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Today is the start of Maternal Mental Health Week, a cause that is so personal to me after having experiences with both Postpartum Anxiety and Postpartum Depression. This is an issue that is so huge in this country, yet it’s still not getting the attention it deserves. And unfortunately some women don’t even know that they are suffering from it or what type of options are out there to help them get through it, until it’s too late. I was lucky enough to get help from some amazing people. Here is my story:
As I’ve discussed in previous posts, I’ve lived with anxiety for most of my life. When I was a child growing up in the 80’s, kids weren’t diagnosed with anxiety disorders. In fact, at that time, my parents and I had no idea that was what we were dealing with. I just thought I was a shy, quiet girl who worried about a lot of things. As I became an adult, these fears and worries only got worse. When the tragedies on September 11th, 2001 took place, with both of my parents working in NYC, I thought that one of my worst nightmares could actually become a reality. Though they weren’t in the area of the towers, I was unable to get in touch with them for hours. The city was shut down, there was no way in or out, and even once I found out they had met up with each other and were safely staying at my uncle’s apartment for the night, I could’t stop thinking about the possibilities. Right after this, I started to see a therapist for the first time in my life.
I continued to see therapists on and off for most of my 20’s and early 30’s. At times I felt like my anxiety was at bay, so I felt that I didn’t need therapy at that point in my life. When I got pregnant with Lexi, I knew very little about postpartum depression (PPD), and even less about postpartum anxiety (PPA). I knew my life was going to change once she arrived, but I didn’t know just how scary it was going to be for me. My husband Jim was only home with me full time for the first week of Lexi’s life. After that he returned back to work. I can still remember the feeling of dread I had the night before his first day back. The last thing I wanted was to be alone with this tiny human. I was sleep deprived, overwhelmed, and had no clue how to take care of a newborn. I tried to breastfeed, because I felt pressured to do so, only to end up stopping after a week of sobbing every single time my baby had to eat. On top of this, we eventually found out that Lexi had a milk protein allergy (and reflux), and that was only after I decided to follow my gut and take her to a pediatric GI doctor, even though our pediatricians insisted she was “totally fine” and after being told several times “all babies spit up.” (Side note: Follow your instincts when it comes to your health or your children’s health. I’ll be talking about this in another blog post.)
Even with the help of my mother almost every afternoon, I still felt like I just couldn’t do it. Why did I decide to have kids? Will my life ever be the same? Will my body ever feel like my old body used to? On top of keeping this infant healthy and alive each day, I was still recovering from pregnancy and childbirth, which in case you didn’t know, do a real number on a woman’s body. I was definitely not feeling too great myself, and I was supposed to keep an eye on this little thing 24/7? Everything felt so overwhelming. The first bath: how would I keep her from drowning? The first time she pooped all over herself, back and front. How many ounces should she be eating? Why isn’t she gaining weight? Is she too hot at night? The first time she slept through the night- I must have woken up 57 times to make sure she was breathing. Now she’s sleeping through the night and I still can’t fall asleep or stay asleep. Constant worries ran through my head day and night. Sometimes I cried, mourning my old life before children. Would I ever feel like Brianne again?
I saw my OBGYN at 6 weeks postpartum and was told I was doing great. I sure didn’t feel like I was, but I passed the 10 question screening questionnaire that determines if you have PPD, so I must be fine. I saw my primary care doctor for my yearly check up and even after telling him I felt really overwhelmed, exhausted and that I was barely sleeping, it was still never even suggested that I had postpartum anything. I guess because I never said I felt like I was going to harm my baby or myself, I was really okay. I just resigned myself to the fact that all new moms felt this awful after their first baby. After the first 9 months of my daughter’s life, and feeling like this everyday, I finally started to see the light at the end of the tunnel. And by 1 year, I almost felt like Brianne again.
