The XX Factor

Not Just the Baby Blues: I Thought I Could Handle Going Off Meds

Unhappy pregnant woman.
Stories of prenatal depression.

Photo by Tatiana Gladskikh/iStockphoto.

As part of Jessica Grose’s series on prenatal depression, we asked readers to share their stories about depression during pregnancy. The third entry comes from a long-time user of Zoloft who found that going off during pregnancy was the wrong decision. 

Name: Lindsay

I’ve been on a Zoloft since I was 16 and started showing signs of depression. My home life was great, I did well in school, had friends and did after school activities—there was no environmental reason for it. My mom, seeing in me what she herself has struggled with since she was young, tried giving me natural remedies (ex: St. John’s Wort) then when she didn’t see improvement took me to the doctor. The doctor proceeded to tell me I was too young to be depressed and that I needed to make the choice to be happy; thus my guilt and shame at having depression began. My parents were my advocates, however, and they found a doctor who prescribed the Zoloft. Within a month I was able to function without hyperventilating while driving down a winding road or breaking down into tears because I dropped my pen (that’s not a joke or exaggeration).

Fast forward several years and my husband and I decided we were ready to get pregnant. My GP told me that I should be off all meds for the best possible outcome. I knew from experience that I don’t do well off my meds but my doctor told me it’s for the best so why the heck would I stay on them? I could handle this! I weaned myself off over a month and I felt great.

We got pregnant almost immediately and for the first five weeks or so everything was wonderful. My OB agreed with my GP that I should be off my meds for at least the first trimester when the baby’s major organs were developing. She did offer the caveat that if I felt suicidal or extremely sad or anxious we had to think about my health and perhaps would need to go back on them. She told me there was not a lot of information on taking SSRIs while pregnant and therefore it’s better to be safe than sorry. This made me worry. What if I can’t handle it and have to go back on my meds and they hurt my baby? I would never forgive myself.

At about six weeks the morning sickness kicked in and things went rapidly downhill as far as my mental health was concerned. I was sick every morning and queasy all day. I worked full-time and the idea of being in the office every day made me break out in a cold sweat. I don’t work a particularly stressful job. It’s mostly clerical and I have a great boss. I was panicking over spreadsheets and Word documents and the possibility that I may be given a new project. It was completely irrational. Every night was a battle to get to sleep. I would lay in the dark with my heart pounding knowing that when my alarm went off I would immediately vomit then have to go into the office. I’d cry almost every day driving home from work and more than once I wished fervently that I’d never gotten pregnant and that I could turn back and do it over again. I had thoughts that I cannot even write here because they make me so ashamed.

At my regular prenatal check-ups my mental health was just a blip on the doctor’s radar. “How are you doing off your meds?” She would ask. “Okay, I’m struggling though. I’m sick all day and my anxiety is really bothering me,” was my usual reply. “Do you want to go back on your meds?” she’d ask.

How does an anxious pregnant woman answer that? She’d already told me I could possibly hurt my baby’s development if I were to take them, how weak was I that I couldn’t handle being unmedicated for the first trimester? How dependent on a drug was I that I would consider hurting my child to help myself? These were my thoughts when I debated telling her how hard of a time I was having. So I would tell her no, I don’t need to go back on my meds. My OB told me to make sure I was exercising and meditating to help calm my anxiety and then would send me on my way for another four weeks.

My husband worried about me (but agreed that the doctor was right and I should stay off my meds for the baby’s safety unless I thought about doing harm to myself), my mother worried about me (and disagreed with the doctor and my decision to stay off the meds. It was my mother who would receive incoherent phone calls at all hours of the day or night with me sobbing on the other end.), my friends and more distant family had no idea I was struggling at all. I put on a mask around them and took regular breaks to bathroom when in company to have minor panic attacks and to cry. Everyone chalked it up to hormones or pregnancy pee breaks.

Relief came at 12 weeks when I finally told my doctor that I couldn’t do it anymore and asked her if it was safe enough yet for the baby for me to go back on Zoloft. She said yes, if I felt like I needed it. I did. But I felt as though she was disappointed or at the very least a hesitant. IF you NEED to, she’d said. The unspoken words being: don’t if you can avoid it. Once the morning sickness let up at 15 weeks I was myself again, except pregnant. I was happy and excited and could think about and read about how to prepare for my child without feeling like the sky was going to fall on my head and crush me—without feeling like I wanted the sky to fall on my head and crush me.

My son was born in February 2011 and I nursed him for a year while taking Zoloft. He’s a happy, healthy baby who amazes my husband and me every day.

Previously in this series:

Entry #1: Watching My Wife Spiral into Prenatal Depression

Entry #2: Overing Coming Hispanic Cultural Stigma