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

A Post of Hope: Heather’s Story

I didn’t see it coming – literally.

Our first baby came on Christmas Eve. His labor was “spontaneous,” though I had obsessively done all I could to induce labor on my own. The last 6 weeks of my pregnancy were emotionally exhausting. I was over it. I had support from my prenatal swim class instructor and my OB was very aware of my emotional state, but I was still struggling. Drowning my emotional turmoil in Mexican food and Cokes, my water partially ruptured; hours later, we had our baby boy.

By day 5 postpartum, my reality looked like this: Don’t touch me; I’m fine. No, I’m not tired. No, I don’t know why I’m crying. Stop talking so much! And then, perhaps the scariest manifestation of my anxiety, I lost my vision. It started as an inability to look up, followed by the loss of my peripheral and finally culminated with temporary blindness. I never would have imagined that anxiety could make such a significant impact on the body’s physical ability to function. This was not the normal “baby blues.”

I was unable to express what I was experiencing to my husband. When I tried, I would struggle to catch my breath and would cry uncontrollably. He was so concerned, yet I didn’t know how to have him help me. He called the doctor and talked to her for me. Medication was prescribed. A few days later, I felt more in control of my breathing. The crying came less frequently and I had no vision issues. We stayed the course with medication, safely prescribed for a breastfeeding mother. I continued to fall deeply in love with my newborn and worked hard on leveling my emotions.

Looking back, I was anxious the whole pregnancy. I just knew I was pregnant the day he was conceived. Not being able to sleep seemed a natural side effect of pregnancy. Not being able to breathe seemed normal; the baby was squishing my insides. In hindsight, I was hyper. I was a deer in headlights. My eyes and forehead hurt constantly from not relaxing my face.

A few months later, I discovered I was pregnant again. I was almost to my 2nd trimester and hadn’t known it. Enter anxiety. My boys would be just 13 months apart. I just got myself ironed out; not again! I was grief stricken, but why would someone ever be upset they were pregnant? My OB monitored my mental health at each appointment. She suggested I see a therapist but when was I going to have time to do that? Not to mention, I wasn’t ready to unpack all my baggage. I had enough to worry about right now.

I began prenatal yoga which, miraculously, was a therapy session for me. This class really showcased how my anxiety impacted me the most: my breathing. Despite all my efforts, my shoulders would not relax, my chest would not open and I would be panting like a dog rather than using diaphragmatic breathing. When I could finally soften and breathe, I would weep. My instructor would lay hands on me and I’d emotionally break.

With baby number 2, my OB suggested an early induction. We had a plan in place for the delivery and a plan in place to care for my mental wellness after. WIth our first son, my husband, my support system, knew to look for depression or “baby blues”; but what I experienced caught us by surprise. Now we know we should have been ready for it due to my previous struggles with anxiety. Women with previous mental health issues are at a higher risk of developing perinatal mood or anxiety disorders during pregnancy or postpartum.

I’m still working on coping with my anxiety. I’m often asked “What are you anxious about?” I wish it were something or a scenario that made me anxious. My anxiety is chemical. Hormonal. Triggered by situational stress or not getting enough sleep. In my tool box, I have a daily prescription and a situational prescription as needed. I use diaphragmatic breathing exercises, oils, singing and exercise to regulate my breath. I value my sleep and stay as rested as possible for a mother of two toddler boys.

But most helpful has been learning my threshold; honoring my limits and asking myself if taking on more will compromise my mental wellbeing. So even though this is something I still work at, I am here to say that it does get better. You will get better. With the right support and tools, you can take the power back from your postpartum anxiety.

-Written by Heather Karazsia

A Post of Hope: Jessica’s Story

Trigger Warning: suicidal thoughts

“Stop fighting with your past, it’s over now.”

This is something I have been telling myself for a long time. It’s still hard to believe and accept that I have lived through (and survived) the most difficult time in my life. My babies are my greatest gift and I work continuously to help them be smart, sweet and caring human beings. I love them. But, in the back of my mind, I still hear the word, “remember.” Remembering is something I have to do daily. I force myself to remember my struggle so that I will continue to implement the changes I worked so hard to put in place…don’t do too much during the day, stop and play with the girls, it’s 8:00 p.m., the dishes can wait till tomorrow. Remember to breathe. Remember it’s okay to say “no.” Remember to schedule some “me” time.

My story begins with the birth of my first baby and my struggle with (what I now know was) postpartum anxiety (PPA). I had a terrible birth experience and went home very sick. It was incredibly difficult and I still don’t know how I survived those early days. The breastfeeding fails, a baby who wouldn’t sleep, being alone a good part of the day, the complete and utter exhaustion. That was my life for the first few months. When I finally began to feel a little better, I went back to work. Being the “Type A” person that I am, I thought I could do it all and not ask for help. Everything needed to be perfect and in accordance with the way I wanted to to be done. I always wanted to have a plan and to know exactly what was coming. In hindsight, I can see that this was a way of trying to cope with the anxiety that’s been a part of me all my life.

