bipolar parent

Mother’s Day: 5 Things I Wish People–Including New Mothers–Knew About Postpartum Depression

Photo by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

Trigger Warning: This post contains discussions of suicide. If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, please:

  • Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255
  • Text TALK to 741741
  • Or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.

For a post with a list of domestic crisis lines, click here. For a post with a list of international crisis lines, click here.

Like many mothers who have just given birth (up to 20%, in fact), I suffered postpartum depression.

Most mothers get the baby blues, a period of sadness after birth that lasts anywhere from 4-6 weeks, but postpartum depression (PPD) is so much more severe than that.

On this Mother’s Day, where we honor the parent who gave us life, I think it’s perfect time to let you know what PPD is really like. Or, at least, how my own experience with the illness was and what it can teach you.

5 Things I Wish People–Including New Mothers–Knew About Postpartum Depression

1. Take PPD Seriously

Postpartum depression is no joke.

My experience was slightly different than most moms out there: I suffered an episode of postpartum psychosis that hamstrung me.

But the following three years of postpartum depression kept me from functioning and destroyed my confidence that I would ever be a whole person again.

Indeed, 13 years later, I’m still feeling the effects of my bout with PPD. I used to be a strong, independent young woman who’d just earned two bachelor’s degrees, paying for college by myself by working two jobs. Now I’m nervous, insecure, and almost entirely dependent upon my husband not only financially, but also for things like taxes, buying airline tickets, changing a tire, driving in snow, and picking out phones.

My dependance on my husband is shameful to me. I don’t know how to do those practical things, and I’ve been afraid I’m too stupid to learn. Me, the woman who was smart enough and bold enough to earn two bachelor’s degrees!

I was never this bad off before my struggles with PPD.

And the PPD itself was a living hell. When my baby cried, I cried. I was terrified of putting him down just in case something bad would happen to him—either I’d step on him and crush his chest, or I’d forget about him, and he’d starve to death. I had nightmares of me throwing him down the stairs or boiling him alive.

For the first three years of my son’s life, my home was completely trashed. Moldy dishes piled up in the sink and on tables, unwashed clothes littered the floor, and a figurative ocean of dirty diapers coalesced on the living room floor.

I could not function. When I say that, I don’t mean that I was lazy. I mean that my brain could not parse out “pick up the dirty diapers on the floor one at a time, and you’ll be able to clean the living room floor.” I looked at the whole picture of the mess I had caused and felt completely overwhelmed.

Isolating myself and my infant, we rarely went outside or to mother-baby activities. I did have a Program for Early Parent Support (PEPS) group of mothers and their infants that was set up by the hospital, but after I broke down sobbing at one of the meetings, screaming, “I have PPD and it sucks!” the other mothers alienated me.

I spent all day sobbing. I lost several friends, and found no pleasure in anything, not even my infant, and then felt terribly guilty for not bonding with him in the way I “should” have.

Trying to establish himself in his new, high-stress job, my husband worked 12-hour days and sometimes slept at the office. I was alone most of the day, left to my brain fog and inability to do anything more than breastfeed my baby when he cried, at which point I was also crying.

Postpartum depression is not the baby blues. It’s severe, and if you or a loved one has been experiencing any of the following symptoms, please call a doctor right now:

  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety
  • Sadness
  • Irritability
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Crying
  • Reduced concentration
  • Appetite problems
  • Trouble sleeping

2. PPD can be Dangerous to Mothers and Their Babies

There came a point in my PPD two and a half years after my son’s birth that I began dreaming of ways to die. Watching my son toddle around all day and unable to answer his constant questions of why, why, why, I would craft suicide letters in my head.

Suicide is a real risk for mothers who suffer PPD. Over the past decade, suicide attempts during and after pregnancy have nearly tripled. And it’s a silent suffering. No mother wants to alarm their loved ones by spilling their secret thoughts to harm themselves.

Which leads into my next point.

3. Pressure on Mothers is Immense

The pressure on mothers, especially mothers of tiny babies, is immense.

