No more shame: Even ‘good moms’ like me face postpartum depression and anxiety
When my daughter was turning two my brain began to unravel.
For #MotherlyStories | The first thing I want you to know is that I am okay. Or, by common measurements, beyond okay. Successful. Fulfilled. Sane. I do doctor’s appointments, the school schedule, I am on time, I cook real meals, pick raspberries, read books, counsel businesswomen, run companies, manage employees, craft products, design packaging, fill kiddie pools, pick tomatoes, water the garden, go grocery shopping, take care of grandmothers in nursing homes, recycle, and have happy kids. I even sleep well.
The second thing I want you to know is I know fear: the paralysis of breath, the spinning mind, the utter overwhelm.
When my daughter was turning two my brain began to unravel. As the story always goes, you couldn’t tell from the outside. I appeared to hold it (whatever “it” is) together. It was a caustic mix of situational (husband away for work, living on a small island), familial (my grandmother died, my mother and I had stopped speaking) and hormonal (weaning my daughter). It was the hardest time of my life, in my head. And yet, everything was fine.
We were all healthy, fed, employed. I woke up each morning to the most gorgeous of toddlers: golden hair, bright blue eyes and a sweet temper. I lived on the beach. The sun shone, and the birds sang me awake. But every morning, as consciousness stirred, dread rose like bile. I was scared of being scared. I didn’t feel like myself—or like I thought I should. My body was on high alert. Never focused, anticipating the earth’s movement, warning, warning. I felt powerless. And not in a vague way, I mean empty of power. Fear had filled up every space in my being. My breath, my belly, my muscles.
In truth, I had no reason to be as paralyzed by fear as I was—and that realization made me even more worried. I searched for a reason. I wanted a playbook of these feelings. I needed to know why some days were better and some worse. Something I ate? The alignment of the planets? Why was “it” so unpredictable? If I could just find the cause, I thought, I could make it go away. I’ve never been without anxiety. But until then it had been contained. No longer. Now it sloshed over the edges and spilled onto everything and everyone.
Thoughts became sudden truths. “I’ll never be able to parent.” “I am not capable of this.” “What if I can’t do it?” Sitting in the car with my sleeping child while my husband grocery shopped, I can barely breathe. I think I am going crazy. I grip my cellphone in my hand and can’t push the buttons. My daughter plays in a kiddie pool. I am sleeping at my aunt’s house while my husband is working. I am afraid to drive; I am afraid to be alone. I no longer trust myself. I can’t wait any longer for these feelings to go away. There is never going to be a break. There is never going to be space to breathe. I am fighting it, pushing against this feeling every moment. Measuring this thing, owning it: “My Anxiety.”
And then I started to pick up the pieces. On the floor of one of two therapists’ offices I realized I wasn’t going to be able to wait until I had no anxiety and then do the things that were my life. I was going to have to learn to be anxious and do life anyway. It was hormonal and temporary and would pass, but I had to live through it anyway. Because. So my mantra became: tolerate.
I had to tolerate, and dare I say it, accept, these truly horrendous feelings and still live my life. Enter coping mechanisms. I cut the 10mg tablet of Prozac into two pieces, then four. It was almost physically impossible. It was crumbles. I was terrified. I took me hours to take it. And then for days and days I worried more. Every blip I felt, I overanalyzed. Was that the Prozac? Will I be hospitalized? Will they take my daughter? Why am I a failure? Postpartum depression and anxiety with a two-year-old? What is wrong with me?
Mild medication helped, maybe. But the questions and fears began to fade as I created an arsenal of coping mechanisms: Things to lean on and things to help me tolerate myself instead of fighting. I am type A, loud and flashy and fast and organized. Classic overachiever. Letting go and treating myself gently isn’t my thing. I’d rather lean in, push hard and barrel through. That “gentle” talk sounds useless, and balance is something no one taught me in school.
Unfortunately, there aren’t Ten Easy Tips To Beat Anxiety and Depression and Other Postpartum Nonsense. There is no easy, and there is no magic. I had to be willing to dig deeply into my reserves and to bear witness to intense emotional storms. I built a toolkit. Acupuncture calms my fight-or-flight responses and helps balance my hormones. Massage works out the muscle tension created by holding fear. Baths connect me with water. Food grounds me and keeps my hormones and blood sugar stable. Meditation teaches that whatever I feel is a wave I can weather. Exercise moves stale hormones out of the body and releases endorphins. Nature changes neuropathways. Herbs build strength and calm. Support systems remind me that asking for help is okay, and that I am never alone. There are so many tools. Three years old, this arsenal. Every day I add to it. Every day I stand up stronger.
Fast forward to today. I am sitting here in my office, writing, and it is cold and dry from the AC and my throat is scratchy and my husband is out of town for a week and I only have two more hours of child care and this week will be in the mid 90s and that two-year-old turns five soon. And I have a new two-year-old who is about to wean and my grandfather just died and I am scared that anxiety is closing in on me again. This week I count the hours until I’ll see another adult. My heart pounds for no reason, and I am overly tired. Despite all that, I can feel my feet on the floor under my desk, on the hardwoods, and I am typing fast because the end of my work day is closing in but there is still more to do. But I am here. I am present. I am alive. The big eternal life-and-death questions are still there, but something inside me has shifted.
When I get home from work today, I’ll kiss my kids and lie on the rug in front of the AC, guilt-free. If I am anxious, my daughter will say “stop overthinking,” and we’ll meditate together. They know some yoga already, herbs are a regular part of their life, they know the acupuncturist by name, they remember that the potty in my therapist’s office is blue. They are here, watching me build my toolkit—and hopefully tucking some tricks aside for later in their own lives. In my darkest moments, I would remember my mom putting me to bed at night and talking me though what I now know to be a progressive relaxation technique. Starting with my feet, we’d intentionally relax each body part. Then she’d go have a beer. We each build our coping mechanisms. Now that I have my own, no longer does anxiety call my entire being into question. No longer does anxiety call my parenting into question. No longer does it destroy the way I live—and no longer am I scared to love so deeply.