“Go for a walk every day,” I tell my clients. “It’s vital to get out of the house.”
Other advice I commonly dole out: See friends, hand your baby off to your partner or parents for extra sleep, ask for hugs, hang out with other new parents. If you have a partner, force yourselves to go out on a date night (again, possibly with the help of grandparents).
I’m a therapist specializing in postpartum depression and while none of these ideas are revolutionary, following them all and seeing my own therapist was what got me out of a sinkhole of misery following the birth of my first daughter in 2014. At my worst, I was absolutely convinced I wasn’t fit to be a mother and that everyone would be better off without me. I suffered from debilitating intrusive thoughts. It got to the point that I couldn’t unload the dishwasher without visualizing violent thoughts about my daughter as I put the cutlery away.
I now run a busy practice and see dozens of women who are struggling with PPD. I have a big tool kit full of strategies that, cumulatively and given enough time, work.
But the world being on lockdown gives a whole new dimension to the nightmare that is PPD. Suddenly, everything feels risky. Asking our parents to babysit so we can get some sleep is no longer a medium-size favor. It’s tantamount to asking them to put their lives on the line.
Here are five suggestions that may help your postpartum depression, even when you are self-quarantined.
An assessment and support from a medical professional is essential, especially if you are having terrifying intrusive thoughts or moments when you contemplate ending your own life. If you’re feeling too unwell to be proactive and research the kinds of available help, I completely sympathize. It’s a cruel reality that the more help you need, the less likely it is that you’ll feel able to ask for that help. I recommend telling a good friend that you’re not able to do the necessary research. Could they look into options for you, and even set up the telephone appointments?
Once you do get a phone appointment, it can be helpful to have a few bullet points of your main symptoms written down. Be as honest about what is going through your head and body as possible. Don’t be tempted to down play your symptoms; remember that your doctor is likely to have seen many, many others go through very similar difficulties. A good doctor will be understanding and reassuring, and will talk you through the various treatment options, which might involve therapy, medication, or referral to a specialist.
A client once said to me, “I just didn’t dare tell anyone because I was ashamed of my thoughts and feelings. I knew I was so lucky to have a lovely healthy baby.” I’m convinced that if she had instead shared her story anyway, she would have heard from other women going through the same thing. Knowing this wouldn’t have made her problems go away, but it might have made her feel less lonely and given her a sense of solidarity, which is precisely what we all need.
Ask your friends if they’ve ever felt this way. If they haven’t, chances are they’ll know someone who has. Or look for a safe online environment where you can share your story, a forum where people support each other and there is room for all your thoughts and emotions, a place where no one says, “You can’t say that.”
If it doesn’t work the first time, don’t give up. Find someone else. I first confided in the fact that I was seriously ill with my husband, who back then, had no idea what had hit him. I told him that I thought I was a bad mother and that our daughter deserved better, and he stared at me, astonished. Luckily, when I told my best friend, she got me onto a therapist’s waiting list almost before I’d even finished telling her everything that was going on. “Keep sharing” is the motto. It will really help you in your recovery. Crucially, it will also encourage other people to open up and confide in you, too. Together, slowly, we can break down the wall of silence surrounding postpartum depression.
Despite it being such a buzzword, when my therapist introduced me to mindfulness, I wasn’t immediately enthusiastic. In fact, I thought it sounded very annoying. But I look back to that time and laugh at myself, because mindfulness was the one thing that helped me through my depression the most. I was able to identify the endless negative thoughts that were grinding me down. I had one particular thought that just wouldn’t leave me alone: I am a bad mother. I became obsessed with the idea. It was incredibly painful. I would try to wrestle with it, argue with it, but the more I tried to push the thought away, the more it came back to haunt me.
Instead, every time I caught the thought — or a creative variation on the theme — popping into my head, I would visualize putting it in a basket and letting it drift away. Some thoughts were very persistent, taking a number of baskets before they left me alone. Sometimes, letting the basket float away down a river wasn’t enough. Sometimes, I needed to let that basket full of negative thoughts thunder down Niagara Falls. But eventually, I noticed I was having to do the visualization less frequently, and when the thoughts did come up, they no longer affected me emotionally. The thoughts no longer had so much power because she could see them for what they were: simply thoughts that brains constantly churn out, some far less helpful and truthful than others.
Think of an image that works for you. Choose whatever feels good, and from now on, let every negative thought drift or float or sail away after you’ve addressed it and accepted it. It takes a bit of practice, but it will quickly get easier.
One of depression’s craftiest tricks is the way in which it can magically dissolve all memories of happier times and all hope for the future.
Mindfulness helped me here, too. The thing about becoming more aware of your thoughts is that you also see how irrational, changeable and sometimes downright ridiculous they are. I began to realize that far from being this concrete prison solidifying around me, my depressive thoughts were as changeable as the weather. I realized that thinking “I will feel this depressed forever” was like saying “It will be this rainy and cold forever,” on a particularly miserable January morning. When you start your journey to recovery, you will slowly see some bouts of slightly better weather, that will then disappear as suddenly as it came. Hang on to these moments by writing notes to yourself. Remind yourself of every single moment when you felt a ray of hope. They can provide something of an umbrella on those foul-weather days.
As bizarre as it might sound, I’m grateful I went through all of this because it taught me about myself, about the kind of mother I want to be, and how to take better care of myself.
Before I became a mom, I wasn’t very happy: I had persistent body image issues and was very restless. I rushed from one thing to another and could barely stand to be alone. Self-care was never on the menu. I needed to learn how to prioritize myself and how to love myself unconditionally. Going through PPD taught me to finally be able to do that. These days, I see an improved version of myself. I lowered the bar a lot for myself and I now know that good is good enough.
Don’t think that the process of recovery is just trying to get back to where you were before. As well as being painful, it’s richer and deeper than that. The process of recovery, and the tools you pick up on the way, provide invaluable life lessons in resilience, humor and courage. You’ll be far better equipped to handle the next inevitable heartache. I found great meaning in knowing that through my suffering, I could help others feel less alone.
While I wouldn’t wish PPD on anyone, the journey to recovery has been enriching and has transformed my life in so many positive ways. I sincerely wish the same for you.
Tilda Timmers is a therapist specializing in postpartum depression and author of “This Is Postpartum: Free Yourself from the Perfect Mother Conspiracy,” forthcoming in June from The Dreamwork Collective. Find her on social media @thisispostpartum.