My postpartum depression didn’t start in those first few newborn months. It didn’t start in the postpartum period at all. It started with a story I haven’t shared with most people in my life, let alone online. That I hesitate to write even now. That I am forcing myself to confront and share because if I had had it to read while going through it, I would have held on to it like a life raft.
It started with the first ultrasound.
The Ultrasound & The Tests
When I was about eight weeks along in my pregnancy, we went in for our first ultrasound. I was at once giddy and hesitant, unsure what to expect. Hoping that it would all start to feel real once I saw the alleged baby inside of me, on the screen in front of me.
Because, it had all been so hard to believe at first. We were unbelievably fortunate that I got pregnant quickly and easily. We decided to try and bam, two pink lines. It took my brain those long eight weeks to catch up to the reality that this was really happening.
Yet at that first ultrasound, instead of giddy happy tears at hearing his heartbeat and watching his little swirly grey movements, we were told that we would need to see a perinatologist. We were told that this little baby, who I had just barely caught up to, was in peril. A chasm of panic opened up inside of me that widened and deepened over the course of my pregnancy.
We ultimately learned that our baby had an enlarged nuchal translucency (NT) in his neck. Our baby’s was the largest he had ever seen. And the news got worse from there.
Apparently an enlarged NT is most indicative of congenital disorders. Cue the onslaught of information. “It’s most commonly this, but could be that”. Disorders, conditions, defects — all debilitating, all painful. Statistics. Probabilities of miscarriage, stillbirth, surgeries, lifelong issues. Tests. Monitoring. This was not going to be a normal pregnancy, if I even got to be pregnant much longer.
I’m a straightforward person when I need to be and I asked the doctor pointblank, “What are the chances this baby comes out perfectly healthy, no issues at all?”
He squinted and thought, before finally saying, “I’d give it one percent.”
That doctor gave us virtually no hope (and I will despise him forever for that), and my husband and I left that appointment despondent. I didn’t know at the time that it was all going to turn out like a miracle. The kind of miracle I would have written if I were in charge of life.
All I knew at the time was that we had a very slim shot at making it out of this pregnancy okay, and I didn’t like those odds. I quickly plummeted into a deep dark hole that I had never seen the likes of before.
It was a dark and terrifying time that found me praying when I hadn’t since I was young. It had me wake up to motherhood far earlier than I would have expected. My well of strength deepened as I drew from it day after day, test after test, holding strong for this little one who was fighting so hard to be here.
Then steadily, appointment by appointment, the news improved.
Better News, Constant Crying
Every test came back negative for issues. They ruled out every common condition, every possible issue they could think of. No genetic issues, no chromosomal abnormalities, no heart defects.
He continued to develop, thrive. What was an unknowable bean with terrible odds turned into distinct kicks, hiccups, punches to my abdomen. A baby was in there. My healthy baby boy was coming. My mental state improved somewhat, I was able to exercise, have a baby shower, take bump photos and buy maternity clothes.
I felt a powerful intuition inside of me that told me he was going to be okay. Yet, my head wouldn’t shut up. Instead of increased relief with each negative test, I felt increased panic. Because if there had been an issue, there must be a cause and I needed to know WHY. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. It took me a long time to learn that we don’t always get to know why.
Despite all the excellent, amazing, one percent-defying good news, my incredible support system, my impossibly strong husband, my worry still encased me with every new day, and the deeper I fell into the hole.
I cried all the time, wracked with anxiety, feeling increasingly isolated in my misery. I grew angry, withdrawn, so resentful of this high-risk pregnancy. I should have been only grateful, then felt worse that I wasn’t able to be happy.
In a word, I was a mess.
What Does This Have to Do With Postpartum Depression?
These symptoms, along with my constant anxiety, are enough for me to have met the criteria for perinatal depression. Depression in pregnancy is common. According to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) 14-23% of women experience perinatal depression, often triggered by stressful life events. (Maybe like, high-risk pregnancy, one percent no hope diagnosis, and moving across the country at the same time kind of stress? Curious!)
Many women who experience depression in pregnancy are hesitant to name it as such. We think it is normal hormone fluctuations, or stress of the unknown, or simply how every pregnancy feels. Or if we do know, we can have shame, guilt and fear around it due to the heavy stigma around maternal mental illness.
We are told by society that pregnancy is a time of goddess gowns and flower crowns. I don’t know if it’s just this traumatic experience or not, but I clearly didn’t feel all that f-cking serene.
Often, with untreated perinatal depression, the feelings will compound after pregnancy and can develop into postpartum depression. Which is exactly what happened to me.
How Did It All Turn Out?
I had the exact birth I wanted, prepared and planned for, and my beautiful, perfectly healthy, unbelievably adorable child arrived without any other shoes dropping. He’s almost 3-years-old and, rightly, the absolute light of my life.
In a perfect world, my depression and anxiety would have ended there. I wish it had, but that’s just not how it worked out for me. There is more to this story, continued in Part two tomorrow*.
If you are experiencing depression in pregnancy, or just suspect you are, you can learn more here and talk to your health care provider about your symptoms. There are a variety of treatment options. You don’t have to suffer. It isn’t a fault or a failing. It is a medical condition. Our brains and bodies during pregnancy are going through so many changes that it is highly common for mood disorders to arise, even in those without a history of mental illness.
Get help. You deserve to be happy, and a chance at your flower crown. Most of all, you don’t want it to get worse. Trust me.
*This is Part 1 of a five-part series in honor of Mental Health Awareness month. I will be posting about maternal mental illness and my own experience with postpartum depression and anxiety every day during mental health week (May 14-19) in an effort to reduce stigma and raise awareness for maternal mental illness.