Refuge from the Storm

November, 2016

Life was good for Angela Wharton. She had a “great career” in education, a field she loved. She was happily married to an ambitious man about to embark on a career as a physician. She had goals and a vision for the future, which included completing her master’s degree and, one day, starting a family.

When her husband won a desirable job in St. Louis, it meant they would have to leave their home in Pittsburgh. She was nervous, as anyone would be, but she saw the move as an exciting opportunity to pick up and start over someplace new. She then got pregnant and, nine months later, gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. Almost immediately, her world got turned upside down.

Spiraling Out of Control

“I developed severe postpartum anxiety and depression,” she recalls. “I was waiting for the depression to go away and it evolved into a cyclical mood disorder. I received some treatment to combat it, but the care wasn’t cohesive. To make matters worse, we didn’t have any family in the area, and my husband was very busy with work. I felt like I had made it through life, and I was successfully raising my daughter, but my relationship with my husband had suffered. I lost all my interests and confidence in my abilities. I was so exhausted that I could only focus on raising my daughter. Beyond that I was spent.

“That was the catalyst for the next five years being very, very difficult.” Following the lure of opportunity, Wharton’s husband then took a job in North Carolina, where the family had to start over again: a new house, new friends, a new school for their daughter, etc. The transition only intensified Wharton’s struggles.

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“I was on and off different medications and had tried different therapists,” she says. “The treatment was successful in that I was able to manage, but I wasn’t able to experience consistent happiness or contentment. I had had this wonderful life prior to the postpartum depression, and with everything afterward I knew there was something inside me that was missing.”

She was treading water, merely existing. After five years in North Carolina, her husband took another job, this time in Baltimore. The idea of starting over in another new place, yet again, sent Wharton frighteningly close to the edge. A therapist suggested she consider a residential treatment program in which a team of qualified medical professionals could take a comprehensive approach to helping her solve her depression and move forward with her life.

Taking Charge of Her Mental Health

Wharton learned that one of the best residential treatment programs was located nearby, in a suburb in Baltimore County: The Retreat, part of the Sheppard Pratt Health System.

“I had never left my daughter or the household for more than four days,” she recalls. “I felt very nervous and apprehensive about going away for 20 days and doing something for myself, which had become an uncomfortable and foreign concept to me, because I had been giving all my energy outside myself since my daughter was born.”

When she arrived at The Retreat in August 2016, she “didn’t even take my suitcase in” because her intensely private self made her think she might not be able to go through with it. But she knew she needed help, and she wanted to be a good role model for her daughter, so she persevered. To her surprise, she quickly felt safe and comfortable.

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“We see a lot of people, like Angela, who are functioning but not really living their life as much as they would like to be,” says Christine Liszewski, M.D., a psychiatrist at The Retreat who led Wharton’s customized treatment team. “To determine treatment for someone in this type of situation, you first have to establish an accurate diagnosis and look at what has been tried before to see, in their view, what has worked and what hasn’t. Once you have a thorough picture, you can explore the different modalities of treatment and determine which may be most beneficial for them.

“For young mothers like Angela, you are also looking at different stressors in their lives, as well as any hormonal factors, which can sometimes be overlooked,” Dr. Liszewski continues. “In matters of postpartum depression, there are factors that put women more at risk, some of which include their level of social support and whether or not they had preexisting mood or anxiety disorders. There’s also the whole concept of ‘mom guilt.’ For a lot of moms, there’s this idea of ‘I’m not good enough’ and ‘Do I have the right to take time away from my family so I can heal?’”

An Opportunity to Heal

Despite having such thoughts, Wharton dove in fully, embracing every opportunity The Retreat presented, ranging from recreation therapy and art therapy to psychopharmacology and dialectical behavior therapy, or DBT, which is commonly used to address problems related to emotional dysregulation. She also embraced NeuroStar TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) Therapy, an FDA-approved form of treatment ideal for residents suffering from depression who have not achieved satisfactory improvement from prior antidepressant medication.

Each 40-minute TMS treatment, which incorporates pulses of magnetic fields of the same type and strength as those produced by a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine, is typically given daily over the course of four to six weeks. Most residents begin to experience a positive response by week four, according to Kathy Daddario, R.N., The Retreat’s TMS nurse coordinator.

“We have had a lot of great success stories, but it does take some courage to try it, because most residents have never had anything like this done before,” she says, adding that The Retreat has been offering TMS since March 2009. “Over the first couple of weeks, you see people depressed, just waiting for a change. Then by the third or fourth week, they’re getting better. They’re smiling, they have an interest in things again, and they’re thinking positively about the future.”

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Life is Good Again

Following Wharton’s TMS treatment, she says her depression is now “in remission.” Armed with a more positive mental outlook and the coping skills needed to thrive, Wharton concluded her stay at The Retreat in September. In the weeks since her return home to her family, she has been maintaining healthy eating habits and working out with a personal trainer twice a week. She started working in a volunteer position to help others, and has started to think about getting involved in Baltimore’s public school system. She’s also getting to know Baltimore, her newly adopted city.

In other words, life is good again.

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