For most women, the first few weeks after a baby is born is a wondrous – if tiring – time. By contrast, Adibah Latif’s first few weeks as a mother was wrapped in a terrifying haze.
“I would wake up every night at 3am without fail,” says the 26-year-old, “And each time, I hallucinated that my daughter had three eyes. I had dreams of killing her.”
It’s easy to brush off a few tears and upsets in the first few weeks after giving birth as a case of the notorious “baby blues.” But at some point, mothers need to be aware that a depression that continues on and on is neither normal nor healthy. Adibah is one of the many women who suffer from a severe form of postpartum depression (PPD), a severe, long-lasting form of depression that can lead to psychosis if left untreated for too long.
“Baby blues usually start at day two and last up to a week. Mothers may feel low but are still able to carry out their usual activities,” says Dr. Nik Ruzyanei Nik Jaafar of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. “It becomes more serious when the sadness becomes persistent and they are not able to carry out their activities, including social activities. More severe forms manifest in the neglect of mothers’ self-care and baby care, and in a few, experiences of psychosis which can pose a danger to the safety of both mother and child.”
The American Psychological Association estimates that 9-16% of women will experience PPD; however, the statistics in Malaysia are unclear. “The data available is just not that comprehensive – many women here opt out of seeking professional help, perhaps due to a lack of awareness or just the stigma attached,” says Dr. Nik.
Stigma is a definite issue for women with PPD. “It’s hard for me to talk about my experience, even now and even with those I’m close to,” says Nurkhalida Shabery, 27. “They would tell me ‘Tak payah nak mengada’ (Don’t act up) or ‘Orang lain pun beranak jugak’ (Other people give birth too).” Khalida’s brush with PPD was triggered by an inability to sleep on her first night home. “My breast milk supply wasn’t established yet,” she remembers, “And I just felt so guilty, that I was the reason my baby was crying.”
Her depression only got worse. Living in a home with 12 cats, Khalida and her daughter were confined to their own room for hours on end. “As I was badly stitched, I couldn’t really move a lot,” she says. “I wasn’t able to get up even to change diapers, let alone go to the toilet to pee. And because the door had to be closed, no one heard when my baby was crying, or when I called for assistance.”
For Ann Ooi, 37, PPD manifested itself in irritation. “I became incredibly irritated with my baby’s cries,” she says. “I just couldn’t and didn’t want to hold her anymore. Then I started crying as well, and I couldn’t stop crying for days. I felt like I was stuck in a deep hole with no way out. During that time, although I loved my baby very much, I couldn’t manage her and most times throughout the day I found myself avoiding her as she was annoying me so much, especially with her cries. From being a very independent person, I became scared, very sensitive and very needy. I couldn’t stand being by myself, I would call my husband constantly to ask him to come home, I would pace up and down my porch as I didn’t want to take care of my baby. I remember thinking to myself that there was something terribly wrong with me because this wasn’t who I am.”
So how do women bring themselves back to some semblance of normality after wrestling with PPD? The overwhelming response seems to be: with a lot of help – from husbands and loved ones in particular. “Mobilising support from husbands, extended family members and other social resources is very important,” says Dr. Nik, who also mentions methods like antidepressants and electroconvulsive treatments as ways to combat PPD. “The husband’s support is very, very important; just be present for your wife and provide all the emotional support and physical help she needs until she feels more herself again. NEVER blame your wife for how she feels and what she goes through during this time.”
Adibah agrees. “I was blessed with great familial support during that time. They took the baby from me and fed her and looked after her while I recovered. I don’t think I could have made it through without them.”
For Ann, being aware enough to recognise her symptoms early on played a big part. “If my situation had gotten worse, I would have sought professional help – but I was lucky that I didn’t need to.”
“My advice to other mothers facing PPD is this,” she says. “Many women have experienced PPD and have overcome it. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Seek help if you need it. Things will get better, slowly but surely.”
After seven years in journalism and communications, Hanna Alkaf recently became a freelance writer and work-at-home mum so that she could be with her son Malik (before you ask, it was totally worth it).
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