A Naturopath's Journey Through Postnatal Depression

This blog sat in my drafts folder for more than a year before I hit publish. It's been changed quite a few times. Paragraphs put in, paragraphs taken out again.

This week is Perinatal Depression and Anxiety Awareness week which is what is finally helped me to press publish. If I can help someone feel less alone and less like a failure/bad mother/incapable person, then I think it will all be worth it to share ALL of it.

So here's my story, warts and all (because really - is there any other way?)

Let me start by saying that as a Naturopath, this blog is hard for me to write because I eventually had to go down the prescription medication route on my postnatal journey which is NOTHING to be ashamed of and which I think is definitely needed for some people.

But I do wonder, under different circumstances, would I have been okay in the end without going down this path? I say this because the medications that were tried on me seemed to make things worse (as you will read). They may have helped me for a time (I honestly don't know). I have no regrets because whatever we do is meant to be, even if it means helping someone else by sharing your story.

I gave birth to my beautiful son Sam, my second child born only fifteen months after my first, in 2012. After looking at all my personal circumstances surrounding this birth, I look back now and realise there was 100% chance of me suffering from PND.

Firstly, my baby girl was only six months old when I fell pregnant again and I continued breastfeeding her until I hit my second trimester when my milk completely went away. My baby girl was now nine months and I was glad to have gotten that far, but I was still a little heartbroken that my original plan of breastfeeding her for as long as we both wanted was no longer in place and I was also scared of a new baby coming along and breaking this magic spell that myself, my husband and my baby were under.

That first new baby love that was encompassing my small family. We were in a bubble and I felt it was about to burst. How could I love another baby as much as I loved this one? I still wanted all my attention to be on my baby girl and not have to split my love and care between two children just yet! Not while she was so young!

Our first baby

Then, to be closer to family, (I predicted I was going to need help!) we left our bubble and beautiful home in WA and moved all the way across the country to Hervey Bay, Qld. I was seven months pregnant and had a little one just about to turn one. We knew no-one in Hervey Bay but my husband had gotten a good job there and at least my family were only a 5 hour drive away rather than a 5 hour flight away. So my husband started a new job, we are in a new place and missing our friends, and then my husband started getting sick.

We didn't know what was wrong but he rapidly lost a lot of weight, when he really didn't have too much to spare and he could barely stay awake after work. We had put it down to stress of the move, a new baby coming and the new job but when he got worse and worse and the doctors were just saying that it was from the virus he had recently had, I asked a doctor to test his blood sugars.

They were through the roof! He was given insulin immediately and started to come good. We did nearly lose him though, as the doctor said he had been in ketoacidosis. He had Type 1 diabetes, believed to be triggered by a virus. So at the age of 39, his health took this dramatic turn.  But we adapted and soldiered on.

Of course all this stress must have been taking it's toll on me and my baby and then it was time for Sam to arrive.

From the moment he was born, he didn't sleep much at all. He screamed in pain after every feed. This was a massive shock for us as we had assumed Sam would be like our first baby, so happy and a great sleeper! No way Jose!

I cut so many foods out of my diet thinking I could help him be more settled. I wasn't eating any dairy, gluten, sugar, tomatoes, onions, garlic, cabbage, beans, broccoli, cabbage or nuts. But still he screamed and I was eating less and less and coping less and less.

Thank goodness for my mum who came up to stay with us for long stretches of time and basically was a full time mother for my one year old as I could not do any more than try and help Sam sleep which was to have him on us and upright. I was so exhausted.

I handed him to my husband as soon as he was in the door each night. He strapped the Ergo on and went walking until dinner time when I would then take over again, as we basically couldn't put him down.

So you can see why the perfect storm was brewing inside me can't you?

High stress - check. 
Feelings of Isolation - check. 
Not having adequate nutrient stores due to having two babies close together, constant breastfeeding and limiting my diet in the hope of helping my baby's reflux - check. 
No sleep - check. 
Being stubborn and not good at asking for help - check.

When I first started noticing that maybe I wasn't so great, it was easy just to put it down to all those points above.

I felt very sad and cried almost as much as Sam. I was also very angry. Not outwardly angry. Just simmering under the surface angry. At what I couldn't pinpoint. It was little things that got to me most. The way a midwife might look at me. The way the grocery cashier was taking too long to give me my change. I just smiled at these strangers and pushed that irrational rage down to where it couldn't be seen.

I started taking herbs to help my mood and help my non-existent sleep because, by now, I couldn't sleep even when Sam was asleep. I was totally wired and just waiting for him to wake and scream again.

These herbs made no difference at this point in time but I pretended they did. I was embarrassed that I was feeling so hopeless. That me and my baby weren't doing so great and I couldn't seem to fix either of us and for someone who has based their adult life on helping and finding solutions to health issues for others, this was really eating away at me. And I'm very stubborn. I would swear black and blue that everything was ok until I was basically at a point where my insides were screaming for help. And scream they did.

I started having thoughts about putting Sam in a drawer and shutting it.

Just to see if that helped quiet things down. I never did this but I thought it...which really scared me. I didn't tell anyone at the time though. But then one night as I was lying wide awake in bed, I was listening to the trucks go past outside (as we lived on a busy road) and I wondered if it would be easy to walk out onto the road in front of one of those trucks.

I had never had a thought like this in my life and it scared the absolute shit out of me! I had a whole family to love and take care of. What the hell was wrong with me? I woke my husband and told him what I had just thought. He was of course very upset and took the next day off work and demanded I go to the doctor and tell them what I had just said.

This was actually the hardest part. Telling a doctor what I had going on in my head.

