A survivor recounts her experience of depression during and after her pregnancy, and about why she chose to speak up about it
If you saw pictures of me and my baby on Facebook, you would think mine was a happy pregnancy with a perfect delivery; almost a dream come true.
But that picture is far from the truth. I suffered from severe prenatal depression in my last trimester and an equally severe postpartum depression (PPD).
It took me a long while to get back to my normal self. It took me equally long to decide that I wanted to write about it. But I want to share my story to create awareness about PPD. No, I am not ashamed. PPD can happen to any woman on this planet. It comes without any warning, and we’re just not equipped to face it.
When I was pregnant, I was working as a software engineer in South Africa. I had no reason to have any problems. In the last trimester of my pregnancy, I moved to Hyderabad so I could have my baby there. Ravi, my husband, came to Hyderabad with me, had a brief holiday and went back to wind things up at Johannesburg. I had expected to relax and enjoy this phase, and was excited. But the journey from Johannesburg to Hyderabad left me with swollen feet and tiredness and I was unwell for nearly a month.
During my stay at my parents' house, the depression set in. Lack of sleep made me frustrated; I would often wonder why I couldn’t sleep. I was bored at home. I couldn’t travel outside, because I didn’t know how to drive; the change in climate, along with the city traffic left me nauseated. My stamina kept decreasing, as did my appetite. But I thought this was to do with my hormones, and normal. I realized in my eighth month that it was hormonal, but definitely not normal.
I felt that my mind wasn’t under my control anymore. I felt like a different person; someone who had no resemblance to the real me. I had the sense of something happening to me, and being powerless to stop it. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, was constantly restless, anxious and sad—and couldn’t understand it at all. I also became insecure about staying away from my husband. When the situation was unbearable, I contacted my midwife and told her what I was going through. It wasn't just psychological and emotional, it was physical too: nerve weakness in my hands and legs meant I wasn't able to stand or do routine tasks. I didn't even have the energy to get out of bed and do something about my boredom.
Most of us believe that pregnancy and childbirth should be ‘happy’ moments in a woman’s life. If it is anything different from it, nobody wants to talk about it. Due to the fear of society seeing you as a helpless woman needing sympathy, we hide our feelings.
I didn’t want to, so I decided to speak to my midwife about what I was going through. She was kind and comforted me with her words. She appreciated my bold attitude to come and talk to her as most women don't do it. She told me that PPD is a spectrum and almost 80 per cent of pregnant women experience it at different levels. I was unable to understand that I had prenatal depression, a condition that many other women also go through.
My mother was totally unprepared for the diagnosis. She struggled to understand these changes in my behavior, because it was something she had never seen or heard of in her life. Faced with a lack of understanding, I grew more frustrated.
I wanted to be happy and welcome my little child. I was terrified about how I would take care of my baby, given the state I was in. It was pure hell. Ravi advanced his trip and returned early. But no matter who was beside me and what they said to me, I felt miserable. I had irrational fears over silly things; had frequent episodes where I would go blank for a few minutes.
I had what may have looked like a perfect birthing experience. I wasn't given any medicines. But psychologically, I was somewhere else. It was then that my midwife suggested that I go to a clinical psychologist. Unfortunately, the one she recommended was out of town, so she referred me to another elderly man in the city.
I was breastfeeding at that time and my body was in the process of healing. But I had to go consult him. He listened to me and asked me to undergo psychological tests. I had to leave my baby with my mother in the car and take the tests, occasionally coming back to feed her.
I don’t know about treatment, but a visit to the doctor itself can often make you feel low. I was diagnosed with postpartum depression. He recommended two sessions of muscle relaxation—some sort of restorative yoga technique. I almost begged him to give me a medicine to calm me down, but he refused to, on the grounds that I was breastfeeding. He asked me to think of it as a punishment from God and bear it for six months. He said my duty as a mother was more important than the pain I was going through and asked me to come back after six months if there was no improvement.
I was frustrated, I was in immense pain and wanted it to go away, but I was also scared of medication and thought that if I began taking it, I would be on it for life. I was worried that the medicines would make me lethargic and I wouldn’t be able to care for my daughter. I decided to take the tough route and get better naturally. It was only after I came back to South Africa that I learned about the existence of safe medication for breastfeeding moms. When I think about it now, it would have been easier for me, if I had taken medication.
We as a society believe that pregnancy is a time of great joy. We don’t acknowledge that pregnancy also makes us nervous as we think about the responsibility it entails. Sometimes, the stress gets too much. Many women undergo prenatal and postpartum depression; but not everyone chooses to go to a doctor because of the stigma. I chose to reach out; and even then, it was a terribly confusing experience. I was helpless and didn’t have the guidance I needed.
It took me a year-and-a-half after delivery to get better. It was a long, hard and challenging journey. At the end of it, though, I was undecided about sharing my experience for a while, and have finally mustered the courage to put it in words so it can help others.
Purna Koumudi Vogeti is a software professional and lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. Her interests include arts, music and blogging.