Most people have heard of postpartum depression, but very few know about postpartum anxiety/OCD. I didn’t even realize it existed until I began searching for answers to why things were happening in my mind. I wrote this post to give you a glimpse into my struggle with it. Like a message in a bottle, I hope this makes its way to women who have found themselves in this unlucky situation. For spouses and friends of women suffering from PPAOCD, I hope that in reading, you might be able to understand better and help more effectively.
We were in our going home clothes.
Me, a nursing dress, Dubs his embroidered sleep sack, and The Professor, who, well, never got to wear any special clothes while we were in the hospital. I lay in the bed, Dubs snuggled in my arms, waiting for discharge papers, listening to music on my iPad. Then the song, “He’s Always Been Faithful,” by Sara Groves began playing.
Season by season I watch Him, amazed
In awe of the mystery of His perfect ways
All I have need of, His hand will provide
He’s always been faithful to me
The song was an anthem in my college apartment as we prayed for the wonderful husbands God would eventually bless each of us with. I’ve heard the song a thousand times. But this time, the verse caught me by surprise. In awe of the mystery of His perfect ways. The tears began to flow. Slowly at first and then quiet sobs, oddly both at home and out of place of this peaceful moment.
A few hours before, our midwife came to check on us. It was the first time I had seen her since Dub’s birthday. She explained what they theorize caused our scary birth. The umbilical cord was wrapped multiple times around Dub’s body, so much that it held him in place. After 15 hours of labor and no progress, an epidural caused him to finally come down enough to break the waters. Once the waters were broken and he wasn’t floating, the cord was pinched and he was in distress. That’s when our peaceful hospital midwife birth became an emergency. That’s when the grace of God, an excellent medical team, and a bunch of seemingly unrelated circumstances converged to avoid a cord accident.
Now two days later, I lay there on the bed with my perfect baby and I realized all the what if’s. All the near misses. I thought about our desire to labor at home as long as possible after my water broke. Heart racing, throat clenching, the logical conclusion of the what ifs played out in my mind. It was too much to think about. So I held my baby, and leaned against my husband, and I listened to my song, and through the quiet sobs, I said aloud “thank you,” over and over.
Postpartum depression and its cousin, postpartum anxiety/OCD can happen to any new parents. However, they are more common with traumatic births. Thinking back, my postpartum anxiety/OCD and PTSD symptoms began while we were still in the hospital.
It began with anxiety. I’m not talking about worry, but elephant-on-your-chest, full-bodied fear.
The best way I’ve heard it described is manic alertness.
I was at once infuriated that my mostly irrational fears weren’t shared by The Professor or my mom, and at the same time, I was too afraid to voice them. Warring within me was the understanding that my anxieties were irrational and a fear that if I said them out loud, they would come true.
It was little things at first. I was afraid to touch my phone and then touch the baby. I washed my hands about 10 times an hour. I was afraid to take off my wedding ring. I knew that if I did, something terrible would happen to The Professor. I wear an anchor necklace that reminds me of God’s faithfulness during our fertility treatment and early miscarriages. At the hospital, the thought of taking it off put me in a panic. Taking it off meant not remembering our lost babies. And if we didn’t remember our lost babies, how could we be trusted with this whole, perfect one? Taking it off meant something would happen to Dubs.
Once home, I was terrified of putting up our “please don’t ring the doorbell” sign. If we did, they’d know. Who was they? I have no clue. But they certainly would know that we had a perfect, vulnerable baby in the house, and they’d come take him in the night. The thought of The Professor leaving the house to go to the grocery store put me in a full-blown panic.
I lay awake all night long and watched Dubs breathe. If I took my eyes off for a moment, he would stop. Six months in, and this one is still a struggle. It’s as though I feel like my hyper-vigilance is what is keeping everything safe.
This monster, this thief, became a security blanket.
A few days after we were home, my mom and I ventured to Walmart in search of underwear tall enough to go over my c-section incision instead of sitting right on it. I already hate Walmart with the passion of 1,000 yellow smiley faces, but Walmart seemed the logical choice for granny panties (it’s not, by the way – we ended up with expensive maternity undies that got the job done).
