I learned three very important things after being diagnosed with postpartum depression and anxiety: 1. It doesn’t feel like depression and anxiety. Because I didn’t know what it felt like. I had absolutely no idea what it looked like or felt like, even though I was living a decently severe case. 2. postpartum anxiety and depression don’t suddenly just happen after birth. Sometimes you can have it during pregnancy as well. That is called antenatal depression and I didn’t even know this existed. I believe I had this during my pregnancy, but it went undiagnosed until after birth when it got exponentially worse. 3. Postpartum anxiety is real. Not just depression. I had never even heard of this. I didn’t think anything was wrong with me because I didn’t feel depressed. Everything I found online was describing depression, not anxiety, and because I didn’t have many or severe symptoms of depression, I thought I was ok.
If any of this resonates with you and you think you might have depression or anxiety, please contact a doctor or midwife. Postpartumdepression.org says that 1 in 7 women will experience depression within the year after giving birth, or 600,000 women. Just in the United States. 600,000. You’re definitely not alone, and speaking from experience, there is help and it gets better.
I found out I was pregnant with my first baby in early February 2015. I drove to Walmart by myself late at night to buy a pregnancy test, not convinced I was pregnant but worried I might be. I grabbed that one thing and quickly walked to the check out line. The self checkouts were all closed, so I walked very reluctantly to the remaining open lines. I was annoyed I couldn’t check out with anonymity. I put my item on the conveyor belt and hoped I could pay as quickly as possible. Then the cashier told me “sorry, the system will be down for five minutes while it resets for the night.” You’re kidding, right? Please tell me you’re kidding. The people behind me kept piling up, all of them staring hard at the only thing I was purchasing. I spent what felt like the next hour soaking in feeling shameful about buying a pregnancy test. Trying to believe that there was no shame in it, I’d been married for years. It still felt so embarrassing. The poor cashier probably felt just as anxious to get me out of there as I was; they had to bask in the discomfort with me.
I woke up way too early in the morning and couldn’t go back to sleep, so I forced Reed to get up and I took the test. Positive. Reed was still so tired he was stumbling into doorways. I was so so SO annoyed he was still tired at a time like this.
My pregnancy was very healthy and without complications. Food repulsed me in the first trimester, but I never threw up. I had sciatic pain later in pregnancy, but that was about it. But somewhere after 20 weeks I started having a hard time sleeping. I would wake up at 4 in the morning and lay awake for three hours. Sometimes more. And I remember once I made a bowl of chili, and then I dropped it and shattered the bowl and ruined all my food. I was starving. I remember having a panic attack, except I didn’t know that’s what it was. It was just uncontrollable crying way out of proportion and having trouble breathing correctly.
Around that same time, I was started to always be really tired. No matter how I slept I was always tired. And never felt like doing anything. I never felt uninterested in life, but I never wanted to participate in life either. I just wanted to hang out, watch, chill, lay down. Not much of anything else. I felt a strong lack of motivation, too. I felt like I had to force myself to do anything. And I started to have a hard time making decisions. Even just going through pictures and deleting and editing my favorites felt like too much. Having to decide between that picture or this picture was too hard. But I thought all of this was just a part of pregnancy that would go away after giving birth.
People would ask me all the time “oh, are you just getting so excited for your baby to come?” And I’d always mumble something, and maybe sometimes honestly answer: no, not really. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I just feel anxious about it. l always felt terrible.
Sweet little Maren Grace was born at 8:52pm on October 23, 2015, 11 days past her due date and after ~11 hours in labor. Immediately after she was born my midwife tried to hand her to me, but I couldn’t hold her because I was so tired. After I got settled in bed I got to meet her and cuddle with her. I didn’t experience that overwhelming feeling of love people always talk about with either of my babies. But I still liked her and enjoyed cuddling her and holding her for the first time.
I had her at home, and when the midwife leaves a couple of hours after birth, you can’t think anything but “what the heck do we do now??”. It was just after midnight, so we went to bed. Except I couldn’t sleep. Maren was sleeping. Reed was sleeping. I had been up since 6 am and had just given birth without drugs at home and I couldn’t sleep. All I could think about was not sleeping. I laid awake until six in the morning.
Maren was a very easy newborn. When people asked how she was doing, I’d say “great, she sleeps really well, eats well, and doesn’t cry very much.” But I’m not sleeping. I would lay awake constantly, all night, and not sleep. The panic attacks started getting worse and worse, but I still didn’t know that’s what they were. It felt like an attack of overwhelm, indecision, and crying. I couldn’t breathe the same. I never felt like I could breathe enough, or like I could catch my breath. Even when I wasn’t having a panic attack.
The insomnia was bad during pregnancy, but after birth it got exponentially worse. I was barely sleeping, and not because of the baby. Every day I dreaded night time, and I normally love night time and going to sleep. I dreaded having to lay in bed in the dark trying to sleep but being physically incapable of doing so. I cannot describe how tired I was; 9 months of pregnancy with insomnia, giving birth, and then taking care of a newborn. Without sleeping. My body would not physically let me sleep.
I was constantly feeling overwhelmed. PPD and PPA is, to me, being very easily overwhelmed to the point of panic, and not sleeping. That was its summary in my life. I started not being able to be around people. We had family over for supper not too long after she was born, and I couldn’t even be a part of it because I was crying. For no reason. It was very embarrassing. Not being able to make decisions was bad, too. I felt like my head was constantly physically spinning inside, and that my thoughts were actually a few milliseconds behind reality. When I drove I felt unsafe, like I couldn’t react or process fast enough.
