I began writing this over the weekend, an idea that’s been percolating for a while now, to actually share what life with anxiety is really like. On Monday I laid down for a nap with my beautiful boy, and woke up to a world mourning the loss of one of its bright spots in the world, Robin Williams. His death has hit me hard, as have the conversations surrounding it, some good, some awful. I was stunned and saddened (and angered) to read some people claiming suicide is selfish. I obviously didn’t know him personally, but I feel confident saying Robin Williams was not a selfish man. Look at how much joy and laughter he brought to the world, the small ways he liked to cheer people up when they really needed it, how he portrayed characters that moved us and made us smile and laugh and think. He seemed like one fine specimen of a human being, and I’m truly heartbroken to know he was hurting so badly. Many stories have come out of this, a lot of sharing, a lot of discussion about others suffering with depression and anxiety. Now I’m joining those voices to add my experiences into the world, in hopes that anyone reading might feel encouraged, or a little less alone, if they’re living these experiences too…
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When I walked into the room of ladies who had naturally drawn away from the crowd of the Baby Celebration BBQ, I knew we’d be talking about babies. My own “baby” (now three years old) immediately climbed on the ottoman and began getting into things in his typical toddler way. “So Meghan,” I was asked by way of invitation into the conversation, “What do you wish you’d known before having a baby?”
“Oh,” I said. “Well…” In a mere seconds-long pause, the pros and cons of saying the dreaded words, “post partum anxiety,” flitted through my head – something every new mother has heard of and either dreads or thinks it won’t/can’t happen to her. I envisioned the twelve million ways it has plagued my life, as well as that feeling of overwhelming love and fear and protectiveness and wishing you could control every moment of the universe to keep things running smoothly so that your child is never harmed, and the sheer terror that can grip your heart to know that you can’t, you just can’t, and because you can’t, you also can’t breathe and… Does every new mother feel that, or is it just the anxiety rearing its ugly head again?
The third second ticked by as I blankly said, “I’m not really sure.” I wasn’t sure if I might freak out the about-to-give-birth mama I didn’t know so well if I said what was truly on my mind, or whether it was better to play it safe, or what. So I just bowed out completely. Conversation turned to the Boppy pillow, the nose frieda, diaper creams, diapers generally… In the moment, I was glad I hadn’t said anything. When I got home, I told Joe about the exchange and what I’d left unsaid, and he responded, “But that’s your story. That’s what happened to you. And isn’t that part of the problem with anxiety – feeling like you have to hide it all the time?”
Yes. Yes, it is.
The truth of the matter is that hiding it has become a lifelong habit, as I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder as a very young child. I don’t always like to tell people that because of the raging stigma that mental health issues carry, but if it’s not discussed, how will anyone know how common it really is? Or that they’re not so crazy, if it’s happening to them too?
I used to wash my hands until they were raw and cracked and bleeding. (Sometimes my hands can still get like that in the winter, so don’t freak out if you see my hands look like that, by the way! I just need to remember to use moisturizer. But as a kid, lack of moisturizer was NOT the problem.) I had to wash them a certain number of times. I had to wash them until they “felt right.” (Okay, I still do this.) Tiny things would send my heart racing, I’ve always startled easily, I obsess over things to a degree that is just sad sometimes (especially when I look back on it by reading old diaries, for example), I have racing thoughts, I second guess every decision I make, and I have horrible “intrusive thoughts.”
Intrusive thoughts is the name for the phenomenon in which you go about your every day life and suddenly you have a thought, either in words you’re speaking in your mind, or what I think of as “video format.” It feels a lot like someone jumping out at me suddenly with a portable DVD player, playing the most horrific and frightening scenarios possible, starring those I hold most dear. Tiny pain in my stomach? Probably dying of cancer; brain: quick! imagine in movie form the horrors of dying in a hospital bed and having to say goodbye to my husband and children. Driving? See gruesome car accident possibilities! Invitation to a pool party? Imagine all the myriad ways in which my kid might drown and I’d have to perform CPR to no avail. These thoughts go along with a surge of adrenaline, racing heart, racing thoughts, the inability to stop the thought, horror accompanying the thought, and the “why why WHY am I thinking these awful things?!” horror plus added guilt, and on and on… It feels like an physical attack. I guess because it IS. It’s quick and unstoppable. And sometimes I just feel beaten down by it, where I sigh and go “yep.. OCD again,” as my loved ones are bloody messes in my horror show of an imagination. If another person showed this shit to you, you’d have them arrested for harassment. But it’s my own brain.
