A Dangerous Dance with Postpartum Panic

The following is written in a real mom’s own words. This is an outlet for parents who would like to share their stories, in the hope that others will connect and find support. If you have a story you’d like to share, please message us on Facebook or email us at bianca@momof11kids.com.

“Am I breathing?”
“Don’t think about it. Of course you’re breathing.”
“Wait, maybe just check real quick, though.”

This, my inner dialogue as my index and middle fingers urgently climbed my neck for that soft, hollow area. They were searching for reassurance in the form of a pulsing artery, and they found it. Okay, yes. I was breathing, my heart pumping. But relief didn’t soon follow.

Jolting upright in bed, I began counting my husband’s exhales. I got to 19, and I got increasingly jittery. No sense in waking him. I don’t know what I need, and I know he’ll ask.

I fumbled for my glasses and peeled off my wool socks, pressing my bare feet against the tile floor. I read somewhere that, when you’re panicking, you should hold an ice cube in your hand and focus your attention there to bring you in the moment. The ground was numbingly cold – maybe it would do the trick. But I was still engulfed in dread, and now I had cold feet.

The baby…yes, the baby. What’s more calming than measured baby breaths against your neck? I needed to feel that. Now. I clambered into his room, one hand on the wall the whole way. If I fell, I didn’t want to wake him. If I fell…maybe I shouldn’t pick him up after all. I placed one clammy hand on his back to feel the rise and fall. Was it super dark in his room, or was my vision fading in and out?

I could almost see this happening to myself – a fly on the wall in my own imagined hell. I watched as I repeatedly pulled the soaked sweatshirt away from my neck to make room for more air. Sat by as I tapped my fingers on the edge of my son’s crib, focusing intently on the drumming noise to see if it could save me.

It went on this way for 23 lingering minutes, this particular time. The nervous ticks, the fumbling over to the mirror to look myself in the eye and will this hushed hysteria to stop. When the bathroom mirror wouldn’t cooperate, I’d curse and go into the bedroom.

The entire loss of control. The complete knowledge that my family would find me on the floor, and the hope that they knew I adored them. The near-tears, the nausea, the hots and the colds. There was nothing I could do to chase these intrusive feelings away. So I would let them take me, again and again. In my quiet bedroom at 1am, in my car at 4pm. In my morning meeting with my boss, where all the words were blurred and I sat there hoping my acting skills were sharp enough to hide my anguish.

I was never scared to be a mom. I was scared to be an panic-stricken mom. One that was ridden with anxiety she couldn’t control. Maybe medication could, but it was even scarier to think of myself muddling through motherhood as an overly medicated mom.

But I was delighted to see the way my body took care of itself and my unborn son by keeping my occasional anxiety in check. My son grew and grew in my remarkably calm body. I exercised; I slept well and followed a sugar-free diet. “How’s your anxiety?” my OB would ask. I had warned her that I was predisposed, and had a long family history. She said we’d talk more about our options if it came to that. “No problems!” I’d cheerfully report week after week. There were the obvious MAJOR concerns [insert eye roll here], like, “Should we go with a crib bumper?” “Will he be too big for newborn clothes when he comes out?” and “Have I mastered the fine art of diaper changing?” But, blissfully, no real fits of pregnancy terror.

My due date approached. I’d be having a C-section for our honey ham, who was to be an estimated 10+ lbs. I trusted my medical providers inherently and didn’t think twice about the surgery. The morning arrived and excitement bubbled over. I am smiling ear to ear in the photo my husband took of me in my johnny, both hands wrapped around my bulging belly, IV firmly in place. I didn’t flinch when they administered my spinal. But when all feeling swiftly washed out of my body from my shoulders down seconds later, I came unglued. They began poking my belly and legs with a shish kabob skewer and asking, “Can you feel this? At all, even a little bit?” No, I couldn’t, and I couldn’t handle that. My frantic eyes darted up to my husband, who was so impossibly collected that it set me spiraling even further.

“We’re going to give you this so you don’t vomit, okay?”
“Okay, but I’m feeling very anxious, incredibly anxious.”
“We can give you something.”
“Please. Is the baby almost out?”
“We’re working on that. I just gave you some (XYZ) to calm you a little. How do you feel?”
“Not okay. I feel not okay.”
“I can give you something else, but you won’t remember your son being born. Do you want me to do that?”
“NO! No. No. Don’t do that. Please, is he almost out?”

