Stress depends on how you think about it.
[Editor’s Note: This piece is part of an ongoing series of personal essays on what it’s like to live with a mental health diagnosis. Each piece describes a singular and unique experience. These essays are not meant to be representative of every diagnosis, but to give us a peek into one person’s mind so we may be more empathetic to all.]
The night my daughter was born, my husband I were in the hospital room channel surfing until we came upon one of our usual watches: “Law & Order: SVU.” The opening sequence featured a little boy on a playground caught in a crossfire of bullets. I clicked off the television and realized I had been forever changed. It made sense: we were now parents, no longer just two people watching TV on our own. We had made a person, and now we both saw that person in every kid on TV. What I didn’t yet realize was that no matter my choice of TV shows I was now a person who imagined all scenarios ending in tragedy.
We left the hospital a couple of days later; right before we did, the doctor pulled my husband aside to suggest he keep an eye out for any changes in my mood or behavior. With a history of mild depression, I had increased risk for postpartum depression. We were both prepared for this possibility, but unprepared for the postpartum anxiety I developed instead.
When my baby wakes at 4 a.m., I make a conscious effort to avoid fully waking myself. If successful, I can doze back to sleep quickly; if not, I begin to formulate thoughts filled with worry including work expectations, doctor’s appointments, world events, household chores, or whether the strange mole I noticed on my leg the other day is actually melanoma.
The baby wakes many times throughout the night, so even if I’ve gotten back to sleep after the 4 a.m. feeding, I rely heavily on the coffee pot. My older children are in school, so my husband and I get them ready and out the door. Even though the school is around the corner, one of us walks them. If for some reason we can’t walk with them, I usually call and make sure they have arrived safely. Our entire neighborhood commutes to school together for the quarter-mile trek, and there’s a crossing guard as well as teachers posted outside; but if I don’t check, I will have a difficult time fighting off the panic that something terrible has happened to them.
After school, my children like to go to their friends’ homes. I text to ensure they arrived, and ask the parents to text me when my children leave so I know when to look for them—despite the fact that we live in a safe neighborhood.
When the children have evening activities, I prefer to drive. My husband has never been in a car accident, but riding in the passenger seat with him makes me so nervous and I wince at any slight error. When he drives on a road with a jersey wall, my entire body clenches and I hold my breath. I annoy even myself, but I cannot seem to stop.
Each evening, I take Zoloft t to treat my anxiety. I stopped taking it for a time, but ended up driving to the ER convinced I might die from a brain aneurysm. I was scheduled for an MRI the following day to rule out any abnormalities, but I had a full-blown panic attack because I was convinced I would die in my sleep before the scan. The resident sent me home with a sheet of muscle relaxers and encouraged me to take a couple once in bed. I survived until morning, made it through my MRI, and promptly refilled my Zoloft.
To be honest, I feel entitled to a certain amount of this anxiety. My biological mother died from a blood clot after giving birth in the hospital. More than one doctor has shared feelings of surprise that I risked having children myself. I don’t have any of the same risk factors that my mother had, but of course, logical reasoning doesn’t necessarily win in a match with anxiety.
The most annoying part of having postpartum anxiety is that I’m aware I can be ridiculous. I know that my daughter won’t choke on the grapes I’ve meticulously quartered, but it doesn’t keep my heartrate from increasing if she coughs a bit while eating them. During rational moments, I am aware that children fall down often, but I am also incapable of stopping the catastrophizing when one of my kids takes a tumble; I’m convinced of a looming tragedy.
Anxiety also holds me back from experiences that don’t seem to rattle others. My sister gifted me a trip to Florida for my birthday last year, but as the dates neared, I could not shake the premonition that the baby and I would die in a fiery crash. And I worried that if we survived the trip there, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy our time because I would be panicking about the sure-to-be deadly flight home leaving my husband widowed with our surviving children. While I am aware of the melodramatic ridiculousness of this scenario, I fear it all the same.
Through social media, I am connected to a lot of people, many of whom post sad stories including lost babies to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). I typically spent the first six months of my babies’ lives checking their breathing throughout the night as they sleep next to me in their bassinet. Statistically, the rate of SIDS drops off at six months and then becomes practically non-existent by year one, so I usually feel okay to not check for breathing after they turn one. Then I read the horrible story of a child lost to Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood (SUDC), the childhood version of SIDS that I didn’t previously know existed. If one of my children doesn’t wake at the regular time, I practice breathing techniques to keep my mind from wandering into an imagined scenario where they die from SUDC. I know I am being irrational, but I also know that the parents who have suffered this tragedy probably never thought it would happen to them, either, so it becomes a back-and-forth in my mind until the child in question stumbles out of their room and to the breakfast table.
Postpartum anxiety is exhausting, so I crave sleep. After reading a novel or surfing the internet, I spend some time snuggling with my cat, as the rhythmic purring helps calm my mind for sleep. In the past, I would have a glass or two of wine before bed, but I found myself depending on it for relaxation, which didn’t always feel healthy.
When I am no longer breastfeeding, I hope to consider other medications to help alleviate the effects of the postpartum anxiety, (better yet: be free of the issues and the medication.) I strive to be a fun mom rather than a hysterical one.
The “A Day With Mental Health” series is brought to you by Headspace and Bring Change to Mind (BC2M). BC2M is a nonprofit organization built to start the conversation about mental health, and to raise awareness, understanding, and empathy.
These essays will publish weekly on Headspace’s the Orange Dot. Read the rest of the series here.