When I read about post partum anxiety while I was pregnant, I read that moms might imagine harming their children, and suddenly have these scary thoughts or images in their heads. And I somewhat bitterly chuckled to myself, “Oh, you mean like everyday life?”
I didn’t even realize I had post partum anxiety when it popped up, though. In fact, I thought I didn’t! I didn’t know I had PTSD either. But I’m sure I had both, and the therapist I saw agreed. It all stemmed from the horrifying experience we had with Homer not breathing when he was eight days old. Well first he did it at 4 days old, but when it happened again for a longer episode at eight days old, we went to the hospital and stayed for a week sorting it all out while he had several more episodes, the worst of which he turned blue and passed out in my hands. It turned out that this was all caused by severe reflux, which would bubble up and get stuck, blocking his airway. He went on medication at 14 days old and stayed on it until he was eight months old.
A lot of people go through much worse, and a lot of people never have to deal with anything quite so stressful, and everyone handles these things differently. I coped by becoming really obsessive about the things I could handle and watch, which included Homer’s eating. For about the first six months of his life, I recorded and timed every single time he ate, and for us that meant exclusively breastfeeding. I timed him, and recorded it as: L 15 min, R 12 min. There were pages and pages of this in my notes section on my phone. I even got an app for it. I also slept with the light on, as I’d startle awake and need to see immediately that he was okay in the bassinet beside me, where he slept on an incline to lessen his reflux. I was finally able to break away from both things when Homer was about six months old, and it was a huge relief. I had nightmares a few times a month for about eight months, and many times that he spat up, or had even the mildest choking episode, like getting some banana slightly caught for half a second, then gagging it up, I’d burst into tears. Same for seeing anyone with a “breathing bag” on any medical show like Grey’s Anatomy or whatnot (I avoided those shows for about a year, but they still made me cry even at that point). (I was going to insert a google image here, but I almost freaked out viewing the image results, so nevermind! You can google it yourself if you don’t know what I’m talking about…)
I couldn’t speak about any of this without crying until he was a little over a year old.
Then things got better. I went back to my “normal” level of anxiety, my baseline, which I considered doable.
Then I got pregnant. And my anxiety increased. I was happy, but my hormones were bonkers, and I found myself extremely anxious and emotional without anything setting me off at all. Then I lost the baby, and my anxiety got worse. A lot worse. I was depressed and anxious. I felt like I couldn’t do anything, and nothing sounded interesting. I still went out and did pretty well on many days. But then things would just hit me sometimes and I didn’t want to move from my couch. Granted, I like sitting on the couch! But this was different. I felt like I just couldn’t handle doing anything else other than watching tv or just sitting. I knew it was not good, that Homer and I should be getting out, so I made myself (sometimes… and sometimes we sat around and he watched A LOT of tv), and a lot of times things went okay, but it felt like a struggle many days too. If I had been constantly upset, it would have been easier to get help sooner, but the fact that plenty of good, pretty mostly-normal-feeling days were in there too really confused me. Maybe I was fine?
But I wasn’t fine. I made an appointment to see my doctor to get a regular physical following my D&C surgery that I’d needed after my missed miscarriage. And I was SO freaked about even mentioning my anxiety to her. For four or five days leading up to the appointment, my stomach was sick, I could barely eat, I wanted to cry all the time, just because I planned to say to my doctor, “Hey I have been feeling anxious, is there anything I can do about this?”
The anticipation leading up to the day of the appointment was far worse than the day itself. I thought I was holding it together pretty well as I waited for her, and she came in and we began to chat, but then she said, “Okay, so you had a miscarriage a couple months ago. How’ve you been feeling since then?” And I completely burst into tears. We talked a lot about anxiety and she asked if I’d like to try a medication and I said yes. She prescribed me an SSRI, and I picked it up that afternoon.
Going on the medication made me feel better, and I could finally think without the constant nervous chatter going in my head. That sounds like nothing to most, maybe, but that seriously shocked me. I had no idea it was actually POSSIBLE to have a clear mind, unless I was truly concentrating my hardest during meditation (and even then I have always done better with visual guided meditation!). And here I was experiencing it! While driving! Not even TRYING! Humming a tune to myself and NO WORDS of my thoughts, buzzing around rapidly as an undercurrent to it all. This was a completely new experience for me!!
