How a Postpartum Breakdown Taught Me to Advocate for My Health
The following story includes experiences of depression and anxiety. If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
If you otherwise don’t feel well mentally, emotionally or physically, seek help from a health professional, preferably a functional medicine doctor who will treat the root cause, not just symptoms.
By Bethany Weber and Jessica Hamlin
We often hear that social media is the highlight reel of people’s lives. Perhaps we don’t fully realize this until we find out what’s really happening with people we haven’t connected with in a while.
I met Bethany over 10 years ago when she was dating my friend Willie, who lives in the Seattle area.
Willie has a big heart, tons of energy and great sense of humor and was always a fun guy to be around. When we met in 2001 through a youth group program I was attending and he was staffing, he nicknamed himself “Grande Willie Estilo” (the Spanglish version of “Big Willie Style”). Will Smith was popular at the time, but considering Willie is 6-foot-4, the nickname had a very literal meaning too.
Willie is also very committed to God and his faith and is a good, solid friend and hard worker. When he told me he had met Bethany and knew she was “the one,” I knew she had to be special. She was kind and down-to-Earth and she shared Willie’s faith, big heart and zest for life. I was so happy for my friend and for the partner he found.
Bethany and Willie just celebrated their 10-year anniversary and now have three sons and a daughter. The last time I saw Bethany and Willie in person they had only their first son, so it’s been a while. Thanks to social media I’ve seen updates about their family and the adorable kiddos.
But I never could have imagined behind the scenes that Bethany, now 31, had endured physical and emotional symptoms so severe that for the first time she really understood why some people commit suicide.
She recently reached out to me to share about her painful experience with what she believes was postpartum thyroiditis after the birth of her third child. It seems I hear more about people having thyroid issues these days—underactive or overactive thyroid that can manifest itself in physical, mental and emotional ways—but I’d never heard of postpartum thyroiditis. Quite simply, it’s thyroiditis that occurs in women after the delivery of a baby. Since pregnancy and the thyroid (a butterfly-shaped gland located in your neck) are both heavily linked to the body’s hormones, it makes sense that they could be related.
“The thyroid’s job is to make thyroid hormones … that help the body use energy, stay warm and keep the brain, heart, muscles, and other organs working as they should,” according to the American Thyroid Association.
“Thyroiditis … refers to ‘inflammation of the thyroid gland’” and can cause high or low thyroid hormone levels in the body. When these levels are out of whack, it can cause fatigue, depression, anxiety, weight loss or gain, hair loss, poor concentration, increased heart rate and more.
Unaware of what was happening with her body, Bethany suffered crippling anxiety, delusions and other symptoms that led her to question her own sanity. Meanwhile, some people questioned what was really going on with Bethany when she tried to get help and answers, which led her to doubt herself. Ultimately, her journey taught her to advocate more for her health.
This is Bethany's story.
When did you start not feeling well and what was that like?
I gave birth to my third boy in June 2014. Initially, I was feeling great the first couple of months after birth. I was recovering well and continued my fast-paced life as a busy mom of littles without slowing down much at all. However, about 5 months postpartum, my stress and anxiety levels were escalating.
I was so busy I wasn’t taking time to eat much during the day and yet I was nursing all day and night as well as chasing after a 4- and 2-year-old. I rapidly began losing weight. I started to have mood swings, found myself not able to fall asleep easily, and my thoughts turned more and more negative about myself and my life. I was burnt out! I figured these were normal postpartum experiences as I adjusted to caring for three children. Then, at six months postpartum, right after a busy holiday season, a stressful situation within the church we were a part of at the time pushed me over the edge into a full mental and physical breakdown.
What symptoms were you feeling during that time?
After this stressful situation, I spent two weeks in a living hell. My body and mind completely imploded. Physically, I experienced panic attack after panic attack. I was in a constant state of panic and fear. I was completely freaked out and on high alert physically and mentally with no let down for days. I couldn’t sleep. If I did fall asleep, I would wake up with a rush of adrenaline and another panic attack. It was awful. With little to no sleep, I would get up the next morning to take care of my children. Even though my body wasn’t getting rest, I couldn’t stop moving during the day. I was restless and would putter around the house frantically cleaning and tidying up. I was too distraught to eat. I lost even more weight. I had nausea and diarrhea. I had heart palpitations (which is when your heart is racing and beating really fast), hot flashes, and shakes.
Mentally, those first two weeks I was having a psychotic episode. I had hallucinations and delusions. The main one that tormented me was that I was in some kind of battle between good and evil, God and the devil. I believed that there was something in me so horrible that it made me unable to make the right choices and to choose to do good and that’s why I was feeling this way. Honestly, I believed I was being punished and I believed I deserved it. It breaks my heart to this day but I really believed that. I felt numb inside when anyone would express love or encouragement to me or try to help me because I believed they just didn’t know the truth that there was no hope for me.
