A lot of my readers (by a lot I mean two but let’s not split hairs) know me or at least are connected with me through Facebook or Instagram. Did you know? Some of you have been with me through all four of my pregnancies and some are newer acquaintances. Looking at my social media, my social calendar, or just from our casual chit chat, did you know? Would you have guessed from my smiling Facebook posts or upbeat Instagram photos? Postpartum mental health is a tricky thing. It does not affect every mother the same way. Sure, there are typical signs and symptoms but not everyone exhibits anxiety and depression in the same way. Read on, to hear my story of struggle with Postpartum Anxiety. Note: I have not experienced severe Postpartum Depression, I tend to have a few weeks of weepy baby blues but my hormonal challenges usually exhibit in anxiety. I hope sharing my story will raise awareness for this side of Postpartum health and maybe help those who don’t suffer from the traditional warning signs of PPD.
I lay exhausted in a hospital bed. I hadn’t slept for more than an hour or two at a time in the last three (or has it been four?) days. I hear someone enter the room and fumble for the light switch. I see the friendly face of my OBGYN peering down at me from the foot of the bed. He asks me how I’m doing. I put on some bravado and don’t complain about much- I’m okay. As he’s getting ready to leave, I sheepishly admit I’m having a lot of anxiety but we both agree that it’s not something we need to worry about yet and we’ll check again in six weeks. Little did either of us know that by the time six weeks arrived, I would have been through a hell I can only remember in small flashbacks. I’ll be honest, I don’t want to remember.
I wasn’t depressed! I just couldn’t eat, sleep, or breathe, other than that, I was fine.
When I found out I was pregnant with my fourth child, I felt a little overwhelmed, a little unprepared. See, I was already teetering on the edge- barely holding all the balls in the air as it was. I have never felt anything but love for my unborn children. I have never wanted anything but to hold them and love them and protect them. But to say I wasn’t scared this time would be inaccurate. You see, when I found out I was expecting, I had already been in the ER for an intense gastric attack where I felt like I was suffocating. We couldn’t figure out what was causing this and I was in the midst of a barrage of tests and doctor appointments. Finding out I was pregnant was almost a relief- maybe that’s why I felt so bad. Maybe that’s why my body was rejecting every bite I put in my mouth. Maybe that’s why I woke at night with my heart pounding and mind racing. But, it was also scary because treatment options were limited. We couldn’t get to the bottom of things until I was no longer pregnant. So began the waiting game.
I spent nine long months battling those feelings. I couldn’t eat much. It all made me sick. I was struggling with intense morning sickness (typical of my pregnancies) on top of severe acid reflux. Instead of gaining my normal 40+ lbs I gained less than 15. I worried constantly about my baby. I lay in bed, sick, tired but unable to sleep, sad that I couldn’t be the mom that I wanted to be to my older three. I often felt light headed and dizzy. My blood pressure often dipped well below my normally low 106/60. It was a hard pregnancy. It was a lonely pregnancy.
You see, before I became pregnant for the fourth time, I was on top of things. I was winning at life. Organizing, planning, and doing. I had mom friends. I ran a co-op and a kid’s book club. I had my children in several recreational activities (our favorite being horseback riding). I had play dates a plenty. That gradually changed the sicker I got. And, it’s hard to maintain friends from your bed when all you can do is make it to the bathroom to get sick. I was lucky if I could send my kids off to visit Grandma and Paka a couple times a week. Play dates, co-op, extra curriculars were a thing of the past.
But, we made it. Finally, after months of watching my food and watching the clock. After weeks spent on the couch (to avoid the dizzy spells), and days that seemed like they would never end, my fourth little bundle arrived. It wasn’t a perfect labor and delivery but he was healthy and happy and I recovered, maybe not as quickly as I would have liked, but it could have been worse.
Here’s when I noticed things were not returning to normal. My nausea was not gone. My sleep was worse (not just new mom- I’m up with the baby all night worse- like I literally couldn’t sleep even if I was alone and had opportunity). Everything I put in my mouth led to intense acid reflux attacks. The worst and most intense part was that I couldn’t breathe. I felt like I was suffocating. All. The. Time.
I mean you read about moms popping a xanax with a glass of wine to get through the afternoon but they aren’t me. I don’t need drugs. I don’t even like them.
I had spent the last nine months expecting that this baby was going to pop out and suddenly, I would feel better. I had been banking on it, in fact. So, when I didn’t, I started to panic. I remember going to the doctor for one thing or another and mentioning my sleep and maybe slightly worse than normal baby blues (you see I knew what PPA felt like- remember I have had three babies and had it intensely with one and less so with another but not at all with my last boy- so surely, having another boy- one who breastfeeds perfectly- it couldn’t be that). I got several suggestions for sleep aids but was afraid to take them because I was breastfeeding. The doctor offered me antidepressants but- hadn’t they been listening? I wasn’t depressed! I just couldn’t eat, sleep, or breathe, other than that, I was fine.