But then I freaked out about every physical symptom I felt, worrying I was having side effects (overanalyzing, obsessing, doubting… ah, OCD). So I talked to my doctor and stopped the medication. I felt okay for about a week, and then had an awful anxiety/panic attack in the shower, where I could NOT stop my thoughts, even though I was arguing with myself to just stop thinking, and I had this really, really weird, powerful, terrifying moment where I could NOT remember if a memory I had about miscarriages was something I’d seen online, or something I’d experienced personally. And not being able to differentiate that FREAKED ME OUT, and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I wanted to throw up and cry at the same time. I did neither. I just decided that after that, and after spending the next two days agonizing about whether or not to restart the medication, that probably meant I should go ahead and restart the medication.
I did, and it’s been amazing. I recently wondered how I’d feel if I weren’t on the medication, but had no plans to go off, of course. Last month, I even enrolled in automatic refill so I wouldn’t have to remember to go sit at my computer and enter in all the info for a dang refill every single month. As I approached the very bottom of the bottle, I remembered the auto refill and assumed it must be ready at the pharmacy. I missed one day’s dose and thought eh, it’ll be all right. I didn’t make it to the pharmacy that evening, and thought, well, then I’m even more sure it’ll be there tomorrow, so I’ll go first thing in the morning. Even so, I still went ahead and filled in the refill information online that afternoon, just to be extra sure. I went in the next morning, and it wasn’t ready. The doctor’s office hadn’t approved it. I called the doctor’s office and the receptionist lady made a note that I was out and asked the docs to rush it to be approved. This was day two without medication, and I was very irritable, and felt that tense feeling all over my body, like I was just on edge. My thoughts were quicker paced, the intrusive thoughts were butting in here and there (which made me realize they really had been pretty absent!). I sighed, and told myself to power through, that I could do this, it’d be ready soon, there was light on the horizon… It was going to be okay. The pharmacy didn’t call or text. The medication wasn’t ready.
The next morning, I had plans to go to a puppy play date, and I had kind of hyped it up for Homer, as I was looking forward to it, and knew he would be too. We’d been before, with a small group, just one time and the dogs all got along and Homer loved it, running and playing with the dogs. Well, I woke up to an email saying a lot of timid dogs and their owners would be there, and she didn’t think it would be a good idea for kids to come, apologized, and said she hoped I could still make it. Well, I couldn’t. So I was disappointed. Disappointed is a normal reaction. But truly, I was near tears. Then I decided to just take Homer to pick up some McDonald’s for breakfast instead and when he started screaming at me that he wanted a cake pop from Starbucks instead, I felt like I was losing my mind. I kept saying, “No,” and “I understand that’s what you want, and I’m saying no, I know that’s really disappointing,” and he kept going, “STOP! Stop talking! CAKE POP FROM STARRBUCKKSSSS!” I kept shouting, “I SAID NO!” then feeling bad, and taking a step back and speaking patiently again, and then trying to ignore him. I managed to get the McDonald’s breakfast, but I was FUMING ANGRY at him and then all of a sudden, I was just crying.
“Are you sad?” he asked in his sweet little voice from the backseat.
“Yes,” I said.
“Why?” he asked.
“Mommy is really frustrated and really tired. I am just trying to get us breakfast and get us home, okay buddy?”
We ate and things were okay. He watched some cartoons and I tried not to just feel STRESSED and freaked for really no reason at all. I found myself thinking, “I can’t do this,” over and over, then asking myself what it was I can’t do. I didn’t even know. Things were fine. But it didn’t feel fine. The fight or flight reaction was definitely activated, and all parts of my brain were screaming flight. I was trying to come up with escape plans, wondering when Joe would wake, wondering if I could go out alone somewhere… (Joe had pulled an all nighter working on video game stuff and was asleep, because I’d told him for 3 days that Homer and I would be gone all day on Saturday, so he had no clue we were even home!) And I’m used to battling this anxiety stuff, I’m used to thinking I need to just deal, and let it pass, no matter what it feels like. I told myself it was all dumb, that I was fine, that I shouldn’t bug anyone with any of this. I did what I always do – just tread water and hope it all goes away. So maybe I was in freeze mode after all, since that’s what I was physically doing, feeling stuck and staying still, waiting for peace to magically appear.