Another delusion was that I was obsessed with the idea that my baby wasn’t getting enough milk. My milk supply was obviously affected by not eating or sleeping and I was fixated on that. I had 40 ounces of frozen milk that I went through in a couple of days because I kept trying to get him to eat. Most of it went down the drain. In reality he was completely fine but in my mind I had failed him. I believed I was an unfit mother. Intrusive thoughts would bombard me all day long telling me how horrible I was. I remember thinking to myself, I understand why people commit suicide. THIS is why. That kind of mental torment is hard to understand unless you have experienced it.
Did you think these symptoms were normal or did you sense something wasn’t right?
My body was telling me something was wrong. All of the physical symptoms were pointing to a hormonal imbalance which at the time I contributed to the quick drop in my milk supply. I talked to my mom, who also has experienced hormonal imbalances at times, and my symptoms matched an overactive thyroid or hyperthyroid. However, I bypassed a lot of the cries for help my body and mind were screaming at me because I believed I was causing this because of my bad choices. I really believed I had the power to make this all stop if I could just get my emotions under control and stop being so afraid. I know it sounds laughable but I couldn’t separate what has happening to me physiologically from what I thought was happening to me spiritually and emotionally.
When and where did you seek help?
Since a situation with my church triggered my full blown breakdown, I reached out to them and they were aware of what I was going through.
I reached out to my midwife as well. She called me right away and asked me some questions from a postpartum depression screening. I think I scored an 8 out of 10. She assessed I had pretty severe postpartum depression and anxiety and ordered bloodwork for me right away and encouraged me to go see my primary care doctor. I made an appointment to see my doctor and felt relief that what I was experiencing might have an explanation and solution.
What responses or diagnoses did you get at the places where you tried to seek help?
The church we were a part of at that time was a bit on the fringe and heavy on spiritual discipline. They believed what I was experiencing was postpartum depression. However, I was counseled that as a mature Christian I had authority to overcome what they perceived was sin and character issues manifesting as postpartum depression through repentance.
I was sternly rebuked for seeking medical care because they thought I was just going to pop a pill and mask what was REALLY going on, a.k.a my sin issues. My husband and I were so freaked out and in over our heads that we took their counsel and canceled my bloodwork and doctor’s appointment! I felt so ashamed and neither of us wanted to cause any more trouble than we already had. We soon stopped going to church because I wasn’t getting better no matter what I did and they didn’t know what else to do to help us. Their misunderstanding of what I was experiencing added greatly to my mental suffering and reinforced these thoughts that I was responsible for the condition I was in. I was so ashamed. To this day, I grieve the fact that I didn’t get that bloodwork done and get the answers I needed.
Where did you ultimately find the correct diagnosis and help? What was the diagnosis?
It has been a long road of sorting through all the misunderstanding and stigma in order to figure out what it was exactly that I experienced. Postpartum anxiety and psychosis were all at play but that didn’t explain all the physical symptoms. The more I was able to open up and talk to friends and family the less isolated I became. I was able to eventually receive the truth that I was sick and not just experiencing consequences of sin in my life.
Another breakthrough came when I became pregnant with my fourth child and started working with a midwife and a naturopathic doctor who validated my experience was hormonal and physiological. Obviously, they couldn’t make a diagnosis at that time since my symptoms had resolved. I started researching “postpartum depression” and “thyroid” on the internet and came across a mom’s story that was almost exactly like what I went through. She had postpartum thyroiditis! Every symptom I had is explained in this condition, though I do not have a diagnosis from a professional because I didn’t have bloodwork done when I was exhibiting the symptoms.
What is postpartum thyroiditis and how can it be treated?
Postpartum thyroiditis is an illness that can occur any time in the first year after a pregnancy and can last for up to 18 months. It either involves hyperthyroid (high thyroid) activity or hypothyroid (low thyroid) activity or sometimes both. The thyroid creates hormones that regulate many functions in the body and therefore there are a wide range of mental and physical symptoms when there is an imbalance.
I only experienced hyperthyroid symptoms which explained the heart palpitations, insomnia, weight loss, anxiety and depression, and other symptoms. However, it is more common for women to experience a hyperthyroid phase and then transition into a hypothyroid phase which includes symptoms like fatigue, constipation, depression, and weight gain. It is easy to see by looking at the symptoms how these thyroid imbalances can mimic other health issues during the postpartum period. Only 5-10% of women are diagnosed with postpartum thyroiditis but a majority of mental illness is caused by it.
