A Story of Hope: Jessica’s Story

I look at this photo, taken nearly two years after my experience with postpartum psychosis, and think “Wow, I never thought I’d get here. To this point of happiness and love and self-acceptance and hope.” 

The first year and a half of my son’s life was not as picture perfect.

Here’s my story. My husband and I are high school sweethearts. We were together 10 years before we married in 2013. We wanted kids, sure. But I was focused on my career and wanted to be financially secure before starting a family. So, we decided to wait until 2017 to try to conceive. It definitely didn’t come easy for us. It took about a year before we finally got pregnant. But weeks later our world stopped. I had a miscarriage at 5 weeks pregnant. This happened while we were both also dealing with the loss of our fur baby, Otis (a cat we had since we began dating 15 years earlier). That, coupled with a lot of other personal stuff going on in our lives, broke me. I tried to remain strong, and opted to look to the future instead of dealing with my pain. 

Once it was safe to do so, we continued to try for a baby. Four months later, we found out we were pregnant. We. Were. Elated. Our rainbow baby. 

My pregnancy was a smooth one. But, I am a little anxious by nature and that became more obvious throughout the pregnancy, especially with the constant fear that I may miscarry again, or something else terrible might happen to me or the baby. 

As an expecting mom, or parent, you often spend so much time eagerly preparing for your baby’s arrival. Learning all about baby’s development, getting the nursery set-up, making sure you’re registered for all the latest and greatest baby gadgets, the list goes on. Not once during my pregnancy did I consider the effect having a baby would have on my mental health. After all, women have had babies for centuries, no big deal, right? 

Boy, how naive. Looking back, preparing for a baby should have included preparing myself for the potential of what I was about to experience postpartum. Instead, my husband and I were left unprepared to navigate the tragic mental health system while in such a dire condition. 

Right after Henry was born, my stress levels were at an all time high. I won’t go into all the details, but basically my perfectionism and my need to feel like I could handle it all — the late night feedings, the laundry, the other house work, the same busy social calendar — took its toll. I wasn’t taking care of myself, I wasn’t eating or sleeping. I was constantly “revved up” is the best way to explain it. Looking back, I now see how all of this led up to the ultimate breaking point. 

About 6 weeks into my postpartum journey, while my husband was behind the scenes frantically Googling “when will my wife’s hormone levels even out after baby?” I lost grip with reality. Literally. I didn’t believe it was me in all the photos hanging throughout our house, as if this was someone else’s life I was living in. I became paranoid. I thought someone was trying to steal my son. I thought my family was plotting against me. I would go from crying to laughing hysterically within the same breath. I was not myself and was behaving erratically. 

It was then that my husband realized that something was not right. He took me to the ER. Sadly, due to how our mental health system is run, I wasn’t able to get the care I needed unless I volunteered to be admitted into a psychiatric hospital. They ER doctors advised us to go home and get some sleep, and we could reevaluate in the morning. There was no change. I didn’t sleep and it was the same paranoid, anxious, erratic cycle the next day. We went back to the ER and ultimately decided it would be best to be admitted into the psychiatric hospital. 

I didn’t realize what was going on or how long I’d be there. All I knew was something was not right and I wanted to get better. I had to take an ambulance to the psychiatric hospital, even though it was voluntary. Once there, my husband wasn’t able to stay with me. I had to give up all the belongings I had on me (which wasn’t much because I didn’t bring anything to the ER but the clothes on my back, chapstick and my cell phone). 

After I was settled in at the psychiatric hospital, I was delusional. Memories of my life, childhood, and other experiences all rushed to me — the good, the bad, the ugly all constantly running through my mind. I felt like I was constantly trying to uncover something, find meaning, connect the dots. I experienced all of this alone, in a tiny, white room with a thin mattress. Seriously, it would make a sane person crazy. 

While it was bleak and uncomfortable, the psychiatric hospital gave me direct access to the right mental health professionals (psychiatrist, therapist, etc). During my evaluation, I was diagnosed with postpartum psychosis. I had never heard of this postpartum mood disorder (PPMD) before, but the words psychosis and psychotic do not really have the most favorable reputation. I was a crazy person — that’s all I heard.

The care team recommended that I go on medication. I knew it was necessary but I wasn’t in the frame of mind to make decisions. I questioned everything, but was unable to sort through all the noise in my head. Ultimately they put me on an antipsychotic drug to help “unscatter” my brain. They also gave me melatonin to help me sleep – after I refused other sleep aids because I was overly concerned about becoming addicted. 