Only, I wasn’t. By the time I made it to four weeks post partum, I had been in the ER twice. I had an endoscopy (which showed some damage to my esophagus and a precancerous condition which I believe was caused by the PPIs they’d insisted would help). I even went to a specialist to determine if maybe I had vocal chord dysfunction. I was struggling. I couldn’t function. Something was wrong.
Why couldn’t anyone help me?
That’s when I finally knew. I may have physical symptoms but I needed psychological help. And, I needed it now.
Being a mom of four, a mom who had dealt with Baby Blues/PPA before, who had got through it without the help of a good doctor or medications (at least not ones that worked): how did I not know that all these signs, these physical symptoms, pointed to PPA? More importantly, why didn’t my doctors know?
I’ll be honest, I shouted from the roof tops: “I do not have anxiety.”
And, I must have been convincing because only one doctor even hinted at it and actually she was a nurse practitioner and I found her kind of rude so wrote off her inquiries as a typical medical professional: when they can’t figure out what’s wrong, blame it on anxiety.
Lucky for me, I had a supportive husband, who could see me suffering and kept insisting that it might be psychological. Why was it so hard to admit? As much as we’d like to think our society is an enlightened one, there is still a stigma attached to mental health disorders, ya know- the crazies. I mean you read about moms popping a xanax with a glass of wine to get through the afternoon but they aren’t me. I don’t need drugs. I don’t even like them. I had knee surgery and a subsequent pain disorder (my leg used to turn purple- it was fun stuff), and only ever took minimum doses to get me through and weaned off it quickly when I decided it was time for another baby. Only this time, not only did I need help but I needed a whole team to back me up and luckily I found that.
My family doctor knew something was wrong and got me in quickly and kept me under attentive eye while I got into see a psychiatrist. Yes, there I’ve admitted it. I see a psychiatrist. Ironically, he put me on the same medication that my family doctor offered me weeks prior and I’d refused. However, he has been a Godsend for me. He’s patient, soft spoken, and kind. He listens to my concerns and calms my fears (I have some health anxiety in addition to my hormonal issues). He has helped me stay at the lowest working doses of medication and is now hopefully helping me wean off them completely. Most importantly he helped me find a therapist.
I’d like to take a minute to explain that process because I had been considering therapy for years but not seriously because, and this is going to sound funny to you but, because I was worried she would make me worse. Yep, that’s right, I had anxiety about getting my anxiety treated medically or even psychologically. By the time I asked for a therapy referral, I was far past any of my reservations and desperate for help. I saw three therapists, all female, before I settled on one. Finding a Christian therapist was important for me. Though we don’t talk about Faith at every session, knowing that she shares and respects my beliefs and when they come up she reinforces them, has eased my fears of self sabatoge that I worried therapy would produce. Turning to God during my darkest times, has taught me how important a regular consistent prayer life is. Between my Faith, the help of my psychiatrist, the perspective of my therapist, and the support of my family, I got through my hardest struggles. If you leave this piece with only one thing, let it be this: don’t be afraid to try. You can always stop taking a medication or fire your doctor or therapist. But, letting my anxiety or prejudices against mental health dictate my ability to get help was probably the biggest mistake I made in my journey with PPA.
Today, I am surviving. More than that, I am thriving. I am back to being the active mom I want to be. I have found a calling that I love in writing this blog. I have found ambition and the will to succeed at a newly acquired dream to help other mothers with whatever they’re struggling with, be it mental, physical, or financial through my (almost set up) non-profit charity: For A Mother’s Love. I have weekly play dates with my mom friends (though I have lost a few of those along the way) and am continuing to organize book clubs and shuttle my children to local extracurriculars. PPA may have taken a toll on my life and it was a long journey to diagnosis, treatment, and recovery, but I’m here to say I made it. There will be ups and downs, but I will not let my mental health struggles define me. I am a mother and I have Post Partum Anxiety but that does not make me less of a parent.
My story may not sound like typical PPD. To be honest, it didn’t sound like it to me either. That’s why I wanted to share my experience with you. There is no one face of Post Partum Depression and Anxiety. There is no one description that covers all our stories. We are the face of PPD. And, though we are many, we unite under the title of Mother.
I am Jamie, wife, mother, daughter, sister, aunt, friend, and I am the face of Post Partum Anxiety.
Think you or someone you know may be struggling with postpartum depression, anxiety, or another mental health disorder? Please contact your health provider including your OBGYN or family doctor. Need more information? Visit Postpartum Support International for great information on maternal mental health and more. If you fear you or someone you love may be contemplating suicide or facing a mental health emergency, call the Suicide Prevention Hotline and get to your nearest emergency room. Please consider buying a PPD Awareness t-shirt, all proceeds go to help mothers in need. Have questions or need support please join the discussion on Facebook.