I encourage anyone who is experiencing any of these symptoms or a postpartum mood disorder to get their thyroid tested. Eventually, the thyroid can return to normal on its own. However, there is a small percentage of women who develop lifelong hypothyroidism after having postpartum thyroiditis.
This information is confirmed and expanded on in this explanation of thyroid dysfunction and treatment by Dr. Kelly Brogan, who also experienced postpartum thyroiditis.
If you don’t feel well mentally, emotionally or physically, seek help from a health professional, preferably a functional medicine doctor who can find and treat the root cause, not just symptoms.
How did you start to heal and what has the process been like?
Healing for me started out as simply surviving the worst of the mental and physical torment by trying to get as much sleep and nourishment as possible as well as minimizing stress.
The psychotic episode lasted about two weeks. After that passed, I struggled daily with anxiety and depression for about 6 months. It really boiled down to learning the importance of self-care. A good day meant eating, resting, choosing to have grace for myself when I made mistakes, choosing positive soul food through music, books, and people, and trusting with the sliver of faith I had left that God really loved me and wasn’t punishing me.
I learned a lot about how emotions are real but they are not always true. It was a struggle to sort through these intensely negative emotions like fear and despair and separate myself from them. Those feelings and negative thoughts are not who I am! But it took me a long time to be able to not personalize them. Learning this skill has changed my life. I can have a bad day now and understand that I am not bad. I just need to listen to my body and go through my checklist. Do I need to eat? Do I need a break? What is my body and mind telling me that it needs? As for the other physical symptoms, it really just took time.
The trauma of what I went through is still something, three years later, that comes back to haunt me. Talking about what I endured with people I trust has brought freedom and healing to my life. I encourage others who have suffered postpartum mental and physical illness to open up and let in the light and love others have to offer you. The more I talk about my experience the more I find others who have suffered as well. We need each other!
I also used supplements to help re-nourish my depleted vitamin and mineral stores. Important ones for me were B-12, fish oil, probiotics, a high quality prenatal, and vitamin D. My symptoms became less and less extreme but never fully left until I became pregnant again with my fourth child. My midwife believes the pregnancy helped balance out my hormones and I felt like myself again for the first time in about 18 months!
What have you learned from this experience?
About a year and half ago I came across an article about a new mother who had killed herself a few months after having her baby. She left a note to her family explaining the mental suffering she had been experiencing. Her family had NO idea. She showed no indication that she was suffering! This article broke me. I hurt so badly for her because I knew her torment. The realization hit me that I could have been her. I was lucky to get through what I did and get better even as messy as it was for me. I have learned from my experience that anyone can suffer from a postpartum mood disorder. I never thought it would happen to me and yet here I am telling my story. Mental illness is a complex issue with many causes and it needs to be talked about, especially in religious circles, so that the stigma can be broken and people can get the help they need.
What would you tell others, especially new moms, who aren’t feeling well in some way and don’t know what to do?
With all my heart I want to tell mamas out there that if you do not feel like yourself in any way be brave, trust your gut, and seek help until you find answers. We cannot take care of our families if we are not taking care of ourselves. If you have been diagnosed with a postpartum mood disorder I encourage you to get your thyroid checked just in case there may be an imbalance there. Lastly, if you are suffering mentally please know that this is not your fault. These lies and negative feelings are not the truth about who you are. You will get better. There is always hope.
The Good Stuff.
We asked Bethany about some of her favorite things.
Fave workout/way to move: I love to run and I enjoy pilates and dancing.
Fave wellness practice: Eating as clean as possible and sleeping as much as possible.
Fave self-care practice: Taking breaks from the kids to do something I love.
Fave hobby: Art.
Fave food: Tom Kha Gai coconut curry soup.
Fave drink: Beer
Fave snack: Something salty.
Fave kitchen gadget/appliance: Kitchen-Aid stand mixer
Fave place in the world: Flathead Lake, MT
Who or what inspires you? My amazing mom and my amazing mother-in-law inspire me.
Fave quote/saying/mantra and why: “Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let the pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness.” –Anonymous
Life is hard and we all are prone to suffer. But whatever we endure we get to choose what pain creates in us. I choose to let pain make me more compassionate towards others.
Fave workout song: “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” by Justin Timberlake. Okay, and the entire “Trolls” Movie soundtrack. No Shame.
Fave book: “Jesus Calling” by Sarah Young
Fave movie: Wonder Woman!
Jessica Hamlin is an LA-born and bred journalist and editor who started taking pictures of food back when everyone used film cameras. A graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition’s health coach training program, she’s passionate about wellness and enjoys making and discovering delicious and healthy food. Her work has appeared in Clean Plates, NPR affiliate KPCC, AOL, and Eater LA.