Overcoming PPD: A Family Affair

Katie Murwin, who is both a postpartum depression (PPD) survivor and president of the non-profit Kids with Autism Can, took time to share her story in the hopes of helping others. As a mother of three kids, now age 22, 21, and 16, her perseverance in overcoming PPD and her passion for supporting mothers and children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) keep her motivated to support families in need.

Katie’s advocacy journey started when her family began -- with the conception of her oldest child, Paige. Her first pregnancy went just as one might expect -- she felt all the emotions that every mother is ‘supposed’ to feel. When Paige was born, like many new moms she got lost just looking in her daughter’s eyes. Her husband kept asking, “What are you doing?”, but Katie was a mom in loving bliss.

Her first pregnancy went just as one might expect -- she felt all the emotions that every mother is ‘supposed’ to feel.

Things couldn’t have been more different in her second pregnancy with her son, Nicholas. While pregnant, Katie was busy preparing to move from Minnesota to Wisconsin. She collected her medical records to ensure continued prenatal care -- but while reviewing her records she learned something that would change the course of her life.

One of the reports explained that her son had a 2 vessel umbilical cord rather than the 'normal' 3 vessel cord. Only halfway through her pregnancy, this news was still largely inconclusive. When Katie took her concerns to her doctors, they couldn’t console her. They explained, “We don’t know what it means -- the best thing you can do is not worry.”

If you are a mom, you can truly understand the all-consuming worry a mother feels for her child. While Nicholas was fighting a health battle in her womb, Katie was fighting too -- she was battling severe depression that didn’t end with his birth. As you can imagine, the next 4 months of her pregnancy were filled with a fear of the unknown. Katie recalls the chaos on the day Nicholas was born,“There were probably 15 healthcare professionals in the room. Immediately after he was born, he was whisked away by doctors. They said he had a cleft palate, a narrowing between his kidney and bladder, and something else I can’t remember.”

In the chaos of caring for her son, many things are blurry for Katie, but one moment stands out. While she wishes it was getting to hold her newborn for the first time, what she remembers best is being handed a stack of prescriptions complete with elaborate instructions. 

While Nicholas was fighting a health battle in her womb, Katie was fighting too -- she was battling severe depression that didn’t end with his birth.

To make matters worse, Nicholas wouldn’t ever stop crying.

Unfortunately, things got harder before they got easier. When Nicholas reached 6 weeks old, Katie traveled to Washington D.C. with her husband for a friend’s wedding. She vividly recalls staying in her hotel room with Nicholas, who still hadn’t stopped crying since the moment he was born. As her friends went sightseeing in the city, Katie failed to calm her screaming baby. “I thought, ‘Oh my god. It’s over. My life is over. Right here, right now, it has come to an end.’”

While Katie explains that mental health has always been a part of her life, even before children, her prior experience only her recognize the problem, it didn’t help her regain control. “Had I never experienced depression before, I don't know how I would have been able to do it. Even with my awareness of depression, I still told myself, ‘I don't understand what this is. I’m supposed to be so happy; I have this brand new baby.’ It was hard for me to feel empowered about anything.”

Katie struggled to care for herself and her two children, yet her depression went undiagnosed. On top of that, resources addressing maternal mental health were not nearly as accessible as they are today, laving Katie to battle PPD on her own.

“I thought, ‘Oh my god. It’s over. My life is over. Right here, right now, it has come to an end.’”

Both Katie and Nicholas faced further challenges when Nicholas was diagnosed with autism. After falling short of developmental benchmarks and crying through most of his infancy. His behavior lined up with the diagnosis, and allowed better insight into how to help him progress. However, Katie’s depression didn’t go away with her son’s diagnosis; if anything, life became even more daunting.

With her first child, Katie remembers going to the park and being able to run errands, Paige in tow. With Nicholas on the other hand, Katie struggled with isolation and stress, “I couldn't go anywhere, I didn’t do anything, I never slept. He just never stopped crying. I was overwhelmed, scared, and depressed, but I also knew that I had been through these humps before.”

Realizing that things weren’t okay was crucial in motivating Katie to get help. Having attended therapy and taken antidepressants in the past, Katie knew these steps were necessary to manage her depression. While this knowledge of resources helped Katie find the path to wellness, she largely credits the support of her husband, Todd.

“Todd has constantly been a source of support, for me, but also for all of our kids. He mourned the loss of what we thought life would look like and he moved on long before I did, giving our family exactly what it needed.  His sense of humor and confidence in our family allow us all to be our very best. I am one very lucky woman.”

Katie and Hubby

"He mourned the loss of what we thought life would look like and he moved on long before I did, giving our family exactly what it needed."

It took years, but with strong resources in place and a supportive family behind her Katie’s condition improved -- so much so that five years after Nicholas was born, Katie and Todd decided to have another child. While she recalls bouts of depression with her third child, Andrew, it was nowhere close to the severe PPD that she had previously experienced.

Today Katie has learned to accept that depression is a part of her life, and she now uses her experiences to help others.

Family KT

As someone who truly understands feeling overwhelmed and hopeless, Katie uses her perspective to help families in similar positions. She’s found the perfect outlet in Kids With Autism Can, a non-profit started by Katie and her husband to support families of kids with autism.

The organization and accompanying picture book were inspired in part by frustration. “I was so sick of reading books about everything my kid with autism wasn’t able to do. Picking Nicholas up from preschool, I’d be sobbing because every book was telling me what he would never do.”

That’s when Katie decided to write a book, inspired by Nicholas, saying what kids with autism can do. She found the work incredibly fulfilling and decided to start an organization with the same message: kids with autism are so much more than how they are portrayed in parenting books. From friends designing logos to friends of friends assisting with the legal paperwork, everything fell into place.

“I was so sick of reading books about everything my kid with autism wasn’t able to do."

Today, Kids with Autism Can hosts trips to movies, horseback riding lessons, and adventure ropes courses, among other events. The organization aims to encourage kids with autism to socialize and have fun, and connects families with a community that understands the unique challenges of autism.

“We host events that involve entire families because it creates a setting where everyone is together. If you have a sibling of a kid with autism, they’re likely to meet another sibling there. Grandparents meet other grandparents and parents meet other parents.”

Katie draws inspiration from her lifelong experience with depression to better help others. She explains, “I’ve been there and I know what it’s like to feel absolutely hopeless. That’s where I try to provide some support and encouragement.” Sometimes, that consists of handing out gift cards for school supplies and food to families in need; other times, it consists of telling parents not to give up in moments of doubt.

Katie and Son

If any mom’s fighting PPD or raising a child with health challenges are reading this, Katie has advice for you:

“When you’re depressed you need to be able to say it. You know in your heart how you feel. As mothers, we’re told we should be happy with this new baby. So when we are depressed and wondering what’s wrong with us, we don't try to manage it; we just stuff it somewhere and pretend it’s not happening. But it’s so important to admit to yourself something is wrong.

The best thing that we can do is go full speed ahead and deal with it instead of trying to bury it.

If you can’t bring yourself to tell your doctor about feeling depressed, trust your friends and family. Get to the place where you can tell a spouse, sibling, parent, or friend, ‘Something’s wrong.’ And saying it to someone is huge, because you’re not doing it on your own anymore. Sometimes we feel very alone when we are in that situation and we feel like we don't have any help or support. But once you’ve told someone, you’ve taken that first step to getting help.”

If you are experiencing postpartum depression, you can call the Postpartum Support International Warmline at 1-800-944-4773 to receive help and get connected to resources. If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, you can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Bryce
Bryce Peppin is a student at Tufts University and a previous intern for Clara Health.