What Nobody Told Me About Post Partum Anxiety and Depression
I have had anxiety for as long as I can remember. It probably started when I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at age 7, and I never really grew out of it. Hah, grew out of it. Like it's teen angst or a Backstreet Boys addiction. I've learned to cope. I've lived alongside my anxiety and managed to come to terms with the fact that I have anxiety, and I'll be okay.
Once I had the boys, actually as soon as I had the boys, I felt this overwhelming burning in my chest. I remember their second night, sitting up in my hospital bed, pumping at 3AM, bawling because I was in pain, the baby was crying, the other baby was in the NICU, and I was hyperventilating in rhythm with the pump. I couldn't figure out why, but I was terrified, short of breath, hot, cold. I was having a panic attack. One like I had never had before. It was the first of many that would continue for months and months. Anytime someone besides me wanted to hold one of the boys, panic. Anytime I was pumping and someone came to the house, near the house, called, texted, panic. Anytime the boys were crying and I couldn't figure out why, crippling panic. I felt like I was failing, like I was a broken mother. Eventually anxiety turned into depression and between postpartum anxiety, postpartum depression, and newborn twins, who I was, who I am, ceased to exist.
A distinct moment, on Jude and Wyatt's first birthday, an hour after the party had ended, while I was pumping. I sat there, on my bed, tired from the party, hungry, slightly grumpy, sad that my boys were one, happy my boys were one, thankful. So many vivid emotions in one moment, all with clarity and calm. I wondered, suddenly, where the hell had a year of my life gone? Because up until that moment, I don't really remember much from my boys' first year. Sure there are snippets. Sure there are photos. But when I think back my boys' first year, I remember mostly anxiousness. Upset. Shaking. Feeling surrounded by white noise constantly. And feeling drowned. All while holding two babies.
I won't pretend I hated their first year, or that I have amnesia (though doesn't every mother to some extent?), but postpartum anxiety and depression took a lot more from me than my composure. They took away my ability to process, to make memories, to feel motivated, to get dressed each day, to focus on myself, to focus on anything, to feel true joy or laugh true laughs.
I was quiet on my blog in that first year. I was quiet with a lot of people. I stayed home a lot, I made fewer plans, I cancelled others, I stepped back from my life and never even realized it. In fact, I never really thought about a lot of things I eventually realized about Postpartum Anxiety and Depression. So many things nobody told me about postpartum anxiety and depression because it's the big taboo, almost shameful. But now that I've come through to the other end, even as I still process what happened to me and the boys, our family, that year, I look back on it and realize that Postpartum Mental Health is nothing like I heard, thought, read. I had no idea what it really was or how deeply it could affect my life. So I thought now, as I've seen some clarity in the fog, I'd share some with you.
It's not obvious. That first panic attack, the one I mentioned above in the beginning of this post... I remember panicking, wondering what the heck was going on with me, why I was so uncontrollably emotional. "Duh. You have twins! You have hormones! You are sleep deprived!" And that justification carried me through every time I panicked. And eventually, when I donated all of my "cute" clothes and instead filled my wardrobe with only yoga pants, when I stopped seeing the point in doing my makeup or feeling good, when I was tired all the time, when my head was cloudy all the time... I chalked it all up to normal new mom exhaustion. It took me a very long time to realize, though, that completely losing myself and losing all motivation was not normal. That wasn't exhaustion.
Some days will be better than others. Some days were totally fine, others felt like newer and lower lows each time. Each peak and each valley felt like was just a phase and made me wonder if I had these things at all. It rarely occurred to me, and I rarely made sense out of the fact that anxiety and depression ride the highs and lows with you. My highs weren't quite as high, my lows were lower, and I still wondered if it really could be those things because I was convinced of a stigma that anxiety and depression meant constant sorrow. I didn't understand real-life mental illness, and it kept me from getting help.
It's okay to talk about it. I'm not a talker, most of the time. I mean... it's common knowledge that I like to talk, but I am always more willing to offer wit than I am a heart to heart about how I'm feeling. But in motherhood, if we could start these conversations more, people might listen. And while talking it out isn't exactly a remedy, it might offer some clarity or possible solutions you didn't have before. There is no shame in being honest about yourself, your life, your condition. It might do more good than you ever realized.
It can happen to anyone. I didn't even realize I had postpartum mental health problems until I finally started to see the top of the water and feel like myself again. And sure, people would talk about postpartum depression, check in on me, the doctors, the nurses. "How are you feeling?" Fine. Totally fine. I mean, I was fine, I guess. I was surviving, barely. But when people mentioned those words - depression, anxiety - I immediately brushed them away. Shooing them - no no no, not depression or anxiety. This is just rough with two of them. The fact is, I was convinced I couldn't have it. I had made two human beings at the same time, with a chronic disease, no less, delivered them at term, with very few (and very minor) complications. If I could do that, I could handle postpartum, right? I didn't realize that anxiety and depression are not selective. It's random, it's harsh, it's more common than we think, and it's 100% possible. And there is no shame in it. It was not my fault I had anxiety and depression. It was nothing I did or didn't do. It just was. And I wish I didn't discriminate against myself for having it. Because there is no "type of girl" who gets it.
