Weaning-Related Depression

A dear friend of mine recently came to me with an epiphany. She had been experiencing feelings of hopelessness and fatigue. I thought it was because she was just stressed-out due to a major life change she was going through but, no, it wasn’t that… something else was just … off. She wasn’t her usual self. Well, a couple of days ago, she expressed utter relief when she discovered why she was feeling so low: she was weaning her baby. Apparently, there is relatively common phenomenon called Weaning-Related Depression. Due to the drop of oxytocin in the blood stream after a mother stops nursing, women can experience a major chemical imbalance in the form of clinical depression. I had never heard of this, which is disappointing considering I studied clinical psychology. More clinicians need to be aware of this phenomenon. More mothers need to be aware of this phenomenon.

Here is a candid post, found by my friend, describing a real experience with Weaning-Related Depression. To see the article in its original form click here to go to Cup of Jo.

Monday, February 20, 2012 at 8:24 PM

Motherhood Mondays: The hardest two months of my life

In an effort to be authentic, I’d like to talk about something difficult I went through as a new mother. A year ago, I went though the worst two months I’ve ever experienced. I never mentioned it on the blog. I couldn’t; I was too overwhelmed. But now that a whole year has passed, I want to share my experience with you…

Flashback: Toby was eight months old. It was a chilly January in New York, and we had just had a blissful Christmas vacation. But suddenly I started feeling bad. Out of nowhere, my mind started obsessing and worrying about inconsequential things; I had trouble sleeping (I’d wake up in the night and feel gripped with anxiety and fear); I began feeling very down, like that heavy feeling you get in your chest when you’re sad about something. Why? I had no idea. But I knew it wasn’t good.Over the next couple weeks, I felt worse and worse. I felt guilty because I had a wonderful baby, a loving husband, and a great life on paper, yet I was inexplicably falling apart. Although I had loved taking care of Toby since he was born eight months before, it suddenly seemed exhausting to look after a child. I dreaded hearing his cries in the morning and having to get out of bed and face the day. I felt utterly overwhelmed and exhausted. Work projects seemed especially intimidating. Even the smallest work decisions seemed like insurmountable obstacles, and I was quickly moved to tears. I felt certain I would disappoint the people I was working with and for.My self esteem plummeted, and I felt completely overwhelmed. I would read other blogs–Oh Happy Day, Swissmiss–and think, how are these women doing so much? How can they handle everything–job, family, life–and get it all done and seem so happy? What is wrong with me?I wondered.Through my sad eyes, I read blogs and saw strangers on the street and just assumed everyone had a perfect life. When I told that to Alex, he swore to me that everyone, without exception, had their own true story, their own struggles, their own flaws, worries, concerns; everyone is human. And then he said, “Look at your own blog, after all. People would have no idea that you’re going through this. You come off like you’re handling everything effortlessly.” That was true, I realized. (I mean, look at this post, for example; I was feeling terrible and insecure that day. It’s the type of event I would have normally loved, but instead I felt self-conscious and lame.)

To explain my sadness and worry, I looked at my life and tried to point to something—my career, right? It must be ending, I figured. Everyone would surely stop reading my blog and it would just fade away; people would stop hiring me for projects, and I’d never get work again; I convinced myself of these things. And I was a bad mother—I didn’t know if I was making the right choices about sleep, food, discipline, everything. And I was a bad wife—I was suddenly boring and cried a lot. Alex would get sick of me. My friends would stop hanging out with me, I would be alone from now on, and then how would I fill the endless days? My mind took on crazy scenarios, and life felt so bleak.

When you’re feeling down, you often compartmentalize it, right? You have to get out of bed in the morning, so you try to take a deep breath and get through as much as you can–working, going to dinner with friends, watching TV. You try to put your sadness out of your mind and put one foot in front of the other. I didn’t want these feelings to bleed into my whole life, so I tried to keep them bottled up as much as possible.

At the time, I wasn’t able to mention my sadness on the blog. Even now, I don’t know what I would have said if I had written about it. And I didn’t want to admit–even to myself–how lost I suddenly felt. It was disorienting and inexplicable, and I felt like it would never end. My sadness felt like my new way of being.

(I *almost* mentioned it in this post, which I wrote right after I was feeling better again, but I couldn’t. It was still too close to home.)

