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Catherine on experiencing postpartum anxiety and intrusive thoughts

black and white photo of mom holding newborn baby - essay on experiencing postpartum anxiety

Content warning: Discussion of postpartum depression, birth trauma, domestic abuse or other tough topics ahead. If you or someone you know is struggling with a postpartum mental health challenge, including postpartum depression or anxiety, call 1-833-9-HELP4MOMS (tel:18009435746)—The National Maternal Mental Health Hotline This free, confidential service provides access to trained counselors and resources 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in English, Spanish, and more than 60 other languages. They can offer support and information related to before, during, and after pregnancy.

Four years ago I took a rapid descent into motherhood and during my three month pregnancy (long story, he was a late discovery) I was put on a crash course by all the mums I knew.

Sleep when the baby sleeps. Fed is best. Nappy bins are pointless. If it’s a girl, wipe from front to back. If it’s a boy, make sure it’s pointing down when you put the nappy on. Make sure you take time for yourself. You won’t shower for the first few days. You’ll still look pregnant for a while after birth. Your boobs will double when your milk comes in. That first cry is the best sound. When you hold baby, you’ll feel love like no other. You’ll gain a whole new perspective. You’re about to realise the true meaning of joy. There’s no love like a mother for her child. When you look at them your heart will sing.”

But I wasn’t told about postpartum depression and anxiety, both of which creeped up behind me and grabbed me around the throat, restricting me so much that most days I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t think my thoughts. I saw them–often unable to distinguish between what was real and what wasn’t.

Related: How to foster deeper connections with your baby

“My baby is sick. My baby is choking. My baby’s chest isn’t moving. My baby is sleeping too much. Sleeping too little. He’s got a rash. What if I drop the baby? What if I drop the baby on purpose? What if the TV falls on him? What if he falls into the sink of boiling water, or I pour kettle water on him? What if we fall down the stairs and I crush him? What if I bend his limbs too much and they break? What if I drop him in the bath and he drowns? Or I throw him out of the window, or over the balcony? What if that pillow falls on his face and I don’t move it? What if I let the pram go and it wheels into the road? What if someone tries to steal him? What if a stranger breaks in and tries to kill us? What if I hurt him with this kitchen knife? Or drop him on the open oven door? What if I fall asleep and suffocate him?”

“Wait, am I capable of hurting my child? Do I WANT to carry these actions out? Should I call social services on myself? Do I love my baby?”

I would worry to the extent that I’d be frightened to look in his Moses basket at night in case he had died. I wouldn’t carry him past windows or sit with him on the balcony. I’d plan escape routes for us at three am in case someone broke in. I’d ring my other half while he was on the night shift and insist he kept me in his pocket as he worked so I didn’t feel so alone.

Related: Anxiety in motherhood: How I learned to calm and control my fears

I’d want to spend as much time as possible with others so I didn’t have to be subject to my own thoughts. I’d sit on the bed at night for hours cradling my son while he slept, convinced someone had broken in. I had to make sure at all times that I was between him and the door. I’d wake in the night having half dreamt something awful, fully believing it was real.

My anxiety became so bad that one night I perched trembling at the top of the stairs with a knife, holding my snoozing baby, waiting for someone to break in. I reached a level of delirium that I rang my husband and told him that someone was in our flat and he had to drive home immediately.

It took me nearly three years to recover and dare I say I’m not sure I ever will. Obviously none of what I thought or imagined was real, but I was too scared to get help as I was worried there would be some form of intervention. I used to joke that the health visitor was social services but there really was part of me that saw her as someone who was coming to vet me rather than support me–when asked how I was feeling, I was fabulous!

Any challenging thoughts? Don’t know what you’re on about lady.

Related: 5 steps to stop an anxiety spiral, according to a therapist

I finally went to my GP and told her what was going on. I was shocked by her response. “It’s entirely normal. It’s bloody horrible, but it happens to 1 in 5 of us. You are not alone.”

She was right. Technically, I wasn’t alone. But how do you tell your friends who don’t have kids that you thought people were in your flat when they weren’t. Or that you fully imagined yourself stabbing your newborn child. You don’t.

Over time I learned that yes, it’s completely normal to be experiencing this but that didn’t make it OK—suffering in silence doesn’t help anyone.

Related: What to say (and what not to say) to the mama who’s struggling with PPD or PPA

Everyone will have different coping mechanisms. Talking to people helped me. Some won’t want to talk and that’s OK. Mental illness is a tough topic. I was with a couple of friends last year and PPD/PPA came up (they don’t have kids). One of my friends quite readily said, “My mum had postpartum depression with my brother actually.”

My ears perked up. My son was nearly three and I’d never really shared my situation. I responded with, “Oh she did? So did I with Fred.” Neither of them responded. As soon as the conversation started, it ended. It was OK to bring up PPD/PPA that was nearly 30 years old and no one’s responsibility to support. The comment was more anecdotal and gossipy than an invitation to let her know I might need her. After all, her mum was now fine and all fixed. It was clear that mine was still very raw.

I took it personally. I felt like my friends didn’t want to know. But the truth was they didn’t know how to know. They knew as much as I had about PPD/PPA, so what could they say?

Maternal mental health is still such a secretive subject. After all, how could we be unhappy after having had a bundle of joy?!

Related: Suicide is the leading cause of death in new moms

One friend of mine helped explain to me why I might be experiencing these terrible and intrusive visions and thoughts, and it really helped me to rationalise and find answers. She told me that her perception of it was that anxiety grips onto what might happen, what could happen, and therefore the mind behaves preemptively. When these images were flashing into my mind, they were solely serving the purpose of protection. It wasn’t that I wanted to hurt him or myself. I was simply preparing for every eventuality.

When you’re in charge of something so precious, you worry about what could happen to them and therefore put measures in place to keep them safe. This helped.

This is why I started writing. To be able to pen out my thoughts and feelings expels them from my heart and I feel better. That, and a load of medication.