It all felt surreal. It was dreamlike. I kept thinking I’ve got to be sleeping and this is all a dream. When will I wake up? 

I finally was able to get some sleep. My husband knows this part better than me, but I believe he said I slept something like 18 hours straight. After two days there, I was evaluated and deemed fit to return home to recover. It was truly a short period of time, considering the severity of my diagnosis. 

Once home, I chose to stop breastfeeding so I could get help with feedings from my husband and other family members. I began therapy, opting for an intensive outpatient program. I was a bit resistant with the therapy as I didn’t feel like it was specific to my situation — as a new mom with a newly diagnosed mood disorder, I didn’t feel like I fit in. Because of this, and because I had started to feel better with the medication, I made the decision to end the program early. 

Then, my maternity leave ended and I had to go back to work. The antipsychotic medication affected my concentration and ability to function to my fullest potential. I started having panic attacks. I was overly anxious that I would lose my job and we’d lose my income. I spiraled. I became deeply depressed, felt hopeless and my self confidence plummeted. 

In my lowest moment, I had to shop for a new therapist and a psychiatrist. That was the last thing I wanted to do, but knew I needed the help. 

Once I found the right fit, it took months of therapy to realize that I needed to make some tough decisions. I decided to take a step back in my career and found a new job closer to home. The job change, all the work I was doing through therapy, and the support of my family and friends helped me slowly find my way back to me (or atleast the new me). 

Today, I look at my beautiful family and am so thankful for how we have been able to overcome the darkest of days. Yet, I also reflect back on my experience and am saddened. I’m saddened that I wasn’t more prepared for the potential after effects of having a baby. I’m saddened that our healthcare system isn’t set up to help moms — only screening for depression at a 6 week check-up when there are so many other ways moms struggle postpartum. I’m saddened that not everyone is as fortunate as I was to have a support system to lift me up and help me recover.  

While my story has a happy ending, I understand that many others aren’t as fortunate and may still be fighting to survive their darkest of days. Or, may not be prepared for the potential of what could happen postpartum. 

If you’re reading my story, my ask is to please be proactive with your mental health, and advocate for it during and after pregnancy. Here are some tips to get prepared and form a plan of action, in the event it’s ever needed, or you are unsure where to start: 

  • Educate yourself on PPMDs. There are a lot of great resources out there, like Moms Mental Health Initiative, Hopeful Mamma, Maternal Mental Health Leadership Alliance, Postpartum Support International, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and more.
  • Research mental healthcare providers in your area, talk to your primary care doctor or OB/GYN (and if you don’t have one, get one!). If you’re insured, gather a list of what providers are in your network, for both therapists and psychiatrists, so you know what’s covered and to avoid any financial barriers. 
  • Loop in your support person(s) and let them know that if anything seems out of the ordinary with you once your baby arrives, to contact your doctor right away. Create a list of three people who you trust to share your experience and information with. Include their contact information so it’s handy if needed during a crisis. 
  • Make a list of positive coping skills that help put you at ease. This might be different for everyone, but art, music, calling a friend, watching a movie, or mediatiting are all good options. 
  • Before the baby comes, determine a schedule of how to fit in time for self care. Carve out time for a nap, reading, exercise, cooking a healthy meal, or enjoying a hobby you love. Even if it is only an hour a week. 
  • Write a letter to yourself before the baby comes with some encouraging thoughts to read when times get tough. 
  • Know there is help out there, especially if you need it urgently. Make a list of hotlines and phone numbers to call should things get bad. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is free and confidential. 

And above all else, know that you’re not alone. <3 

-Written by Jessica Akright

A Story of Hope: Talia’s Story – Love Takes Time

Trigger warning: birth trauma

I watched my son as he fell asleep in my arms today. In a simple way, it was magical. The way he gazed at me as his eyes started to close melted my heart. He held my finger as dreams began filling his sweet head. Little puffs of breath floated against my chest as he drifted off.

And while I watched, I found myself enamored with this beautiful little soul who now trusts me to be his safe place. It felt like one of those unicorn moments of motherhood.

I cherished the moment as I realized I had experienced very few memories like that in the first part of his life. My postpartum anxiety, depression and PTSD robbed me of them all.

After a hugely traumatic birth experience and hospital stay, my early days of motherhood were filled with grief and rage. My son and I almost died in birth, and in those coming days, weeks, and months after his birth, the darkness that enveloped me made me wish over and over that I had died.

There was no light. There was no joy.