I never actually realized what I was going through was postpartum anxiety at that time. In fact, I didn’t figure it all out until I started to think about having another child. Initially, I didn’t even want to have another one. As much as I wanted to give her a sibling, I couldn’t imagine being pregnant again (I hated pregnancy by the way-and I don’t feel guilty about that anymore) and I really couldn’t imagine going through that horrible period again after the second baby arrived. So I decided to reach out to an old high school friend who was now doing volunteer work with a group at Monmouth Medical Center called The Bloom Foundation for Maternal Wellness. It was just about Lexi’s first birthday, and I knew Jim wanted to start trying for another baby. I did more and more research about what this amazing group of women was doing for mothers struggling with PPA and PPD. So when I got pregnant, and started to feel those overwhelming feelings starting to creep into my head, I decided to attend one of the support groups they had for mothers dealing with postpartum issues: PPA, PPD and more. Just knowing that other women felt the same way I did after they gave birth was such a relief. I felt like I wasn’t all alone anymore. And after attending several meetings, I realized that I was actually suffering from postpartum anxiety after Lexi was born, even though none of my doctors ever suggested it. It was more than just being overwhelmed and nervous as a new mom. I also started to see one of the therapists there to discuss my experience after Lexi’s birth and get myself ready in case I felt this way again the second time around. I continued attending the support meetings and made a mental note that if I felt those same anxious feelings again after my son was born, I’d come back to the group and the therapists at The Bloom Foundation.
When we brought Justin home from the hospital, I truly felt like my world was turned upside down. There was no more time for Lexi and I to just hang out like we had for the past two years. She was not happy that this new baby was here and started acting out like she never had before. I felt guilty for changing her life so drastically. She wanted all the attention and I couldn’t give it to her anymore. Jim went back to work after one week again and I thought I was losing my mind. At this point my mom was retired, so she was there almost every single day to help me out and yet, I still felt like having two kids was the worst idea ever. I must have been crazy to get pregnant again. My life with Lexi had such a great routine to it before we threw another kid in the mix. I missed those days. So I cried. About everything.
My son Justin also had a milk allergy and reflux, even worse than Lexi did. I decided to take him to a GI doctor right away, and even then it took a while to get him on the right formula and medications. Until then, he was miserable. He cried most of the day. He barely napped. We were up every 3 hours all night long, sometimes more. He had a hard time sleeping at night because of his reflux and choking, so instead of putting him to sleep on his back like we were told to, we tried his side with a towel rolled up behind him in the bassinet. That didn’t work. We put him in the dreaded Rock N’ Play that he napped in during the day and he finally slept. I worried that since he wasn’t on his back like the AAP recommends that something bad would happen to him. So I checked him constantly. The lack of sleep was getting to me. I dreaded every morning when Jim would leave. I hated the routine of trying to calm an unhappy baby while tending to a toddler who needed something from me every 10 seconds. When my mom was there I was able to get more things done, but I was still so unhappy with my new situation. I almost felt mad at the baby for ruining everything. I was constantly snapping at Lexi for every little thing. I was mad at Jim all the time, and I was jealous that he got to leave each day and go to work, and interact with adults and eat his lunch without a crying baby in his arms. And once my mom would leave I would just cry. About everything.
The holidays came and went. I typically love December but I just wanted it to be over. I tried my best to make it exciting and fun for Lexi, but inside I was falling apart. On top of all this, we barely left the house because it was the middle of flu season and the pediatrician didn’t think we should take the baby in public places if we could help it. By January my father had retired too, so I now had him around to help as well. As much as my parents offered to come over and help or told me to go do some things on my own, I felt guilty always saying yes to them. I felt like it was my choice to have another kid, so it wouldn’t be fair for me to keep using them to take care of my children all the time. So I pretty much only left the house for doctor’s appointments. I hadn’t seen any of my friends in months, and by that point I was barely even texting them. Every day I felt like I was drowning. I just wanted to be alone. I wanted my old life back. I wanted my old body back. I had never been this unhappy in my life.
