Postpartum Depression As An Alchemical Process

<< back

By: Cynthia Schroer, M.A.

One in every five child bearing women experi­ences postpartum depres­sion, often suffering in­wardly while the doctor prescribes anti­depressants, psychotropics, or hormones. Postpartum depression is defined in terms of biochemical cause and effect, and a woman is not encouraged to be person­ally responsible for the outcome of her illness. While acknowledging the physi­ological reality, this article invites the reader to consider postpartum depression as a spiritual, alchemical process.

Postpartum depression is experienced as changes in affect and thinking pat­terns, some characteristic of what psy­chiatrists refer to as psychosis. It is not quite clear how pregnancy and birth in­fluence these changes, but some of them can be experienced in moderation during pregnancy, immediately following birth, or within a year following birth. Duration can be six months to a year.

Postpartum Depression as Alchemi­cal Process
Medieval alchemists believed that by heating a base matter (lead) in a flask, it would eventually be transformed, after a variety of processes, into gold. These processes were: (1) calcinato, burning by fire, (2) solutio, dissolving in water, (3) sublimatio, rising in air, (4) coagulatio, falling into earth, and (5) mortificatio, death. 2 Viewed as peculiar by the mod­ern mind, it was nevertheless a modern, Carl Jung, who unearthed medieval al­chemy as a metaphor for psychological transformation. (Jung was a Swiss medi­cal doctor and psychiatrist who criticized his profession for the strict somatic em­phasis in responding to mental illness.)

This alchemical process, used meta­phorically, can provide a meaningful framework for a woman suffering a post­partum depression; one in which she is enabled to direct her own healing process. For a woman who recently has birthed a child, it is easy to identify with the alchemist's closed container bringing forth something new. Her body has done just that.

The calcinato phase occurs naturally in the pregnant woman's life. Unexpected issues come up such as marital discord, family tensions, lack of emotional support, financial concerns, and unresolved relationships. In alchemical terms, calcinato produces salt; in psychological terms, this process brings up bitterness. Faced honestly the bitterness gives way to wisdom. Focused on as an unfair twist of fate, the bitterness grows.

The solutio process of alchemy is experienced as a changeability of moods. The woman experiences insomnia and anxiety. She may find her pre-pregnancy self-image "dissolving" with nothing to replace it. She may "dissolve" to such an emotional state that a beam of sunlight is experienced viscerally as hope and a pass­ing car triggers an instinctual fear of being hunted.

The process of sublimato, rising in the air, can be felt as elation and moments of vision. It helps the woman see beyond her present condition. In psychiatric terms, this stage is referred to as mania. But this phase is only momentary in its endurance by comparison to the other phases.

The process of coagulatio, or falling to earth, is the sobering experience of the limits that the change to mother­hood presents. She may be exhausted by lack of sleep or frightened by her aware­ness that something is not right. The very child she anticipated for nine months comes to represent personal limits. Her own body may feel foreign to her with the new physical realities of engorgement, let-down reflexes and uterine sensitivity; these body variations may also represent physical limitations.

The assumptions of health must be un­learned under the exigencies of dis­ease. -(Kat Duff , The Alchemy of Ill­ness) But where is the gold? It may glimmer in a conversation with her own mother which never would have occurred had she not become a mother or endured a postpartum depression. It may show itself in a realized budding strength ema­nating from self-knowledge. It may gleam in an unexpected sense of having a right­ful place in the world. The exact manifes­tation is different for each woman, but the gold is there.

Supporting Postpartum Depression as an Transformational Process
The most important component in supporting an experience of postpartum depression is to have someone who can provide a safe container for the woman's every shared thought and emotion. This must be someone who can withhold judg­ment, and listen with the heart. Find someone who can help create a nurturing and supportive environment for mother and the child. Take videos and/or photos of her interacting with the infant. This documents an intimate period with her child that she may feel was lost due to the depression and will give her a memory of this early relationship with the newborn. It is recommended that one of the support individuals has the willingness to con­sider depression in alchemical terms. Include in the support network a profes­sional who is medically aware and sensi­tive to illness as a personal process.

Depression can be an indicator of a serious organic condition, so appropriate medical tests are advised. Convention­ally-trained doctors who have comple­mented this training with some form of alternative medicine are good starting points.  Jungian therapists are particularly attentive to the experience of illness as a psychic occurrence.

The following list contain sugges­tions by women who have gone through a postpartum depression and have articu­lated activities which they used in their healing process.

The activities fall into the follow­ing categories: (1) connecting activities, (2) body-centered activities, (3) activi­ties of the mind, and (4) logistical sup­port. The connecting activities are all acts of intimacy on some level. These include intimately relating with a close friend, intimately relating to a group of caring women (support groups), intimate self-relating (journalizing, sketching). relating to the earth (nature walks, planting), and relating to a divine being (prayer). Body-centered activities include aerobic exercise: walking, working with hands in some creative way, yoga, listening to music, and sleep. Women have found their mind to be instrumental in treating themselves, even though they experienced it to be functioning differ­ently. Education about postpartum de­pression, visualized places which held positive affect, reading inspirational books for the purpose of stepping out of their depressed experience all helped. Some women chose not to read or watch TV as a therapeutic response. The final method of self-treatment falls under logistical support. Delegating to others the activities necessary to manage a house­hold, planning and attention to details helps create a necessary nurturing envi­ronment for the healing process.

Each woman undergoing a postpar­tum depression will be sensitive to an essential quality in each of these thoughts - who was I and who am I now? How was I true to myself? How was I not true to myself? This necessary and normal process of re-evaluation is overwhelming.  But being attentive to the thought, feeling and/or activity at hand is a way to work through the seeming boundlessness of this psychological base matter to the "gold", experienced as understanding personal limits, valuing her intuitive self, gaining in personal insight, growing in personal strength, trusting instincts, and becoming aware of a larger spiritual pur­pose to name a few.

A woman need not live in fear that she is at the whimsy of her brain chemis­try. While certainly not an expedient process, reframing the experience of a postpartum depression as an alchemical process gives a woman a meaningful understanding of it and empowers her to discover her own gold.

Cynthia Schroer holds her M.A.. in psychology from the Vermont College of Norwich University. Her particular in­terest is in women 's psychological devel­opment and the postpartum period. She resides in Nashua, N. H. with her husband and three children.

For a reading list, and a list of re­sources and organizations for dealing with postpartum depression, please con­tact Cynthia at: 4 Jolori Lane, Nashua, NH 03062 (603) 886-0114


Depression After Delivery; P.O. Box 1282 Morrisville, PA 19067

Postpartum Support International, 927 North Kellogg Avenue, Santa Bar­bara, CA 805-967-7636

Postpartum Adjustment Support Ser­vices, Canada P.O. Box 7282 Oakville, Ontario L6J 6C6, Canada 905-844­-9009

Spiritual Emergence Network, 603 Mission Street, Santa Cruz, CA 95060-3653 408-426-0900

<< back

Dynamic Content Management by ContentTrakker