It went on this way. I kept telling them I was going to fall asleep, and they had my husband talking in my ear to make sure I didn’t. I was trapped in the perfect storm of panic-stricken and woozy.

Finally, FINALLY they pulled out our 10 lb. 2 oz. boy. I watched my husband cut the umbilical cord. They put him on the scale – he was crying – oh my god, I could hear his cry. I was indescribably proud of this perfect little human I built. But I was gripped with fear, and willing this moment to pass so I could enjoy my new family, and just feel my legs, and just feel okay.

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That same C-section dread would wash over me in the months following my son’s arrival. Interestingly, it took a vacation for the first three months, and then decided it missed me and needed to visit regularly after that. I didn’t recognize it at first. I mistook it for exhaustion and adjustment – was there a bigger transitional time, after all? This couldn’t have been postpartum anything, because the only postpartum was the kind that made mothers resent their children and want to drown them in a lake.

If you watched me with my son, I was remarkably calm and patient. Two things I’d never described myself as before motherhood. I knew what to do and when, and I did them. I laughed easily and often. I apologized to my husband when I’d snap for no good reason, and I’d tell him he was doing a wonderful job. I enjoyed little and big moments. I took enough photos of my baby to fill an entire Google Drive, and have to move over to Flickr. I sent myself weekly updates of his progress and growth. I was full of joy.

If you watched me with my son, you’d never know that during a routine visit, when my primary care doctor asked me if I was okay, I broke down in tears. That she carelessly tried me on three different medications over a four-month period, and they heightened my symptoms. That the trial and error was making me feel worse than I ever had before, and that I felt like I belonged in a mental hospital. That one of the side effects was an insatiable hunger, and I gained 30 lbs. in 12 weeks. That I would enjoy one too many cocktails as a means of relaxation, knowing full well that it would cause a spike in anxiety as the initial effects wore off. That my lack of relief was causing my mother to take my anxiety upon herself, causing extreme mental anguish. That one too many cocktails on a otherwise sunny family beach day would render me useless, and I’d cling to my father as the waves rolled over my once-again numb lower body and admit that I needed help. That apparently, local postpartum professionals are incredibly hard to reach and incredibly hard to come by, and my hope would dwindle with every unanswered phone call. But I would not stop until I was seen, and heard, and better.

Fast forward to a happier time. I am a mom who sees her primary care doctor, a therapist, and a yoga instructor. I am an in-control mom who understands that postpartum anxiety is a gripping thing that digs its claws in and threatens to unravel everything you have built. You mustn’t let it. I spent too much time suffering, making excuses for the beast, and hunting for relief in a nap or a cocktail.

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Postpartum anxiety crept in during the night and robbed me of months of clarity and peace of mind. I wrestled with it but I did not submit. I battled exhaustion to make it to the office, the supermarket, social obligations. My beautiful baby always knew his mama loved him. I would sing Katy Perry’s “Roar” as I danced him around the living room and let his first giggles wash over me – puree his food and make choo-choo train noises as I spoon-fed him – take him on walks because the fresh air soothed him. I would pack my husband’s lunch and leave a happy note inside for him to find partway through his day. I grit my teeth, smiled through it and suffered alone.

By now, I have come to recognize the numbness and acknowledge it as a part of my past, where it will stay. If anything, it showed me how joyful I am when I’m at my best. I am not supermom, or medicated mom, or anxiety-ridden mom. I am Henry’s mom. And I’m good enough.

(Mom of 1, with 1 more on the way)

Have something to share? Write about anything family-related, from pregnancy or struggles with getting pregnant, to breastfeeding or not, being a stay-at-home or working mom, kids and pets, how things change when little ones come along, c-sections, natural births, was the epidural as scary as you thought, vaccinations, first birthday party ideas, your best parenting moments, your biggest challenges, infertility, foster kids, allergies, taking care of you, the cutest things they’ve ever done. There’s almost nothing that wouldn’t fit, whether it’s happy, or not so much. If it’s real, we love it. Email bianca@momof11kids.com to get started.

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