Video by Brian Prowse-Gany
Postpartum depression (PPD) affects one in nine new mothers. That’s a fact that Los Angeles-based life coach and blogger Celia Behar knew well through her work with clients with PPD — and it made her feel “sort of prepared” for the possibility when she became pregnant with her first child ten years ago.
Hours after the birth, cradling her new baby girl in her arms, Behar believed she had dodged the bullet. But then, shortly before she was due to be discharged, she noticed a quick and definite shift. “I felt something creeping up on me. I didn’t want to leave the hospital,” she tells Yahoo News, recalling how she suddenly felt “nothing” for her daughter, which was in stark contrast to the strong love she felt right after giving birth.
What followed was what Behar describes as despair: uncontrollable fits of crying, thoughts of hurting herself, and eventually the upsetting realization that she was experiencing postpartum depression.
“I called my doctor right away and she put me on Prozac,” Behar says, describing the drug as a “lifesaver in so many ways — it got me to stop crying.” Still, she adds, “I knew it was a Band-Aid.” It also brought along unwanted side effects, including migraines, shaky hands, and severe insomnia.
Behar went off the drug but had unending anxiety, for which she tried counseling as well as many other pharmaceuticals — Valium, Xanax, and Ativan — before trying for a second pregnancy.
Still, she kicked the drugs because of her desire to breastfeed her new infant, all while keeping her struggle with PPD a secret from everyone she knew because she feared the judgment of other women. And while Behar didn’t experience PPD in the same brutal way when her second daughter was born, her anxiety kept mounting.
Behar says while she had always experienced “baseline anxiety,” her postpartum depression kicked it into overdrive.
“With my first, it was anxiety and severe depression,” she says. After she eventually went off her Prozac, her depression had lifted, but the anxiety remained. After the birth of her second daughter, Behar says, while she didn’t feel “despondent” or anxious initially, once she stopped breastfeeding, the old, troubling feelings came rushing back — and they felt as if they had only “doubled.”
“Then the insomnia started as well, which left me exhausted and would lead to more anxiety, rage, and depression. I could never get my emotions to regulate with my thoughts,” she says.
That’s when marijuana reentered Behar’s life.
She had started smoking pot at the age of 14 and had always enjoyed it, continuing to smoke it throughout high school and college. Behar tells Yahoo that after college, she would smoke pot “on and off,” but quit completely when she and her now ex-husband decided to start trying to have a baby.
At some point after having her second child, she visited her hometown of Westport, Conn., and ran into an old friend, Tom Grubbs, who now is a partner in a cannabis farm, Moto Perpetuo Farm, in Portland, Oregon. And just like that, Behar began opening up about her ongoing problems with PPD, anxiety, and her desire to stay away from the anti-anxiety medications she had been prescribed in the past.
“Have you tried cannabis?” her friend asked.
“No, I’m a mom!” she recalls replying. “When he asked me that, I was offended.” At the time, she felt strongly about not taking up the habit. “Moms drink wine. Moms don’t smoke pot,” Behar says she believed. “Moms are supposed to be asexual and not exciting. I was ready to balance everything in heels and clean the house. I wasn’t myself at all.”
Her friend proceeded to explain that he meant no harm and no judgment — only that he thought it was worth considering as a way to ease her symptoms. And the more she thought about it, the more she saw no harm in trying. She knew it was nonaddictive; she knew it would wear off; and she knew she’d had good experiences with the drug in the past.
So Behar got some pot, seven years after having last smoked — and hid it, not telling even her then-husband at the time.
She soon found that if she smoked pot at night, her insomnia was nonexistent, and she would wake up rested, content, and calm.
A month into having re-introduced pot into her life, Behar told her then-husband that she had taken the habit up again. But she says she still didn’t tell him that the reason she was smoking was because of her PPD.
“Cannabis levels me out like nothing else ever has,” Behar says. “It makes my brain and my emotions sync.” And so she has continued to use cannabis to manage her anxiety, eventually adding cannabis oils, lotions, and edibles to her habit of smoking at night.
In short, Behar says, “Cannabis has made me a better parent.”
Still, many experts would tell Behar: Not so fast. “Officially, the stance is that we don’t recommend it for postpartum depression because it’s never been studied,” Katrina Mark, MD, an ob-gyn and assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine who focuses on postpartum substance use, tells Yahoo Beauty. “But that’s the basic answer to everything that hasn’t been studied, including marijuana.”
Mark says she would mainly be concerned about the use of marijuana for the treatment of PPD in states where marijuana has not been legalized. That’s because you can never be quite sure what you’re getting.
“When purchased illegally, the psychogenic effects are maximized — but people who want to use marijuana for medicinal reasons, if [illegal weed is] all they have access to, may not be accessing marijuana that has high levels of its most beneficial properties,” she says. This can lead to unwanted side effects, such as decreased attention span and reaction time, which, when it comes to smoking while caring for a baby, are “potential concerns.”
Furthermore, Mark says, there is conflicting research evidence on the relationship between depression and marijuana — with some studies showing it could be helpful and some showing it could make depression even worse. “Because marijuana has been illegal for so long, we’re not getting the answers on how best to use it, because we don’t have the funding to study it,” she says.
Also, the doctor notes, “It’s not like postpartum depression is a disease that we don’t have treatment for. Some things people use medical marijuana for, there is no treatment for, or there is treatment but it has bad side effects. If the choice is an SSRI [such as Prozac] and therapy, or marijuana, there is much better evidence on the former than the latter.”
That said, Mark acknowledges that “there is no scale for depression. You can only know what a woman is telling you she is feeling.” So if a woman with postpartum depression tries the other options and nothing helps as much as weed, she says, she makes it her business to at least help with harm reduction. “In Maryland, we don’t prescribe medical marijuana, so I would encourage her to seek it out from somewhere [that does] so what she’s using has lower THC levels. Then she can be more alert and able to take care of her baby and herself.”
Mark also adds that she is a big proponent of legalization. “I hope, as it happens, that women will be more honest about their usage,” she says. “As providers, our goal is never to get someone in trouble but to promote health and well-being. If a woman doesn’t disclose marijuana usage, we can’t get at what she’s really self-medicating for. I can only treat someone I know is using.”
Celia Behar’s sister, Julia Elizabeth Behar, is currently fighting Stage 4 metastasized colon cancer — and is also turning to medical marijuana for help. Celia Behar has started a YouCaring page to help raise funds for her sister’s treatment and care.
Headshot of Celia Behar by Lee Cherry.
Read more from the Yahoo Weed & the American Family series: