I filled my first prescription for antidepressants when I was 39 years old. Truth be told, I probably should have taken them sooner. After suffering most of my teenage years with depression and collecting the names of therapists I would never see in my 20s, I thought I had it beat in my 30s.
I never suffered from postpartum depression like I feared, and I loved my life as a mom. I really thought I was in the clear.
Then, in April of 2009, my 5-year-old son was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Even then I thought I could handle what was happening, if handling it meant locking myself in bathrooms and constantly leaving rooms to cry. But at the urging of a sister-in-law who was a nurse, I began taking an antidepressant. In addition to helping me function for my family and my ill child, it cleared my head of so many other feelings I didn’t even know I was still fighting. Once the dose was adjusted to suit me, I felt as if a wet blanket had finally been lifted off me.
My son died at the age of 6, one year after his diagnosis. I was devastated and not taking care of myself at all. I began skipping doses of my medication — not just the antidepressant, but my birth control pill as well.
Just three months after losing my son, I learned I was pregnant again. I was 40 — my baby cutoff age — and completely scared of losing another child.
Despite my insistence to my doctor that something had to be wrong with this baby and pregnancy, every test and ultrasound was perfect. Yet at every appointment I expressed a new fear and asked about improbable outcomes.
As soon as I found out I was pregnant, I stopped taking the antidepressant completely, which didn’t help my fears about my pregnancy.
My doctor knew about my son’s death. I had talked to her about my grief and how it had affected my health prior to my pregnancy.
She suggested that I continue taking the medication during my pregnancy. That suggestion from anyone else would have warranted a snort of absurd laughter, but my doctor was brilliant, quoting the latest research and knowing exact percentages on every prenatal condition.
However, she said something very simple, nonscientific and basic that made me resume popping that little white pill. She reminded me that I felt better while taking them. And when I felt better, I could care for myself better. If I was caring for myself, my unborn baby would thrive. If I was not taking care of myself, I was not taking care of my baby.
It made sense to me in the simplest way. I just needed someone else to say it. In fact, I was relieved to hear it. I was relieved to have a reason to resume taking them.
My doctor cited the most current research about antidepressant use during pregnancy — basically that while they could potentially cause lung and breathing issues in newborns, the risk of birth defects and other problems for babies of mothers who take antidepressants during pregnancy is very low. So I took my little white pill each day for the remainder of my pregnancy.
And yes, I worried. I worried about how, if at all, it would affect my child. I continued to have ultrasounds throughout my pregnancy, and each showed a perfectly developing baby. It wasn’t until I saw him and held him that I breathed a little sigh of relief.
For the past four years, I have watched him closely for any signs of delay, poor growth and development or autism. On the contrary, he is a bright, happy, highly verbal 4-year-old who moves at lightning speed to keep up with his three older brothers.
In December, a study was published in JAMA, an international peer-reviewed general medical journal, citing a possible link between antidepressant use in the second and third trimesters and autism. Of course, further study is needed.
It makes me sad and scared for women who are struggling with depression. It is one more thing for them to feel guilty about. One more thing to blame themselves for. One more reason to put their own health on a back burner.
I don’t know if my experience with antidepressants during pregnancy was unique or not. It was unique for me in terms of my previous three pregnancies. I’m glad I made the decision to follow my doctor’s advice and take care of myself during my pregnancy. In the end, I really believe it resulted in the healthiest outcome for both my child and myself.