I Smoked Weed to Help My Postpartum Depression — And I Want Other Moms to Do the Same
These parents say it cured their overwhelming feelings of sadness and frustration better than any prescription drug, but some experts worry the long-term effects of medical marijuana are still unknown. Here, a look at both sides of the debate.
Celia Behar remembers the moment she realized her misery had a name. For three weeks during the fall of 2006, she had been lying in bed holding her newborn daughter, H, sobbing uncontrollably and apologizing to her baby. She was sorry because she couldn’t feel anything. She was sorry because she didn’t want to be there or anywhere. She was sorry because she kept looking at the bottle of Percocet sitting on her nightstand and imagining taking it all. A 33-year-old therapist living in Ithaca, New York, Behar could not understand what was happening to her. Then she remembered Brooke Shields sitting on Oprah Winfrey’s couch in a 2005 segment.
Shields had described the same hysterical tears, the same terrifying rage and self-hatred, the same numb detachment. “Don’t ignore the symptoms of postpartum depression,” Shields said to the camera. “Find out what medicine’s available.” So, that’s what Celia Behar did. She called her obstetrician, who immediately prescribed Prozac.
I thought, ‘I guess this is just motherhood.’
“The Prozac was a Band-Aid,” says Behar. “I could never really relax. But it got me functioning enough so that I wasn’t a sobbing mess. And I told myself that the rest of it, still feeling sad underneath and really anxious and full of rage, that was normal. I thought, ‘I guess this is just motherhood.'”
Prozac also brought side effects: insomnia, migraines, nausea, dry mouth, shaking hands. Behar went off it within a few months when her depression began to lift, though she was still anxious and barely sleeping. She was told not to take anti-anxiety medication while breastfeeding. She coped without help for a year, before returning in 2007 to her doctor, who dismissed the issue as “hormones” and prescribed an endless supply of Xanax, Valium, Ativan and Ambien.
When her second daughter, L, was born in 2011, Behar thought she was prepared. But this time she wasn’t weeping in despair or detached from her infant. Instead, her anxiety became overwhelming. She couldn’t walk into a room without envisioning the disasters that might happen, or sit down in the evening before every single task was finished. She describes it as “flying through life,” trying desperately to be a perfect mother, clinging to a rigid daily schedule that included only work and caring for her daughters. For another year of breastfeeding, Behar told herself this was fine. Insomnia, rage, sadness, constantly cycling thoughts — apparently, those just doubled when you had a second child.
It took a high school friend, Tom Grubbs, confronting Behar about her symptoms, for her to realize this was postpartum depression in a different form. Grubbs suggested a treatment, which he thought might be more effective than pharmaceutical drugs. It had fewer side effects. It had worked for friends with anxiety disorders. Would she try smoking marijuana? Behar was shocked. “Moms don’t smoke pot,” she told Grubbs. “Moms drink wine.”
The flawed but widely used estimate is that PPD affects about 15% of mothers. Rates can be more than twice as high for low-income or teen mothers, and this percentage does not include women who experience miscarriage, stillbirth or dangerous disorders like postpartum psychosis. Even more alarming is the fact that all PPD statistics reflect only those women who report their symptoms, and researchers believe only 15% of those ever receive professional treatment. The number of women actually suffering from PPD may be well over 900,000 in the U.S. every year. While cannabis remains federally illegal, 29 states have now legalized the drug for medical purposes, and eight have voted to allow recreational use. Since 2014, public support for medical marijuana has grown dramatically with 10 states, including New York, passing legalization laws in the past three years. In no state, however, is PPD listed as a valid condition for medical marijuana, although post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was recently approved in 23 states, after years of campaigning by military veterans groups. And yet, growing numbers of women across the U.S. are turning to cannabis for PPD symptoms when conventional treatments are either unavailable or ineffective.
And for the first time in more than five years, she was able to sleep.
For Celia Behar, it took weeks to get past her own disapproval. She casually mentioned Grubbs’ idea to a friend in California, and a few days later, a package arrived in the mail. Hidden inside a coffee can in a cocoon of bubble wrap was homegrown marijuana. For a week, Behar just stared at it. And then one night, alone on her porch, she took a few puffs. And for the first time in more than five years, she was able to sleep. Behar began to smoke at night in total secrecy, hiding it from family, friends, colleagues, even her husband, who had struggled with substance abuse. (They would divorce in 2015.) Her insomnia vanished. Her anxiety faded. She was finally able to be present with her children.
“What it feels like to me is that in that time of my life, I was living in black and white,” says Behar. “And when I started using cannabis, it felt like living in Technicolor. Even just getting sleep changed the anxiety. Everything shifted. I didn’t feel high. I wasn’t stoned. I just felt leveled out and even.”
