This article originally appeared on Broadly Denmark.
Nothing was going like Julie Ugleholdt had envisioned. Despite enduring 24 hours of labor pains, there was still no sign that her unborn daughter was on the way. Every time Ugleholdt had contractions, the baby’s heart rate fell to 50 beats per minute. Finally, after having been at the hospital for a day and a night, Ugleholdt's daughter Charlie was born via acute C-section. It turned out that Charlie had had the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck—and with every contraction, she was being strangled.
“I was scared shitless that she was already dead, that I’d lost her before she even came into the world,” Ugleholdt recalled as Broadly sat down with her and her husband at their house in northwest Copenhagen.
She described how the experience of childbirth had lodged itself in her body and psyche after leaving the hospital. She kept thinking, what if my daughter is dead?, watching the operating table and the green piece of fabric that had shielded her from seeing the doctors sticking their hands inside her sliced-open stomach.
“I think the postpartum depression hit me right away, but I wasn’t diagnosed until 20 weeks later,” she told Broadly.
Ugleholdt recently published a book sharing these experiences in her native Denmark. In Project Baby—My First Year As a Less Than Perfect Mother, she writes about giving birth, postpartum depression, and resorting to self-medicating with illegal psychedelic mushrooms because she was afraid she wasn’t going to make it out of depression alive.
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Ugleholdt never imagined she would be microdosing shrooms as a new mom. She had never taken psychedelic substances before and didn’t have any desire to do so. She also hadn’t planned to get postpartum depression, have suicidal thoughts, or stay holed up in her house for weeks at a time. Before her pregnancy, her life had revolved around her career, her husband, and her friends. To her, depression was something other people got.
But in the weeks following childbirth, it became increasingly difficult for her to settle into her new role of being a mother.
“I just felt wrong. I didn’t have the feelings I thought I would have, and I couldn’t give myself emotionally to my daughter," she recalled. "I had expected that I’d be completely enamored with her and want to show her off to everyone, but the reality was that I didn’t.”
About 11 percent of mothers and four percent of fathers struggle with their mental health after bringing a child into the world. Symptoms of postpartum depression (PPD) can include feelings of hopelessness, loss of interest in everyday activities, irritability, the inability to feel joy, insomnia, fatigue, thoughts of self-harm, memory issues, and difficulty concentrating. This experience can be all the more distressing, of course, when you have a baby to take care of.
Ugleholdt's experience with PPD was marked by sudden feelings of meaninglessness. She couldn’t stop thinking back on her old life, where she had a great career and enough free time to eat and sleep. Now all of those things had been taken away from her. Charlie had colic and cried five hours a day; all of Ugleholdt's waking hours were devoted to nursing her, comforting her, or tucking her in.
“I felt like it had consumed me. I had become a service robot, a sort of comfort zombie. You hear about all these mothers for whom life takes on a whole new meaning, and that just wasn’t how I felt. My life had never felt more hollow,” she explained.
As we spoke, Ugleholdt paused for a moment. Aside from some faint street noise and car horns in the distance, the apartment was quiet. The only noise inside was the faint buzzing of the refrigerator. The kitchen had an open, industrial look with steel and natural wood finishes; the counters were tidy, save for a couple stray baby bottles by the sink and a half-eaten rice pudding. It was hard to imagine that, a few months earlier, this peaceful home was occupied by a screaming Charlie and an increasingly suicidal Ugleholdt.
“It’s rare to hear a parent express anger toward their child with colic, but sometimes I just felt like throwing her out the window or giving her away. I was angry at her for crying so much. I was angry at her for coming into my life, because it felt like she had destroyed it,” she said.
Ugleholdt felt so drained from the constant demands of her screaming child and lack of sleep that even the smallest tasks felt insurmountable. Why empty the dryer if we’re all going to die anyway and life isn’t worth living? Some days she would lie in bed crying, telling her husband that she wanted to go buy a gun and shoot herself, or that she wanted a truck to run her over so she could stay at the hospital for a few days.
Even though she was seeing a therapist and under the supervision of a nurse, both Ugleholdt and her husband decided that it was time to see a local psychiatrist.
“At that point, I was so ill that I was having trouble reading. My husband had to explain things to me and help me fill out paperwork, showing me where to sign.”
The psychiatrist recommended that she start antidepressants, but Ugleholdt didn’t want to. She worried about the possibility that antidepressants could make her symptoms worse before they made things better, and she was afraid that her suicidal thoughts would worsen and that she’d act on them. Her impression from friends and family who had taken antidepressants was that they usually took them for an extended period of time, and the idea of potentially taking pills for the next few years or so did not appeal. Her therapist had also told her they sometimes took the edge off the good feelings as well as the bad ones. So Ugleholdt declined the antidepressants.
