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L ike most new mothers before and since, a Geyserville woman named Chelsea imagined the first year of her son’s life as a period of sweet cuddles, rapturous discoveries and cherished milestones.
It was instead a time of anxiety, guilt and despair so profound she struggled to survive.
She sought help from seven therapists, two psychiatrists and a variety of prescribed medications, but her mental health deteriorated for months.
She had quit a job she loved in order to stay home with her newborn, but about eight weeks after his birth, the risk she might harm herself grew so pronounced that she and her husband knew he couldn’t safely leave her alone.
So they found child care for their son, and Chelsea spent months going out on the road each day with her salesman husband, waiting in the car while he called on clients and clinging to hope she might eventually find a way through the darkness.
“I put on myself to be the perfect mother. And having these preconceived ideas of what motherhood would be and what it would be like to have a baby,” she said. “I didn’t have any idea what it would be like with the sleepless nights. I didn’t have any family around to help or any friends with babies. I felt really isolated.”
She is one of what are likely thousands of local survivors of postpartum depression and related mood disorders that strike one in five new mothers in California during pregnancy or the first year of their baby’s life, turning the early days of motherhood into harrowing nightmares.
Experts say most women, about 80 percent, will experience the so-called “baby blues” in the first week or two after childbirth — when plummeting hormone levels and related shifts in brain chemistry, abetted by sleep deprivation and other physical changes, cause mood changes, fatigue, weepiness and worry.
Postpartum depression is something different — more severe and persistent — set off by the same biochemical shockwave but to a more dangerous effect.
Along with related disorders, it is the most common complication of childbirth, one exacerbated by emotional stressors such as a high-risk or traumatic child delivery, financial or marital difficulties, social isolation, domestic violence or family substance abuse — though no such hardships may be present.
The depression often comes with extreme anxiety, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive symptoms, sleeplessness and terrifying, intrusive thoughts, in addition to despondency so debilitating women often come close to giving up. Occasionally, they do.
The death of a young Mendocino County mother who took her own life earlier this month after what her family said had been a prolonged postpartum depression struck a painful chord with women across the region who identified with the apparent depth of her suffering.
Many came forward to say they had contemplated suicide themselves, sharing stories of their illness and recovery to help other women feel less alone in their own journeys and to urge them toward help.
“I wish more people would come forward, because it is so taboo,” said Kristin Ell, 33, a Santa Rosa mother of two. “No one can do this alone.”
Yet, many try.
Resources for parents
Support group: Free postpartum depression support group with marriage and family therapist Lily Rossman meets from 10:30 a.m. to noon on the second and fourth Friday each month at the Santa Rosa Birth Center, 583 Summerfield Road.
Stress management: The Child Parent Institute, Perinatal Mood Disorders, in Santa Rosa offers bilingual in-home and group stress-management programs designed to support the infant-parent bond. Its low-cost program Mothers & Babies was recommended last week by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force as an effective preventive intervention for women at risk of postpartum mood disorders. For information, visit calparents.org or call 707-585-6108.
Screenings and counseling: Mothers Care of Petaluma offers screening, assessment and counseling — with up to two free sessions, for qualifying Petaluma residents — maternal mental health education and resources. For information, visit mothercaresupport.com or call 707-776-0959.
Weekly group: Weekly sessions for pregnant women and new mothers who are members of Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa take place from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Thursdays at 2235 Mercury Way. For information, visit https://k-p.li/2GQt89Q.
How To Get Help
North Bay Suicide Prevention 24-hour hotline: 855-587-6373
NAMI Sonoma County warmline: 707-527-6655
Sonoma County Psychiatric Emergency Services: 707-576-8181
For information on Sonoma County support groups, call 707-527-6655 or go to namisonomacounty.org