When Maren was less than two weeks old we went out to eat. Reed and I drove separately for some reason, and on the way home I drove with her by myself for the first time. I drove two miles – two miles – and I got pulled over. Cue major panic attack. I kept thinking, “you can’t even drive two minutes with your baby without being pulled over, how are you ever going to do this.” The poor police officer was so nice and understanding, and told me “it gets better.” He had to have known something was wrong before I did.
I also never wanted to be alone. Anyone who knows me at all knows that I love to be by myself a lot. So it wasn’t normal when I started being fearful of being by myself. I always wanted Reed to be home with me, and I never wanted him to leave. I wasn’t scared of anything in particular, I was just too anxious to be alone. The worst thing, though, was not really caring about my baby. I didn’t want anything bad to happen to her, but I just couldn’t find the feelings to care for her. I remember carrying her swaddled tiny body into her room one night with her little eyes looking up at me, and it felt like she was saying “why don’t you want me mama?” Having nonverbal things talk to me definitely isn’t normal for me, so I should have known something was wrong. I was very worried I would never be able to connect with her. The sound of her crying made me really anxious and often left me in a panic attack.
One night my midwife suggested I try taking a sleeping pill. I bought an over the counter medication and was excited to try it. It was one of the worst nights of my life. All it did was immobilize my body, but left my racing mind like it was actually on the spinning space ship from the fair. For hours and hours until it wore off.
Every day kept getting worse and worse, the lack of sleep from anxiety, not the baby, compounding. Every day at sunset, I would have a panic attack. It was becoming cyclical. And I was having many panic attacks a day. It had been less than two weeks but it felt like it was never going to end and that I was never going to get better.
After finally falling asleep one night, I woke up 45 minutes later in a panic attack. For no reason. I thought I was never going to sleep again. My midwife knew I wasn’t doing very well, so when Reed called to tell her this she came over to check on me. She encouraged me to take medication. I was hoping I would get better over time and didn’t want to take medication. I was scared that once I started taking it that I would never be able to wean off of it. I thought my body would learn to need it and I would be stuck taking it the rest of my life. Or worse, it would stop working after my body got used to it and then I would be worse off than before. My midwife made me take a warm bath (in the middle of the night, remember) and drink some tea. I felt better with her there, and she was very adamant that I start taking medication. Reed also encouraged me to. I finally decided I would try, and didn’t want to wait any longer to get a prescription. My midwife made me an appointment with a tele-nurse (I think she was from New Mexico-she was great) the next day.
I don’t like taking medication. I’m not anti-medicine by any means, but I avoid it as much as possible. I had my babies at home, largely because of this reason. I was also very disappointed because I did have my babies at home and kept thinking “you can have a baby without drugs but you can’t “get over” anxiety without drugs?”. I was apprehensive to start taking it, and worried that it would take too long to start working. To help, I was prescribed a short term medicine too to help me sleep. Oh my goodness, did that help. I could finally sleep. It had been less than three weeks since the worst of it began, but I was beyond exhausted. That medicine completely knocked me out, and Reed had to basically take care Maren at night. He would bring her to me, get her to latch on while I was sleeping (I would help a little, I wasn’t completely out of it by any means), and then bring her back to bed.
I felt close to normal shortly after I started medication, and felt like myself by the time Maren was three months old. I remember when Maren was six weeks old, during Thanksgiving weeked of 2015, I was nursing her in bed and we fell asleep together. It’s one of my sweetest memories and I felt that that was a turning point when I knew I was better. We even went on a trip to Chicago during that time. I felt so good that I even tried to wean off of it four months later, and quickly found out I wasn’t ready. The insomnia started returning, and I very quickly returned to the medication.
I was very fearful about never being able to wean off of the medication. But by the time Maren was one year old, I had stopped taking medication all together. I felt perfectly normal and was sleeping like I was before I was pregnant. I was also scared I would never connect with my baby, but I am very connected to her today and love her like a normal parent. I do feel like the sound of her crying still triggers anxiety in me, but it isn’t very bad usually but is something I have to be aware of sometimes.
When I was recovering from this, I kept looking for people who had been through postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety and had recovered and survived after medication. I hope this story will encourage you that healing from it is possible, and to please seek out help. Medication is very helpful, but so are things like counseling and meeting with friends and loved ones. It’s different for everyone, but healing is possible. I was lucky to never have feelings of self harm, but if you do please seek medical help immediately.
Depression and anxiety fall in the “mental health” category, but they completely feel like a physical illness when you’re experiencing them. Because they are. So don’t fall into the societal norm of having to fight through it with willpower. Medical options are available if you choose and can be very helpful very quickly. Also, clinical depression and anxiety isn’t something that you get because you aren’t “trusting in God enough.” I believe God can heal anything, and that certain feelings of anxiety and minor, temporary feelings of depression can be caused by us putting our priorities and hopes away from God, clinical depression and anxiety are not your fault. You didn’t do anything to “make” yourself have it.
Unfortunately there is a part two to this story. I got both PPA and PPD again during my second pregnancy. I will write that post later and eventually link to it here.
The thing I am most sad about from this is the time I missed with my little baby. I never got to enjoy her until she was about a month old, and I will always be sad about that. But I am thankful that I did recover so quickly and was able to enjoy her after that. I am so grateful for my midwife who encouraged me to seek help and for my husband for never being impatient with me and for being so supportive.