disconnect from my life and family and it consumed me with feelings of hopelessness and defeat. Who were these children? Surely, they were not mine. This house wasn’t home. My husband, well, I was light years away from a connection I had felt with him just the day before. I would sit in the bathroom and have a raging fight within my head over the very real life that was happening outside of those doors—a life I very much did not feel a part of. I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t leave my house; I could barely leave my chair.  I nursed my baby and handed him back over to dad because it was too much.

I didn’t know then that I was suffering from a PMAD. It seems so obvious, I know. I remember exploring options like brain tumors and prayed that doctors would find one and be able to physically remove the mental anguish I was feeling. I didn’t know this wasn’t a job for my primary doctor.  I surely didn’t think I needed a psychiatrist because something was physically wrong with me, not mentally, right? Me—a student that had been studying mental illness for years and who had devoted hours and hours of learning the signs—I didn’t recognize the type of help I needed. I didn’t recognize that I needed medication to reroute the wiring in my brain or that I needed to surround myself with support. I just didn’t know, and it took me almost too long to figure it out. I was almost too late.

Did you know 20% of postpartum deaths are due to suicide and most women suffering from perinatal mood or disorders do not seek treatment (Wisner, 2013)?  Women like me. They don’t know the signs or think they are at risk. Maybe they are ashamed; too ashamed to seek the help they desperately need. What some new moms may not know is there are people out there longing to help them—begging to give them the ladder they need to climb out of the darkness.  People who won’t guilt or shame them but who will encourage and love them. The signs were there. THEY WERE EVERYWHERE, yet I still felt shame and was filled to the brim with denial.

So there I was, longing for help, for someone to pull me out of the water that was filling my lungs, depleting my oxygen, and stealing my life. I needed someone to tell me it would get better; a blog, a friend…anything. Not medicine though—I didn’t need that. I’m not “that” person. I was going to school to help those people, not be one. I just needed a shred of hope. Surely, I could continue hanging from the fraying string of life without the medicine my doctor assured me I needed.

The darker thoughts soon started flooding my mind. I didn’t want to kill myself, but I didn’t want to live. How could I? Nobody could live the rest of their life feeling this way; it wasn’t life, it wasn’t living. For the first time in my life, I understood suicide and the desire to leave the darkness behind. It sounded like a relief. I wasn’t really living anyways. I was simply a beating heart in a lifeless body; a shell that everyone would be better off without. The wall between me and the world was rapidly growing thicker and I didn’t want to be a part of it anymore.

Enter Zoloft.

Now, I know, “prescription medications are the devil.”  I’ve heard it. I’ve seen you write it and share it and rant about big pharma. You’ve listed and rambled on about the long list of side-effects that come with taking SSRI’s and mood enhancers. I’ve scrolled over the posts on social media encouraging people that “nature is medicine, not a pill.” I see you (it’s even possible that at one point I “liked” your post!) but I’m here to tell you that you are the problem. You are an ingredient to a disastrous recipe of misunderstanding mental illness. You are a driving force behind people—moms—feeling shame for taking medicine they desperately need. A huge part of the reason why moms are literally killing themselves and leaving their children and families behind. But a “good” mom wouldn’t need a pill to help her feel love, right? Don’t these moms know the side-effects? Or, that their doctors are at the hands of big pharmaceutical companies and are just pushing prescriptions to fill their pockets? They must not have tried essential oils or used St. John’s Wort, or valerian root, or B12 or D3 or a dose of sunshine. If they had they’d feel better, right? They should try a walk through nature; that would be a cure-all…nevermind that they aren’t showering or picking themselves up off of the couch for days or weeks at a time.

Or, maybe it’s just that you have never felt the overwhelming embrace of a world full of darkness. You’ve been lucky enough to never have to navigate life through a dark tunnel that seems to have no end. We’re taking these medications because we are trying…we are trying so hard! We are desperate to NOT DIE—we do not need your judgement and misguided shame. We need life. We don’t care about side effects of nausea when we don’t even care about living. We don’t care about the profuse sweating we go through, just to feel an ounce of happiness. We don’t care, because we have life—a life we once lost.

The tears literally streamed down my face uncontrollably as I took my first pill of Zoloft. I felt guilt. I felt shame.  I felt like throwing up because I was so confused, but I also felt hope. For the first time in three-long, agonizing months, I felt a tinge of hopefulness, a feeling that things had a chance of getting better. I felt like living was a possible option. I also knew that often medicine can take weeks to kick in, so I scrounged up every last bit of strength in my body and told myself I could hold on for twenty-one more days. I could do this. I looked into the eyes of my children, after explaining my need for medicine and dug as deep as I could to find the energy I needed to live. And I found it. I wove that frayed string of life back together. I built it up, climbed it and threw it out as a lifeline to the others spiraling into a world of darkness.

If you look into your baby’s face and feel nothing, that is not you…that is depression. If you feel like you are nothing, worthless or that life would be better if you were gone—that is not you…that is the depression. If you can’t find the energy to shower or get dressed or move out of your chair, that is not you…that is depression and you are not alone. There is light at the end if you keep going. You are loved. You are more than depression and perinatal mood and anxiety disorders and you will find the spark of life again. One day, you will smile again.  You will half-heartedly laugh again and remember the joy it brings you. You will feel love and you will heal. You will walk outside in the sunshine and take a deep breath of relief—because you’re alive and you beat it. You will look back at your time of darkness and feel like a warrior, because you are. You will look into the mirror and the reflection will be someone you recognize. Do not stop fighting. Do not stop trying to find that light. My light turned back on and if you keep going, yours will too.

Sending love and light.

–Written by Jarrika Falls Stephens

References: Wisner KL, Sit DKY, McShea MC, et al. Onset Timing, Thoughts of Self-harm, and Diagnoses in Postpartum Women With Screen-Positive Depression Findings. JAMA Psychiatry. 2013;70(5):490–498. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.87

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