A Therapist’s Story (Part III): How I Overcame Postpartum Depression
By Thai-An Truong
November 30, 2017
for the Postpartum Support International Blog
Despite being pretty pessimistic and hopeless that anything could help me, I started to force myself to try anything because I was desperate to feel like myself again. Whatever I tried, I often dreaded it, and initially doubted that it could do anything for a hopeless case like mine. However, what I learned from Dr. David Burns is that motivation follows action, not the other way around. Especially in depression, we have to drag ourselves to take the first steps, then the motivation will follow. If we wait for that lightning bolt of motivation to hit us, we’ll continue to stay stuck in the same place. Below, and in the next and final blog in this series, I outline the steps I took that I believe helped move me toward recovery. Your recovery will probably not look exactly like mine, but I hope the following information will give you some ideas about where to begin.
“Motivation follows action” – David D. Burns, M.D.
1) I worked to shed perfectionism by sharing my shame. It started to lose its power after that.
One of the main causes of depression and anxiety are our negative thoughts and self-defeating beliefs. Yours may be different from mine, but ultimately, Dr. David Burns states we have to defeat them at the gut level in order to feel better. When reflecting back, I realized that my self-defeating beliefs were mainly rooted in perfectionism and perceived perfectionism. With perfectionism, I believed that any shortcoming in my parenting meant I was a failure. You can see how this is self-defeating and created my depressed mood and anxiety. Perceived perfectionism meant I wanted others to see that I was perfect and put-together as a mom, without any flaws or defects. This is an impossible goal that will surely set us up for failure. The truth is, it is our flaws and defects, not our “perfection,” that allow others to relate to us, creating bonds and connections. I knew this logically, but had to learn it the hard way to get to that gut-level change. Besides, underneath the appearance of perfection is often a hot mess.
“Everybody’s normal till you get to know them” – John Ortberg
There are a lot of ways to defeat perfectionism and perceived perfectionism. One of them is by sharing our flaws and defects openly. I stopped hiding and opened up to a dear therapist friend about some of my most shameful symptoms, including wanting to give my baby away. This was really hard to do. She allowed me to cry, hugged me, and encouraged me to get some professional help. I started sharing more openly with other close friends as well and received more support rather than the judgment I was expecting. I realized the biggest critic was in my own head.
2) I stopped stuffing my emotions, and they lost their power, too.
I thought moms were supposed to always be loving, kind, and caring. Moments of resentment, frustration, irritation, and any other “negative emotion” felt evil and shameful. What I didn’t realize is this self-perception did not allow me to be human. All moms and dads will feel a whole spectrum of emotions toward their kids; this is being human.
Becoming a new parent is also a grieving process. It is normal to grieve your old life, sleep, freedom, body, relationship with your partner, etc. You can have all of these feelings and still love your child. It does not make you a bad parent or person. Again, it just means you’re human. When I finally allowed myself to admit to missing my old life and worked on accepting all aspects of my new life as a mother, I found more peace.
Harvard’s positive psychology professor Tal Ben-Shahar teaches that all emotions flow out of one channel, and when we stuff our uncomfortable emotions (e.g., anger, resentment, jealousy, etc.), we block joy and other positive emotions from flowing out as well. The paradox is that the more we try to stuff the negative emotions, the more they magnify. When we just allow ourselves to feel our uncomfortable human emotions and work through them in a healthy way, they lose control over us, and we can get back to living and enjoying life.
3) I got help despite my pessimism. What matters is the willingness to take action.
I called a psychiatrist friend I had worked with, and she asked me if I was having suicidal thoughts. I’m grateful for her bluntness because I was able to openly talk about these scary thoughts for the first time. A lot of times, loved ones are scared to ask about suicidal thoughts, thinking it’ll push the depressed person over the edge. The truth is, openly talking about it could save their life. My psychiatrist friend encouraged me to see my OBGYN for meds the next day and to get some therapy. She also connected me with her niece, who is back to her old self after going through her own battle with postpartum depression and anxiety. I talked to her, and she gave me hope.
I called my OB the next day, got in to see him, and he listened to me for a whole 20 minutes as I cried about what a horrible mother I was. His time and support meant so much to me. He gave me an appropriate side hug and told me that many moms go through this and recover. This gave me more hope. I think it helped me more than the Zoloft he prescribed me, which I stopped taking after about 2 weeks. I didn’t feel like it was helping me and felt like my anxiety was getting worse.* For many, medications play a big role in their recovery. Whatever works for you works. Many moms go through this and recover.
I contacted a therapist I had worked with in the past, but I ended up canceling because, honestly, my pessimism and hopelessness still got the best of me at times. I didn’t think she could help me this time. This is the ebb and flow of recovery. There were some moments of hope followed by relapses. I learned that recovery is not an onward, upward process. The therapist also told me she didn’t specialize in postpartum issues. I contacted a place that had a special focus on postpartum issues, but they had a 3-4 week waiting list, and this felt like forever for someone struggling. I also was anxious about finances and didn’t want to be a burden by investing the money into something that may or may not help. I realize now that this was also the depression talking.
Then I came across an online support group through Postpartum Support International. I highly recommend support groups because of their power to connect us. They allow us to know we’re not the only one suffering through these awful thoughts and feelings and can help us challenge them. These online groups were convenient because you can just join from home and pay what you can.
My next blog will show how I moved beyond depression to action, recovery, and finally my own therapy practice.
*Sometimes in the first weeks when starting anti-depressants there is heightened anxiety, increasing the risk of the mother stopping the medication too soon. Ideally, your provider has carefully explained possible early side-effects, such as jitteriness and increased anxiety, and has prescribed alternate short-term, quick acting medication to combat them. These side-effects of SSRIs usually go away within 4 to 14 days. If the mother’s distress is particularly burdensome, she should immediately report it to her provider. There is a wide range of choice in anti-depressants, and her provider will be able to find her something that will be a better fit for her with fewer side-effects.
Thai-An Truong, LPC, LADC is a therapist and mother who is passionate about helping pregnant and postpartum parents overcome depression and anxiety so they can get to feeling like themselves again and enjoy life with their baby. After overcoming from her own battle with postpartum depression and anxiety, she opened Lasting Change Therapy, LLC in South Oklahoma City to help others in their journey into parenthood. She lives in Oklahoma City with her husband and daughter. She loves life with her family and hopes to help other moms and dads toward recovery and loving life, too. Visit her website: www.lastingchangetherapy.com
Blog posts in the PSI Series by Thai-An Truong