People won't understand. There is such a thing as the baby blues, and that happens to lots of moms who are simultaneously exhausted and hormonal. It's temporary, it's horrible, but it usually resolves itself and it's surmountable. But postpartum depression and anxiety, crippling, prolonged illness for months is not Baby Blues. Though, just the other day, someone casually mentioned to me, "oh yeah - postpartum depression or whatever. Sucks that some women can't just handle having a baby." and it made me realize how people misunderstand the meaning, the depth, and the affect it can have on a mother, her baby, her family, her friends. How it's not a matter of handling, but being weighted down while trying to do so. I, of course, interjected and politely mentioned he might want to research some more before making insensitive comments, but the fact is - some people just won't get it. And you can educate, preach, speak, spread the word, and you should. But it's also nice to speak to those who will listen, who don't downplay, and who do understand.
People will understand. The heightened awareness of mental illness is a huge blessing for those mothers experiencing postpartum mental illness. Because people are aware, they are willing to listen. They are willing to lend a hand, to try to understand, and to help you get the help you need. And there are tons and tons (and tons) of other women who have gone through this exact thing and know how you feel. It's really tough to reach out to people, but it may make all the difference.
There is help. Whether it be medication, counseling, varying kinds of support from friends and family, there is help. There are things you can do to fight back against the hardship and debilitating thing that mental illness can be. And even further - you deserve help. You deserve to be happy, to be healthy, and to enjoy your life and your child's life. Pride is a small price to pay in comparison to the immense joy that can come from motherhood, and being numb or anxious, or sad, or overwhelmed constantly is not normal, and it's not okay.
You have to advocate for yourself. At my 6 week follow up appointment, I remember saying to my doctor that I didn't feel right. I felt like maybe I was past the point of Baby Blues and that I needed to do something about it. And, in her covering all bases and asking me to verify symptoms, I immediately retracted and convinced myself and her that I was fine, just having typical new mom struggles, and that I was doing much better than I actually was. So she believed me. And I temporarily believed myself. But it didn't get better and relationships became strained and I panicked and I worried I wasn't supposed to be these sweet babies' mother because I couldn't handle anything in my life. The biggest mistake I made was not speaking up, not being honest, not fighting my pride and my fear, and advocating for myself and making a case. I was afraid of going on medicine, I was afraid I was a failure. I was afraid I did something wrong. But unless I was honest about it, nobody would know and nobody could help. So nobody knew, and I never asked for help.
It's not failure. Maybe the biggest thing I grieved over, and still grieve over, was feeling like I was failing Jude and Wyatt, myself, and my husband. I felt like I couldn't do what I needed to as a mother, like I wasn't being present enough, or happy enough, or productive enough, or feeling enough joy at the sweet moments, or that I was feeling too much in the not so sweet ones. I would sit there, having a panic attack, and simultaneously be beating myself up for failing because I couldn't keep myself together. I had a hard time tending to my children's crying sometimes because it made me panic. I had a hard time feeling joy over things because I was depressed. I felt like I wasn't the mother I wanted to be and it was hard. It's still hard, if I'm being honest. But at least I know know that the mother I was then was the best mom I could be in the circumstances. I wasn't intentionally feeling those things and I couldn't help what was happening to me. Even now, I'm doing the best I can with what I've got. And I'm proud of the mother I was to those new baby boys, now, even if I wasn't then. And I know that I didn't cause my postpartum anxiety or my depression. I am no less of a person for those things. And I'm a better mother, better person, more confident, more happy person because of and in spite of that hardship.
And now, being on the other side of it, feeling more comfortable in my own skin, feeling much more equipped to handle not just the stress of parenting, but the stress of everyday life, I am a better me and a better mother. In a backwards way, I am thankful for my mental health troubles because it taught me lessons I may have never learned otherwise. I am still grieving the loss of those precious moments and memories during my boys' first year because it is shrouded with such negativity and anxiety, clouded by my diseases. But I am also immensely blessed by the fact that I can now enjoy them even more. And I know what to look for with subsequent babies. I can take away lessons in parenting and in life. And I still get to to be Jude and Wyatt's mother. That, well that's my biggest blessing of all. And if I forget to remember how hard motherhood can be, how humbling it is, and how eye opening it will always be, they're right there to remind me every day.