In the Valley of Postpartum Depression
When I brought my fifth baby home from the hospital, I never imagined writing a suicide letter or ending my life by running into oncoming traffic. My husband never considered planning a funeral for me and one of our babies or raising our five children alone. And, thankfully, my family will not be left to wonder why I took my own life—because, instead, I found help for my Postpartum Depression (PPD).
Allison Goldstein’s family learned about her battle with postpartum depression the day she dropped her four-month-old daughter off at daycare, drove down a dirt road, and committed suicide. A panic attack caused by postpartum anxiety led Emily Dyches, a fellow mother of five, to jump from her father’s car and run into traffic, ending her life. Postpartum psychosis (a variation of PPD causing hallucinations and a break from reality) caused Charlene Ventanilla to take not only her own life, but also the life of her eight-week-old baby. Their grieving families are now trying to raise awareness, aiming to help others understand and recognize the dangers of PPD before it’s too late.
I remember the day my OB asked me how I was feeling after the birth of my fourth baby. I burst into tears, confessing I spent the majority of my days wanting to hide in my closet because of my anxiety. She heard me, took me seriously, and put a plan of action in place before I left the office that day. After the birth of my fifth baby, I began to have full-blown panic attacks. My anxiety caused me to be overly irritable and short-tempered. This dark valley was more physically painful and threatening than any I’d previously experienced. Forget enjoying my family and life in general—I felt like an empty shell of a person. I knew I wasn’t myself, but no matter how much I prayed, read Scripture, or tried to get better, I couldn’t snap out of it.
PPD: Body and Soul
Postpartum depression is the number one complication of childbirth; the CDC reports that it affects one in eight women. PPD differs from the “baby blues” that affect 80 percent of mothers because it lasts longer and is more severe. The National Institute of Mental Health describes postpartum depression as “a mood disorder that can affect women after childbirth,” explaining, “Mothers with postpartum depression experience feelings of extreme sadness, anxiety, and exhaustion that may make it difficult for them to complete daily care activities for themselves or for others.”
While PPD is common, it often goes undiagnosed. According to new research out of Canada, postpartum women actually experience anxiety more than they experience symptoms we’d typically associate with depression. This was certainly the case for me. Because not every mother’s symptoms are the same, it can be easy to overlook or dismiss warning signs. According to the American Journal of Clinical Medicine, “the majority of undiagnosed cases are probably due to the social stigma of being labeled an ‘unhappy mother,’ not to mention the public image of PPD.”
For the Christian mom, there can be an additional barrier to seeking help.
For those who love Jesus and want to glorify him, it’s embarrassing to admit feeling overwhelmed by the children God gave us. When new moms hear messages from the church like “Do not fear,” “Do not to be overwhelmed,” and “Trust God,” it’s easy to worry that admitting any struggles may be perceived as sinful, faithless, or reflect a lack of gratitude for what God’s given. Inside the church, women who suffer with PPD may actually receive correction instead of grace and judgment instead of hope. They often fear that asking for help could potentially discredit their trust in God and expose what may wrongly be seen as spiritual immaturity.
While hope in Christ promises sufficient strength in times of weakness, we live in a post-Fall world within broken bodies riddled with countless physical maladies. We must be cautious about over-spiritualizing the physiological realities of depression or anxiety. How can we provide the hope and help women suffering from PPD need? In my own experience, I found the following three principles to be most helpful.
Don’t trust your feelings. Jeremiah 17:9 warns, “The heart is deceitful above all things.” While a rational person can’t trust his or her heart, I’d argue a postpartum mother should trust hers even less! Sleep-deprivation and fluctuating hormones often render postpartum moms a fountain of overflowing emotions (just ask my husband). Weeping, laughing, loving, and hating—and sometimes all at the same moment—we may not know when we’ve gone past the line of what’s “normal” and when we really need help.
How can we know when our thoughts and feelings have crossed the threshold of “new mommy worries” to “get help quick?” By intentionally letting someone else enter into our pain. Wherever you’d classify yourself on the spectrum of “normal” to “needs intervention,” know that in those foggy-brained baby days, you often can’t trust yourself to see clearly. Don’t hide your feelings or act on them without counsel. Instead, identify and ask someone who knows you well enough to intervene if they sense trouble. Give them the permission to speak into your life and prepare to trust them when they offer advice.
Apply the gospel to your PPD. Jesus understands limitations and dependence on the Father in times of weakness. Fully God and fully man, Christ came to dwell in flesh so that he could fully relate to us and live inside the confines of humanity. He knows the Enemy’s temptations, he knows the feeling of being pushed past physical limits, and he knows the longing for freedom from pain. It was through his beautiful birth story and terrible suffering on the Cross that God would redeem our most devastating stories of suffering. When we are feeling our lowest and questioning our faith or God’s willingness to deliver us from the pain of PPD, we must remember the gospel: the good news that Jesus saves.
We are dependent on Jesus for our ultimate salvation. Our standing with God and his acceptance of us is not based on our ability to be a good mom, to trust God enough to overcome PPD, or on how we feel from moment to moment of our hazy, sleepless recovery. We receive the gift of forgiveness for our sins and eternal life, by grace, through faith. By admitting our need for Jesus, believing that Jesus is the Son of God who died for our sins, and by confessing faith in him, we are made new. There is no list of parental parentheses that follows our profession of faith. PPD cannot separate us from God. Paul encourages believers by assuring them, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Because Christ suffered and died for you, you are freed from the shame of postpartum depression.
Reach out for help. If you feel unable to manage your thoughts, feelings, or behaviors with normal intervention and support of friends and family, or if you or someone you trust believes you may be suffering from postpartum depression, seek outside help from a qualified doctor. God’s grace comes in many forms and sometimes it’s through the means of professional counseling, medications, or lifestyle modifications. Balancing hormones and chemicals in the brain as well as managing stress levels is complicated and a team of medical professionals can help you get back to feeling like yourself.
Out of the Valley
Postpartum depression and anxiety have been to blame for some of my hardest seasons of life—my lowest of lows. Each day, I praise the Lord my story didn’t end like Allison’s, Emily’s, or Charlene’s. I’m so grateful that I found help and healing. With each passing day, my PPD symptoms are lessening and fading. Life is more livable and enjoyable now; I feel more like myself. I am reminded by a Puritan prayer that “the broken heart is the healed heart.” Through family, friends, and medical intervention, God has performed good healing work in my physical body and in my soul.
For those who are waiting for the Lord’s deliverance from the valley of PPD, trust him and hold on to hope. Speak the words of the psalmist, “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God” (42:5). Postpartum depression and anxiety are not the end of your story.
Lindsey Carlson is the wife of a church planter, a mother of five, and a Texas transplant adjusting to life in Baltimore, Maryland. You can find more of her writing on her blog Worship Rejoices or follow her on Twitter.