Post-Partum Anxiety, why doesn’t anyone talk about it?
While being pregnant, I, like I assume several other mothers out there, had the reoccurring reminder and concern about, “Post-Partum Depression.” I had never really struggled with depression, but had heard so much about how a woman’s hormones go (all haywire) after giving birth, and how some mom’s have no choice. “What if it happens to me?” I would think. Being the over planning, researcher, and anxious woman that I am, I began researching on how to combat this “mysterious depression” should it actually happen to me. I absolutely did not want to harm my son’s early attachment style!! Throughout my Internet and scholarly journal reading, I came to a large consensus that I needed to accept help, and ask for it as much as possible to be able to cope with the immense changes ahead. “Ok, ask for help, I got that!” I also read a lot about giving yourself grace and understanding in this time because your body is going through the biggest transformation of its life, and needs to slowly transition back (with a screaming, hungry, life sucking, complete attention needing, beautiful little person gifted to me from God.)
In my mind, as I often do, I created a list. I had a step by step plan on who my go to (support people) would be in case of a (depression) emergency, what interventions I would try at the first red flag, a diet and exercise plan, and my old therapist’s number…just in case. I would not be another statistic, I thought. I would over come and rise, and be able to share my triumph with other post-partum depressed mothers. Boy was I wrong, and completely blind-sided.
After my beautiful son was born I was smitten! I loved him so much and wanted to see him, play with him, and kiss his perfect little toes, cheeks, nose… What I did not see coming was the terrible panic attacks and episodes of anxiety that I would get when visitors came over, the thought of going outside of the house with my son (especially on my own), being home alone with my son, going back to work, breastfeeding… the list went on, and on. Why doesn’t anyone talk about Post-Partum Anxiety?
As weeks turned into months, I suppressed my noticeable discomfort. I remember waking up on any given day, and mentioning several times to my husband that I was feeling anxious, and did not know why. Breastfeeding (as I will elaborate more on in a separate post) was the most difficult experience of my life. While in the three-month season of breastfeeding, I felt chained to my living room couch while my son cluster fed for what felt like 24 hours a day, 7 days per week without rest! I couldn’t get the whole cutesy tutsi cover-ups down!! Dear Lord, it gets so hot under there!! So I isolated myself, and that isolation grew to fearing the outdoors and anyone who my body did not deem safe.
At four-months post partum, I embarked on the most emotionally draining, most difficult, and heartbreaking thing I had ever done; I returned to work. I cried for weeks. I missed him every second I was away, and felt so uncomfortable and out of place without him in my arms. While I work I daydreamed, and got very far behind in my paper work and responsibilities. As several weeks went by, I noticed my anxiety and discomfort increasing throughout the week. 1 time per week grew to 2 or 3 times and then even on the weekends when my whole family was together.
The day that changed my life, and stopped me dead in my tracks was a rainy Monday morning in late September. I was on my way to Huntington Beach with my son for a play date with one of my best friends and her young son. That morning, I remembered waking up early and feeling stressed about not arriving late, and thinking “oh God I hope my son behaves ok and doesn’t just scream the whole time.” I went about my morning as usual but with the now more typical discomfort of anxiety that I so desperately tried to ignore and suppress.
As I merged onto the 605 freeway, I remember (out of no where) vividly feeling numb, cold, dizzy, nauseous, sweaty, and shaky in my arms and legs. I panicked! “What in the world is happening to me?” I thought! I remember feeling so lightheaded that I could faint; but I was in the car, in the freeway, and more importantly with my 8-month-old son! Frantically, I called my friend and then my husband! Thank God for Therapist best friends! I managed to drive back home and put my most prized possession (my son) in his father’s care, while I figured out what was going on. The debilitating curse of anxiety is that once it takes over, it shuts down your frontal cortex (high mental processing, or like I like to say, all reasoning and decision making). I vividly recall sitting on my floor shaking and swaying back and forth asking my husband to help me figure out what was going on and why. As you can probably already imagine, I did not get my answer and my anxiety and panic attacks would only worsen in the coming days.
Since that pivotal day in September, I had been throwing up multiple times per day, I had no appetite and ate only by force. I couldn’t sleep at night because I would lie awake thinking about the morning, the inevitable vomiting that would occur, and the cycle that would start all over again. I literally felt like I was stuck in the “Groundhog Day” movie and I couldn’t see a way out. I started going in late to work and missing days altogether. Due to my unchanging symptoms, their intensity, and its effect on my life and typical functioning, I decided that it was time to schedule an appointment with my doctor and call my therapist. While at my doctor’s office, I recall being asked various questions and being checked for so many things, all the while, having a suspicion that this could all be due to hormonal changes and that a blood test wouldn’t show us anything. My thoughts tossed and turned within me, “could this be my hormones? But how could this be affecting me 8 months post-partum?” My doctor prescribed a medication to help ease the intensity of the anxiety and panic attacks, but I was so reluctant. “Could this really be getting to this point?” I couldn’t understand how I went from 0-1000 so fast and without an explanation.
One of the most painful memories I have of this entire season was a particular workday around 6:45am. I was trying with everything inside me to get myself ready for work, “ok Lauren, just get to the bathroom, you just have to get there and brush your teeth, you can do that.” My husband was in the restroom finishing up, my son was talking and laughing in his crib as he usually does waiting patiently for his milk and diaper change. I sat on my bed, and all I could do was gag as my body shook vigorously. I managed to get to our bathroom floor and I collapse. I looked into my husband’s eyes and begged him for help. “Help me!” I exclaimed, “please help me; take this away, please, please.” Tears rolled down my face as I looked at my husband who was so concerned and was just as emotionally abused from the whole experience as I was. What could he do? What could I do? I was hurting him, hurting my son, and I wanted so desperately to make everything “all better.” As I write this, I can still feel the incredible guilt and sadness that came over me as I looked at my son from a distance as his father picked him up to get him ready because I couldn’t. I shut the door of the bathroom, turned on the faucet so no one could hear me, threw up pure stomach acid, and cried until I had no more tears left.