I speak of mothers specifically because dads tend to be praised for their efforts in “babysitting” their babies, which is a whole different problem. Both caregivers are under a lot of pressure, but new mothers, assumed to be the primary caregiver, bear the brunt of the social pressure.

Breastfeeding is touted as what’s best for the baby, and I agree that nutritionally, it is, but breastfeeding in public is met with either derision and ogling, or both at once.

I have been drooled at before. I have breastfed on a toilet seat. I have been scoffed at, glared at, and put on display for both mockers and people who would stare at my breasts and lick their lips lasciviously. All I was trying to do was feed my baby in the “best” way possible.

There’s nothing worse on an airplane than a crying baby. Why won’t that mother shut that baby up? Sure, the baby is tired and hungry like everyone else, but seriously, that mother is terrible, or so the thinking goes.

And as a new mother, you’re expected to bond with your baby. New babyhood is glorified as this magical journey where everyone handmakes favors for their child’s first birthday bash (which are “supposed to be” huge) and posts them on Instagram.

The pressure to post your “perfect” life on Snapchat is never more intense than on new mothers. Everyone wants to see the baby’s involuntary smiles that are usually from gas bubbles, but no one wants to see the same baby spitting up or with a blowout diaper.

Especially not on an airplane, which has happened to both me and my husband while traveling alone with our infants.

The pressure on mothers is ridiculous. I beg you, if there’s a crying baby in your vicinity, please, please give the mother a little grace. If she has PPD, I can assure you that society’s judgement is the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

4. You Can Conquer PPD

All of this sounds like doom and gloom, right?

But don’t worry. Postpartum depression doesn’t last forever.

If you’re suffering from PPD, you can survive this, and yes, even thrive one day. It will take time, and patience, and maybe medication and definitely therapy.

But I promise you: You can conquer PPD. It’s dangerous, it’s terrible, it’s soul-destroying, but you will live again, and reach your full potential.

Call your doctor today. They want to help you.

If you can’t call your doctor, if your brain fog or your shame about not bonding with your baby prevents you from doing so, get someone close to you to do it. Tap that social support network you’ve so carefully built up.

And if you have no one and are truly on your own, go to the nearest urgent care center. Your life may be at stake.

And you deserve the dignity of a stable, happy life. I should know – I am thriving. My psychiatrist gave me lithium (I have bipolar disorder, so this drug worked for me) and it was like the clouds opened up and I could breathe again.

I no longer suffocated in PPD’s grip. I was able to pick up those dirty diapers and move on with my life, eventually bonding with my baby. I am now going to school for my graduate degree in clinical mental health counseling.

I am happy now. You want that, right?

Call your doctor today.

5. You May Not have PPD with Your Next Baby

After my bout with PPD, I was scared off of having babies for many years. I thought I was done with having children, that my son alone would be enough.

But then, one Christmas, I woke up one day wanting another baby. I talked it over with my husband, who always left our reproductive choices up to me, and he agreed to try for another one.

After a year of trying, I fell pregnant, and insisted that I be safely medicated for the pregnancy.

My daughter was born healthy and happy, and I suffered no ill effects that I was dreading. I had my treatment team (my psychiatrist and therapist) on standby, but I was stunned that I didn’t need them.

By grace of God, I did not have a second round of PPD. But if I did, I would have sought treatment immediately. Never again will I face a pit of depression without getting help, and never again will I allow myself to sink to such horrific depths.

Let’s Recap

This is a strongly worded post, I know. But my experience with PPD was so intense, it almost killed me.

The 5 things I wish people knew about PPD are easy to remember:

  • Take PPD seriously.
  • PPD is dangerous to mothers and their babies.
  • The societal pressure on mothers is immense.
  • You can conquer PPD.
  • And you may not even have PPD with your next baby.

If you or a loved one are suffering from PPD, don’t be like me. Don’t let the dirty diapers pile up on the floor.

There’s an ending to this. And you deserve better.

I wish you well on your journey.

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#BipolarBrave: How I Became Comfortable Sharing my Bipolar Diagnosis

This post appeared on the International Bipolar Foundation website, here.