I recall taking hundreds of pictures of him as a newborn hoping that someday I’d actually care. I felt no connection with my son. Or with myself. I was supposed to be a mom now, but what did that even mean?

I was drowning in depression and anxiety. I wanted to escape from what felt like the prison bars of motherhood.

Every time my son cried, I cried too. For every passing day where I couldn’t put him down for even a moment, I felt panic grow in my suffocation.

I felt I was failing as a mom in every way. I knew I needed help. I couldn’t continue on like that.

I started seeing an amazing art therapist twice a week. I began to work through the trauma. I felt supported, and she cheered for me and supported me every step of the way.

I had to face my grief. My rage. I had to accept the work it would take to heal what felt so broken within me.

Slowly, and I do mean very slowly, the haze started to lift.

I’ve had to take motherhood day by day…most times, second by second.

My son will be 10 months on Wednesday, and I’ll be honest, I sometimes feel behind in my healing process. To my own disappointment, there are still dark days.

And yet, today was proof that I am making progress. I was able to see the beauty in that moment. There are now days when I can delight in my son’s giggles and watch in amazement as he grows. Now, no matter how dark the days, the connection I feel with him is unbreakable. It grows stronger by the day. And so do I.

When I became a mom, I thought I’d know what to do. I expected to instantly love my son in the way they talk about in movies. I believed I’d be over the moon with motherhood. It turns out that although my journey would be nothing like that, this broken and worn path I’ve had to take has ended up being even more exceptional and gratifying. Each moment…each milestone is even more meaningful now.

So if you’re somewhere in the middle of this journey, too, know you’re not alone or behind, Mama. You’re exactly where you need to be, and I promise, you’re everything your baby needs, here and now. There is light out there for you, even if you can’t see it right now. Sometimes the best things in life take time. Love. Connection. Motherhood. We’re all works in progress, and perhaps that’s where the magic happens.

–Written by Talia Granzow

I Didn’t Ask to be a NICU Mom

I didn’t ask to be a NICU mom. No one hopes that the first time they see their baby that he or she is tangled in a web of medical tape and tubes. No one wants the first time they’re able to touch their baby to be through the portholes of an isolette or that the first time they feed their baby is by helping to connect a G-tube. 

I also didn’t ask for my son to be 7 weeks premature. I can finally (yes, he’s almost 2) admit to myself that it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t eat or drink the wrong foods, use harmful substances, behave inappropriately, do ANYTHING to put my baby at risk…nonetheless, Leo was born at 33 weeks.

If I’m being honest, it took me longer to bond with him. Even after he was home, my subconscious told me I couldn’t get attached for fear that he’d be taken from me…his health too fragile. 

But well before he came home, I assumed the undesirable role of NICU mom. I spent countless hours at my baby’s bedside while he lay lifeless. I listened to the staccato of alarms…his heart rate slowing, oxygen dropping, his inactivity all signaling alerts. While the alarms sounded, I sat, helpless and unknowing, waiting for staff to tell me if my son was okay, when to intervene, how to intervene. In these moments, I felt utterly and completely inadequate as a mother. I told myself how much Leo needed me but, truthfully, I don’t think I believed that. I watched nurses and neonatologists give him the care that I should have been able to give him. I showed up. I sat with him, read to him, pumped for him and held him when I was allowed but inside, I felt like I had already failed him. 

He wasn’t the only one I thought I was failing. The pressure to balance it all was intense. With two other children at home, I constantly felt pulled in multiple directions feeling I should be home while at the hospital and at the hospital while at home. My husband, who also experienced trauma from my son’s birth, also tried to balance work, family and hospital life (albeit much better than I did). We’d steal a short kiss in passing as we’d switch roles allowing the other to go be with Leo. We had neither the time nor the energy to nurture our relationship or to comfort one another. My house was a mess, laundry piled up and we rarely ate regular, healthy meals (besides those so generously dropped off by friends or our church…which was a HUGE help!). And while all these wheels kept turning, I was silently…falling…apart. 

And during those countless days, hours and minutes at my son’s side, not a single NICU or hospital staff member asked how I was doing. There was no acknowledgement of the traumatic birth I experienced, no sympathy, kindness or care. I tucked away the “do you know how lucky you are?” and the “this could have ended tragically” comments and slowly, they accumulated. I ridiculed myself for the fleeting thought that perhaps I did experience trauma and that I might also be deserving of some compassion. The thought seemed selfish and I forced it out of my head preserving all mercy for the baby in the crib labelled “Bruce”…the baby I felt I barely knew.