About a month later, I had gone three times to my primary doctor in utter fear! I recall a time shaking and crying with my doctor asking her to please help me and that nothing (medication, therapy, time off, relaxation, support) was helping. I cannot begin to explain how upset, confused and worn-out I felt! You see, I’m a Mental Health Therapist. I work to help my patients over come and cope with their battles with anxiety all of the time. So why wasn’t all of the mindfulness, relaxation, breathing, mental stimulation, reality checking, and reasoning etc. working? I prayed every conscious minute and asked the Lord to show me what was going on, and what changes I needed to make in my life. I came to a point that I would literally talk to myself and say, “ok, you have anxiety, you’ve been neglecting it for a while, is that why you’re freaking out? Ok let’s fix it, self-care? A vacation? Do I quit work? Tell me what do you need?!”
By the third doctors appointment, my doctor could see the toll that emotional depletion, fear, weight loss, and lack of sleep had taken on my body. She decided that I needed an immediate break from work and put me on a one month medical leave of absence. I had been taking my medication as prescribed but found that it made me more nauseous and I had nothing left to throw up, or had the energy to even do so. I was switched to an anti-depressant medication that has been shown to significantly help with anxiety. After a few days, I finally felt a bit of relief. It was not gone, but I was able to for the first time, function through the anxiety.
Being home from work did wonders for me and I tried my absolute hardest to not think about what I and gone through and what I had put my entire family through. I was so blessed to have my husband, mother, and aunt, every step of the way and I am forever grateful for how they immediately stopped their lives to run to my aid. I wouldn’t have recovered as quickly if it wasn’t for all of the support, prayers, and help I received. The month ahead included Thanksgiving, and Christmas preparations and festivities. I found myself recovering little by little but being unable to forget all of the pain and suffering I had gone through. I would wake up every morning with a gasp and looking around, as if trying to find the anxiety and see if it was still there. I felt sad and emotionally drained. Two months of soul searching and treatment with no answers and no security that this would ever go away. My irrational and emotionally crippled mind would lie and tell me that this was going to be my new way of life, I would have to get used to medication in order to function. I cried myself to sleep several nights, feeling like I had failed; anxiety had won, I was a joke, and I felt like I definitely shouldn’t be providing psychotherapy to anyone! I couldn’t fix me, how could I provide any advice and support to anyone else knowing that my methods didn’t work for me at all?
The day I came to understand what was going on, was when I had to visit my doctor again to be cleared to return to work. My primary doctor was not available on that day, so I saw another doctor on staff. I sat in a bit of fear, reluctance, and had lots of questions spinning in my head. I told my doctor that the thought of returning to work and “getting on that never ending merry-go-round” again was making me sick and that I didn’t think I would ever be normal again, or able to work at 100%. The doctor looked me in the eyes and with such compassion, began talking to me about how (normal) my symptoms were and how I needed to back off of trying to fix myself and ease myself back into the organized chaos that was my life. I couldn’t have everything in order, planned, and scheduled anymore; babies change everything! The doctor encouraged me to get back to work but explained to me that he thought I was struggling with “Post-Partum Anxiety” and possible attachment issues due to leaving my son. He clarified for me that every woman is different and that it typically occurs within the first year post-partum but could last beyond that for different women. So, “I am not losing my mind? I haven’t gone off the deep end? I’m not the worst mother in the world?” I asked. He smiled, “You are just a typical mother, this is normal, and you are going to be ok, I promise.” I broke down in tears. I had finally got the answer I had been asking and researching for months! Three months of ongoing misery and fearing that I had gone off the deep end and would probably stay there! You guys, I left my doctors appointment feeling so confident, and optimistic; for the first time in what felt like an eternity, I felt grace and hope.
I realize now, that a lot of my symptoms stemmed from my fear of the unknown. Not telling your body to feel or do something and seeing it happen anyway, is the scariest thing you could ever endure. Having an answer helped me understand my body better; I stopped criticizing myself, stopped pushing guilt, and started allowing myself to heal. A little miracle grew inside of me for 37 weeks, lived in my arms for four months straight; then I made the (most difficult) decision to return to work and leave my son in someone else’s care, and tried to work so hard to make work and home life as orderly and up-to-date as it was before my son’s arrival. The reality of it is, I CAN’T! Life will never be the same as it was before our children. Every part of life changes. This isn’t a bad thing, although it is scary at times! This change forces us to think quick, on our toes, and continue, just differently.
Today, I am still working through my struggles with anxiety but I am free of the guilt that chained me! I have returned to work but only part-time as I am learning how much my body can take. I am much more in tune with myself and recognize red flags and immediately talk about them instead of suppressing/ignoring them like I did before. Having a baby is a big deal! I am not sure if you can relate at all to my experience but I wanted to advocate for any struggling momma out there who, like myself, has no idea what is going on, or why you’re all of a sudden having all of these big feelings! You are not alone, there is such thing as Post-Partum Anxiety, and it doesn’t only occur right after giving birth! Adjusting takes time, lots and lots of time! Give yourself time, seek out medical and mental health, ask for help from your friends and family, self-care as often as you can, and give yourself a little grace!! No one “knows” exactly; what they’re doing, we are all learning as we go and hopefully helping others out along the way.