Jim and my parents started asking me if I was depressed. Each time I said no. I explained that I was just overwhelmed by having two kids to take care of. I didn’t want to discuss how I felt with anyone. I just knew I was miserable inside. I cried every single day. About everything.
My parents and Jim kept suggesting that I go back to my therapist. And I’m not sure why, but I didn’t want to go. I think I didn’t want to admit that I was in a bad place. As much as they all knew it, I couldn’t face it myself. Nobody wants to admit they are depressed. But then it happened. I remember playing on the floor with Lexi that morning. I barely had the energy to interact with her. I was just sitting there staring out the sliding door when she came over, sat on my lap and said, “I love you Mama.” And I just sobbed. And I looked at her looking at me crying and thought, “That’s it. I can’t let my daughter see me like this everyday. I need help.”
I finally started to see my therapist and the nurses at The Bloom Foundation again and I was officially diagnosed with postpartum depression. And after some resistance on my part, we all agreed that I should give medication a shot. It would be a low dose of Lexapro. That night, I filled my prescription and took my first anti-depressant.
The first two weeks were tough. The side effects were everything from nausea to diarrhea, headaches, insomnia, night sweats. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to continue. Until just like that, week 3, the side effects stopped and I felt like a whole new person. The crying stopped. The daily dread went away. I wasn’t yelling at Lexi all day long. And most of all, I was no longer angry with the baby that I blamed for ruining everything. I all of a sudden felt this incredible connection to him, which I hadn’t felt before. I hugged him and kissed him constantly. We smiled at each other. I even remember sending Jim a picture of me and Justin while he was at work one day, and he said “It’s good to see you smiling again. Especially while you are holding the baby.” That was when I knew that going on an anti-depressant did not make me a weak person, it was helping me be the person I needed to be for myself and my family.
Justin is six months old now and we are finally all in our new routine. Lexi has adjusted to having a sibling. We all sleep through the night. Around the same time I started my medication, I also started to workout again. My father introduced my to his trainer, and working out with him 3 times a week has been life changing. My trainer knows about my struggle with PPD and had been so helpful in getting me back to a good place. Not only am I getting physically stronger and starting to look like my old self, my mind is finally getting there too.
As of last week, my therapist and nurse I felt I was ready to start weaning off of the Lexapro. So far I have been feeling great, and the good thing is that if I ever feel like I am starting to get depressed again, I can go back on it. But for now, my plan is to be off of it soon, and to continue with exercise, therapy and other ways to manage my anxiety.
I know my anxiety will be a part of who I am for the rest of my life. But my experiences with postpartum anxiety and depression were a whole different ball game. Doctors need to know more about postpartum disorders and how to diagnose them. Women need to be taught about this before and during pregnancy, so when the time comes, if you feel you are having certain symptoms and thoughts, you can get help. When we went to our childbirth class during my first pregnancy, we learned exactly what to expect when labor started, what would happen at the hospital, what labor was supposed to be like and all of that kind of stuff. But never once did anyone discuss PPA or PPD. Nobody told me I might not have that instant connection with my babies. They didn’t tell me I might feel like I never should’ve had kids. They didn’t mention that if I was crying uncontrollably everyday that something might be wrong. That there are “the baby blues” as they call it, and then there is postpartum depression. And I actually didn’t even know that there was such a thing as postpartum anxiety. There needs to be more education across the board. There needs to be more awareness brought to this subject. Women need to know how and where they can get help. And they need to know that they are not alone.
If you know a mother who seems like she’s not herself lately please reach out to her. Let her know she’s not alone. and let her know she can get help and she can get through it. I always let any new moms know I am an open book when it comes to my struggles, so they can come to me for anything- to cry, to scream, to vent, to get advice or to help them get the help they might be needing. There are too many women suffering alone. And it doesn’t have to be that way, there is help out there.
I will be forever grateful to the amazing women at The Bloom Foundation. If you get a chance, please check out their website at www.thebloomfoundation.org. They are doing incredible things for mothers and not just in New Jersey but throughout the country now. I can’t thank them enough for what they did for me.