After my postpartum psychotic breakdown in 2008 and my time spent in a mental hospital for it, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

That explained so much. When I returned home, I was elated. I was compelled to explain to everyone who had ever touched my existence that I suffered from bipolar disorder, and that was why I had acted so erratically my entire life.

#bipolarbrave - How I became comfortable sharing my bipolar diagnosis - CassandraStout.com

Clutching my newborn tight with one hand and opening my laptop with the other, I explained to my husband–with rapid, pressured speech due to a lingering manic episode, no less–my desire to email all my old college friends, strangers I had yet to meet, and everyone at church.

“Not all of them need to know, at least not right at this moment,” he said, trying to contain my compulsion. “I understand that you want to share, but explaining your diagnosis to all your old college friends, most of whom you’re not even in touch with, would be counterproductive.”

I bristled, but he continued. “You need to educate yourself about your diagnosis before you begin to share with others, so you know what it means. And, rather than focusing on sharing that you have bipolar disorder with everyone, you need to take care of yourself and our baby.”

That made sense to me. I reluctantly closed my laptop, and looked at my beautiful, fragile infant. He needed a mother who wouldn’t bend to every compulsion that struck her. I didn’t fully understand at that moment that I was compelled to share my diagnosis due to a manic episode. I wasn’t in my right mind; only halfway there.

My husband was right.

After I recovered from the manic episode, I no longer desired to shout, “I have bipolar disorder!” from the rooftops. When it came to my diagnosis, I became closed off. I would no longer spill my darkest secret–that I’d committed myself to a mental hospital and was separated from my 7-day-old baby because I was literally insane. I grew ashamed of my bipolar disorder.

Then I began writing my memoir, Committed, detailing my days spent in the psychiatric ward. I realized the story was compelling, unique, and could help people understand what it’s like to experience a bipolar mixed episode with psychotic features. And I realized that if I ever wanted to publish my work, my dream since I was a little girl, I had to be open with sharing my diagnosis.

A few months after I started writing, I formed a critique group, the Seattle Scribblers, who encouraged me to attend the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Conference in 2012. I pitched my not-yet-completed manuscript to agents and editors.

“After the birth of my son, I suffered a postpartum psychotic episode and committed myself to a mental hospital,” I told them in my elevator pitch. “My memoir, Committed, details the time I spent there while separated from my newborn.”

I explained to the agents and editors that I was grappling with a bipolar diagnosis, and that the mental illness had upended my entire life. I was met with a warm reception by some, but others were completely turned off by the “crazy” person sitting in their midst.

I wasn’t offended. Stigma is real, and I wasn’t going to change their minds about mental illness in the brief moments I had to make an impression.

Now, I have no problem telling people I’ve known even for a few weeks that I have bipolar disorder. When people ask me how I am, I tell them honestly: “I’ve been suffering from a depressive episode lately, but I’ll be okay. I have bipolar disorder, and that’s part of the cycle.”

The diagnosis is no longer shameful for me. It’s just a label that’s a reason behind why I sometimes act unpredictably#bipolarbrave - How I became comfortable sharing my bipolar diagnosis - CassandraStout.com. The explanation comes out naturally. Bipolar disorder is just a part of my life–a big part, to be sure, but it’s not everything.

My husband was right. Not everyone needed to know right then. I had to prioritize my own well-being and that of my infant.

But he was also wrong, in a sense. I had to grow into being genuinely comfortable sharing with my diagnosis eventually. I realized that by being open, I could help other people who might be struggling. So I started my blog, The Bipolar Parent, a comprehensive resource for parents with mental illnesses.

I faced my compulsion and my subsequent shame, conquered them, and never looked back.

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Maternal Bipolar Disorder Significantly Increases Risk for Premature Births

premature
A premature infant lying on a hospital bed just his size. Credit to flickr.com user César Rincon. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Premature babies–infants born before the 37th week of pregnancy–endure a great number of challenges, such as high blood pressure, hypoglycemia, and breathing properly. No one wants their baby to be born early, unless there’s a risk to the mother.