So it makes sense that studies consistently show that mothers of infants in the NICU experience PPD at higher rates with more elevated symptomatology than mothers of healthy infants. While more research is needed, these studies suggest that up to 70 percent of women whose babies spend time in the NICU will experience some degree of postpartum depression, while up to one-quarter may experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (International Journal of Women’s Health). Let’s also not forget the impact on a mom who’s suffering with postpartum anxiety. Caring for a premature, or special-needs baby, comes with unique (and sometimes critical) responsibilities. After my son came home, I realized just how dependent I had become on those nurses, monitors and alarms to tell me he was okay. When that responsibility was transferred to my husband and me, my anxiety skyrocketed.   

It’s time to recognize that a NICU mom needs specialized care and attention just like her baby. We are doing a disservice to NICU moms and, consequently, their babies by not using time spent in the NICU to check-in with moms regarding their mental and emotional health. Sharing support, resources and implementing routine screenings (along with a clear plan for moms who screen positive for depression) should be standard of care. 

While I may not have asked to be a NICU mom, it was a part of my journey as a mom and part of my special journey with my son. It took time, but what we experienced together cultivated an indestructible bond that serves as both a testament to our strength and resilience as well as a new understanding of unconditional love. 

–Written by Alexis Bruce

A Post of Hope: Kiah’s Story

Crying tears of joy, relief, gratitude, and everything in between, I looked at my newborn baby girl and said, “WE did this together.”

While I have suffered from anxiety for as long as I can remember, perinatal mood and anxiety disorders were something that I didn’t consider when having kids. After my first child was born, I was all consumed with assuring his health was good.  Over the top? Probably. But what first time mom isn’t?

Pregnancy was easy.  I was one of those “I’d be pregnant forever” type of women. I got pregnant with my second child when my first was only 6 months old and things were beautiful and simple.  Life was good. After my second daughter was born, postnatal mood disorders took on a personal meaning for me. When she was 2 months old, I began to suspect that she had some underlying health concerns.  I became extremely anxious, and though I didn’t realize it at the time, depressed. I had panic attacks for a year and lost so much weight that people were becoming concerned. I could not find joy in anything I did.  I distinctly remember taking the kids to a park and staring at my family laughing and playing, thinking, will I EVER feel happy again? 

Every thought that crossed my mind was an obsession about my daughter’s health or whether or not something bad would happen.  Followed closely were compulsions of checking her body (if I just looked ONE more time), information seeking (hello google), and seeking reassurance (are you SURE that is what the doctor said? Tell me one more time that you believe she will be okay). Sometime in the interim, my anxiety crept from concerns about my daughter to concerns about my own health.  What IF. WHAT IF something happens to me and I can’t be here to take care of her? Anxiety is like a drug. A drug you know you hate but feel you can’t exist without. My brain literally felt addicted to worrying and obsessing and engaging in compulsions. And it all got so out of hand before I even had the chance to realize it. 

After seeking some much needed professional help, the next couple of years were better.  Lexapro became a close friend and Xanax became a distant acquaintance that I no longer relied on. I was really feeling good.  I was, dare I say, happy. My husband and I started to discuss having another baby.  The thought of relapsing lurked nearby, but I didn’t put too much thought into it.

Quickly becoming pregnant, my anxiety/OCD remained at a distance for the first 20 weeks. I had gone off my meds and was somehow coping beautifully. Around 20 weeks, everything hit me, or should I say, gut-punched me. Weeks 20-40 were weeks from hell. My anxiety returned with a vengeance. I was lost, scared, and sick. My husband feels that it was the worst he has ever seen my anxiety. I fixated on various components of my health for weeks at a time.  I could not escape the pain and I had no where I felt safe. I felt helpless and alone. OB referred me to psych, and psych referred me to OB. It was like everyone was scared to make med changes for a pregnant woman. Friends would casually ask, “Are you SO excited about the baby?” I would smile and politely make up something along the lines of “Oh you know, I am excited and just so busy I barely have time to think about it.” Busy was code word for anxious.  Excited was code word for “I haven’t bonded with this baby at all and sometimes think I wouldn’t even be sad if it all ended today.” (While I certainly did not WISH for that to happen, my brain couldn’t get past the fact that I was so miserable inside.) On top of it, I had well-meaning people in my life who said things such as, “You just need to be strong. You have two kids at home to take care of. Just stop worrying.” (PSA: Telling an anxious person “just don’t worry” is like telling mountain to “move just a little”…. correct me if I’m wrong, but this has never been effective as far as I am aware.)

