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Removing the stigma from postpartum depression

Postpartum depression has been in the headlines after television star Hayden Panettiere recently revealed that she has been suffering from the condition and then checked herself into a treatment facility. Celebrities who have spoken out about the condition include Brooke Shields, Marie Osmond, Gwyneth Paltrow and Courtney Cox.

I don't share anything with these stars other than the fact that I had PPD too. Ten years ago when my son was born, I suffered with postpartum depression — silently, shamefully, and without the knowledge of my friends and family. I kept my own doctor in the dark. When it became obvious that all was not well, her thin advice was to try to "sleep while the baby is sleeping," and "to relax." "Don't worry," she said. "It's just the baby blues."

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But PPD can become debilitating, so much so that you can't care for yourself or your child. Symptoms include panic attacks, severe mood swings, harmful thoughts, insomnia and overwhelming sadness. Many people just want to die.

I knew it was much more than the benign baby blues; it was the screaming reds. Yet I felt I could not be honest about how bad I felt. I felt fragile and deeply flawed. I was so ashamed of myself. I went silent. Nothing I said was true. I told people what they wanted to hear. And that was, "Thanks for asking. My son and I are doing great."

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We're now thankfully, finally, working to remove the stigma of mental illness, talking about PPD more openly in obstetrical offices, hospitals and in the media, on park benches while watching the kids play on the playgrounds and at Mommy and Me classes. We're reaching out — mothers like me — and giving new mothers hope, comfort and allies by sharing the stories of women's real experiences.

"Mothering Through the Darkness: Women Open Up About the Postpartum Depression" was published last month by She Writes Press. It includes essays from 35 women writers including poets, journalists, bloggers and documentarians — and this stay-at-home mom.

The goal of this anthology of raw, real-life struggles is to end the biggest myths about postpartum depression that are still widespread: that it only happens right after the birth of a baby and that it is rare.

According to a Center for Disease Control survey, 8 percent to 19 percent of mothers reported having postpartum mood disorders. "If you settled on an average of 15 percent, 4 million live births in the U.S. annually, this would mean approximately 600,000 women get PPD each year in the United States alone" reports the website Postpartum Progress.

Yet the majority of women — up to 70 percent — who suffer from perinatal mood disorders do not seek treatment. I didn't. I didn't even know that the extreme anxiety after having a baby was an illness. I thought I was going crazy. I thought that for years, actually, until I got help and discovered I could be a calm, loving mother to my son and not a terrified, sweaty, weeping mess going through the motions. Bottle cleaning, diaper changing, lunch preparing. Preventing him from falling from his high chair.

Ten years in, I admit that I still sometimes struggle with the weight of my responsibilities, my "brain cooties," and I feel the returning brush of that dark shadow that is like the wing of a bird I would rather not roost at my house. Doctors at Johns Hopkins have found there is a genetic component to PPD, and my mother had it, too. Did she talk about it? No. Never.

There is still the expectation that new mothers — and mothers at all stages — will glow with happiness and slip into their new role easily, but this is not always the case. We need to embrace all mothers' experiences and not sugar-coat nor shame the postpartum period, which can be crushing for some women, no matter their income, their education or their bravery. Suffering is out for mothers like me who mothered through the dark.

Reach out, speak honestly about PPD. The community of mothers and their families, doctors and babies needs you.

Elizabeth Bastos is a writer based in Baltimore County. Her email is elizabeth.bastos@gmail.com.

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