Living with anxiety was much easier before baby. I had the time to clean, organize and make sure everything was done correctly. But having a baby made this nearly impossible. Now, the baby came first. I began to crack. I tried to balance it all while taking care of my baby and working as an RN; but, I became easily frustrated and angry. I felt full of rage and started to experience intrusive thoughts which just made my anxiety worse. I never fully recovered and I never got help. I knew something was wrong, but I just kept going.

I became pregnant with my second baby when my first was three. This pregnancy was harder than the first. Sickness, anxiety and depression began to kick in. I sought help from a therapist because I just couldn’t handle my thoughts sometimes. I also began seeing a psychiatrist. Wonder why it took me so long to get help? Well, for starters, I didn’t know I had PPA. It sounds odd, but when I continued to ask for help at multiple doctor appointments, I was told that I was a new mom and that all this was normal. I should have spoken up and taken a stand, but I just figured the doctors were right.

Thankfully, the postpartum period with my second was not as hard as my first. I remember thinking she was my second chance and I was so happy for the first few months. I decided not to go back to work after maternity leave and I resigned. This baby was much better; but, handling a three-year-old and a newborn began to take its toll.

To make a long story short, after multiple medication attempts, months and months of frustration, anger, yelling, struggling to get through day-to-day life and feeling like a terrible mother, I officially broke. In the summer of 2017, when my youngest was 18 months old, I just wanted to run away and I became suicidal. I wanted to be done with everything. I was exhausted from trying so hard and getting nowhere, exhausted from being with my thoughts and tired of thinking I was crazy.

By August of 2017, I was in a partial hospitalization program. For three weeks, I went daily and, thankfully, I came out a different girl. The tools I learned in the program helped me more than words; however, what helped me the most, was knowing that I wasn’t alone. Suddenly, I knew I wasn’t crazy, that there was help and that I was doing what I needed to do to survive.

Since completing the program, I continue to learn about myself. I have a few “rules” that I follow daily (which are difficult for me sometimes). 8 o’clock is my cut off time and whatever isn’t done, gets done tomorrow. I journal, I went back to work part time and my kids are in school full time. Life is different. It is good and a daily struggle all at the same time. But I got through it and so will you!

In conclusion, my fellow moms, my message to you is to ask for help. Stand up for yourself. Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders don’t just affect moms, they affect the entire family. Establish some rules for yourself to help you keep on track. Learn to say “no.” Remember you are doing your best and that your kids don’t want a perfect mom, they just want you. I will say that these changes won’t happen overnight. You’ll likely have good days and bad days but always remember that you matter. Your feelings are real and don’t ever let anyone tell you any different. Care for yourself everyday and continue to move forward by remembering that you can stop fighting with your past, it’s over now.

A Post of Hope: Stacy’s Story

My son was born on a Monday evening in early June. The weather was warm and my belly was full from a dinner out with my husband. My baby was a week late and we had a scheduled induction. The process was long and painful. The stress of the induction put both myself and my son at risk. His heart rate often started to drop which caused panic among the doctors and nurses. However, despite infection, failed pitocin and the cord being wrapped, he was born without a C-section. I had always envisioned the moment they would lay him on my chest. I dreamt of being the first face he would see and whispering “I’m your mama.” But that moment didn’t come. He came out, was silent and was immediately given to the NICU team. I watched from the hospital bed and somehow couldn’t find myself in the crowded room. My voice, usually loud and firm, came out quietly and begged “is he okay?”

No one responded.

Did they hear me? Did they not know? Did I not matter anymore?

I’ll never know the answer why.

Minutes seemed like hours but he came to me. He was beautiful and healthy, peaceful and sweet. And yet, I was terrified. My body was shaking from the epidural but, at the same time, I felt a shake in my soul.

When we brought him home, I placed him in the bassinet near our bed. I laid there next to him, just me and my intrusive thoughts. I changed his sleep clothes daily for fear of SIDS. Is this one too tight? Is this one riding up too much? Is this one too heavy?

I spent a good part of the first six weeks laying awake while he slept. I’d repeat in my head “Don’t die…don’t die…don’t die…don’t die.” Somehow, my anxiety had tricked me into thinking I could gain power over all of it; with the right outfits, the perfect bassinet…but I couldn’t, and my pleas to God were just my mind torturing me.

Our days continued and he was a happy, easy baby. But, I was a quiet and emotional shell. My anxiety rode so high that I’d get half-way to work, pull over in a parking lot, and cry. My hands shook constantly. My patience was low and my desire for perfection was intense. I filled my days by cleaning and organizing to distract my mind; this eventually turned into a larger problem. Everything from driving, elevators, grocery stores, kitchen knives, door locks, stairs and even the temperature of our home caused me anxiety. I no longer felt social and I begged and pleaded with my husband to let me stay home. I wanted to stay home from everything. From work. From parties. From family events. The idea of pretending made me angry and even more anxious.

