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Coming out of the darkness

PEPS provides social connections and support for new moms dealing with postpartum mood disorders

By Shawna Gamache

Rebekah Joe & Alex
Rebekah, Joe and Alex

Katie second trimester
Katie at 17 weeks pregnant

Katie and Landon
Katie with her son Landon

Melissa B's familt
Melissa with her family

When Rebekah Potter’s PEPS group met for the first time and shared their weekly highs and lows, Rebekah took a deep breath and told the truth.

“I said my low, ‘I’m dealing with postpartum depression,’ and I started tearing up,” says Rebekah, 32. “It was relieving to put it out there.”

Rebekah’s son Alex was five weeks old at that first daytime group meeting. Alex was a colicky baby, and cried for most of the day. Rebekah had felt angry and foggy-headed since his birth.

“My rational brain knew that he wasn't doing anything on purpose,” Rebekah said. “But I was just so angry. I knew he had a need and I couldn't help.”

“I wanted my life back”

Rebekah said her feelings of anger were compounded by sleep-deprivation and some days she struggled to even form sentences. Sometimes she would just have to set her son in the crib and walk away. She saw her life as a mother stretching before her as dealing with one difficult stage after another.

“He was cute for a few minutes a day and then he would just cry the rest of the time,” Rebekah said. “I was feeling really hopeless. I wanted my life back.”

Rebekah had been eager for PEPS to begin. Just the week before, she had confessed her feelings of anger and frustration to her family doctor.

At the time of that first meeting, Rebekah had not yet begun seeing a therapist or taking medication. But her doctor said having a weekly connection with other new moms would help.

“Seeing other babies and what other moms were going through gave me hope and validated that what I was going through wasn't easy,” Rebekah said.

Rebekah and her husband, Joe, also met with a couple’s evening group, and Rebekah said meeting with the other dads helped her husband come up with ideas for helping around the house.

“He was always wanting to know what he could do to help me, and I frequently couldn't really come up with anything, so it helped him to have concrete suggestions from others,” she said. “It helped support him, so that he could support and help me more.”

Rebekah’s son is now almost six months old and she said she has started feeling like herself again in the last month, thanks to medication and the support of her PEPS group and other friends.

Having a regular support network like PEPS is hugely important for new moms suffering from postpartum mood disorders, according to Mia Edidin, a licensed independent clinical social worker. Unfortunately, being a new mom is incredibly isolating, Mia said.

“Most people almost don't see anyone for 4-6 weeks.” she said. “The first thing we would tell any new mom is to get out into her social community.”

Mia, a board member with Perinatal Support Washington, leads a bi-weekly group called “Adjusting to Parenthood.” The group is for moms who want extra support and is co-sponsored by PEPS and Perinatal Support Washington.

She said the condition commonly known as postpartum depression is actually more accurately called postpartum mood disorder to reflect the fact that it can be characterized by anxiety, depression or both. Other postpartum mood disorders include Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, caused by traumatic experiences during childbirth, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, characterized by excessive and irrational worries or intrusive thoughts, and less common and more severe psychotic disorders.

Mia said it is most common to have a combination of depression and anxiety.

About 15-20 percent of new moms are affected by such disorders, according to Perinatal Support Washington.

Common symptoms of depression in the postpartum period are being extremely emotional, teary, fatigued, and tired (even after actually getting some sleep), and having feelings of guilt, and difficulty connecting with your baby or partner. Anxiety can make new moms feel really “keyed up,” struggle with irrational fears, and be unable to “turn off” those fears despite knowing they aren’t likely to happen, Mia said.

All of these symptoms are common in women who have just had babies, Mia said. The difference between average “baby blues” or common new mom worries, and a clinical mood disorder, she says, is the intensity of the feelings, how often they’re happening, how long they continue and whether they are affecting your ability to do other things.

“This isn’t normal”

For Katie Staples, it just felt like a fog descended over her a few months after her son Landon was born. She said her symptoms began with feelings of anxiety about bringing her son out in public and breastfeeding in public, and she also had very bad dreams.

“I didn't want to do anything, I didn't want to socialize,” said Katie, 26. “And I'm a very social person and that's not me at all.”

She said it was difficult to feel so anxious and foggy-headed when she was supposed to be so happy about her new baby.

“People think ‘I shouldn't be feeling this way; I have a new baby, I should be so excited,’” she said.

Landon was two months old when Katie started going to PEPS.

“Many weeks, PEPS was the only social contact I got myself to participate in during that period in my le-- sad, but true,” she said.

But it wasn’t until her fourth meeting when the group watched a video about postpartum mood disorders that Katie really got serious about her condition.

“I was like ‘Wow, that's what I’m feeling; this isn't normal and I should do something about it,’” she said. “I came home and talked to my husband about it, and he said ‘You need to go in and talk to someone about it.’”