But, unfortunately for mothers with severe bipolar disorder, they may not have a choice. A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology showed that mothers with bipolar disorder are twice as likely to give birth prematurely than mothers with no mental illnesses. And a 2010 study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders demonstrated that in Taiwan, the incidence rate of premature births among pregnant women with bipolar disorder was 14.2%, compared to 6.9% of women without mental illnesses. The Taiwan study also included statistics about infants with low birth weights (9.8% vs. 5.7%), and smaller-than-gestational-age babies (22.3% vs. 15.7%).

Unfortunately, premature babies are also 2.7 times more likely than full-term babies to develop bipolar disorder later in life. For a full breakdown of these statistics, including the risk for psychosis and schizophrenia, click here.

But it’s not all bad news. The rates of premature births for bipolar mothers aren’t very high. A 14.2% chance to have a preterm baby means that you have an 85.8% chance to have a full-term baby. That’s pretty good!

So what can you do to prevent preterm births? The risk factors for a premature infant include:

  • Already having had a premature baby. This is a major risk factor.
  • A second pregnancy soon after having a baby.
  • Being pregnant with twins or more.
  • Having uterine or cervix problems.
  • Being overweight or underweight.
  • High blood pressure, stress, diabetes, and some infections.
  • Smoking and substance use.
  • Becoming ill with the flu.

Some of these things you can’t control, like having twins. But others, you can, such as avoiding pregnancy soon after having a baby, stopping substance use, or getting your flu shot. Maintaining a healthy weight during pregnancy also helps, so be sure to exercise and eat a healthy diet.

Final Thoughts

Premature birth can be scary and challenging. But, while the likelihood of giving birth prematurely is increased for bipolar mothers, the overall rate isn’t that high. Follow your obstetrician’s advice. There are some steps you can take in order to hopefully prevent a preterm infant.

Good luck!

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Preemies Have Higher Risk to Develop Bipolar Disorder

Premature infants face a variety of challenges, including gaining weight, hypothermia and hypoglycemia, and possibly respiratory distress syndrome. Yet there’s another challenge for these babies: the risk of developing mental illnesses.

A new study led by Chiara Nosarti, PhD, of the Department of Psychosis Studies in the Institute of Psychiatry at London’s King’s College, demonstrated that babies born preterm have an elevated risk to develop a range of psychiatric conditions later in life, including psychosis, depression, and bipolar disorder, with bipolar being the highest. Past research has shown that preemies may develop schizophrenia as adults, but little had been studied about bipolar disorder and depression.

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness characterized by “highs” (called mania) and “lows” (called depression). These extreme changes in mood are disruptive to the lives of the individuals who suffer from bipolar disorder.

preemie.jpg
A premature baby in a hospital bed, with an adult hand nearby. Credit to flickr.com user César Rincón. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

The scientists pooled data from the Swedish Medical Birth Register for all people born between 1973 and 1985 who were living in Sweden in December, 2000, which totaled 1,301,522 people. The researchers concentrated on the week in which these individuals were born, and looked at whether they had been hospitalized for mental conditions including psychosis, bipolar disorder, and drug and alcohol dependencies.

Preemies born between 32 and 36 weeks were 2.7 times more likely to develop bipolar disorder. They were 1.3 times more likely to develop depressive disorders, and 1.6 times more likely to have nonaffective psychosis.

Younger babies were showed an even stronger association to develop psychiatric conditions. Preemies born before 32 weeks were 7.4 more likely to develop bipolar disorder, 2.5 times more likely for psychosis, and 2.9 times more likely for depression. The infants born before 23 weeks were also more than three times more likely to develop an eating disorder.

However, the scientists did not look at other factors that could contribute to the development of mental illnesses, such as socioeconomic factors, ethnicity, or substance abuse. Another limitation to the study is that the researchers only considered hospitalizations, so milder cases of psychiatric conditions were missed.

The scientists hope that their work will shine a light on preterm infants’ struggles, and that mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder can be more easily diagnosed.

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