As we perused the aisles, I had to keep touching Dub’s hands to make sure he was breathing. About the tenth time, I had a realization. I had Walmart germs on my hands. I touched his hands. He puts his hands in his mouth. That’s when I had a real life, honest-to-God panic attack. At Walmart. New low, people. New low.
As fast as my post-cesarian body could handle, I booked it to the car, my mom trailing behind, still trying to figure out why her daughter was making a scene. There I found diaper wipes and wiped each of Dub’s hands with three wipes.
On the way home, at one point my mom quickly changed lanes – well she attempted and I still hold that it was a dumb move that could have easily caused a fender bender, but nothing more. However, at that moment in my mental state, I lost it, bursting into big, ugly tears. She had put me and my little, helpless baby in perilous danger. Already, the people were going to come and steal him in the night. Horrible things would happen if I took off my jewelry, and now this.
It waxes and wanes with victories and defeats, but the anxiety is never far from me. I have to remind myself this manic alertness is a problem, not my very own super power that holds the world together and keeps everyone safe from a thousand spoken and unspoken dangers and fears. This anxiety, it is not my friend.
The next day, was the start of one of the hallmarks of postpartum anxiety/OCD – intrusive thoughts. I picked up Dubs, and as newborns do, his head bobbed a bit for the millisecond between when I lifted him and when my fingers got in place to support his head. In that moment, I saw in my mind Dubs being shaken, his neck whipping back and forth. Was I the one shaking him? Was someone else? The momentary intrusive thought put me in a tailspin.
For a the whole day, I wondered. Would I hurt him?
Despite everything I tried, the thought replayed each time I picked him up and supported his neck. Soon there was another scary thought that replayed multiple times a day, and then another. They all left me reeling, scared for my baby, scared for me, and scared of me. Filled with fear and shame, it took me several days to even tell The Professor.
Thankfully after a late night feed, I messaged a friend in another state who is a psychologist. She agreed that these were more than just baby blues and that I see a local counselor. I already knew one, and we quickly started meeting. It was helpful to have someone to talk honestly to. To say the fears out loud and not be hushed when my mind wandered through the what if’s of our birth. To realize that once our fertility treatments and miscarriages began, I got on battle mode and never quite stepped off that treadmill. I learned steps to dial down my anxiety and a process for dealing with intrusive thoughts. Apart from medicine, there’s nothing really to do to stop intrusive thoughts. You just deal with them head on. Every time.
I acknowledge I had that scary thought. But I know it’s not real. It’s just my brain feeling a bit confused. That thought holds no power over me and I know I won’t act on it. I am a good mama.
Over the coming weeks, the intrusive thoughts intensified and multiplied. Now my mind played on repeat the worst things you can imagine. There were a dozen scary thoughts and each could rival any horror movie. Six months later and the neck one is the only one I can talk about because it’s the only one I still don’t occasionally struggle with.
Many of the thoughts revolved around things in the kitchen. That whole adage “if you start thinking about putting your baby in the oven, it’s more than the baby blues.” It’s true. The Professor would sometimes come home from work to find me hunkered on the sofa, surrounded by a nest of necessities for the day. I had barely eaten and hadn’t heated dinner, all because I was afraid of going into the kitchen.
Isolation & Needs
Caring for a newborn is exhausting. Being alone with a baby all day is isolating. Add all of this junk to it, and I was spiraling downhill fast.
I would long for The Professor to return home for the day so I wouldn’t be alone, but I’d dread night – the time when my anxiety was (and still is) at its peak. Even though I was on maternity leave, I longed for the weekend – when my parents would come visit and The Professor would be home, and finally I wasn’t alone.
I began reaching out. It was no easy task. First, between not sleeping because of the new baby who eats every 45 minutes and not sleeping because of the massive anxiety, you have to be awake enough to carry on a conversation. Then you have to be vulnerable enough to tell a friend these bizarre struggles – a real difficulty when you’re pretty sure you’re losing your mind. Then you have to put forth the effort to actually call. Finally, and most difficult, you have to be brave enough to articulate the question, “Can you please come over and sit with me?”