Instead, her husband suggested that she start microdosing mushrooms.
“My husband was the one who dosed them for me and mixed them in with my coffee, because at this point, I wasn’t really capable of doing much myself. I definitely noticed a change when I started drinking them—that I started to feel warm and happy inside. That very first day, I sang songs for my daughter. We played together and she smiled at me. I was overjoyed that I was even able to take the experience in,” she says.
Microdosing is a method that involves taking a very small dose of a psychedelic substance, usually psilocybin mushrooms or LSD. Because the dose is so small—often a tenth of a normal dose—you don’t get high from it, but many people believe it puts them in closer touch with their emotions, and in a better state of mind to concentrate and think creatively.
Microdosing has gained the reputation of being the next big thing among career-oriented professionals in the US who use it to optimize their workflow. There are also many blog posts and articles about people who claim to have had success with managing depression and anxiety with microdoses of LSD or shrooms.
Thus far, the positive effects of microdosing mostly have been backed by word of mouth about people’s positive experiences, but research into its effects have grown as the trend increases in popularity. In 2017, two researchers at the University of Toronto Mississauga began studying the effects of microdosing via a survey conducted on about 900 users of various online forums. The survey’s respondents reported experiencing fewer migraines, improved productivity, and an improved ability to connect with others. They also claimed that microdosing seemed to lessen the intensity of negative emotions.
The practice of microdosing shrooms and LSD is not without its risks. It’s illegal, so production and sale are unregulated, which means you don’t know exactly what you’re getting. Taking high doses of psychedelics can lead to hallucinations and paranoia, and there have been some reports of psychosis-like symptoms in vulnerable users. Though there has been some promising initial research into the use of psychedelics to treat depression, there have been no studies into its specific effect on those with postpartum depression. As with all drugs, people with mental health conditions must exercise caution when using psychedelics.
Ugleholdt took mushrooms with her morning coffee every three days, and she says she noticed a difference on day one. Things that had felt completely unmanageable suddenly felt possible. When Charlie threw her food on the floor, she was able to laugh at it. She could barely muster up the energy to feed her before that.
“Taking shrooms made it easier for me to access positive thoughts and feelings, which I really wasn’t having any of at this point. I had no positive thoughts about myself, my life, or my child. I could suddenly feel joy again, or at least glimpses of it,” she said.
Most of all, she says, the shrooms helped her be more present in her body.
“I was very much in my head, and they helped me shut that off a bit. It was the illness speaking when I had those thoughts about my life being over and wanting to die,” she told Broadly.
She took the mushrooms for three months, always in the morning while her husband was there. When she started doing it, she stopped nursing Charlie. "Drinking a beer in the evening with my husband made me more intoxicated than the shrooms ever did," she said, regarding potential criticism from those who might read her book and think it's irresponsible for a new mother to be taking drugs around her newborn chid. "Because it’s illegal, people are very judgmental about it. But just because something is legal, like alcohol, doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous. It’s one of the most harmful substances we have, and we still consume it. [The law applied to me] of course, but I chose to ignore it save my own life. I wanted to be a mother to my daughter. I wanted to survive. So I did something illegal to get myself through it."
Ugleholdt always looked forward to “mushroom day,” as she called it, because the effect was strongest on the days she took them. After two months she started forgetting to take them. After three months, she stopped taking them completely. She thought that since she was feeling so good that she was starting to forget her doses, then she probably didn’t need them anymore. “I don’t miss them, because I feel like a different person now,” she said. In July of this year, when the worst of her depression was over, Ugleholdt decided to quit her management consultant job and started to write her first book.
Although she’s no longer depressed, some remnants of the illness are still with her. She still has trouble tucking her daughter in for afternoon naps on the weekends. On weekdays, she takes Charlie to daycare, and she’s so tired at night that tucking her in is easy. But on the weekends, she has feelings of panic when tucking her in because it’s one of the things that made her the most stressed out and sad when she was ill.
Postpartum depression forced Ugleholdt to reorganize her life. When she started microdosing, the fog of negative thoughts lifted enough that she gained the energy to do good things for herself. She started meditating and doing yoga.
“The shrooms weren’t a miracle cure, but they did dampen the big, looming negative thoughts enough for me to experience moments of happiness in my everyday life. It gave me so much hope, and made it possible for me to help myself and start doing things that were good for me,” she said.
She emphasized that she’s not advocating for people to break the law. She simply hopes that her book can help shed light on the positive effects of microdosing so that more research can be done on the subject.
“I hope it can become an option that’s taken seriously in psychiatry as an alternative to antidepressants. That way, people won’t have to buy it in secret from a dealer, and they’d be able to get some guidance and support with the process."