Postpartum anxiety was not a term that entered my universe during my first pregnancy. Of course, I had heard about Postpartum Depression – a condition that was, and still is (deservedly so) gaining a lot of attention.
But postpartum anxiety?
I should have been prepared. Having dealt with mild to severe anxiety most of my life, I knew what anxiety was and how I experienced it.
Today, as we approach my son’s 6th birthday, I can’t help but think back to the beginning of his life and the hell I was trapped in trying to be a first-time mom and dealing with this significant transition in my life, all while suffering from postpartum anxiety.
My experience wasn’t pretty, and it’s taken me this long to be able to write about this openly and honestly.
I don’t like to admit that I use medication to deal with anxiety. Some people are openly able to discuss using meds to get through mental issues. I am typically not one of those people. Always holding this information close to the vest, my anxiety and use of medication to treat it was not something I readily shared with folks who were not in my inner circle.
Backtracking through my life, I remember when I had my first panic attack. I was 12, studying for my Bat Mitzvah, with three pages of the tiniest Hebrew writing that I needed to memorize and sing in front of a cadre of family and friends. The expectations were high, and as I was continuously reminded, I wouldn’t have been given so much to do if the Rabbi didn’t think I was capable of this and more.
In my parent’s bedroom, in the summer, enjoying the air conditioning and listening to the melody on cassette tape, I started to freak out.
That was my first panic attack.
Fast forward 20-something years to my first pregnancy. I had weaned myself off of Effexor to get pregnant, reading horror stories about babies born to mothers using these types of medications. With the careful monitoring by my doctor, I was fully off of this medication a few weeks into my pregnancy.
Close to the end of my pregnancy, I began to get worried. If I had needed to be on this medication for so long, what would happen once the baby was born and the flood of hormones and changes hit me? The first obstetrician I spoke to was no help. “Oh, it’s just the hormones.” She dismissed me and dismissed my concerns. I left that appointment disappointed.
I gained the courage to try again. Being dismissed like that by a medical professional is demeaning, and finding the desire to bring up the topic was hard. I didn’t know what I would do if the second doctor spoke to me in the same way as the first. But luckily for me, she didn’t.
She heard my history and understood my concerns. She wrote me a prescription for after I gave birth, to have on hand just in case. She gave me the names of some local therapists who specialized in issues such as postpartum anxiety and depression. I went home and made an appointment with one of them right away, set for a few weeks after my son’s due date.
My son’s birth was chaotic. He was nine days late and I was induced. During labor, we watched his heart rate rise and fall for hours until it dropped for so long that I was rushed in for a c-section. When he was finally born, I held my breath until I heard his screams, breathing a sigh of relief when his squeaky cry echoed through the operating room.
After his birth, I experienced a series of both panic and anxiety attacks.
I didn’t know that babies can sleep up to 16 hours a day and his sleep patterns worried me.
I didn’t know that babies make noises in their sleep and this scared me.
I didn’t know that my whole life would change in an instant, feeling completely out of touch with my old life- like my strong, independent self had died, and I no longer had the chance to speak to her and ask her for advice. I felt lost and adrift.
I didn’t know that the toll my anxiety could take on my marriage was a significant one, and could leave lasting scars.
I spent my nights wide awake listening to our baby breathe, making sure he was okay. I spent my days out for walks and at postnatal yoga, which was my lifeline in a time I felt like I was the only one going through this. It was there that I met other women, one in particular who was outspoken and outgoing and willing to admit at the beginning of one of our practices that she was diagnosed with postpartum depression, and if anyone wanted to and needed to talk, she was willing to connect.
I sought her out.
For months of my maternity leave, I would spend from about 1 pm until morning in a panic attack. I would later realize that it was the idea of night coming that would bring on the severe anxiety, with the idea of getting through another sleepless night while the world slept and I lay awake in bed listening to my baby, and making sure he was okay.
I started back on medication about four weeks into what is called the Fourth Trimester.
My sister came to visit and talked me into it. I had been holding off, feeling like I was a failure if I had to re-start meds, but she was the voice of reason. “You are going to pump. You are going to have Eric (my husband) give that baby a bottle, and you are going to give him a pacifier. If you need medication, you need it.” She thought my idea of waiting at least six weeks to introduce a bottle and paci was ridiculous (having successfully birthed her own two children) and didn’t buy into the idea of “nipple confusion”.
The light at the end of the postpartum anxiety tunnel was not yet there, but it would be soon.
The weeks went by – I never thought I could breastfeed for six months and the next thing I knew, three months were gone.
I sat in the glider in our house, looking out of the door at the people walking by. I remember thinking, “They have no idea how lucky they are – they can just go and do what they want.”
I would call my husband every day at 2 pm crying – when will you be home?
I mourned close friendships I was losing because I had had a baby, and these people couldn’t understand what my life was like now.
I simultaneously celebrated a friendship that remained strong, as one of my single girlfriends recognized my need for human contact, and came to visit me on her lunch hour every week.
Week after week, I kept my appointments with a wonderful therapist who didn’t mind if I nursed my son and leaked all over her nice pillows. She didn’t care that I cried or I went on tangents and made no sense.
She recommended a resource to read, entitled The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook. I bought it right away and read through, doing the exercises and slowly regaining control over my postpartum anxiety.
Three months after our son was born, I left him with my husband for the first time.
It was purely accidental. A dog wandered up to our door, lost from her home. I found out her address, and when my hubby asked if he should take her back, without thinking I said, “No, I’ll go.”
I did, and my baby was okay, and so was I.
My healing began. That one little instance with that little dog, who I now believe came to our door for a reason, was the beginning of my feeling like it would be okay.
From there, my postpartum anxiety began to get a little better.
Every day, I would feel more like a person again. I realized that postpartum anxiety is very different than postpartum depression. I never felt disconnected from my baby or that I couldn’t take care of him. I never felt like I didn’t want to take care of him. Actually, it was almost the opposite. My anxiety resulted in a hyper-vigilance about him and everything around us.
I am thankful for family and friends who were able to talk me down from a ledge multiple times. I am thankful for having the wherewithal to talk to the second doctor and make the appointment with a postpartum therapist. I am thankful for a postnatal yoga teacher who was calm and knowledgeable, and I am thankful for my primary care provider who understood.
Postpartum anxiety is hard, but it is something that can be overcome.
If you are a new mom or a seasoned caregiver struggling with postpartum anxiety (or depression), there are resources you can access to help you out:
*Find a therapist through your doctor or a friend, or look here for ideas.
*The BTVMB Postpartum Guide.