In 2014, the year that medical cannabis became legal in New York, Behar moved to Los Angeles where her husband pursued an acting career and she focused on her website and online community, The Lil’ Mamas. But even in California, with its 20-year history of legalization, she still felt ashamed of her cannabis use. She wasn’t using marijuana to treat epilepsy or chronic pain or to ease the side effects of chemotherapy, and she sensed other moms’ judgment around the awkward subject of PPD. Two years later, it was Tracy Ryan, an advocate for cannabis medicine and founder of the CannaKids organization, who convinced Behar that other women needed to hear her story.
In early 2016, Behar agreed to go public, sharing her experience with KXAN Austin, and Yahoo! News, as well as on her website. The response to her confession was explosive. Hundreds of commenters condemned Behar as an “addict” with a “fake” disease. One reader, who recognized her in a Los Angeles convenience store, even harassed her in person, accusing her of contributing to America’s drug epidemic and raising her children to be addicts. Privately, however, Behar received thousands of emails from mothers and fathers around the world thanking her for “coming out” and challenging the stigma around both cannabis and PPD.
“PPD has just as horrible a stigma as a mom smoking weed,” says Behar. “I don’t know which one is worse. It was rare that a hateful comment didn’t attack both things separately. What was fascinating was that all the people that wrote me positive things did it behind the scenes. Nobody shared their stories in the comments, which told me that they were terrified. So even though I just broke this open a little bit, my work’s not even close to done here.”
Jenn Lauder, an Oregon mom who has used cannabis to treat anxiety and depression for 16 years, is one of the few mothers unafraid to be open about the drug. While she did not smoke during her pregnancy in 2007, Lauder’s mental health history made her highly aware that she might suffer from PPD. Then living in Maryland where medical marijuana was illegal (the law changed in 2014), Lauder developed a plan with her midwife that included using small amounts of cannabis very soon after giving birth. Lauder knew that the chaotic early months of parenthood would heighten her tendency to become overwhelmed, anxious and emotionally shut down. She also knew that pharmaceutical drugs would not be the answer, since in the past, they had made her feel dulled and disconnected. As a new mom, Lauder says cannabis, along with yoga and meditation, helped her interrupt the “feedback loop” of anxiety and spiraling thoughts.
Lauder believes so strongly in the benefits of cannabis, both medically and recreationally, that she recently shifted her professional focus from education to online publishing and marketing for the cannabis industry. In 2016, Lauder and her husband, Chad Dean, launched Splimm.com, “a pot and parenting newsletter” with the goal of normalizing cannabis for parents and building a community of responsible consumers.
Unlike Celia Behar, Lauder had no concerns about breastfeeding her daughter while using cannabis. She cites her own research that convinced her it would not be harmful. “As I tell people now, I have a happy, healthy, intelligent, active, wonderfully bold and brave 9-year-old,” Lauder says. “Until we have actual, peer-reviewed science to look at, and it’s not being funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, for me, the proof is my anecdotal evidence right there.”
But most physicians and psychiatrists strongly disagree that using cannabis while breastfeeding is safe. The widely respected InfantRisk Center website warns that nursing mothers who consume cannabis are risking serious health consequences for their children. However, a 2015 statement by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists simply states, “There are insufficient data to evaluate the effects of marijuana use on infants during lactation, and in the absence of such data, marijuana use is discouraged.” Breastfeeding women are regularly prescribed a range of medications, including antidepressants, narcotics for pain, and drugs to produce more breast milk, and the guidelines on what if any effect they have on infants continue to change.
“Nobody thinks twice about prescribing or using Oxycontin postpartum while breastfeeding,” says Samantha Montanaro, who was prescribed the narcotic after her C-section. She was alarmed by the drug’s sedating effect on her infant son and struggled to wean off it. A graphic designer and event coordinator, Montanaro describes herself as a “sunny personality,” and unlike Celia Behar or Jenn Lauder, she had never experienced clinical depression in her life. After giving birth in Chicago in 2008, she was blindsided by the constant crying, sadness, frustration and isolation that made it difficult to care for her newborn. Montanaro received no screening or treatment for her PPD. “My doctors told me, ‘Have a glass of wine or take a walk if you’re feeling anxious,'” she says. “That was the recommendation, and that did not do anything for my postpartum state of mind.” For Montanaro, using cannabis during the postpartum period was “an absolute savior,” easing her sadness and helping to stabilize her emotions.
Hundreds of similarly shocked and frightened women have found their way into the office of Dr. Junella Chin. An osteopathic physician with degrees in nutritional biochemistry and acupuncture, Dr. Chin has been prescribing cannabis to women with PPD at her California (and now New York) clinics for over 15 years. When asked if medical cannabis is an effective treatment for PPD, she says categorically, “Yes.” According to Dr. Chin, cannabis can alleviate many of the symptoms that women experience – sadness, anxiety, insomnia, loss of appetite. It carries no risk of a lethal overdose. In fact, women can control their own dosing as needed. And its potential for addiction has been rated lower than caffeine. Since PPD is not a qualifying condition, Dr. Chin often uses a “chronic pain” diagnosis, which is approved in every legal state, and which, she says, all moms have.
