Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Are Not Your Fault
When my symptoms of postpartum depression (PPD) and anxiety (PPA) were finally diagnosed I was hit with wave after wave of overwhelming emotions and thought I was at fault.
At first I felt relief that I finally had an answer and could put a name to my experience. Knowing that I wasn’t alone, and that my illness was common was a blessing but it also made me angry. I couldn’t understand why something that impacts so many moms and their families wasn’t more openly discussed. Why had no one warned me about this?
It felt like a dirty secret that I’d been let in on. When I would talk to others about my experience I was often met with a knowing look. Sometimes the the conversation would turn to their experience with these illnesses. Now I was a member of the club so to speak – a group of millions of women around the world all connected by a shared experience.
Looking for Answers
Despite the prevalence of PPD and PPA, the hushed tones and mystery surrounding them left me looking for answers. I wanted to know what I could have done differently that may have prevented me from ever having to walk down this road. Why was I now dealing with a debilitating mental health crisis, while also trying to mother a tiny, helpless human?
I made the all too common mistake of spending hours on Google, reading about treatment options, medications, and risk factors. This not only served to increase my anxiety, but it also left me feeling ashamed.
With a history of depression and anxiety before pregnancy that I didn’t really talk about, I was at high risk of developing PPD and PPA. The warning signs had been there from the start and I chose to ignore them.
I didn’t want to discuss my previous mental health issues with my doctor because I thought that I could handle whatever came my way. There was a deep fear of being treated differently – marginalized, silenced – if I admitted to my depression and anxiety. I thought that if things went sideways, I’d be looked at as a failure. There was a deep fear that my ability to be a mother would be questioned.
Related: 21 Ridiculous Reasons Moms’ Mental Health Wasn’t Taken Seriously
Swallowed By Shame
So naturally after my diagnosis I jumped to the conclusion that PPD and PPA were my fault. I told myself that if I hadn’t been so unwilling to talk more about my previous history I likely could have avoided the mess that I was in.
I also quickly blamed myself for failing to advocate more strongly and admit to how I was feeling during the last weeks of my pregnancy. My perinatal mental health issues had really started around week 30 of my pregnancy and escalated to being completely debilitating by week 34. I didn’t make it clear enough to my doctor just how sick I was.
My thoughts were focused on how mentally unprepared I’d been for labor and delivery. I obsessed over how naive I’d been and how I was now letting down my son, my husband and my family. I let the shame swallow me whole.
You’re Not at Fault
When we’re trying to come to terms with crisis or a difficult situation, often the easiest way to make sense of the experience is to look for someone or something to blame. When we can’t find a solution externally, we turn our anger inwards. We’re an easy target because we’re the only one in the situation that we have control over. We expect ourselves to have known better or to have done more.
As I’ve come to learn, the reality of PPD and PPA is that they’re no one’s fault – especially not your own. These are complex illnesses that have biological, social and environmental causes that we don’t fully understand. It’s a mix of these factors that lead some of us to become very sick during the perinatal period. PPD and PPA are not a sign of weakness or a character flaw. They’re serious illnesses that with proper treatment and time will get better.
Each woman’s experience with these illnesses is unique, in the same way that the factors that result in her PPD or PPA are. There isn’t bonafide solution or agreed upon way to prevent these illnesses. There isn’t a magic potion or bullet to make them go away either.
Gradually, I came to see that the blame and shame I was caught up in wasn’t helping my recovery. Trying to change what happened in the past was completely fruitless. The only thing I had any control over was how to move forward.
Deciding to Move Forward
Moving forward is ultimately what I poured my energy into. Some days this meant I only made it out of bed and had a shower. Other days I’d get out of the house with my son and go for a walk. I made sure to keep appointments with my doctor and to work on finding the right medication.
My PPD and PPA were not my fault – nor is my ongoing experience with major depression and generalized anxiety disorder. There are things I can do to make managing these illnesses a lot easier, but there is nothing I did to cause them.
As you work on your own journey towards recovery, remember that trying change the past will get you nowhere. The only direction you can move is forward and there are millions of other women that know exactly how you feel. You’re not alone and you’re not to blame.
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Shannon Hennig is Program Director of the Maternal Mental Health Research Collaborative.