By Rachel O’Dwyer
Where to start? It’s hard to say, my symptoms came on gradually, then all of a sudden.
A perinatal mood disorder cannot be oversimplified. Sure, I now understand some of my main contributors, yet the disorder has a complexity of layers, and each person’s experience is layered differently.
Under the best care a mother could possibly have, my beautiful twins were born at 41 and 3, breech, vaginally. This was by no chance. I was under co-care of the best midwives in the country, who were also connected to a unique OB/GYN, whose beliefs about the capabilities of a woman’s body aligned with our family’s goals: to have as natural of a birth as possible and give my twins a full chance at a full-term gestation. I also have an extremely supportive husband and network of family and friends (and I didn’t discuss my preferences with those who were not supportive); oh yeah, and I’m determined as hell.
Looking back, my first symptoms started to show as early as 6 weeks, with their first growth spurt. It was blatant at their 3 month growth spurt, which lasted a week! I didn’t even really realize that what was going on with me was something I had heard of before. Luckily, I had a wonderful, accepting friend, who I first told of my intrusive thoughts and anxiety. I was so confused because I loved the babies so much and felt deep gratitude for them finally being in our lives. She calmly told me to reach out to our midwives. Upon reflection, I felt most comfortable reaching out to our birth class instructor. She had gone over challenges we might face, and I knew she would be a safe person, caring, to reach out to as a first step.
I immediately started going to a counselor* my instructor recommended. The first meetings were soaked in tears, fear, hurt, confusion, and fog. I was one of the lucky ones: I recognized the symptoms early, got help early, and was connected to the best network of support imaginable. So many suffer unknowingly, unnecessarily for years, and my heart aches for them.
Without ever getting a concrete diagnosis of what kind of mood disorder I had, the matter of the fact was that there was not one or two reasons I as struggling, there was a multitude. As Macolm Gladwell says in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, when something perceivably negative happens, there are not one or two factors that contribute to the outcome, there are at least 7. For me, I had had a miscarriage before getting pregnant with the twins, both through IVF. Not having time, or perhaps the capacity, to mourn our lost baby impacted me significantly. We had also been on quite a journey through infertility. I was back to work when the babies were 8 weeks. And then, we were adjusting to life with twins. As my counselor put it, the event is not actually the birth, but bringing a new family member (or two) home.
As we adjusted, I was breastfeeding both, and my son had to be supplemented, so I got about an hour and a half of sleep between feedings at night for the first 7 weeks. I was severely sleep deprived, and headed back to work. Despite the incredible help and support we received, I was still on my own at one point, and was trying to be super woman and clean and cook and take care of myself and my babies. I also was doing my best to be accommodating to my husband, okaying later work days often. This was the norm before. Please know my husband is one of the rare ones, the incredible ones, and at the same time he’s not psychic. He had no idea I was struggling so badly with the weight of everything, and at the beginning I was clueless as well.
My understanding of the relationship of cause and effect has also shifted. For example, one of the twins was fussier than the other, and her crying stirred my anxiety, but it was how she decompressed to go to sleep. Originally, I thought that the crying was causing the anxiety. Now, I have learned that my lack of sleep and healthy boundaries, and my previous experience, was causing an overall anxiety, and my threshold for stress was low. As a mother, hearing your child cry causes angst. During my toughest times, her crying caused me to suffer, my stomach would turn. Now, after months of being well rested and going to counseling, I realize that my anxiety was a symptom of the above mentioned, and my daughter’s crying was not the cause.
The main reasons I am at this point of healing and happiness is due to the support I received. The combination of counseling and as well consulting from a sleep consultant got me creating healthy boundaries in many aspects of my life. For example, my husband committed to being home during the few hours before bed when the babies were fussiest, or else he would find someone I was comfortable with to help me if he could not. Then, we worked on subtle shifts in eating and sleeping during the day, and after some work, my babies were sleeping 12 hours at night. After counseling and continued consulting, my mind and body started to recover. It was as though I had lost who I was, I had lost my personality, and it was coming back.
As Anita Moorjani says in Dying To Be Me, “I was experiencing a battle between my heart and my mind, and my heart was winning.” Thank god for expert support, and the power and wisdom of listening to your heart.
I share my story in hopes that others will read something that helps them. These experiences only help us to connect with others. I am so fortunate to say that I feel like I have never felt before now. And it is in many ways because of the darkness I experienced.
*The counselor who worked with Rachel O’Dwyer:
Jessica L. Shepard, MA, LPC
Licensed Professional Counselor
For more information on perinatal mood disorder, signs of depression and anxiety, as well as well as treatment options, visit: Moms’ Mental Health Matters by the National Child & Maternal Health Education Program.