Homer and I took a nap, and I had the worst anxiety dreams, a full hour of looking for a baby I’d left alone overnight, trying to climb a hallway that turned into a giant hill I was trying to drag Homer up, etc. I hate anxiety dreams. I awoke to a voicemail that said my prescription was ready, and I could not have gotten over there any faster to take it. One teeny pill the size of a grain of rice, and within an hour, I felt immeasurably better. My heart was no longer pounding in my chest; it was presumably beating at a normal rate that I couldn’t feel. I felt normal. I no longer dreaded speaking to other human beings. I could think. I even felt social enough to head out to a group picnic that I was very sure I wasn’t going to attend earlier in the day because the thought of facing people, even people I like a lot, was just too much. But things were okay again. I’m me again.
For years I told myself I just needed to try harder, exercise more, meditate more, take deep breaths more… For years I thought I just wasn’t working hard enough at relaxing. Try harder to relax!! What sense does that make? I’m glad to finally realize that no, it’s not about working that hard. There is something wrong with my brain. And that’s okay, because there is a medicine that can bring balance back to what’s wrong with my brain. Some people need insulin, some people need heart meds, some people need brain meds. It is OKAY. It is not (or at least should not be) shameful, embarrassing, awful, some disgraceful secret. I take a Selective Seratonin Reuptake Inhibitor, and my life is better for it. And I’m extremely grateful for that.
This is the face of anxiety:
And so is this:
The difference is only that you usually only see one of those, while the other remains always hidden. That first image is my first foray into attempting some kind of Profile of Anxiety photo that can give even a glimmer into what it’s really like to have an anxiety attack, though it’s hard to capture, for sure. It’s hard to really describe how fast the thoughts can go, how they’re not even always complete sentences – they’re feelings and some words and they’re jumbled and spinning, faster and faster, and you can’t slow it down, the way you can’t really slow a blender’s spinning blades by just willing them to slow down, and it’s all muddled and awful and you want to press stop, but there IS no stop button and it feels like it’ll never end, and eventually it does, but not knowing when makes you want to run, run far away and fast, and hope the thoughts stay behind somehow. I’ve often thought, if only I could just trade brains with someone, even for a little while, just for the break it would give. To see someone else’s thoughts, anyone else’s, to just get out of my own head, because sometimes it’s goddamn suffocating and claustrophobic being trapped in there. But then somehow it passes and things improve and you move on, gathering strength to fight it the next time it pops up, because it’s not a matter of “if” but “when.”
I’d like to point out, too, for the sake of understanding, that my anxiety/OCD is considered pretty mild. Many others experience far worse, and I can imagine a little what that must be like. I can see how the road I’ve traveled, as hard as it’s been, could be much darker, much more frightening, much more fraught with hopelessness and that terror of no escape. I can see into the black hole and be glad I’m not in it, that I’ve been lucky enough to merely travel the rings circling it, while somehow, by pure luck, not getting sucked in…
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So, what do I wish I’d known before having a baby?
I wish I’d known about Post Partum Anxiety, what it really is, that it’s okay to get help.
I wish I’d known Post Partum Anxiety can hit even after a miscarriage. You don’t have to have birthed a full term baby to have PPA. All the hormones are still there, whether it’s 13 weeks like it was for me, or 35 or 40.
I wish I’d known about my sleep apnea sooner, because startling awake did not help my anxiety one bit, and was partly caused by sleep apnea issues.
I wish I’d known that even when you DO want to get help, it’s easy to be TERRIFIED of letting your baby out of sight, so you might put off making an appointment. Don’t do that. Just call. Have someone call for you. Ask. You might be able to bring the baby. For me, it was scary and lonely being in a new city when all the miscarriage stuff happened. People offered to do anything for me, which is so sweet, but my anxiety said, “Don’t leave your kid!” Even with wonderful people who’d offered. That’s the thing about anxiety too, you can realize that what you’re thinking doesn’t necessarily make sense, but that doesn’t make you change your mind. It only makes you feel more embarrassed and ridiculous. Or that’s what it does to me, anyway.
I wish I’d known how significantly the medication could help me, and I wish I’d tried it YEARS earlier.
I wish I’d known what was really going on.
But now, I just wish that those who are going through anything like this can know they’re not alone, to pause, get some help, reach out to someone. Anxiety is a bitch, but it can get better. It’s worth fighting through to the other side. And when you can’t do it alone, instead of feeling weak, join hands with someone who can pull you out of the depths, and feel strength in unity, in numbers, in feeling whole again on the other side.
None of us is alone.Embed from Getty Images
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