For six long months in 2018 I lived virtually encased in a cocoon of fear, pain and despair at the bottom of a deep, dark well. My bright, happy son had just turned 18 months old so at the time I figured I was past the danger zone for Postpartum Depression and Anxiety. No one told me that this Big Bad could creep up on me this far past “Postpartum”. But creep it had. I’d dealt with periods of anxiety and depression in my life, and dealt with it accordingly through therapy and medication, but nothing as insidious as what reared its ugly head around March 2018.
I first returned to work when my son turned 4 months old and put myself on a strict pumping schedule. Life was pump work pump work pump work repeat. Things started to change when I eventually stopped pumping and my son started to self-wean. I think it was a combination of a change in hormones and work becoming more stressful that set the downward slide into motion, yet I was still motivated to make a change in my career. I had a series of successful interviews at a top streaming entertainment company while things became more unstable at my job. I watched 20 co-workers get laid off in one day. One month later I was part of a second round of mass layoffs in which 50 people lost their jobs. I continued to push forward and landed myself that job at the new company. A dream job at a dream company.
At the same time our nanny from the time I went back to work was leaving us and my son would be entering a toddler preschool. With the loss of the previous job, the great responsibility of a prestigious new job, and the uncertainty of what lay ahead for my son’s care, I felt like the floor had dropped out from under me. Catching a stomach virus and then a bad cold, I tipped over the edge and fell into that well.
It started with a panic attack before I even started the new job and then that panic attack just never went away for six months. I can actually track my journey and its progress because of all the emails I sent my aunt during that time period. One of my early emails to her described how I would lay awake at night worrying about my breathing and about not sleeping. I awoke early every morning in a panic. My limbs felt clumsy and frozen. My muscles were painful and sore from the tension that wouldn’t go away. It felt like knives were stabbing my legs and feet. I felt like I was underwater; drowning. I couldn’t walk anywhere without the world tilting.
I became afraid of everything. I was afraid to go out in public, afraid to drive, afraid my little son would notice and wonder what was wrong with Mama. I felt like my husband and son deserved a wife and mother that wasn’t mired in an anxiety/fear/depression cycle all the time. How could I be any good to them if I wasn’t any good to myself? In those early hours of the morning I would slip out of the bedroom and lay on the living room floor staring up at the ceiling, contemplating how I could go on while feeling so low and so afraid. I cried a lot, even thinking about what would happen if I stepped into traffic in the busy street below. Maybe my son would be better off without a depressed/anxious mother. I even had these thoughts while I was supposed to be enjoying myself at Palm Springs with the family one week. My husband’s relatives could tell something was off.
I was failing at my new job which I then ended up losing, having a hard time focusing, worrying about how my son was doing at his new school. (He was doing great actually.) It felt like my psychiatrist was grabbing at straws trying to help me by adjusting my medication this way and that, trying this new one, increasing that one, decreasing another, but nothing was working.
I visited an Ayurvedic healer and spent $600 on powders and oil treatments. I even wore my aunt out at one point because it didn’t seem like I was getting any better. I felt so bad and thought something was so wrong with me that I even checked myself into the ER a couple of times only to be told I was having severe anxiety.
Finally I realized that I needed something more than individual therapy alone. In July 2018 I checked into an IOP (Intensive Outpatient Program) and it was exactly what I needed. There were no other mothers in the program but there were a lot of similarities with the others in the group in what I had experienced and boy did I talk about my son a lot, which felt GOOD. I learned CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy/Mindfulness), and did Yoga, Music Therapy and Drama Therapy. Along with this program, my aunt helped me find a new psychiatrist who recognized that I had a severe biological depression. He got me on the right meds and gave me the right kind of advice.
Around September 2018 I started to come up out of that well. It was like my eyes were opening up to my son and his development and I could enjoy him again. The scary symptoms were wearing away and I was no longer afraid something bad would happen while I was out with him. Finally I was me again.
What I learned from all this is that Postpartum Depression and Anxiety don’t necessarily come in that period right after having your baby. It can happen a year or more later, and that’s why it’s so hard to prepare for it. One would hope that you would never have to actually prepare for it to happen, but know that there are things you can do if it does. The most important thing to remember is not to suffer alone. Reach out, get help, take time for yourself. I had to climb back up from where I was but I didn’t do it alone. You are not alone either.