Wellness Co. CEO Shares Her Struggles With Postpartum Depression As Someone With Asperger’s Syndrome

By Pam Machemehl Helmly, Clinical Nutritionist Chief Executive Officer, Wellnicity.

[CW: self-harm, suicidal thoughts, depression]

My poor parents. They truly did not know what to do with me when I was born. I quit taking a bottle and fed myself at 5 months of age. The pediatrician did not believe my Mom, so he came over to the house to watch it for himself. I did not take any naps and then there was the real issues. I had intense sensory integration issues such as “don’t get any water in my face”, “no loud noises” and “for goodness sake don’t wash or brush my hair with light touch”! I would come unglued. As I continued to walk and get around, I was typically found in a rocking chair with a blanket over my head rocking for hours on end. At least I was quiet! I got terribly upset when my 2-year older brother went to kindergarten, so my folks had to find one for me. The teachers hated me because I did not take a nap and would not eat many foods due to their texture. Instead of them having a break during nap time, one of them had the privilege of taking me on all their errands. I never got to go to the same kindergarten two years in a row.  When I was 4, my Mom took me to the University of Houston Child Development Center so that they could figure out what was “wrong” with me. I thought it was pretty weird wrapping rubber bands around nails. Not sure there was a conclusion there other than to keep me busy.

I can remember as a small girl hearing my father walk down the hall at 11 p.m., turn the air-conditioner down and go to bed. I often heard my parent’s alarm clock go off long before I had to be up. I absolutely hated the night because it meant a terrible attempt at sleep. For years I would slink off into my grandmother’s cold formal living room just to rock in her rocking chair by myself in the dark. Nothing bothered me here. I still hated loud noises, scratchy clothes and certain food textures. My grandmother left me this rocking chair and I am so grateful for it.

The good news for me was that we moved to The Netherlands when I was in early grade school. I was in a smaller classroom, we went to the beach for lunch, played lots of instruments in music class and took several languages.  We stayed on a subject until we were finished with it. We did not hit every subject every day. Variety is great for someone who wants to crawl out of their skin most of the time. I did not get sick in The Netherlands like I did in the U.S. Maybe it was due to the fresh foods, significant reduction in in gluten and dairy, the extensive amount of exercise and walking? The one thing that was helpful was preventative medicine vs. reactive medicine that we practice here in the U.S. I know that I took an amino acid on my oatmeal to help me sleep. Fish oil capsules were most common when you were sick.  

There were clothes that I hated such as the wool undershirts that we wore there. Sensory issues were overwhelming for me. Irrational fears were also present. I was terrified to fly or of most things new. If anyone in the family was going to get a rash – it was going to be me. I still don’t tolerate synthetic fabrics. Detoxification issues are rampant for spectrum folks. My family just didn’t know that I was on the spectrum. 

Dyslexia had always been a problem, but no one called the other symptoms I had ADD or ADHD or Asperger’s. I always had bruises on my hip bones because I ran into door knobs often reaching on the wrong side of the door to leave a room. Heaven help you if you get a written phone number from me! My mother insisted that I would learn to sit still and behave! The problem is that you just can’t behavior modify an imbalanced brain.

We drank so much milk back in the U.S. I was taking 3 allergy shots a week that my Mom had to administer because of the allergens. Foods were playing the biggest role. We figured out that wheat and dairy were large allergens for me, but it was not taken out of my diet. The sinus infections, ear infections and allergies continued.

As a teenager many of my friends called me a bit of an airhead. I graduated #1 in my high school class but often wrote the wrong date on checks.  Sometimes the date was before I was even born. I was a crazy adrenaline junkie, so I had lots of friends. None of them intimately knew my irrational fears. They just knew if you wanted to have a crazy, wild experience, call Pam. It took doing something big just to feel something at all. I didn’t like it when boys got too close because they wanted to touch me and hug me. It almost drove me crazy. My brother had a brain disorder where he didn’t feel pain properly. He eventually died of brain cancer at the age of 39.  Growing up with someone that did not feel pain was horrifying. He was two years older. We fought hard, beat each other up, jumped off roofs, rode motorcycles and cars while being under aged on Houston Freeways without our parents’ knowledge, snow and water skied like crazy people and could not get enough adrenaline.  

Topping off an imbalanced brain and having severe sensory disorders culminated with being sexually abused by a family member. I became more dissociated, fearful of people and less able to talk in stressful situations. I could not find words – all the symptoms of my youth had intensified.  

Pam visiting orphanages in Peru

When I went off to college and had a roommate, I realized how very different I was. I can remember having to look outside to see what the weather was each day while I was in college to determine what month or season it was so that I could dress properly. Fortunately, my roommate was a childhood friend, or she might have thought I was on drugs. I realized how other people went to sleep and fell asleep. I saw that they did not cocoon themselves in their blankets and they were okay with being hugged. I could no longer hide my texture issues with regards to food, clothing, temperature, well, anything. I always thought that I would just live in my own world and would not let anyone in.  

My children’s father was different, though. He was kind, didn’t press me on my weirdness so after trying to date other folks in college, we got back together and married shortly thereafter. I was 21. I went on the pill to avoid pregnancy and immediately got some blood clots. Shortly after going off the pill I got pregnant. Fortunately, I had graduated college and had done well.  My hormonal imbalances led to two pre-maturely delivered babies. Post pregnancy with the first child was the most difficult of all. The baby didn’t sleep, I didn’t sleep, the postpartum depression was tremendous, and the hormonal imbalances persisted. A second pregnancy within two years compounded the issue. The marriage did not last because I could not stop cutting myself.