When my baby girl was born, I somehow bonded with her more than I bonded with my first two right away.  I don’t know if my motherly instincts took over and made me realize that I was indeed excited to have a new baby, or if it was truly my hormones finally allowing me some peace.  My mental health was not great for the first few months, and I am still working daily to conquer some of my demons, but I am feeling SO much better than I was during pregnancy. I recently decided to wean my daughter from breastfeeding because I wanted to give my hormones a chance to finally balance out.  I have been having mostly good days with a bad day sprinkled in now and then. I am blessed with three beautiful children and have decided that it would not be healthy for me to have any more. I strongly believe that it is important to regard our mental health as we would any physical ailment.

For anyone who this may resonate with, you are not alone. There would be days where a momma who walked in my shoes would tell me “tomorrow is a new day”, and the clouds would lift, if just a little bit.  I will look you in the eyes and promise you that it will not always be this way. You WILL look back and see your strength. You.are.fierce. At your weakest and most vulnerable, I promise that you are being so, so, brave for fighting this fight. I won’t promise that tomorrow will be better.  I won’t promise that next week will be better. I do promise that one day will be better. I won’t promise that your mental illness will go away and never come back. I continue to fight this fight every day. I do promise that health is waiting for you, and you WILL find it.I see you, momma. 

I see you pushing the shopping cart at Target with two little ones, putting on a happy face for them, but going home and crying because you don’t feel like a good mom.  I see you look at your babies with so much love, but go home and have nothing left to love yourself. I see you look at other mommas, thinking, “If only I was happy” and quietly panic inside because you don’t think it is possible for you. I am here to let you know that you are loved. You are honored.  You are appreciated. You are me. WE are women. WE are moms. WE are the face of strength.

–Written by Kiah Allen

A Post of Hope: Katie’s Story

My journey with PPD started very quickly after my first was born. Leading up to giving birth, I was happy, full of life, and overjoyed to meet my little one. I did my hair and makeup the morning I was going to be induced. I couldn’t wait to have her. Quite literally the second after my daughter left my body, I was numb. All the happiness went away, all the joy, and I was completely lost. The next two weeks, I was very weepy, overprotective of my daughter, but also felt nothing for her. I knew that the baby blues were very common right after giving birth, so I chalked it up to that. And mostly, all of the baby blues symptoms did go away after the two weeks. I felt like “Whew! I’m in the clear!”

Fast forward to 4.5 months later. The weepiness started returning. I thought “It’s just because I’m home all day long with the baby. I just need to get out and socialize.” But even something as simple as going to lunch with my husband and mother-in-law brought me to tears for no apparent reason. Quickly, the weepiness turned into depression. Anxiety piggybacked right on top of that shortly after. Yet for weeks, I still kept trying to deny what was going on in my head. Eventually, I went to my doctor and put on a brave face. I told her I MAY have postpartum depression, but I may just be getting cooped up at home. I really down-played it because it all terrified me. She told me I wasn’t showing the signs, and to just keep an eye on it. A week later, on a Sunday morning, something made it very clear to me that something just wasn’t right: my first intrusive thought. A thought I thought I was NEVER capable of having. It scared the life out of me. I knew then and there I had to contact my doctor. I happened to have her direct number, so I called her. I thought “Forget it. No more pretending like something isn’t right. I never want to have a thought like that EVER again.” I told her I felt very disconnected, down, weepy, etc. However, I didn’t share about my thoughts in fear that I would lose my child. After giving her my symptoms, she immediately took action and then knew it was time to treat me for PPD. Even though, in that moment, I was so terrified, I also felt an enormous amount of relief knowing I was finally on my way to getting help.

The next couple of months were still pretty rough. I kept having intrusive thoughts. I still felt weepy. I still felt downright just dark and sad. But slowly, with the undeniable help of God, along with medication and exercise, I started to get better. I started to see the light again. I started to find myself again, which was a huge fear for me…that I would never be myself again.

Now, looking back on it all and having learned so much more about perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, I understand that I not only had PPD, but also PPA and PPOCD. I had the scary thoughts that so many moms with this disease want to deny having. Up until this moment writing my story, I denied it as well. But I’m done hiding my story. I want my story to help any other mom going through this, so that they know they AREN’T crazy, and they ARE NOT a horrible mom. I want the other moms to know I’m with you. And with the proper help and care, you WILL get better. You WILL be yourself again. Please don’t give up. I’ve made it out on the other side, stronger than ever before, and so can you. 

-Written by Katie Palmisano