Deborah Rimmler was so looking forward to the birth of her first baby. “My whole life, I wanted to have a family,” she says. She married late and had her baby boy when she was 43, in 2009. Within a week of giving birth, she was wrestling with postpartum depression (PPD), which affects about 15 percent of new mothers.
Rimmler’s case was a variation on the illness, called postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder. On June 21, Rimmler, who lives in Lenox with her husband and two sons, ages 4 and 2, will participate in a fund-raiser called Climb Out of the Darkness. She will hike Mount Greylock with others to help raise money and awareness for postpartum depression.
Q. Tell me about the hike. How did you come up with the idea?
A. I helped set up a nonprofit called Postpartum Progress Inc. We want to help people understand the massive size of the problem. With part of the funds we raise, we’ll put together materials for OB-GYNs and pediatricians to give out to new moms that talk honestly about this stuff. On June 21, women all over the world will participate in the first annual Climb Out of the Darkness. It’s the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, and PPD survivors will climb or hike a local mountain or park to symbolize our collective rise out of the darkness. There are more than 85 different climbs. Mine is Mount Greylock.
Q. Can you describe what happened when your first baby was born?
A. For a couple of days I felt okay. But then I started having horrible, intrusive thoughts. I had just seen the last episode of “M*A*S*H,’’ and Hawkeye is having a flashback about being on a bus that breaks down with a bunch of South Koreans on it. There’s North Korean patrols in the area, and a woman had to strangle a chicken so it would quit making noises. But it turned out it wasn’t a chicken, it was a baby. The most gruesome thoughts kept getting replayed in my brain.
Q. What sort of thoughts?
A. You start to have an image that you could hurt your child. I was scared to be alone with my child. Needless to say, it’s horrifying. I’m an attorney, and I’m lucky I could afford a doula during childbirth. She started noticing stuff and asked me if I was OK Finally, I broke down in tears. I’d heard of postpartum depression, but no one gives you a handout that tells you what it is, what the symptoms are.
Q. What is it exactly?
A. It’s sort of the perfect storm in your brain. Your hormones drop precipitously after birth. You’re not just a little depressed. You feel hopeless, awful, and extremely anxious. Some people can’t get out of bed. Some have crazy thoughts like I was having. In simple terms, your brain is just misfiring.
Q. What helped you?
A. I had a wonderful doctor, and a doula who told me I would get better. I took an anti-anxiety drug and that helped calm it down but it really took four or five months for the symptoms to go away. One night in despair, I stumbled upon a blog written by an amazing community of postpartum mood and anxiety disorder survivors [www.postpartumprogress.com]. It was founded by Katherine Stone in 2004, after her first child was born. It’s grounded in the latest science and research, and she has doctors and social workers who blog. When I first met her, I thanked her for saving my life. When I got pregnant again, I went on an anti-depressant and the symptoms cleared. I had another perfectly beautiful, healthy son.
Q. Does everyone get better?
A. From my lay perspective, I think you will get better with professional help. We try to be really careful and not say we are totally in favor of medication because a lot of people are opposed to that. But I think that especially with medication, you will get better. What I had is very treatable.
Q. Is there a stigma attached to PPD?
A. Most people are very reluctant to talk about it. I’m general counsel of a multinational corporation and I’m putting it out there that I’ve got a mental health issue. I've actually had supportive family and friends, but the thing is, most people don’t get it.
Q. Were there any indications in your life that something like this might happen?
A. When I look back at it, I had similar things. I was anxious. I stopped watching TV news because I had too many nightmares.
Q. Why are you going public?
A. I want to be honest so other moms know these intrusive thoughts are a symptom of a disease and not coming from some awful dark place in their soul. Instead of women keeping this nightmare to themselves they should reach out for professional help so they can move on to bonding with their babies.
Bella English can be reached at email@example.com.