What started out as a celebration of life when Lauren Shapiro found out she was pregnant with their third child, soon turned into a terrifying rollercoaster of fear, anxiety, depression and eventually, hospitalization. She shares her story in her book, Through the Window: How I beat PND.
I wrote this book because I don’t want other people to have to go through what I did,” says Umhlanga author Lauren Shapiro as she sips her latte towards the end of our interview. For the past hour, Lauren has talked me through her harrowing experience of suffering from Peri-Natal Distress (PND) during her last pregnancy, and her reasons for sharing her journey in a book.
A freelance journalist and mom of three, 38-year-old Lauren and her husband of 13 years, Warren, have always enjoyed what most would consider a ‘normal’ life. They met on a blind date, got married and had two children, Ariel (now 11) and Yishai (now 9). Things were great. That is until Lauren fell pregnant for the third time with their daughter, Aviva, who is now six years old.
“All my children were planned and both my other pregnancies were easy. When I found out I was pregnant with Aviva we were thrilled. But then the colour started to seep out of my life. That’s the best way I know how to describe it. It was a slow, insidious process and it just got worse and worse.”
Initially, Lauren says, she put her tearfulness, tiredness and anxiety down to ‘pregnancy hormones’, thinking that the cloud would eventually lift. But it didn’t and instead it got progressively worse. “I couldn’t find joy in anything and I was hyper-sensitive. I don’t think I laughed once throughout the entire pregnancy. It felt like depression, but I kept thinking it couldn’t be because I was still being productive, getting up every day, doing what I needed to do and coping. Until my anxiety sky-rocketed and suddenly the smallest thing would freak me out completely . . . dropping my children off at school, making a simple phone call and even deciding what to wear in the mornings. It was completely irrational anxiety and I even had panic attacks and couldn’t breathe.”
Four months after falling pregnant, Lauren was hospitalized. “I went to a psychologist and a psychiatrist, but it was only after I phoned the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) hotline that we finally found a solution. I had written an article about PND years ago and found the number. They got me an appointment with a psychologist specializing in PND that same day, who immediately referred me to another psychiatrist.”
Lauren started taking medication, but it wasn’t working. She was too far gone. The day she was admitted, Lauren says, she was terrified. “They did tests to rule out every other possible thing and, after a week in hospital, I stabilized enough to go home. That terrified me just as much.”
It was a long and challenging journey to recovery, aided by vital medical, psychological and social support. “Between the meds, therapy and the love of my family, friends and colleagues, I somehow found my way back,” Lauren confides. She also journaled prolifically throughout the entire experience, which helped her make sense of everything during a chaotic time.
The fog really started lifting after Aviva was born. When she started pre-school, Lauren says, she had more time to herself again and decided to start transcribing her diaries. It took her 18 months to complete the book, which she published in 2018.
“It was an awful experience, but I realised the more I talked about it, the easier it became. I wrote this book to start a conversation about something many women don’t know about, or won’t admit to experiencing. It is crucial that the subject is spoken about, especially for spouses, family members and friends who don’t understand what we are going through. It’s not a terminal illness, but it can be fatal if left untreated. It can rip families apart.”
Lauren says she is incredibly grateful to her husband. “My marriage is stronger now than it has ever been. I wanted to divorce myself at times, but we managed to keep the communication lines between us open and he didn’t wipe his hands and turn his back. He stuck around. Many don’t.”
The book offers practical tips as well as professional advice from SADAG. “I hope people will use the resources in this book, because, like any other mental illness, PND can destroy you. Your brain is an organ and when it becomes ‘unwell’, it needs to be treated.”
Text: Leah Shone