One year ago today, I began to feel anxious. It was early morning on Thanksgiving. I was just starting to prepare the turkey, cutting open the wrapper when some cold icy/water/turkey juice flew into my eye. I immediately panicked. I took my contact out and flushed my eye with water. It felt sore (mainly from the gallon of water I had just threw into it) but I decided that wasn’t enough so I hopped in the shower. As I stood there, letting the water hit my eyeball for a good ten minutes I started to think. What if I go blind? What if I get an infection? What if I’m not ok?
WHAT IF I’M NOT OK?
This was the root of my fear. I know it seems stupid to be so worried over something so small. I mean, I knew my eye would be fine (trust me, I Googled it.) But this little scare stands out in my mind as a the start of a very big problem.
I don’t usually worry excessively over little things. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve definitely been stressed. But I’m usually pretty rational so freaking out over a speck of turkey juice in my eye was out of character. I knew logically that I had rinsed my eye well and most likely if you could go blind from one drop hitting your eyeball a lot of people would go blind on Thanksgiving every year. But that didn’t stop my worrying. I was having a physical reaction as well. My heart was racing along with my mind. I felt dizzy and I couldn’t put a finger on this weird feeling I was having. I had a sense of impending doom even though I was at home with my family and everyone was happy and safe.
Only a couple weeks later I would have this feeling again, but much more intense. I was having a panic attack. Andy was working and I was home alone with the kids. After the worst of it had subsided I put the boys down for a nap and turned on a show for the girls and headed out to the yard to rake leaves. I needed the fresh air and the distraction from my anxious thoughts. Nothing bad had even happened that day to trigger this. Why was this happening?
I continued to have these panic attacks over the next few weeks. I chalked it up to having too much coffee and not getting enough sleep (both were definitely not helping). I stopped drinking caffeine altogether, hoping it would cure me. It helped at first, but then they came back with a vengeance. I started hyperventilating a lot. I was on edge all the time. I cried at the drop of a hat. I couldn’t sleep at night and when I did I had terrifying nightmares that woke me up in a sweat. I felt nauseated a lot and lost my appetite and 25 pounds in a couple of months.
WHAT IF I’M NOT OK?
This question lingered in my head constantly. What if I can’t take care of my babies? What if something happens to me when I’m alone with them? What if I need to be hospitalized? What if I’m dying? The thought of leaving my children for days, weeks, or months was terrifying. It’s hard to say if the physical symptoms were causing these worries or the other way around. Either way, I couldn’t stop the loop by myself.
Getting help is scary when you’re a mom. I’m responsible for other people’s lives so if I admit that something is wrong with me, what does that mean for them? Am I not doing my job well enough? What if there’s something extremely wrong with me and they take me away from my kids? What if they just think there’s something wrong and they take me away from my kids? What if I have to be hospitalized and I can’t see them for months? How will I breastfeed my baby? What if I miss out on his first year of life because I’m not able to take care of him? How will I ever forgive myself? Why is this happening to me? What am I doing wrong?
Eventually it became so unbearable that not getting help wasn’t an option any more. I didn’t want to be alone with the kids. I was terrified that I would have a panic attack and faint and they would be alone. I decided I needed to get help for them. They deserved a mother who was healthy. (Eventually I decided I needed to be healthy for ME too.) I found a therapist who specializes in postpartum issues and eventually started medication.
It wasn’t an easy recovery. I battled my own thoughts every day, which was so unlike me. I usually trust my gut. Now, I second guessed everything. I felt like my brain had turned on me. I learned in therapy that I was having intrusive thoughts, which are thoughts that pop into your head and won’t stop even though you don’t want to have them. Everyone has them, but usually they’re so fleeting that most people don’t really take them seriously and just brush them off. It can be a thought like, what would happen if I hit that car? You don’t want to hit the car. It’s like your brain’s way of alerting you to the danger of hitting another car and making sure you don’t do it. Sometimes the thought has no meaning whatsoever.
New parents are particularly susceptible to having intrusive thoughts. What if the baby stops breathing? What if I drop him by accident? Sometimes intrusive thoughts can come in the form of visualizations which can be incredibly terrifying to experience as mother with a new baby.
I had to learn how to distract myself from upsetting thoughts. Before I started medication, I had them every second of the day. I’m not exaggerating. It was pure hell. It’s like the danger detector in my brain was turned on and couldn’t shut off. I prayed and begged God to stop it. I cried endlessly. I was so confused why this was happening now, after my 4th baby, whom I loved so much and had felt so confident raising. I was prepared for this. I loved being a mom. So why did this happen?
Postpartum depression can feel like a mystery. I used to wonder how mothers knew they had it. Did you feel sad all the time? Sleep a lot? When it happened to me there was no question something was wrong. My body was telling me that I needed help. When my medication finally started to kick in, after about a month (but felt like eternity) I felt relief for the first time in months. The intrusive thoughts went from every second to every couple of minutes. Then they were only every 20 minutes. I was able to sleep better. I got better at distracting myself with games of scrabble on my phone or talking to someone about the weather or a funny story. I understood that I could be competent and symptomatic at the same time. (One of my favorite quotes.) I could have scary thoughts but say to myself, “This is your anxiety. This is not reality. You and the kids are not in danger. You will be ok.”
I WILL BE OK.
This became my mantra. I slowly pieced my life back together. I continued to avoid caffeine. I exercised almost every day. I went to therapy once a week. I read stories from women online who had gone through similar experiences and came out ok. I asked for a lot of help from my family and friends. (The kids and I practically lived at my mom’s house or my mother in law’s house for about two months straight.) I stopped having panic attacks. My heart didn’t race all the time. I started laughing again. I was able to sit still and nurse my baby without feeling restless. I was able to enjoy the little things again.
I am so thankful for my life. I am so thankful that I am in a different place this Thanksgiving. I am so thankful for all the people who listened to me helped me and didn’t call me crazy when I told them how I felt. I am so thankful for therapists who understand postpartum mental health. I am so thankful for medication that can help me feel like myself again. I am not at the beginning of a nightmare. I’ve woken up. I still feel anxiety sometimes but it’s much more manageable now. I love spending time with my children and I appreciate it now more than ever. I’m no longer afraid to be alone with them. I feel like the strong, capable mother I was before only I’m not afraid to ask for help. I know triggers for my anxiety and I avoid them. I wouldn’t stay I’m totally healed but I am in a much better place than I was a year ago. I’m thankful for my mental health and my ability to be with my children and watch them grow.