Katie went to see her doctor, who prescribed an antidepressant and recommended she talk about her struggles with a close friend and with her PEPS group.

Katie said she opened up to her PEPS group, admitting “You guys have really been the only people I've socialized with since my son was born.”

“Everybody was very supportive,” she said. “You know you have another mom you can call and say ‘I really need a break right now, do you have time to come over?’”

Landon is two-and-a-half now, and Katie is expecting her second child in March. She says she has a strong support system this time around, including friends from her PEPS group, and is still seeing the same doctor who treated her before. She said if she is isolated and anxious after having this baby, her friends and doctor will notice and help.

Katie had struggled with anxiety before in college, and she knew that could make a postpartum mood disorder more likely. She had also recently moved to the Seattle area, away from friends and family. Complications stemming from Landon’s birth also meant that she couldn’t exercise and that was also difficult, since Katie had always been an active dancer.

Taking care of yourself

Mia said that in addition to addressing social isolation, most new moms need to be reminded to take good care of themselves and prioritize their needs. She said that includes exercising, eating well, getting out of the house every day and resting and sleeping as much as they can.

“It's one of the things new moms struggle with the most,” she said. “In the first couple of weeks, new moms need more rest -- and help-- than they allow themselves.”

When new moms take a close look at how they’ve actually been spending their days, Mia said, they realize how much time they’ve spent alone feeding and caring for their babies, and how little time they’ve spent sleeping or talking to anyone besides their partners.

“When moms start to do more of those things intentionally, they often feel much better and they're often surprised that they haven't been doing them,” she said.

If a new mom has put all of those things into place and is still struggling, that’s the time to seek professional help, Mia said.

“This can get better”

Melissa Bryan said she joined PEPS because she knew she would need lots of support after her son Connor was born. She had been treated for depression in the past, and she and her husband were the first of their friends to start having babies.

Her PEPS group started meeting when Connor was just 17 days old. In addition to their regular meetings, several moms from the group would meet weekly to walk around Greenlake. Those walks, Melissa said, were a life-saver for her.

“We would take three hours to get around the lake,” she said. “We didn't' care.”

About a month after Connor was born, Melissa said she was suddenly consumed with despair and anxiety.

“I was just fading,” she said. “I just felt like I was in a fog.”

She told her PEPS group about her feelings.

“They were just wonderful listeners,” Melissa said. “Without that, it could have been much worse.”

Because of her previous struggles with depression, Melissa sought professional help quickly. She was put on anti-depressants and had to stop breastfeeding. She said that was very difficult for her. But by the time Connor was six months old, Melissa felt like herself again.

When her second son, Alex, was born two and a half years later, Melissa said she quickly found herself spiraling again. Despite the support of her PEPS group and other friends and family, counseling and treatment, she wasn’t getting better this time.

When Alex was nine months old, she voluntarily checked herself into a mental hospital, Kirkland’s Fairfax Hospital.

She stayed there for five days. The doctors there helped her to create a long-term treatment plan that addressed every hour of her day and every possible scenario that could come up, and how she would cope. She also began taking Lithium, a drug she had rejected previously because she was so determined to nurse Alex, and the drug would make that impossible.

“I came home and have been fine, in fact, better than fine ever since,” Melissa said. “I absolutely love being a stay-at-home mom now, and I've grown more confident in my role as a mom with each passing year.”

Connor is now 10 and Alex is seven and a half. Melissa, now 41, describes her experience as an extreme case, but says it also shows that postpartum mood disorders are treatable and that full recovery is possible.

“You have to be aware that this can get better,” Melissa says.

“There are many factors that can aid in recovery and one of them is social support,” she said. “So, yay PEPS, for providing such an important resource for us parents!"

Get help today

Perinatal Support WAPerinatal Support Washington (formally known as Postpartum Support International of Washington) has been supporting families for 25 years. We have helped thousands of families throughout the state on our Warm Line and at our support groups. Each family who reaches out to us - learn that they are not alone, and that treatment and help is available!

You can call the group’s toll free telephone support line for a same-day callback at 1-888-404-7763.

Find out more:

Adjusting to Parenthood

Mia and her daughter
Mia Edidin, a board member with Perinatal Support Washington, leads Adjusting to Parenthood
Adjusting to Parenthood is a drop-in support group for new moms offering additional support for the emotional changes and challenges of adapting to parenthood. Facilitated by a professional therapist. $10 donation suggested. Adjusting to Parenthood is a collaboration between Perinatal Support Washington and PEPS.

Further Reading

About the Author

Shawna GamacheShawna Gamache is a former newspaper reporter and co-founder of the local blog Moms Alive. She is mama to Ruby (2) and Quinn (3). Her PEPS group still meets every other week.

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