Getting Help For My Postpartum Depression
This is a story intended to provide hope to those battling severe postpartum depression or major depression, and/or is considering ECT for the treatment of severe depression.
I gave birth to my first child five-and-a-half years ago at the age of 32. I had an easy pregnancy and a strong support network, minus the fact that I don’t live where I grew up, so much of my family is long-distance and many of my friends at the time were work-based or rooted in my husband’s networks. I’d been a successful, working professional for a decade and married to my supportive husband for four years. Though my late father had a history of depression, I never considered myself a sufferer. Life was comfortable, normal.
But I didn’t feel like myself after the (somewhat traumatic) birth. I despised the pain of breastfeeding and being home “alone,” but plowed through the first weeks with my usual determination—living off visits from friends and family and a few little summer day excursions with the baby.
When my daughter was six weeks old, things took a fateful turn: my dog was hit and killed by a car before my eyes after I left my gate open following a somber, solo walk with the baby. I didn’t sleep a wink that night and lost my appetite that weekend; I replayed the incident in my mind throughout a long trip to a friend’s wedding, cursing myself for this seemingly avoidable mistake that killed something I loved and pained others who loved him.
I knew I needed counseling and sought it out, but the eight months following were a blur of jumping from therapist-to-therapist (5+) and medication-to-medication (3+) with no improvement. In fact, I was getting worse. I had no interest in anything and was plagued by severe anxiety as a symptom of the depression. Each day felt like a week. I couldn’t even watch TV without dark thoughts spinning out of control.
By some miracle, I still took care of my daughter (with help) on a sort of unfeeling, dissatisfying auto-pilot. I experienced early-morning wakefulness, drank Ensure to offset the weight loss from no appetite, dropped to a near-dangerous weight, and forced myself to do anything anyone suggested to try to “break out of it”—walks, road trips, shopping, yoga. I remember none of it, and only wanted to think and read about depression 24/7.
"But you have everything going for you,” they’d say. Who were they talking about? She’s gone, I’d think. She will never be back.
I completed two outpatient day programs on my maternity leave, one for postpartum at a women’s hospital, and one for general depression and anxiety at a mental hospital. The postpartum program was a joke (“You’ll make friends here!”). I did not need new friends, or “self-care.” I needed a diagnosis and serious treatment. I still believe that because I was not reportedly suicidal, my case wasn’t urgent. I tried to return to work twice, failing not because I wasn’t performing, but because my depression kept me from feeling any ounce of satisfaction from task completion. I fell victim to the depression’s lie: I was a failure and had no business at work.
On extended unpaid leave that spring, I checked myself into an inpatient program at the mental hospital where, at last, a seasoned psychiatric doctor finally recognized the severity of my condition. Realizing how long it had been and that I truly wasn’t responding to medications or talk therapy, he suggested ECT. I had read about it and obsessed over its potential harm (like every other treatment option), but agreed without feeling. What did I have to lose? I was an empty shell of a person, and my daughter was already doomed to a life with a mother who was completely vacant. I had one treatment, and then was sent home due to a minor concern about my heart rate during the treatment.
Something happened after that single ECT treatment. I felt things. There was simple pleasure in playing with my daughter. There was satisfaction from a clean house, from a good meal. I participated in social media, reached out to friends, and thought ahead to summer. It had been eight months since I’d thought ahead with anything other than anxious fear and dread.
Once the heart concern was proven to be nothing and I felt depressive symptoms creeping back (one treatment is rarely effective), I started regular ECT treatments at the general hospital where I could go in the morning and be home recovering by afternoon. The doctor and staff were wonderful. Just like after the first treatment, I rejoined the world quickly, and we soon tapered treatments to monthly then quarterly. A year later, I opted to stop entirely and agreed to stay on one medication for “maintenance,” though I am unsure to this day whether it ever played a role.
I am now approaching “five years well.” My daughter has a little brother, and I did not experience postpartum following his birth. The milestones of his first year were unfamiliar to me; I realized with some sadness that I have no firsthand memory of her first year, but I don’t blame the treatment. Severe depression is even more likely than ECT to cause memory loss.
Life is good, but very different. I now live with a kind of empathy that I lacked before that experience. I am constantly attuned to depression’s potential to impact individuals and society as a whole. I look very differently now at substance abusers, repeat offenders, those who just seem to fail to thrive. In so many cases, “snapping out of it” is just. not. possible. So few of us understand this, but we all must try.
Mostly, I shudder at criticisms of ECT in the press and in pop culture. My brain needed to be interrupted—medications and therapy weren’t doing it. It reset me and it saved me. Medications don’t work for so many, yet so many aren’t given ECT as an option due to caregivers’ prejudices or “last resort” mentality and patients’ own (understandable) hesitations.
As a working mom, I’ve admittedly debated for a long time about “coming out” with my ECT story. No doubt there will be people who look at me differently and I get that. But if this story assures one mother that her postpartum depression isn’t fluff, one person that their major depression has an end-date, or one sufferer that ECT is a safe, proven, effective solution—then I’ll risk some raised eyebrows for your shot at something better.
You deserve it.
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