I didn't want to be seen as weak and I didn't want to turn to medication. But by now, I felt like it was out of my control. I had given up and didn't know what to do and I was very scared. So I did what they told me to do and filled a prescription for Zoloft which is an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) class of antidepressant. After about a week, I just felt numb.

I wasn't crying as much anymore but I wasn't feeling much at all. I felt like I was a robot just going through the motions. After a few months I started suffering terrible diarrhoea. Like, really bad. I couldn't be away from a toilet for any length of time and because I was breastfeeding still, to be losing so much liquid was quite dangerous.

It had to stop. The doctor took me off Zoloft and put me on a drug called Cymbalta which is an SSNRI (selective serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor) class of antidepressant that treats anxiety and depression.  The diarrhoea stopped but I felt really weird and so I stopped taking it after only a few days. I kept the script though just in case.


I love this photo of Sam and I, it reminds me there were smiles among the tears

Then my son stopped breathing one night. He was only 7 months old. He was intubated and we were flown by helicopter to the Royal Children's Hospital in Brisbane where he was in the PICU for 2 weeks. I remember filling my Cymbalta script at the hospital pharmacy a few days into our stay and I remember thinking at the time, "You nearly lost your son Leash and you are still not great. Just go on the damn drugs even if they make you feel weird because you have a long road ahead of you and you need to be there for your children."

Once again, I filled that script out of extreme fear but maybe it was good that I did? Maybe it got me through? But later, I wished I hadn't, as it nearly undid me completely.

Later on, we found Sam was born with a double whammy condition called laryngomalacea and tracheomalacea which just meant he didn't have much cartilage in his trachea or larynx, so his first flu caused a complete tracheal closure due to inflammation in the respiratory areas. These conditions are also associated with reflux so now we knew why poor Sam was always in pain no matter what I did because he probably didn't have much cartliage to help close his esophageal valve either. It's a condition that children grow out of, so while we had to be very careful of him and move back to Brisbane to be near a major hospital until Sam was older, he was out of immediate danger.

But I wasn't.

I changed so much on this Cymbalta drug. 

I was so far from me that I didn't know who me was anymore.

We moved to Brisbane and I loved being closer to my family and friends again, but I felt like I was putting on a show for everyone. The 'yeah it's been tough but look at me coping' show. I felt like something was blocking my healing and blocking my feelings about what had happened.

I started to see a counsellor that specialised in PND and we both agreed after several weeks of talking, that my need to be off this drug was more important than staying on it.

I wanted to see how I was without this drug in my system that made me feel so incredibly different. Even though I weaned myself off it safely, under a doctors supervision and cut back the dose a little at a time, I went through something worse than what I remember the initial postnatal depression to be.

Extreme highs and lows. I felt bipolar and completely out of control. Sobbing one minute and laughing manically the next. Absolutely anything could set me off. I didn't know how I would react to anything and I was scaring myself and scaring my small children. Sometimes I felt like I couldn't be allowed in the house alone with them.

And the vertigo, my god, the vertigo. Some days it would hit me so hard that I would crawl around the house rather than walk which my kids thought was great fun as they played horsie on mummy's back! I couldn't drive a car for about 4 weeks. It was just too dangerous.

And then slowly, slowly, I felt semi-normal again. The half-life of this drug was leaving my body and I remembered what it felt like to be me again. I have since read internet forums about people's lives being ruined coming off this particular drug. Jobs and relationships lost and many chat rooms available for people to share their experience in the withdrawal stages of Cymbalta.

I wish I didn't have to go through that experience, but I did and it made me grateful to be completely free of it and made me grateful that I had gotten through it. As for my anxiety and depression?

It lifted from being around loved ones, watching my diet, exercising daily (I can't stress this one enough), talking to a psychologist, moving and releasing stored energy and emotions with the help of my flower essences, working with an energy healer, getting acupuncture and massages and anything I could do to keep things moving.

All of this, plus time, helped me let go of so much pain, anger, frustration and sadness that I had been holding onto.

My amazing husband wearing our son and cuddling our daughter

I am forever grateful for what I have learnt in these last few years and yes, I am very grateful for suffering from postnatal depression.

It has taught me to live with daily gratitude and most importantly it has taught me to make looking after myself my number one priority. Mums who put everything aside for their children will eventually be taught this lesson in some way or another.

We have a responsibility to eat well, exercise, make time for massages, pedicures, yoga, dates, laughing, joy, getaways, asking for help, taking the day off, deciding when enough is enough...because if we don't, it's not just us that suffers.

Some circumstances and life events are unavoidable and sometimes we just have to get struck down before we can get back up.

I'm not advocating any one way of fixing things. I don't do that anymore.

I know now that you have to do what you have to do at the time and trust that it all turns out ok.

And I know that you have to speak up.

You can't do it alone.

You also have to let go of the fear of what others will think of you if you put your hand up and say I'm not coping. Surround yourself with the best people you have at hand and know that you are strong and you can survive anything if you get the help.

Please contact the PANDA Organisation if you or someone you know needs help and please, please, look after yourselves through every stage of your life. Not just when hormones are running amok or you are a new mum but ALL the time. Every nice thing you do for yourself and everything you do each day to fill up your 'Health Bank' ensures a healthier, happier you which means a healthier, happier family.

And that's really all it's about in the end don't you think?  

And while there are no quick or easy fixes for post natal anxiety and depression, I have put together a New Mum Pack which has some great emotional support products to get you through some hairy days or just start you on a better track of looking after yourself and making some emotional shifts to be able to ask for help. This is a wonderful pack to gift yourself or any new mum that might need some extra support. Please have a read about this pack HERE.

I'm so glad I got through for the rewards I get now xx

Yours in Health and with so much love, 

Alisha xx

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