BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - FOX6 News Anchor Beth Shelburne shares her personal experience with postpartum depression to help raise awareness about this often misunderstood illness.
Seven years ago, I gave birth to a beautiful and healthy baby girl. I had a long labor and delivery, but other than the normal pregnancy symptoms and a surge in my blood pressure during the final weeks, mom and baby were doing great.
After two days in the hospital, we thanked the doctors and nurses, received a blessing for our baby from the hospital priest and took our bundle of joy home. But what I experienced in those first few weeks was not what I was expecting, and then weeks turned into months.
I loved my child with ever fiber of my being, but my sense of duty and protection bordered on insanity. I learned that motherhood is not a Hallmark card and postpartum depression is not a character flaw, it's a serious medical condition.
I hope by sharing my experience with postpartum anxiety, a perinatal mood disorder than falls under postpartum depression, I can help others better understand this complicated condition and give mothers hope that they are not alone.
I knew all babies are demanding, but my daughter was in a league of her own. She was what some would call "a fussy baby," crying endlessly when she wasn't nursing and never sleeping longer than an hour or two.
I was sleep deprived and overwhelmed and those first few weeks felt like a fog. I worried constantly, but this wasn't your normal new mommy jitters. A frantic anxiety I can only describe as feeling like a freight train ran through my body 24/7 and felt like it would never go away.
I couldn't sleep, I snapped at my husband and I obsessed about my daughter's care more than I enjoyed it. My loved ones could sense that something was wrong, but we chalked it up to being a new parent, and I spent a lot of energy trying to convince myself that this was the new normal.
Dr. Robin Lanzi researches child and maternal health at UAB and says many women put their own needs on the back burner when they become mothers.
"We know there's so much stigma associated with maternal depression," Dr. Lanzi said. "Whenever we think, 'Oh I may be depressed,' it becomes, 'Well, I'm not going to talk about it, I'm not going to seek help, I'm not going to reach out to others, I don't want to talk to my partner about it, I don't want to talk to my friends about it, because I don't want to be that woman who's depressed.'"
Another source of my anxiety was difficulties breastfeeding my daughter. I planned to exclusively breastfeed her and before she was born, I prepared by taking classes and reading books about what to expect. Despite a rock solid determination, my body was not producing enough milk and I had to supplement her with formula from a bottle. After months of hearing the message 'breast milk is best' I felt like I was failing in my most important job.
OBGYN Dr. Alison Heaton of Women's Health Specialists of Birmingham recommends that new moms try breastfeeding their babies, but said they should be careful about putting too much pressure on themselves to be perfect.
"If you're breastfeeding, it's the job that doesn't go away," Dr. Heaton said. "It's a great thing, but it can be very stressful and unfortunately women put stress on themselves, if it's not going exactly like they think it should."
Dr. Heaton is the mother of two children and shares her personal experiences with her patients.
"I struggled with breastfeeding, I couldn't keep up with my kids, I had to supplement along the way," she said. "I try to make sure that my patients understand that if it doesn't work out and you've tried your best and things are not going well, that you are not a failure and things are just fine. You do what you can and go to the next step."
Months passed and my anxiety did not wane, despite overcoming my breastfeeding obstacles and going on to successfully nurse my daughter for months. My sleep problems persisted, even as I returned to work after maternity leave and desperately needed a good night's sleep.
My daughter was settling down and sleeping for longer stretches, but I continued to fret, worry and question everything. Finally, a day after an hour-long crying jag, I called my doctor and began the process of putting myself back together. Finding the right medication and a good therapist to talk through my feelings were both key in my recovery.
In hindsight, I know I did the best that I could in a dark, confusing time. But I also wonder how so many people around me could have missed the warning signs. I have a strong family history of anxiety and depression and a personal history of suffering panic attacks. A rise in my blood pressure and anxiety in the weeks leading up to my daughter's birth should have been a red flag that I was at serious risk for future problems.
Despite knowing this, the signs and symptoms of postpartum depression were not on my radar. Even my doctors never seemed too concerned.
I asked Dr. Lanzi if she thinks women are getting enough information and support about postpartum depression.
"I think all providers are challenged with providing women with what they need," Dr. Lanzi explained. "Because they see them for short periods of time, it's a challenge to identify all the needs that women have."
Dr. Lanzi and colleagues at UAB have developed a screening tool that allows providers to identify women at risk for postpartum depression by asking a few simple questions during the prenatal period, before the baby is born. Those question focus on a mother's emotional preparedness and are designed to alert providers of patients who may need additional support.
