By SUZANNA LOURIE
SCHUYLERVILLE — Schuylerville resident Suzanne Nelson only had a few blissful hours with her firstborn, Jaden, before the panic attacks set in.
“It was terrible. I had no idea what was happening to me,” said Nelson, who was living in Colorado at the time.
It was years before she could label the nightmare that ensued as severe postpartum depression.
So severe that early this summer, Nelson teamed up with Hoosick Falls resident and fellow postpartum anxiety survivor Amy Breese to found the budding not-for-profit Shades of Light, a Capital District support network for women suffering from postpartum disorders.
In telling her story, Nelson said she not only hopes to generate awareness about Shades of Light, but also to help women realize help is available.
“I hope people can hear my story and realize they’re not crazy, they’re not alone and realize something is wrong and they need to get help,” she said.
The story continues a week after Jaden’s birth, when Nelson’s panic attacks grew into nonstop crying, extreme anxiety and irrational fears of the baby dying.
“It was this overwhelming feeling of doom — constant thoughts, terrible, terrible thoughts,” she recalled.
By two months, Nelson’s health was deteriorating. She would go days without sleep, her hair was falling out and she dropped to a weight so low it caused cardiac complications.
“The doctors would say I must be bipolar and say maybe you should be put in a psych ward,” she said.
It was four months before a therapist suggested Nelson get her thyroid tested. Sure enough, her physical symptoms were a biochemical illness and a hormonal imbalance known as Postpartum Graves Disease, which had led the body to attack the thyroid.
“We tried all sorts of med therapies, but nothing worked, so they ended up having to eradiate — basically kill — my thyroid,” she said.
That was seven months after giving birth. With daily medication, Nelson’s strength started to return. After 18 months, Nelson said, she could consider herself normal.
Once settling in Schuylerville and hearing about postpartum depression disorders from doctors and family members, Nelson began to make sense of what happened.
“Everything started clicking, but I think the bulk of my education came after the birth of my second,” she said.
After giving birth to Adler four years ago, Nelson experienced another four months of postpartum, although less severe because of her established support system.
Still, the lack of resources in the Capital Region for women with postpartum mood disorders was glaring, she thought.
“Even the doctors don’t know where to send these women,” Nelson said.
She connected with Breese, who has worked for almost eight years as a postpartum doula, someone trained to provide in-house support to women and their families after childbirth.
“I was a survivor of extreme postpartum anxiety. It’s always been a cause near and dear to my heart,” Breese said.
In May, Breese started a monthly postpartum support group in Troy. Now the group is a part of Shades of Light and has a consistent following.
“I was ready to create some support in the community so these women wouldn’t have to go it alone like I did,” Breese said.
Nelson connected with Sonia Murdock, co-founder and executive director of the Long Island-based Postpartum Resource Center of New York, who quickly got on board with Shades of Light.
In June, Nelson went through training with Murdock to earn the same certifications Breese has to conduct postpartum support groups.
Last month, Nelson hosted the first Saratoga Springs group at the public library, and the women have a Glens Falls group in the works.
In New York state, around 25,000 women suffer from perinatal disorders and more than 50,000 suffer from postpartum mood disorders, Murdock said.
The spectrum of these diseases and their risk factors are wide. While not genetic, women who have experienced a trauma are at greater risk to develop the condition, Murdock explained.
With trauma often comes postpartum post-traumatic stress disorder in which birth re-triggers the traumatic experience.
“There are a lot of sub-sets — postpartum psychosis is where the woman is unable to tell the difference between what’s reality and what’s not reality,” Murdock said.
Other postpartum classifications include depression/anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder and anxiety or depression during pregnancies.
“The information needs to be integrated into the whole continuum: pre-
conception, during pregnancy and after having a baby for everyone who plays a role. It’s important for them to be educated about how to be part of the safety net,” Murdock said.
That’s exactly what Nelson and Breese hope to bring to the Capital District with Shades of Light.
Future plans include a website with a local guide of professionals and support groups, as well as distributing informational brochures through regional health care facilities.
“We would like to have what they (the Postpartum Resource Center of New York) have here. We want to be independent and have one support group per week. There are all different kinds of outreach we hope to accomplish,” Breese said.
There’s still a way to go, much of which requires funding. But if Shades of Light grows the way she hopes, Nelson, owner of a graphic design business, envisions this becoming a full-time career.
“I’m hoping some businesses will want to help us or donate so we can provide all these things,” Nelson said. “If everybody plays a little part, it could be a really, really big thing.”