I haven’t blogged in a long time…almost an entire year. I wish I could say it’s for a good reason, but I told myself I wouldn’t write again until I could talk about the real reason I stopped blogging. This last year has been a struggle for me, as I have been digging out from under Postpartum Anxiety/Panic Disorder. As May is Maternal Mental Health Month, I thought it was time to share. I really had reservations about sharing this story with the world, but I realized that by not opening up I am perpetuating the problem. You will see what I mean.
At the beginning of August last year, I was sitting on the back porch with Papa D and Baby D and enjoying the weather, when I felt a pain in my left shoulder. I tried to ignore it, but something in my mind told me that something was wrong. I started to feel like I was suffocating. I started to panic, and thought I was having a heart attack. I told Papa D that I thought I needed to go to the emergency room, and he told me I was fine, that I should calm down. I walked around the yard and the feeling went away.
I had only had a panic attack once before in my life, so I had realized that was probably what had happened. It freaked me out and it came out of nowhere. I had felt my anxiety ticking up in the past few months, but I thought it was something I could manage. I chalked it up to the stress of learning to balance my life as a wife and mother. As I know now, with Postpartum Anxiety, it only increases, and it’s something that you shouldn’t ignore.
I began to fear the physical sensations I was feeling and I started to believe there was something wrong with me. Sometimes, I still do. I ended up in the emergency room twice, insisting that I couldn’t catch my breath and something was wrong with my lungs. Both times they told me: “Anxiety”. I just couldn’t understand how anxiety could feel so physically horrible. I lay awake in bed at night for months, sometimes suffering panic attacks that would wake me out of my sleep, wondering why no one would listen to me. I just knew, in my heart, that something was wrong. I felt that something was slowly killing me and my son would be left without a mother. When my anxiety got to its worst, I couldn’t sit still at my desk for more than five minutes, and I lost ten pounds in two weeks. I called my OB, who said she wasn’t surprised to hear from me. She said many mothers start to experience postpartum anxiety several months after giving birth and ignore it until it becomes a problem. “Women try to do too much, and try to be too strong”, she said. She referred me to a therapist that specialized in PPA, and I spent a little time talking to her on the phone. She said “yes, this is definitely postpartum related”, but then told me she didn’t take my insurance. She didn’t have anyone else to refer me to. She offered for me to attend a support group, but it was at 9:00 AM on Wednesdays. “I work at that time”, I said. “We don’t currently have a support group for working mothers,” she said. Well guess what. Working moms get Postpartum Anxiety too.
Feeling hopeless, the next day, I called the Employee Assistance Line offered through my company. The person on the other end was so understanding. She could tell I was overwhelmed, with work, with life, with anxiety, and she referred me to a therapist. It took me two weeks to get an appointment. I saw the therapist for 12 weeks, with little success. She suggested I learn to “be present”, and “meditate”. She did not have the expertise to understand post-partum disorders, and frankly, I don’t think she knew what to do with me. At this point, I’m not sure anyone did, doctors or family included.
I began to open up to some of my closest friends and co-workers about the struggles I was facing, and most were surprised. Despite the helplessness I felt on the inside, I masqueraded about my life – going through the motions, doing what I needed to do. They didn’t know that every night when I left work, while Papa D worked a late shift, I would sit numb and stare at my son, crying and with a knot in my stomach, while we sat in a bedroom and he played. I wanted to go to sleep as soon as I woke up. I missed out on so much.
My primary care doctor put me on Wellbutrin, but after five days my panic attacks were un-bearable. I was hyperventilating so badly that I had to have my mom call him for me. His solution was to prescribe me some Xanax and told me to see a psychiatrist. Frustrated, I stopped all medication and flushed it down the toilet. However, taking all advice offered to me, I went to a psychiatrist who told me he should have never put me on that medication, as it was too stimulating for someone with anxiety. “You are not depressed,” she said, “you have Panic Disorder”. She said: “This is genetic, triggered by the birth of your baby”, and wanted to put me on two different medications. I told her I was afraid to take them after what had happened and I asked for other ways to treat it. “You need medication. If you won’t take it, you can keep struggling. Your decision. “ She coldly sent me on my way, upset that I refused the medication.
Through opening up to my friends (some of which cried with me, shared their own struggles with me, and were there for me unconditionally…you all know who you are) I found that I was not alone. A funny thing happened to me when that psychiatrist told me I would never beat this on my own. I got MAD. If I break a bone, I can get help. If I have strep throat, I can get help. If I suffer from a sometimes debilitating, overwhelming, mental issue, I can’t get help anywhere. We are left to hug each other and cry together about a disease we don’t understand. Ultimately, I felt like if I was to fix this, I would have to fix it myself. There is something severely wrong with this.
It is absolutely imperative that we learn to talk to each other about these things. We need better education, resources, support groups. I was fully prepared to watch for Postpartum Depression. No one warned me about Postpartum Anxiety, OCD, Panic, etc. and yet, over 10% of women experience these mood disorders. Funny enough, I wrote a PSA on this very blog a few months prior to all this about anxious thoughts. Believe me when I say that I never saw this coming. I am not ashamed to admit this as I didn’t do anything to deserve it. It’s a part of my journey in motherhood, and I am finally at the point where I feel like I am coming out the other side.
I started taking vitamins, eating better, bought myself a treadmill, and am trying to find things that interest me again. I read as much as I could about my anxiety, I tried desperately to understand the physical sensations I experienced. I started to learn it’s patterns, and how stress affects me. I let the time pass, and started to take things one day at a time. I also could not have dug myself out without fully and completely sharing my true struggle with my husband. I can credit him for most, if not all, of the progress I have made. He can see my anxiety coming now, and can look at me and say “calm down, there is nothing wrong with you”, before I even have to say a word.
I am not cured. I’m honestly not sure I ever will be. Even though my anxiety is now a part of my life, I am working hard to make sure it never consumes me again. I truly hope that if any of you reading are experiencing anything like this, that you find support, because you are really, really, not alone.