Admitting I Had Postpartum Depression Only Made Me Stronger

BY STEPHANIE OLSON

My story didn’t seem very important until I realized that without it, there was only my silence. I see other women acknowledging their experiences publicly, like Hayden Panettiere, and I’ve decided I need to add my voice — to do my part to normalize what so many women go through.

It was not easy for me to recognize at first that I was in the throes of postpartum depression. In fact, I fought it. In the beginning, I was exhausted, like all new mothers. My son grew quickly, from under eight pounds at birth to over twenty-two pounds at six months, so I thought that was part of my exhaustion. Still, the problems came to a head long before his six month mark.

Courtesy: Stephanie Olson

Courtesy: Stephanie Olson

I labored with my son for several hours before getting an epidural, which I had always planned on. I relaxed in the bathtub until my contractions became close enough and painful enough that I decided I needed it. Then, I slept. Hours later, I was still completely numb from the waist down. I only knew I was having contractions thanks to the monitor slipped around my belly. My doctor was busy with another surgery, so we waited for hours, my son crowning the whole time. But, like I said, I felt nothing.


I was convinced something was very wrong, something other than anxiety. Yet blood test after blood test came back normal, as did an MRI and CAT scan. What I didn’t know yet was that postpartum depression was the answer I was searching for.


Finally the doctor arrived and I was given the green light to push — without feeling anything, my son was born, that easy. I felt nothing for the afterbirth or the episiotomy. And I think this is where the guilt started, both because I felt nothing and because I waited hours for the doctor to push. My first delivery had been excruciating even with two epidurals, and here I actually had a pain-free experience. I could only react with guilt.

In the weeks after his birth, it was not simply feeling blue. The feeling was unrecognizable. I felt weak, light-headed; my hands would go numb. I had two episodes where I felt so short of breath and scared about it that I ended up having full-blown panic attacks, which I had no idea could manifest themselves so physically. I couldn’t move my hands or arms or legs, all part of the panic-induced lack of oxygen. I have never felt so out of control of my own body. I was convinced something was very wrong, something other than anxiety. Yet blood test after blood test came back normal, as did both the MRI and CAT scans. What I didn’t know yet was that postpartum depression was the answer I was searching for.

I felt cornered; my family and doctors suggested that my problem might have been mental, rather than physical. I felt like they were calling me crazy, suggesting that it was all in my head, or that perhaps I was a hypochondriac. However, these were my own hang-ups. I didn’t want to admit that I could have postpartum depression because to me, that would have meant failure. Failure at motherhood, failure at being strong enough, failure at pulling my weight. To me, it would have meant that I was pulling everyone down.

I felt I was losing my place in the world, sometimes literally. I could sit on the couch, but not much more. I would get lost, entirely lost, in little details. There was one late afternoon when the sun was hitting the dust on the TV just right, so that the whole surface seemed to glow except for where tiny handprints had cleaned the particles. I must have stared at those spots for several minutes, just completely absorbed. At the time, I thought it was the writer in me. I didn’t realize it was part of the illness.


I had been sick, and I had been fighting an unfair battle. But after admitting I had PPD, after getting the help I needed, I started to feel strong enough. Not invincible, but strong enough.


Although I was engrossed in what I found beautiful, I couldn’t function. I couldn’t engage with my children, I could barely watch them — everything felt as from a distance. It was work, real work, just to be present. I was desperate. I had already tried things like acupuncture, acupressure, and massage. I just wanted to feel better, like me again.

So, in an act that felt like giving in, I agreed to try medication. I thought that at least it would serve as a means of ruling postpartum depression out. The first prescription, Zoloft, ended up being a bad fit, which made me even more resistant. It made me feel like half a person — I was in a fog, senseless, and not at all better. My doctor switched the prescription to a combination of Lexapro and Abilify. Pretty suddenly, I felt like doing things again. Not just tasks, like grocery shopping, washing the dishes, or playing with the kids — all things I couldn’t manage before — but also painting, entering art shows, and writing. I wasn't 100% fixed, but I was mending, and I couldn't deny that. That mattered.

And it mattered, too, that I wasn’t wrong. I had been sick, and I had been fighting an unfair battle. But after admitting I had PPD, after getting the help I needed, I started to feel strong enough. Not invincible, but strong enough.

I still struggle. I had to stop breastfeeding to start the medication, and those two and a half months that I did manage will never feel like enough to me. But I know now that I have to be a mother the best way that I can and that involves compromises, which we all have to make. And taking prescription medication didn’t make me weaker. When we can acknowledge and overcome our fears, when we can meet our minds and our bodies as they are, we can begin to heal ourselves and grow strong.