Dr. Heaton said her practice is always on the lookout for patients who may be struggling with postpartum depression and they begin that conversation while the patient is still pregnant. It continues after the baby is born.
"We actually now have implemented a questionnaire that every postpartum mom is supposed to answer, that helps to identify the people that are having the true postpartum depression," Dr. Heaton said. "It's something we try to screen everybody for and as obstetricians, we do try to watch to make sure people are not showing signs of it."
Ashley Berkery of Homewood also suffered from postpartum anxiety after the birth of her second son, Hart, in 2012. She says part of her isolation came from a total lack of awareness from her doctor.
"I actually got no support from my OB after my second child, when I felt like I was sick. I was told to get back on birth control," she said. "I wasn't told anything, I wasn't given any information. I asked the doctor to please check my hormones and he asked me, 'Why?'"
Berkery began having symptoms when her son was four months old, just as she was beginning to wean him from breastfeeding.
"I felt every day like I had the flu," Berkery explained. "I felt nauseated every day. I mean, I was playing with my kids, I wasn't in the bed crying, but I just felt achy, I felt like I had the flu, I felt sick."
Berkery underwent multiple tests and for two months did not know why she felt so bad. Not knowing led to more anxiety and eventually panic attacks.
"Because I felt so sick, I felt anxious because nobody was giving me a diagnosis and I was like, something is wrong but nobody could put a finger on it," says Berkery.
She was finally diagnosed with postpartum anxiety and tried medication, but eventually saw her symptoms go away through a regular running program, which she still uses to manage her anxiety.
"I started out running two minutes, walking two minutes and gradually got up from there and I felt so much better," said Berkery. "I felt alive! Since then, I've done seven 5Ks and I can tell if I go a couple of weeks without running. I start to get that anxious feeling back."
Dr. Heaton said treatment for postpartum depression depends on the patient. Medications and therapy can help, but the first step is recognizing the patient's symptoms. The stress of having a new baby, combined with lack of sleep and a hormonal roller coaster makes new moms especially vulnerable.
"You've got certain chemicals within the brain that become more depleted in all of these situations," Dr Heaton explained. "High stress, lack of sleep, hormonal changes that then cause you to be less able to cope with things, that you may be able to cope with on a regular day."
Dr. Lanzi said researchers are beginning to have a better understanding of the biological, psychological and social aspects of postpartum depression which has lead to an overall greater awareness of the condition, but more work needs to be done.
"Thankfully things are changing and we're moving in the right direction," Dr. Lanzi said. "There is more awareness about maternal depression, but there needs to be more dollars behind it."
Berkery hopes by speaking out about her own struggle, she'll inspire other moms to get help.
"If you don't feel comfortable talking to other people about it, at least talk to your doctor and get on a plan that's right for you," said Berkery. "It's nothing to be ashamed of."
Dr. Heaton said the motherhood ideal of a clean house and perfect children is a myth that women should let go. False expectations can play into a difficult reality and make depression and anxiety worse.
"The reality is, most of the time the house is completely trashed, the laundry is up to your knees, you've got somebody that's got a diaper that needs to be changed and usually, you're wearing spit up as an accessory," she said with a laugh, telling her patients to remember what's important and not sweat the small stuff.
Dr. Heaton also encourages women to be honest with their spouses, loved ones and especially their providers if they feel overwhelmed.
"You can't take care of your baby if you can't take care of yourself," she said.
Postpartum depression is the number one complication from childbirth. It's estimated up to 80 percent of new moms will experience the so-called "baby blues" in the weeks after they give birth but 15 to 20 percent will suffer from some form of postpartum depression, which can last up to one year.
Half of the women who suffer from postpartum depression are undiagnosed and untreated. The symptoms can range from mild to life threatening and if it goes untreated, the condition can worsen.
Symptoms of postpartum depression include:
-thoughts of hopelessness and sometimes thoughts of harming the baby or yourself
Symptoms of postpartum anxiety include:
-shortness of breath
If you or someone you know may have postpartum depression, the best thing you can do is ask for help and not suffer in silence. It will get better and you are not alone, but you have to ask for help.
Please visit the following websites for additional information and resources:
Please join us Thursday night at 9 and 10 as Beth Shelburne and Ashley Berkery open up about their fight with postpartum depression. You can watch on air, online at www.FoxAlabamaLive.com or through the WBRC News app.