What is postpartum depression, and how do I know if I have it?

Postpartum depression, or PPD as I will refer to it throughout the rest of this article, affects 10-15% of women in the first year of their child’s life. PPD is not the “baby blues”, which refers to the moodiness many mothers experience in the weeks after their baby’s delivery. PPD comes when the baby is born and worsens over time. Sometimes it goes away on its own, but if left untreated, it can go on for years and even become life threatening. 

Unfortunately, there still seems to be some stigma attached to mental illness in many cultures. There is no foundation for these attitudes surrounding mental health issues. A friend, and fellow PPD survivor, explained it to me this way. If someone is diabetic, their body doesn’t produce enough insulin. All the exercise and positive thinking in the world is not going to make them stop being diabetic. Nobody sees a diabetic person and thinks, “it’s her fault she has diabetes”. For people who suffer from PPD, pregnancy and childbirth alter our brains so they just don’t have the right balance of chemicals we need to feel happy. There is no shame in that, or in needing medical or psychiatric help to achieve or maintain mental health. It doesn’t mean you are weak or that you did something wrong. Thousands of incredibly successful women have fallen victim to the revenges of PPD after having a baby. Although recovery may not be instantaneous or easy, it is possible, and you will forever be stronger and more compassionate for overcoming it. 

What are the signs of PPD?

One of the first important questions you can ask yourself is, how long have you been experiencing your symptoms? If it’s more than 6 weeks, you may have PPD.

Do you feel like yourself? Or does interacting with people suddenly feel forced and awkward? Do you find yourself going in circles around your own head, trying to figure out the right thing to say and then worrying afterward if you said the wrong thing? 

Do things that you used to be passionate about and enjoy, like reading, music, exercise, or going out with friends, feel like they’ve lost their appeal? 

Are you constantly exhausted? It’s normal to feel tired physically and mentally when you are recovering from having a baby and up at all hours of the night with a newborn, but if you are suffering from PPD you will feel like there is a numbing, dark cloud in your mind that just never goes away. You may feel like you wish you could crawl into your bed every moment of every day, but even if you do, you may struggle to fall asleep or sleep days away and still feel just as drained. 

Are you apathetic towards your partner or your baby? Do you suddenly find yourself belittling and criticizing yourself and others more than you used to? 

Have you experienced a change in your appetite or eating habits? It is normal to eat more than you normally would if you are breastfeeding your baby, but if you are suffering from PPD you may find that you are more attracted to easy, tasty foods for the comfort they give than you are to food that will nourish your body when you are hungry. Pay attention to how you feel when you reach for something to eat. 

Has it become more difficult to let things go? Maybe your partner said something that normally would have annoyed you, but now it is all you think about and you’re wondering what it meant and how your relationship can survive when they clearly don’t get you or care about your feelings. Maybe your baby spits up a lot and you can’t stop worrying if they’re getting enough milk, or if they have GERD, or if you’re over or under producing, or if you should switch formulas, or if you should use a different type of bottle or nipple. If you are like me, you will be obsessing over your baby’s sleep and counting the seconds on the clock to track how much they’re getting and having smoke come out your ears if they wake up 2 minutes earlier than you had hoped. It’s normal and healthy to be concerned about optimizing your baby’s health and lifestyle, but it is not normal to have worries that are constant and that you cannot control.

If ANY of this sounds familiar to you, please talk to your doctor or someone else you trust to listen without judgement. You may not think you have PPD, and if you don’t- great! But if you go to your doctor he or she can ask you more questions and help you to have a better understanding of what is going on. There is help. You don’t have to do this alone. 

I denied having PPD for years and multiple babies before I finally became ill enough to seek help, and even then I just wanted adderall so I wouldn’t feel so tired all the time. When I started taking adderall, I was amazed at the difference a little pill could make to the clarity of my thoughts, my mood, and my energy levels. I stopped taking adderall because of the negative side effects, but it opened my mind to the idea of receiving medical help. I had always just blamed myself for being weak or lazy and didn’t want to entertain the thought that there could be a medical explanation for my failings because it felt like I would be shifting the blame away from where it belonged- me. When my eyes were opened to the difference a drug could make, I finally agreed to try an antidepressant. A few months later, for the first time in almost a decade, I felt like myself again. I wasn’t trapped in my mind anymore. I was able to laugh with my boys and enjoy their cuddles and their random conversations and not just wish it was bedtime so I could zone out. My marriage improved, I made new friends, took better care of my house, picked up my writing that I had put away for years, and became a certified pediatric sleep consultant. Why? Because I was sick, and I needed help, and when I got the help I was able to do what I wanted in my heart and be myself again. 

If you think there is any chance you may have PPD, please seek help. Guess what? It’s not your fault! You might just be missing the ‘insulin’ your brain needs to work again. And always remember, you are not alone. 

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