Although I try to keep Cup of Jo as honest and true as possible (and am always happy to sharepersonal things), I wanted to keep the blog separate while I was depressed–and keep it a place where I didn’t have to think about my sleepless nights and strange sudden deep sadness and self doubt.

Even most of my best friends had no idea. I told Alex (of course; it was obvious to him), my parents, my sister and brother, and just a couple friends. I remember my sweet friend Jason took an afternoon off work to come hang out with me. I barely talked. I kept thinking that he must think I was so boring and wouldn’t want to be friends with me anymore.

It came in waves. Sometimes I’d feel better, almost like myself again. Other times, I’d feel so overwhelmed with sadness and hopelessness that I’d feel like I couldn’t move or breathe.

Honestly, it’s hard to think back, but here are a few of the tough moments I remember:
* One evening, I was crying on the phone with my sister Lucy, while holding Toby. I looked up and saw myself in the mirror and thought how sad I looked, and how worried Toby looked, even though he was still so little.
* My mom came to visit, and I sat on the sofa and looked at the floor and could barely manage to whisper, “I am so depressed.” I would just lie with my head in her lap and she would stroke my hair.
* I was walking down the street with Alex and Toby on a sunny day, but it felt dark to me. And, even though I adore them, I didn’t want to be there, I didn’t want to be anywhere. And Alex said to me, “You’re so sad, you can barely walk down the street.”
* I was walking to a work meeting on a snowy day. The whole world felt grey. I just wanted to lie down on the street and fall asleep. It was hard to keep moving.

One afternoon, while taking a walk along the Hudson River, I told my mom, who was visiting us, that I wished that Toby had a different mother. He deserved more, I thought. I felt like such a failure: I had always wanted to be a mother. I always had baby fever. I always looked forward to having children. But now that I had a sweet, curious, beautiful baby, I suddenly couldn’t handle motherhood. I felt exhausted and inept. I hated seeing or reading about families with more than one child, because that meant that they could handle having a baby…and even choose to have another. What was wrong with me? I didn’t want Toby to be affected by this weighty sadness I was feeling.

Writing down these words feels strange now. That time feels so far away from me, now that a year has passed, but it was so rattling and all-consuming at the time. I felt like a totally different person. I thought it would never end.

Of course, I had ok moments, too. I felt some relief when watching TV in the evenings. I liked having friends over, as long as I wasn’t expected to talk much. Every Saturday afternoon, Toby and I would go to the Upper West Side for a playdate with my friend Leigh and her two sons. Hanging out at Leigh’s apartment was cozy, she’s easy to talk to, her boys were charming, Toby loved playing with their toys, she’d make a delicious lunch. Leigh had no idea that I felt so bad. I once told her that I felt overwhelmed by “the juggle” of everything, but I only mentioned it in passing. (She was shocked months later, when I told her the full story.) It was a relief to hang out with her and NOT talk about it. I still felt sad underneath, but I enjoyed those days and found them refreshing and bolstering.

But overall, for six weeks–from late January to early March–life felt really, really dark. I couldn’t bear thinking about the future. Every day felt long and exhausting, and I couldn’t imagine making it through all the days ahead of me.

My mom, my sister and Alex kept telling me over and over: This is a clinical depression, not your life; you must have some sort of chemical imbalance, some sort of medical reason why you’re feeling like this. But I didn’t believe them; I thought I was just sad because I was lame and going to fail in life, but a tiny part of me held a flicker of hope that maybe they were right. With their encouragement, I started seeing a therapist, and she gave me tools to help with anxiety, but overall I remained overwhelmingly sad.

The funny thing about depression is that you don’t know that it’s depression—like, chemical imbalance in your brain, or a hormonal crash. You just think it’s your actual life–that your career really IS ending, that you really ARE a terrible mother, that your husband really WILL stop loving you, that friends DO think you’re boring. At any time in your life, if you just start feeling bad in your mind and mood, you can always come up with a random reason to point to–oh, it’s my job! Oh, it’s my dating life! Oh, it’s my looks! Oh, it’s just me being an awkward person! When you’re depressed, you don’t realize that your life actually is fine–you’re simply sad because you’re depressed. The depression is the reason for the depression.