One colleague told me that what happened to me after the pregnancies was a postpartum psychosis. I really feel that it was more postpartum depression with extreme emotions. I did not have the hallucinations that often occur with postpartum psychosis nor the desire to hurt my children. I was cutting myself because I was so distraught.

Every day was a struggle. Family members told me repeatedly that there was nothing wrong with me, I was plenty smart enough to figure this out, and that I had everything to live for. I didn’t want to die, I just didn’t know how to function. I desperately wanted to raise my two children properly, but it was a struggle to be sane. I was completely amazed at how easily I was put onto medications, all of which had no real benefit. Although they might seem to help for a short period of time, ultimately, I had to get off all medications and take a new approach. The greatest challenge of all is that my first child was an incredibly smart and difficult. He is undiagnosed Asperger’s and was much smarter than I was. He read extremely early, challenged me as to why I would not become an astronaut when he was 4 so that I could tell him what was in the black hole. I was hanging on by my fingernails and he was stomping on a couple of them daily. He loved pajamas and wore them whenever possible. He is sensitive to dairy as well.  I was so concerned about them feeding him a cow dairy formula through his head when he was prematurely born. So here we go again – soft clothes, food sensitivities (second kiddo had the same food sensitivity issue – thank you genes), irrational behaviors and he didn’t sleep.

Six psychiatric hospitals later, I walked out of a hospital ICU unit after harming myself, and away from a therapist who had treated me for 4-½ years with no resolution. I had cut my body in so many places it was awful.  I decided that I had to fix the situation myself. I feel so blessed that I survived this horrific postpartum depression. Ultimately it changed my life and my children’s and patients’ lives as well. The diagnoses ranged from Multiple Personality Disorder to Bipolar Disorder to depression. Now, I have no diagnosis at all other than Asperger’s Syndrome and Hypothyroidism.  Not one single attempt was made to look at my hormones while I was in those psychiatric facilities. It took me 5 years to get a physician to write a thyroid prescription for me because my TSH was in a “normal range”. I have since met many suicidal patients who had “normal” TSH ranges. The same was true for progesterone. My progesterone levels were abysmal, and my brain felt much better when I got this on board. Typically, I was suicidal 3 days prior to my period every month. Once I utilized some natural progesterone that stopped.  

My degree from college was in Scientific Nutrition, so when I moved to Austin and began working with a pharmacy group, they asked me to help develop their wellness departments. I could always find improvement with my patients by inputting some omega 3 fatty acids, basic multivitamins, and improving their blood glucose levels. However, it simply was not enough. 

The learning curve was tremendous. Nutritional science changes daily.  Assessments of American food quality had led to the need for more supplements being developed and a need for better diagnostic testing.

I had been working with patients from a therapist who specialized in eating disorders. I brought a book to her that spoke of amino acids. We found that many of her patients had resolution to many of their issues when we added certain amino acids to their new diet and supplementation regimens.  Patients who had been in therapy for over 10 years were able to more positively and quickly resolve their issues with balanced brain chemistries.  However, unfortunately, there was still no diagnostic testing for neurotransmitters. We used a checklist for mood symptoms and food cravings and could perform a 24-hour urinalysis to determine excreted amino acids. This procedure was marginal at best.  

At a conference, I met a biochemist who was doing the German assays for neurotransmitter levels in a lab in the U.S.  I told him about my patients’ improvements with the old methodology, but he told me that this new test was available. Finally, after all this time a test was available to quantify depletions. 

At my wits end, and knowing that I wasn’t this person, I assessed my life and tried to determine what I was doing when I was healthier and felt better. I investigated supplements such as Omega 3’s and L-tryptophan that I had taken in my younger years. I assessed my diet throughout my life and recalled feeling best on a high protein diet.

I found a therapist that helped me with several cognitive coping mechanisms including a support group for women with extreme postpartum depression, journaling, walking by myself and going back to work to find a healthy balance to feed my brain. My therapist worked with me to build a support group amongst my friends and family.  Generally uncomfortable with asking for help, through therapy I was ultimately able to call upon friends and family to assist with the children a couple of days a week. My therapist recognized that I was suicidal every month around my period. I began researching hormones and suspected that my thyroid might be playing a role along with progesterone deficiency. I was unable to get a doctor to test my thyroid or write for thyroid support for five years. 

At my therapists advise, I re-entered the work force and eventually began working for a natural compounding pharmacy.  There, I had access to professional-grade supplementation, including topical progesterone cream and a variety of at-home tests. I had previously suspected neurotransmitter imbalances and was excited to learn about a German scientist bringing neurotransmitter testing to the U.S. I tested my neurotransmitters to discover significant imbalances between my excitatory and inhibitory systems and began targeted amino acid therapy to help balance my brain.  Around this time I also recalled allergy testing from when I was a child and decided to remove gluten and dairy from my diet.    

The combination of coping mechanisms from my therapist along with balancing my hormones, neurotransmitters and cleaning up my diet allowed me to regain control of her life.  

Pam feels strongly that, armed with the additional insights into her health, she could have kept her situation from reaching the level that it had. This is Pam’s driving force with her business ( Wellnicity.com ) – to help the individual to understand what is going on with their body and arm them with the information and tools to declare their own independence. 

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