Blossom in the Desert: Postpartum Progress, an Interview with Katherine Stone

At a recent mental health conference, I sat in a ballroom filled with the leading experts in the field of perinatal and postpartum depression and anxiety.  A heated topic emerged.  A tall woman with vibrant red hair stood in line and waited her turn at the comment microphone.  With utter clarity and striking confidence, she spoke truth to power for all women experiencing depression or anxiety around the time of childbirth. She stood amidst every expert and spoke for all of us.  That woman was Katherine Stone, the author of Postpartum Progress, the most widely-read blog on postpartum depression and other maternal mental health issues.

I nabbed her in the hallway at the break and asked if she would do an interview for Giving Birth With Confidence. She said yes, and handed me her business card&.a photo of the desert with one brilliant flower blossoming in the middle. That photo captures Katherine--her steadfast commitment to represent potential, and to encourage women to stay bright and bold in the middle of dry times.

It is my pleasure to offer the first of a two-part interview with Katherine. In part one Katherine reflects on pregnancy, birth and the postpartum period sharing her own journey through postpartum obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and her recovery.  In Part II we will learn about Katherine's advocacy, and tireless effort to help all women give birth with confidence.

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Tell us a little about your work and blog.

I am a full-time advocate for women with perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, and the mother of two children, ages 4 and 9.

I started my blog Postpartum Progress in 2004 so that women wouldn't feel as alone, ashamed and uninformed as I did when I had postpartum OCD with the birth of my first child in 2001.  It has since become the most widely-read blog on perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.  I am extremely proud of it, and the community that has been created through it.

What were your births like?

My first birth was a bit of a nightmare. My water broke first thing in the morning and off we went to the hospital.  I then spent hours and hours and hours in labor, and actually pushed for 4 hours. Four hours! I was completely emotionally and physically spent, beyond spent, by the time my son was finally delivered via forceps.  I already felt like a failure for not having been able to properly birth my own child.  Afterwards, he had jaundice, and unbeknownst to me the nurses in the nursery were giving him a bottle to prevent dehydration so after the first or second day he started refusing the breast. Oh, and the day we went home from the hospital was September 11.   All around, not the best experience.

How, if at all, did your births affect your OCD?

I do think it had an influence, although truth be told I can see now that I was already headed toward postpartum OCD anyway.  Still, perhaps it wouldn't have been so severe.

What would you like to share about your personal experience of Postpartum OCD?

It was a nightmare. I've never been so scared in all my life.  I was sure my life was over and that I'd never be the same again. I felt completely disconnected to my baby and was convinced he would never love me.  I had intrusive thoughts, like what if I drown him in the bathtub?  (I didn't know at the time of course, that they were intrusive thoughts.  I just thought I had become a monster.) I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep. I was filled with anxiety and dread all the time.  Postpartum OCD is just an awful illness.

It's hard to put into words how terrifying it is and how it can become so easy to be convinced that you are such a horrible and worthless person.

How did you get through it?

After several weeks of complete terror, I reached out for help.  I figured my life was over anyway so I might as well tell someone and get help.  I couldn't stand the pain anymore.  I was sure when I told the first therapist I saw what my thoughts were that she'd call the police.  Thankfully she knew what was wrong with me, and explained it to me in the calmest and most supportive terms.  She told me I would be okay.  That was the first step in my recovery.  I took medication and went to therapy as my treatment.

What did you learn?

I learned a lot about the human mind and how we don't have as much control over it as we think.  I learned to have great empathy for anyone suffering a mental illness.  I also learned that I'm a survivor and a strong and loving mother.  It was a hard path to take to learn all of that, but I'm grateful for it now.

How did you make meaning out of the experience?

I suppose the way I made meaning was to commit myself to helping all of the women who come after me.  Hundreds of thousands of people have gotten help from my blog Postpartum Progress, and I've recently started a nonprofit to try to do even more good.  It's given me my life's work, so I don't regret having had postpartum OCD.

Did you have a birth or postpartum doula?

We did hire a baby nurse to help us after my son was born, but I sent her home after a couple of days.  I was so riddled with anxiety that I couldn't stand to have her around.  She did nothing wrong, of course.  I just felt at the time that it should be me taking care of the baby, and that I shouldn't need to have a nurse.  I already felt like I had failed the birth, and failed breastfeeding, and so I didn't want to feel like a needed a nurse to help me do what I thought were basic mothering things like diapering and bathing.

What did you learn in your childbirth education class about postpartum mental health?

PPD was glossed over.  In fact, I clearly recall the teacher of the class saying that none of her students ever got PPD so we shouldn't worry about it.  What a travesty that was.

What did you know about your risk factors for depression before you had your baby?

I didn't know anything about risk factors for perinatal mood and anxiety disorders before having my son.  I was never asked a single question.  I was never screened.  Had I known, I think I would at least have been prepared for the possibility that it would happen.

How does your experience influence your parenting?

I'm not sure it influences my parenting any longer, but I think for the first couple of years I had a lot of guilt about it and I worked extra hard to make sure my son and I had a good bond.

Last year, I launched a new non-profit organization, called Postpartum Progress Inc., which is focused on improving the kinds of services and support that women receive.  I want to see more professionals who specialize in perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.  I want to give women help who don't have access to it based on where they live or their resources.  I want to see improved public awareness.  I want more specialized treatment programs.  There is SO much work to be done, and I'm excited about contributing to it.

I've also recently launched a new service called Daily Hope, which is a first-of-its-kind project to help women who are currently suffering.  They can opt in to receive a daily email of encouragement on getting through these illnesses.  The messages of hope are written by me, as well as the nation's top experts and authors on maternal mental illness, as well as survivors.  Because most women do not have access to PPD support groups and specialists where they live, we are bringing the experts and support to them.  This is one of the first projects of my non-profit, so it's very exciting.  A lot of work, but very exciting.  Women who'd like to sign up can click here:  http://postpartumprogress.us2.list-manage.com/subscribe?u=49e8e6d424badbb0285da7485&id=6f51f854b1

If you would like more information regarding postpartum progress, or postpartum depression and anxiety, visit www.postpartumprogress.com for links to excellent information, resources and support.

Katherine Stone is the author of Postpartum Progress (http://www.postpartumprogress.com), the most widely-read blog on postpartum depression and other mental illnesses related to pregnancy and childbirth.  Postpartum Progress has been named among the top 10 depression sites on the web by PsychCentral, won a 2010 Fit Pregnancy Best of the Web Award, and is a Parenting magazine Must-Read Mom Runner-Up.  Katherine is also the founder and executive director of Postpartum Progress Inc., a non-profit dedicated to vastly improving the support and services available to women with perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.  Additionally, she writes the weekly column If Mama Ain't Happy on ParentDish, and is a guest contributor for the topic of PPD at BlogHer.  She was the winner of the 2010 Bloganthropy Award, given for using social media to make a difference, and was named a WebMD Health Hero in 2008.  Follow her on Twitter at @postpartumprogr.

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