After about six weeks of feeling so low, a funny thing happened: I woke up one Tuesday morning, and it was over. Just over. It felt like I had been swimming in a pool, and suddenly—woosh!—I had resurfaced and my head had come back out of the water, and I could see the bright sun and breathe in the fresh air again. It felt like waking up from a bad dream. Suddenly, I was myself again. That Tuesday morning, I woke up, the sun was shining and I felt happy again. My depression had just…ended.

And the crazy thing was: I got my period the very next day, for the first time in over a year and a half–since before my wedding day, since before I found out I was pregnant. It was as if my hormones had finally figured themselves out, and boom! I was back to normal. And that’s the first time that I realized what had happened. Suddenly, I looked back at the situation and slapped my forehead with the realization: Of course! My depression was related to weaning.

Here’s what had happened, I realized: In late January, I had decided to wean Toby frombreastfeeding for a number of reasons, so I quite abruptly weaned him within a week. But instead of feeling liberated, I began feeling tired and sad and went into a downward spiral. The timing of the beginning of my depression (weaning Toby) and the end of my depression (getting my period again) lined up perfectly.

Next, I researched depression related to weaning and it all made sense. I’ve also now spoken to many other women who have been through the exact same situation–including the wife of our friend C., whom he described as getting “hit by a mack truck” when she weaned their baby.

A lovely Cup of Jo reader, who went through the same thing, had written to me: “When some women wean, they experience a depression similar to postpartum depression, because of the drop in the hormones prolactin and oxytocin. (Studies have shown these hormones produce the same kind of ‘feel good’ as cocaine or ecstasy.) So, when I weaned, I was having a hormonal crash, similar to a withdrawal. It was something my counselor didn’t catch until I told her—and it was something I really hadn’t heard about before. There are tons of online articles about the benefits of breastfeeding and about postpartum depression, but unless you are really looking for ‘weaning’ and ‘depression’ on google, you won’t find much. This is unfortunate because I suspect many moms just chalk it up to lack of sleep, not adjusting to the new situation, or a plethora of other things…If I had known that depression was something to look out for when weaning, it would prevented a lot of turmoil (my husband wouldn’t have felt as helpless, I could have taken more proactive, preventative measures, etc.)”

And I agree: Even though there’s a wealth of information about postpartum depression right after you have a baby, it was virtually impossible to find information about depression related to weaning. But now that I’ve spoken to other mothers who have experienced the exact same thing, with the exact same timing, I know that it’s a real condition. I found a mention here, and a forum here. [Update: A lovely reader recommended reading this post, as well; thank you, Kathleen!] But otherwise, depression around weaning seems to be a real gap in medical research and awareness. (One psychiatrist, whom I called for an appointment, actually said to me, “Well, I guess anything’s possible.”) I hope that people will become more aware of it, and more research and preventative measures will be developed.

Thankfully, once the depression ended, it really was over. This past year has been wonderful. My energy and confidence are back, and I’m honored and thrilled to be raising Toby, who is such a joy and a funny, lovely little person. I love my family with all my heart. We’ll surely go through more ups and downs in life, but this year has been great—and restorative—and now I feel ready and able to handle future bumps in the road.

I wanted to share my experience, since, hopefully other wonderful mothers who go through this will recognize it for what it is, and get help for clinical weaning-related depression, instead of just thinking that it’s them, their own life or failure to handle motherhood. I would recommend being slow and careful around weaning, and if you do feel the blues, or a more intense depression, get support and know that you are not the only one who has gone through this. As my lovely friend said, “If I could spare anyone going through what I did, I would for sure want to.”

Also I have a huge new respect and humility for people who suffer from depression, and I’ll never again secretly think that someone should just “shake it off” or “snap out of it.” People are heroes for getting through it. In a way, I’m glad that I went through this because if friends or family or even sweet Toby ever goes through a depression, hopefully I will better understand how they’re feeling and maybe know a few things to say to help them get through it.

What about you? Have you ever experienced depression or anxiety? Was it related to having a baby, a hardship you went through, life in general, or no reason in particular? We really are all in this together. Lots of love to you, as always. xoxo

Wild Geese
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
–Mary Oliver, Dream Work

P.S. Related: My own balance of work/baby/life, and the schedules of seven other moms
(These photos are from last May, when I was already feeling much better🙂

(Poem via Andrea)

If you liked this post, you may also like:
The Loneliness of Motherhood
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