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At the end of my first trimester with my son, my co-worker and I were involved in a car accident. Fortunately, all was fine except for a lingering neck injury that never had the opportunity to heal due to the pregnancy hormone relaxin and the increasing weight strain during my second and third trimesters. For the most part, the pain was manageable and I opted out of taking narcotics or any other suggested medications while pregnant. Daily migraines almost became the norm, but I had a healthy first pregnancy; and on the night our son was born, it was total euphoria when that slimy, bluish-tinted, little man military-crawled up me to feed!
I returned to work before my son turned three months and shortly thereafter my neck pain and migraines worsened, I wasn't sleeping well, had a dramatic drop in weight and my hair started falling out suddenly. Not the typical postpartum hair thinning, but patchy bald spots along the sides and back of my head. I saw my doctor and was told I was showing signs of PPD: postpartum depression. This really surprised me, or never occurred to me. I didn't feel sad at all. I was the happiest I'd ever been, so it didn't make any sense. However, I was experiencing major anxiety, which was tied to being frustrated with my neck pain and the strain of being at a desk/computer. All of the details that I once loved about architecture I found myself not caring about, I just wanted the day to be over and to put my head down.
I learned that there are numerous categories under the umbrella of PPD and my symptoms were classic of postpartum anxiety (PPA), and postpartum post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attributable to the car accident. The insomnia as well as the weight and hair loss were my body's reaction to it all. I had been telling myself that I could handle it, that I could tough it out, but it was definitely something where I needed to stop listening to my thoughts and start listening to my body. My doctors recommended minimal activity and a temporary leave from work to allow myself the time to heal. Prescription medication is the typical remedy for anxiety, but as a personal choice, I decided to try acupuncture, yoga, and meditation in hopes that with time I'd heal naturally. I feel very fortunate I had the opportunity to take a leave as it proved invaluable. I haven't had a single migraine during my current pregnancy, my neck healed and my hair started growing back. I can't imagine a day without practicing yoga and meditating.
But this past month has been difficult; I am in my third trimester and in the last few weeks my hair has started falling out again. I was diagnosed with alopecia areata at the age of 5 when I had a pea-sized spot of baldness on the top of my head. My parents say I didn't have any other episodes during childhood, but I suddenly experienced a few during college and grad school, but never larger than a dime. My dermatologist has assured me that many women with alopecia areata see extreme hair loss during one of their pregnancies and it typically grows back within a year. A pregnant body is doing all that it can to protect the baby; it’s an autoimmune disorder, so the immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys healthy body tissue, in this case, hair follicles. There are no known cures and there are no safe treatments while pregnant. I figure I have two options: stress and shed more tears or try really hard to stay positive, focus on the health of my growing daughter and invest in some hats.
I've learned that one in 50 people will have some variation of alopecia at some point during their lives and 10–15 percent of women will experience symptoms of postpartum depression. Those numbers are extremely high. My mom likes to tell me that the Princess of Monaco had alopecia as well as a handful of celebrities that dealt with postpartum depression. I love my mom and I know she's trying her best to comfort me, but it would be nice to connect with someone more relatable and reachable, to see how they've coped.
May is Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month. My hope in sharing this is to not only reach out to mamas out there, but anyone that's shared similar experiences with these conditions. Last May I shared my story to my dearest lady friends, old and new, some moms, some not, and was so grateful for their stories and the advice they shared. This past Mother’s Day, I felt inspired to reach out to more friends and acquaintances and felt an overwhelming response of support and love. A few days later, one of my favorite writers, Maya Angelou, posted this on her page: “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.”
I feel this speaks so perfectly for Maternal Mental Health Awareness and the process of motherhood. It seems it is our nature in these funny little worlds of modern communication to share the highlights and not so much the negative points of our lives. The beautiful ultrasound images, belly shots, and newborn photos we share via social media are wonderful glimpses of our lives as new mothers, but there is so much more to the story.
It is a bit scary to share so much and I feel a little vulnerable in doing so, but my hope is that if you take the time to read this and it's you that has been going through a similar experience, or your wife, or daughter, or sister or friend, you won't hesitate to pass this along. Or if down the road, you find yourself struggling with any of these conditions please know that as isolating as it may feel, you are not alone.