In 2008, just before the birth of her first child, Henry, Sykesville resident Emily Newton had her mind set on a natural childbirth.
That was her birth plan, but of course, as is often the case with children, it was not the way things worked out. She ended up having a Caesarean section.
"After his birth, I thought about, worried about, obsessed about the events surrounding how he was born and how I was unhappy about it," Newton said. "At the time, being mad that I had a C-section was something that I could easily find plenty of other woman on the Internet who were all feeling that they had been jilted out of this experience they were hoping to have. I just figured, well that's what I am dealing with."
It didn't seem unusual at the time, but Newton remained angry and obsessed for two years, right up to the birth of her second child, when she finally got the natural birth she had wanted the first time around. She thought the good birth experience would banish the negative feelings about her first, but instead she found herself obsessing in entirely new ways.
"I had very specific recurring images of bad things happening to my kids, usually in parking lots. That was the thing I was most afraid of," Newton said. "Being a mom that is trying to do the best for my kids, it seemed perfectly normal to be concerned and hyperaware when I was in parking lots, but I would worry about parking lots when I was at home."
Something was wrong, and that something, Newton would learn, was postpartum anxiety. An all-too-often unrecognized complication of child birth, Newton found it was easily treatable with medication and therapy, but only after she learned what it was.
"It's sort of like it rides along the line of normal, which is what makes it so difficult, for me at least, to have realized that there was a better way to live," she said.
On Saturday, June 18, Newton will be coordinating the Fourth Annual Climb Out of the Darkness event in Druid Hill Park in Baltimore, designed to raise funds and awareness about postpartum mood disorders, so that women who might be suffering have a chance to recognize symptoms in themselves, overcome stigma associated with mental health issues, and get help.
"The climb for us is really a metaphor," Newton said. "We usually go for a lap around the Druid Hill reservoir and then let the kids play on the playgrounds for a couple of hours while we check in with each other."
Postpartum anxiety, along with postpartum depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and other issues, make up what are called Perinatal Mood of Anxiety Disorders, or PMADs, according to Lesley Neadel, spokeswoman for the nonprofit advocacy group PostPartum Progress, which sponsors the Climb Out of the Darkness event.
"PMADs are the number one complication of childbirth," she said. "One in seven women suffer. That's almost 20 percent of women that have a baby that have a mental health complication, but only 15 percent will get help."
This is the fourth year PostPartum Progress has sponsored Out of the Darkness climbs, more than 180 worldwide, according to Neadel. They are held on or near the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere to highlight the notion that they are shining a light on a topic that is often not discussed in public, while the funds raised help PostPartum Progress in its mission to support women with PMADs through information and peer-to-peer support.
"It's 100 percent peer-focused peer support: Everyone that works with the organization or for it has survived a maternal mental health issue," Neadel said. "What women need to know is that these are temporary and treatable conditions. You will 100 percent get better, but you need help to do that."
Neadel should know. After the birth of her daughter five years ago, she was overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety that she was a bad mother even while still in the hospital.
"I suffered from severe postpartum depression and anxiety," she said. "I couldn't sleep, I couldn't eat, I couldn't rest when the baby rested which everyone was telling me to do because I was worried about her waking up. It was only three weeks after she was born that my husband sat me down and said, 'I think this is more than the baby blues, it's not getting better, I think you should call your OB for some help.'"
She did get help, first with antidepressant medications that were extremely effective, and then also in her discovery of the PostPartum Progress blog, which predated the formation of the nonprofit by several years.
"I came across Postpartum Progress and suddenly my perspective totally changed. There were hundreds of women describing how I felt and they were better," Neadel said. "I've been involved every since — I immediately jumped right in. That's the whole value of peer support, that's what the whole model is based on is meeting other people who have been where you are and having them show you the way out."
Newton also recalls how stumbling across PostPartum Progress six years ago was a revelatory experience for her, how it helped her get traction on what had been a nebulous cluster of symptoms she had spent hours typing into Google.
"I realized, holy crap, what's happening not only is clinically diagnosable, but can be solved in any number of very easy ways," she said. "You could change your diet, you could do talk therapy and counseling, you could take Zoloft or Prozac."
Zoloft and talk therapy worked wonders for Newton, but she recognizes that there remains a great deal of stigma surrounding mental health treatments like these in general, much less in the context of new motherhood. That's one of the reasons she is so enthusiastic about spreading the word about Climb Out of the Darkness.
"You don't have to be a fundraiser at all to come to our event. You can read about our event that morning, go online while you're standing there next to us on your phone at the event, click, click, sign yourself up and then hang out with us for the day and have some doughnuts and some coffee," Newton said. "Our cause is all about being able to share our story and help other people."
The Baltimore Climb Out of the Darkness team is making great progress in that goal, according to Neadel — she said it's now the second-largest in the country and has raised more than $10,000. She hopes that as the word spreads that treatment is available, stigma will be defeated.
"No women should suffer after having a baby," Neadel said. "They should know what to expect and how to get help if they need."