My beautiful daughter was born on a Wednesday morning. The following Saturday, I woke up from a nap after having been back to the hospital for a blood patch and was hit with the biggest adrenaline rush I’d ever experienced. I felt panicked, it wasn’t fading, and I couldn’t pinpoint any particular cause. I put a call in to the OB Triage unit where I’d had my blood patch, thinking that I was experiencing a reaction to something they’d given me and was told to call my OB. The after-hours nurse at my OB’s office told me to go to the Emergency Room. So there I was, 3 days postpartum, trying to hide my distress from my children and faced with the prospect of the E.R, which is not an enjoyable experience under the best of circumstances (ok…there really are no “best” circumstances that would land you in the E.R, but you know what I mean!).
Sitting in the E.R. waiting room, I was a sobbing, blubbery mess. I worried about the expense of the visit and felt certain I was losing my mind. I worried about how my baby was going to get fed (I was determined to succeed at breastfeeding this time around) and about whether my 3 year old was ok at his grandparents’ house. I saw people staring at me and just knew that they thought I was a crazy, horrible mother. This last fear was only amplified in the exam room, where the nurse told me I had to either be admitted or agree to an Ativan injection. I was concerned about the medication and told her that I was breastfeeding, at which point she looked at me like I was stupid and told me that if I didn’t calm down, I was going to make my baby sick. So, in tears, I accepted the shot from Nurse Ratched and sat there silently berating myself for not being a good enough mother. I’d made it a grand total of 3 days breastfeeding before I had to give my baby formula, I couldn’t stop crying, and I couldn’t take care of myself or my children. It was truly one of the darkest moments I’ve had as a mother.
Sunday was a flurry phone calls and research into a provider who could help me–at least that’s what I’m told. I was knocked out with heavy duty anti-anxiety medication most of the day. On Monday morning, my husband and I went to a local psychiatric clinic for an evaluation while Thing 1 went to daycare and my mom stayed with Thing 2. After going through the intake process, I was told that my options were to be admitted as an inpatient or to join the therapy support group that started the next day and ran from 9-4 daily. I begged my husband not to let them lock me away and pleaded with the coordinator to find another option, because 9-4 daily with a 4 day old baby just didn’t seem like a feasible plan. Feeling defeated, we got in the car to go home. This is when I descended a little more into hopelessness. I remember yelling, “Why won’t anyone help me?! I just want to get better!”
Over the next few days, I saw my OB and scored off the charts (umm…yay me?) on my PPA evaluation. I got an increased dosage of Zoloft (which I had started taking at a low dose the day Thing 2 was born because of my experience with PPD after Thing 1 was born), as well as Xanax because the Ativan zombified me, and I wasn’t ok with that. I also began seeing a therapist, who worked with me on learning some Cognitive Behavioral Techniques. My mom stayed with us for a while to help with the kids when my husband went back to work, and every day I forced myself to climb out of my pit of anxiety and despair a little more. I considered it a victory the first time I changed my daughter’s diaper and fed her a bottle all by myself, though a part of me died every time I had to give her formula. Even amidst my victories, I still felt like failure.
Thing 1, understandably, began acting out and had extreme behavior problems, and Thing 2 started pooping blood and screaming all the time. It was all I could do to hold myself together. I called my mom every day. I called my husband multiple times a day. I spent a lot of time at doctor’s offices, between therapists, general practitioners, pediatricians, pediatric gastroenterologists, and pediatric allergists. We discovered that Thing 2 had severe milk allergies, and she was put on prescription formula (as if my guilt over not being able to breastfeed weren’t bad enough, we were now paying $45 per 14 oz can of formula). We also took Thing 1 for an evaluation with pediatric psychology, where his intelligence test put him in the 99th percentile and he was diagnosed with non-specific anxiety disorder. Great combo. More mommy guilt, amplified by being told by some spectacularly understanding (insert sarcastic voice here) people that my son’s anxiety problems were my fault, and that he wouldn’t have anxiety if it weren’t for me. Because self-flagellation really isn’t completely effective if other people don’t join in too.
During this time, I also had to have my gallbladder removed. I’d had horrible gallbladder attacks throughout my pregnancy, but had to wait until after Thing 2 was born to have the surgery because all my tests came back normal and no surgeon would touch a pregnant lady with normal tests. I remember the surgeon trying to talk me out of the procedure before they began anesthesia, and then I vaguely remember him shame-facedly telling me that he couldn’t believe I’d had so many normal tests because my gallbladder had been necrotic. My 2 hour procedure turned into a week-long hospital stay when I got a horrific kidney infection following the bile duct clearing surgery they did the day after my gallbladder surgery. Mid-way through the week, I begged the nurse for anti-anxiety meds. I was in a hospital room, racking up a staggering bill and missing my family. I considered lying and telling the doctors my pain was gone (Monty Python style: “I got better! I feel HAPPY!”) just so I could get out of the hospital.
To say that this past year has been a trying one would be a massive understatement. And I’ve come to realize that, on June 5th, I’ll not only be celebrating the anniversary of my daughter’s birth, but also recognizing the birth of a new me. Before experiencing it, I didn’t know much about PPA. I’d heard lots of people talking about PPD, and I’d experienced that aspect before. I’d even tried to be prepared for that by making sure I had a prescription for anti-depressants before leaving the hospital. I studied about breastfeeding and reached out to a lactation consultant friend. I had all my bases covered. Except, I didn’t. I was clearly lacking a two fault tolerance.
Sadly, I still struggle with anxiety. At the mere mention of a stomach bug (one of my personal triggers), I have to run for the Xanax, and my husband has come to know my “I’m doing my breathing to calm down so don’t talk to me right now” face. I still struggle with mommy guilt. Every time I see a breastfeeding baby, I feel a little twinge in my heart. I think of all the debt we accumulated between doctors, therapists, medicines, and formula. But at some point, I have to remind myself of the most important thing: I made it. I’m still here, I’m coping, and I’m watching my beautiful children grow.
If you are struggling with postpartum anxiety, first and foremost know that you are not alone and you are not a bad mother for needing help. Postpartum Progress has some great resources: please use them.
*Edited 6/12/14 to add: I am participating in the Postpartum Progress Climb out of the Darkness on June 21st. If you or someone you love is struggling or has struggled (or, if you’d just like to support the cause!), you can contribute to Postpartum Progress’s efforts by supporting my climb here.