'There is hope': Women overcome illness to thrive

It feels like trudging through mud. Or hearing a freight train running through your brain. Or being locked outside your own soul.

This is how women who have suffered through postpartum mood disorders describe them. They thought they would never free themselves from the pain and disorientation of their illnesses. Yet most women do recover.In the year following the birth of her daughter in 1992, Diana Lynn Barnes, a therapist in Los Angeles, was hospitalized four times for depression. "The pain comes in giant waves," she wrote once in her journal during that period.

"My chest hurts--it burns around my heart. ... I'm struggling to stay above this pain and I'm losing the battle."

Barnes did not lose the battle. After three years of relapses, she found a slow path to recovery. Now, she is president of Postpartum Support International, a California-based advocacy group, and she focuses her practice on women with postpartum mood disorders.

"Women have a tremendous amount of fear they won't get well," Barnes says. "But this is treatable."

The first--and often, the largest--hurdle is identifying the illness, experts say. Because women in the United States are not routinely screened for signs of depression and other mood disorders during or after their pregnancies, many suffer without knowing what is wrong.

Amy Friedman, a human resources manager in Highland Park, struggled with postpartum depression for three years after giving birth to her daughter in 1998. When she wasn't caring for her child, she mostly slept or cried.

Friedman, now 29, had suffered a depression during college, making her a prime candidate for a recurrence following childbirth, but no one told her she was vulnerable and she never connected the experiences.

"None of my doctors asked me how I was," says Friedman. "And I didn't want to bring it up because I didn't want anyone to think I was a bad mother."

Eventually, Friedman says, her husband suggested she see a psychiatrist. After trying three different antidepressants over a period of six weeks, she found a medication that worked.

"Before the medication, I felt like I was walking around dazed and lost," says Friedman, who also received therapy. "Afterwards, life became clear and understandable.

Ideally, treatment should involve a combination of medication, therapy and social support, experts say. The support of others who have had similar experiences may be one of the most underrated and cost-effective elements of treatment, some practitioners say.

"I see women helping other women," says Leslie Lowell-Stoutenburg, who runs support groups as part of the pregnancy and postpartum mood and anxiety disorder program she directs at Alexian Brothers Hospital Network in Elk Grove Village. "Women who get well come back to say there is hope."

Barnes can't pinpoint what prompted her turnaround. She credits a doctor who, she feels, finally understood her illness--and her own will to live.

"I knew I was dying," she says, "and I knew I didn't want to."

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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