People accused me of being an alcoholic because my moods were out of control and, oftentimes, the only way I could manage social events was to drink. Though it may have appeared that way at times, the false judgement caused me even more guilt and shame. I had an amazing husband, parents, in-laws, and family…and yet, I was alone. It took me a long time to realize that while I was suffering, I hid it well. I remember thinking, “is this how it’s supposed to feel?”, “How can I love him so much but be so unstable?”

In April, of the following year, things became so bad that I started to not leave the house. On forced occasions, I would cry and fight with my husband. I hated when he would leave but didn’t want to go with him. In those days, it seemed like we might not make it through and that realization was my turning point.

In May, I made an appointment with my primary doctor and said, “I need help. I think I have postpartum depression. I think it’s going to cause me to divorce my husband and I don’t know why.”

The fight that comes after you ask for help isn’t easy. The medication, the trial and error of different doses, the brain zaps from weaning off, the neutrality of your emotions, the therapy, the marriage counseling and the sadness of feeling like you have failed as a wife and mother are very real.

However, I didn’t fail. By asking for help, I actually showed my strength. I succeeded by putting in the work and fighting for my life. I found a community of women who looked at my struggles with such normalcy and empathy that it helped me see a light at the end of the tunnel and, little by little, the panic subsided.

302…is the number of days it took for me to realize I was drowning.

41…is the number of days after that moment when I finally asked for help.  

29,635,200 seconds…493,920 minutes…8,232 hours of loneliness and pain. And through all of this, I found my strength.


A Post of Hope: Ashley’s Story

*Trigger Warning: intrusive thoughts

Ever since I can remember, I  wanted to be a mother. I dreamt about the beauty of being pregnant, feeling a life grow inside of me and giving birth, I envisioned those moments of meeting my baby and feeling an instant connection to him or her. I did have most of those things, but my story is also different. Because along with those beautiful moments, I also experienced the darkness of postpartum OCD. This is my story:

When I was pregnant with my second child, I would experience intense feelings that something wasn’t right. I became obsessed with checking my heart rate to make sure I wasn’t having a heart attack, looking at my legs to make sure there wasn’t a blood clot and counting my baby’s  movements to make sure he was okay. I made countless trips to the ER, Cardiologist, OBGYN and every time everything came back normal. Whenever I left the doctor, a new fear would pop-up even more intense than before which meant more and more checking. My doctor assured me it was anxiety and I tried so many things to make it go away. But the more I tried, the more intense the thoughts and feelings became. I made it through the pregnancy and delivered a healthy, beautiful baby. I was so thankful and thought the anxiety was behind me.

During my first nights home, I was hit with a fear of someone breaking in and kidnapping my son. I would try to sleep but every little noise made me jump up to check that everything was fine. I brushed it off as normal, new mom anxiety. But as the weeks went by, my sleep lessened. I soon became fixated on the fear that I was developing postpartum psychosis. I would spend hours researching and looking for clues that It was going to happen to me. I felt that at any second I would lose my mind and something terrible would happen. I was terrified of being alone with myself or my kids so I begged and pleaded family to stay with me at all times. Things got so intense that my life was completely consumed by fear. I didn’t want to hold my son and I didn’t even recognize who I was anymore. I was a mess and didn’t know how to put myself back together. I begged my mom to take me to the doctor because I just wanted to feel normal again and I thought they would know what to do. I remember sitting in my doctor’s office crying and begging her to tell me how to make this stop. I craved being the mother I had imagined. I wish I could say that after this visit it all went away.  I did start medication and therapy, both of which helped a little, but I was still unable to stop the constant intrusive thoughts.

I then joined a Facebook support group called Circle of Hope through Moms Mental Health Initiative. Through this group,  I met some amazing women who shared their struggles and who were all at different places in the healing process. It was around this time that I was diagnosed with OCD. Prior to this, I thought OCD meant just being super organized (which I am not). I quickly learned that OCD actually means having extreme anxiety combined with the urge to perform compulsions in order to decrease that anxiety.  I was able to identify that my compulsions were checking and seeking reassurance and that the more I gave into those compulsions, the stronger my OCD got. After many conversations with moms in Circle of Hope, I decided to try an intensive program to learn Exposure Response Prevention (ERP). This therapy is considered the gold standard for treating OCD and involves being exposed to all your fears while not engaging in compulsions. After a lot of work, I began to get moments of my life back. In hindsight, as badly as I wanted it all to go away, I have also learned a lot from this experience. I remember asking “why me?” and feeling like I’d be stuck in that place forever. I don’t ever want to relive those moments but I can say that sharing my story and offering hope to other moms is very healing. So, if you are going through postpartum depression, postpartum OCD or any other perinatal mood or anxiety disorder, hang on because you WILL get through this! There is still such a stigma around mental health but I promise you that you are not alone! I survived this hell and so will you! Please reach out for help. Today is almost three years since my son was born and I can honestly say that I am getting to be the mom I always wanted to be. <3