The concerns that many doctors raise about the lack of medical research and the possibly harmful effects of cannabis puzzle Dr. Chin. “There are over 20,000 citations in medical journals globally,” she says. “I searched high and low, because as a physician, I need to be very responsible, and I haven’t found any studies that have proven there are any detrimental effects. If you’re disconnected from your newborn, that in itself is dangerous. Of course, the gold standard is the double blind, controlled study, and the illegal history of cannabis points to why there is paucity in this research. But the overwhelming evidence is there through patients sharing information. You can’t ignore that.”
But women “self-medicating” with cannabis with mostly anecdotal evidence to guide them alarms Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody, Director of the Perinatal Psychiatry Program at UNC. In fact, scientific data on the huge numbers of women who suffer from PPD is what she believes we desperately need. Meltzer-Brody is part of a team searching for genetic factors that may play a role in postpartum mood disorders. She is a co-creator of the PPD ACT app, the largest study on PPD ever and the first to reach out to women through iPhone and Android devices. Since its launch in March 2016, over 14,000 women have downloaded the app and participated in the international study.
“Women think marijuana is safe, because it’s natural. But I think that’s a myth and a fallacy,” says Dr. Meltzer-Brody. “Unfortunately, because it has not been widely studied, there is a lack of information. But the data is concerning. If people are anxious, there are many different treatment options that have a much greater evidence base, and they don’t all have to be pharmacologic. But the idea that somehow pot is preferable to an antidepressant or safer is a myth.”
But Jenn Lauder worries about the women who either don’t have access to those treatment options or who find them ineffective. As a cannabis advocate, she often receives emails from women with PPD who have not found help from the medical community. Some have no mental health coverage through their insurance plans and can not afford a psychiatrist. Others find the screening tests used by obstetricians and pediatricians to be inadequate — ignoring certain symptoms and often administered only once during the postpartum period. PPD can actually appear at any point within a year after giving birth. And many more women have had difficult experiences with pharmaceuticals, struggling to find the right dosage of the right drug, which may still take weeks to start working.
“They’re not feeling like their needs are being met,” says Lauder. “They’re being ignored. They’re being doubted. They’re being told to brush it off and they will feel better soon. Or they’re being prescribed things that they feel even more hesitant about putting into their bodies than cannabis. It’s a huge issue, and a lot of it stems from the stigma and the silence around it.”
Over the years, Dr. Junella Chin has noticed a pattern in the postpartum patients she sees. Women arrive sobbing or staring blankly into space. Fathers or grandmothers hold the newborns since mothers don’t want to touch them. Unable to feed themselves, these women are not producing breast milk. They say, “My doctor prescribed Zoloft, and in two months it will start working.” This appalls Dr. Chin. “Two months?” she responds. “You don’t have two months.” She usually prescribes an oral tincture of cannabis containing little of the psychoactive agent THC and schedules another appointment for the following week. “And then we follow up,” says Dr. Chin, “and she comes in holding the baby. And I say, “It worked.”
But for the women who don’t find someone like Dr. Chin, Celia Behar continues to tell her story. She tells it for women living in states without medical marijuana laws. She tells it for the women using cannabis in secret, living in fear of arrest or investigation by Child Protective Services. She tells it for her sister Julie, who in 2016 was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. Behar’s organization, The Lil’ Mamas, recently became the first mainstream parenting website to endorse a cannabis farm (Moto Perpetuo Farm, where her friend Tom Grubbs is now a partner with David Hoyle and David Tyson), encouraging more women to demand safe, legal, regulated access to cannabis products.
“There is no better organizing power than moms,” says Behar. “It always takes moms to turn the tide.”These moms say it cured their overwhelming feelings of sadness and frustration better than any prescription drug, but some experts worry the long-term effects of medical marijuana are still unknown. Here, a look at both sides of the debate.
How marijuana can help with postpartum depression
For most new parents, the birth of a child causes extended celebration throughout their lives. They can’t believe they could be so lucky to welcome this new life into the world. But that isn’t the case for everyone. Some go through the “baby blues,” but for other it doesn’t stop there. Support groups say one out of seven women will experience postpartum depression.
Most deal with the depressions through prescribed medication like SSRIs and antidepressants. But some women are turning to cannabis as a way to cope with their depression. One such mother is Celia Behar, who has become a de facto spokeswomen for postpartum depression and cannabis usage.
Following the birth of her first child, she experience intense postpartum depression. She was prescribed Prozac but didn’t like how the drug made her feel. The side effects were far too intense.One mother is fighting against the stereotype. ]]>