Most people, when they hear the term "postpartum depression," think sadness and moody behavior, but there is so much more going on inside a woman’s body when levels of estrogen and progesterone collapse. The symptoms range anywhere from worry to rage, with a gray area in between, and because everyone reacts differently, the warning signs are often ignored.
Anxiety is a symptom of postpartum depression that’s not always easy to spot. Why? Because it’s normal for a mother to “worry” about her children. But what if that concern turns into a debilitating fear that causes panic attacks or suicidal behavior?
In a personal essay published in Time magazine, Alyssa Milano opened up about a miscarriage she sustained before her first child, Milo, was born and the postpartum anxiety that followed.
"I have a secret, and I am not alone," she began. "I am a mother, an actor and an activist—and like over 40 million Americans, I live with a mental illness."
Her story, written to support Mental Health Awareness Month, talks about the “overwhelming” feelings of guilt she experienced after being induced for labor 10 days early and then undergoing a c-section against her wishes.
“I felt like I had already disappointed my child,” she wrote. “I felt like I failed as a mother, since I was not able to give birth vaginally or nourish him with the breast milk that had not come in yet. My heart raced. My stomach seized up. I felt like I was dying.”
But panic attacks were only a symptom of Milano’s inner struggle. What no one on the outside knew was how much she worried and how often she blamed herself.
"Every day, I would drive to work and think about all the ways that Milo could die in the hands of his caretakers. Every night, after working 16-hour days, after I was finally able to hold my child and put him to sleep, my day’s anxiety would culminate into a debilitating anxiety attack."
Milano said she eventually hit a wall and got the help she needed, confessing that she "asked to be committed" and "stayed in a public psychiatric ward for three days."
The actress also shared her frustrations with finding support, stating that one of her doctors even dismissed her symptoms and that many of her colleagues, including women, had trouble understanding why she was hurting at all.
The most compelling part of her story, however, was learning how easy it was for anxiety to slip through the cracks and take over her life, despite the spotlight that continues to shine down on it.
Milano credited her recovery to the "angels" (her psychiatrist and therapist) who convinced her she had "the bravery to face her illness, the value to seek help and the strength to recover." She also wrote that she knows not everyone can afford top-notch care and is urging lawmakers to change their policies so those less fortunate can get the help they need.
"Here’s the thing about mental illnesses," she pointed out, "you don’t always look sick, and the answers are not always clear or black-and-white. What happens to those mothers who don’t have the kind of support I received?”
Milano concluded her story with a simple request, inviting postpartum sufferers to stop her on the street and tell her she's not alone.
If untreated, postpartum depression can last for months, years or maybe even a lifetime. If you’re a new mom, be sure to keep up with "fourth trimester" appointments and talk to your doctor about whatever you're feeling—no matter how big or small—to keep your health in check. Though it may seem inconvenient, the payoff is totally worthwhile.