Since I was about 24, I’ve been living with anxiety disorder that presents in different ways. I’ve gone through significant panic disorder and generalized anxiety because of it. When I got pregnant, I knew these experiences upped my odds of postpartum mental illness, as well.
I spent much of my little girl’s first year and a half or so in the trenches of postpartum anxiety. I want to note that I didn’t really feel anxiety set in until my daughter was several months old, and I thought this disqualified me from a postpartum diagnosis. It wasn’t until I broke down at an annual exam nine months after giving birth that I learned that postpartum mental illness can occur anytime within the year after birth.
I also want to point out that I delayed seeking help because I felt like I had already dealt with so much regarding anxiety that the symptoms I was feeling weren’t “bad enough.” I was able to function so why would anybody give my persistent sadness and worry a second thought? I am now a firm believer that no amount of suffering is too small to seek help.
So, what did it look like? For me, postpartum anxiety was much more subtle than the flat-out, obvious, persistent panic attacks I suffered earlier in my life. For me, PPA looked like persistent, abnormal worry, like that my daughter would stop breathing just because I decided to go take a shower. I set an alarm for every two hours at night to check her breathing. Insomnia, waking me up at 4 am despite everyone around me sleeping. Nightmares. Intrusive thoughts about my daughter getting hurt or dying. Rage. Persistent and interrupting fear of death and dying. Lack of motivation for daily tasks like cleaning. And finally, perhaps the scariest symptom for me, loss of purpose and the belief that my life truly had no meaning.
Eventually, my anxiety was leading me down a path toward depression. I knew I needed to talk to my mental health team when I realized I had stopped doing the things I loved (reading, shopping, exercising), not because I didn’t want to do them, because I very badly did. I stopped doing the things I loved because I truly felt like they didn’t matter anymore. I literally thought (trigger warning), “We’re all going to die anyway so why buy new clothes today?” I was 31 years old, and I feared that I had given up on my life already.
Thankfully for me, a combination of hormonal birth control, therapy, exercise, and a solid community of women’s support helped me emerge from the fog of PPA. I didn’t seek support for so long because I believed I had already gone through anxiety, so why couldn’t I wrangle this myself? What I didn’t understand is that sometimes in postpartum, there are bigger beasts, like hormones and chemicals, that are triggering your anxiety or depression that only an expert can help you tease out.
Now, I stand up for maternal mental health via my personal IG, @though.she.be.but.little, and my blog thoughshebebutlittleblog.com. I think that even apart from mental illness, we could all be better supported after such a giant life shift. We can do better for other moms, and for ourselves!