Which, let’s be honest, feels pathetic to say out loud.
This wasn’t a quick phone call to see what’s up. It was a lifeline. I began being a little more honest about my struggles. I began learning how to say that I needed help and that things were not a perfect, happy Baby Gap commercial at my house.
Some friends were amazing. They would appear out of no where and sit. They would come bearing tacos and cupcakes.
They would invite us for dinner every week so I could be out of the house. They would message me to check in.
Near or far, talking once a day or once every few weeks, these are the people who showed up. Who didn’t let go.
For some, I could tell I was a bother. Sometimes I think this was in my head, because that’s what happens when you are isolated, anxious, depressed and out of sorts. But many times, it wasn’t. I had become the needy annoyance, spoken to in patronizing tones.
I would remind myself – No! You moved to New Zealand by yourself. You are competent at work. You have been lost in far away cities without problem. You are not needy!
The truth was, at the moment, I wasn’t needy, but I sure did have a lot of needs. And that’s an important distinction, I think.
Others were brazen enough to tell me they knew I was struggling, but were purposefully staying away because I needed to learn how handle this on my own. Or that this was my fault – the result of excitedly preparing for an unmedicated childbirth that I should have known was unattainable.
People actually said those things – like out loud.
And by the way, I’m not saying these things because I want to shame or embarrass anyone. That’s not my heart. My heart is that someone finds this post who is or knows someone going through this little-known form of postpartum depression, and they have an idea what to say or do or not do or not say. That’s my heart. God knows I hold the record for the stupidest things said at the worst moments. So, there you go.
I found an amazing traumatic birth support group on Facebook, and I knitted together a group of friends who all had babies within a few weeks of each other. We are part 3 a.m. comedy club, part support group, part eager advice givers and takers.
By the end of my maternity leave, I knew who was there for me and who wasn’t, and I stayed cocooned in my little safe circle. And that was a very good thing.
Throughout it all, The Professor was amazing.
On days that were bad – which thankfully became less and less – he would come home and not say a word about having to make dinner, do all the dishes and clean all the mess.
He bought a few chunky necklaces from Charming Charlie, my favorite inexpensive accessories store. When he would come in to find me having a bad day, he’d go out to his car and come back with a necklace.
That man. He’s a keeper.
One day when I was crying about not finishing my thank you notes, he boxed them away and told me my priority was our baby and my mind, not thank you notes.
Dealing with this, it’s big and it’s long and it’s hard. There’s no big conquering end to my story.
Going back to work was a huge help because I wasn’t sitting around, stewing in my own anxieties all day. It’s much better, but I still struggle significantly with anxiety. I know that part of that is standard new mom worry and part of it is a true struggle with anxiety rooted in a traumatic event. It all equally has to be given to the Lord every day.
One of the most helpful things was learning my triggers – the things that caused anxiety and intrusive thoughts. Isolation is a big one. Once I realized this, Dubs and I tried to get out of the house once a day. We wandered around Target or visited local shops. I also learned that reaching a certain level of exhaustion is probably the biggest trigger, so The Professor and I are very careful about me getting rest. As weird as it sounds, there are still foods I can’t cook because they are still triggers.
It’s difficult to explain the intensification of the anxiety/ocd symptoms while also looking at the day to day. Some days were great. Some days I had no anxiety and no intrusive thoughts. Some weeks even. But as they came, there was an escalation of the fear, and then slowly, a few months in, a deescalation as my hormones normalized, I learned to deal with intrusive thoughts, and I worked through my emotions.
Since I’ve been back to work, there have been two week-long stretches Dubs has been sick, and I’ve stayed home with him. While I love the extra cuddles, the exhaustion and isolation quickly start to take their toll, and the intrusive thoughts begin again. Once again, I start my multi-step process of dealing with them.
Overall, this experience, it changed me.
I learned that I cannot invest my time and emotions in people who are going to be at best dismissive or at worst cruel. My close circle, it’s significantly closer and smaller than it used to be. And that’s okay.
At the same time, it’s showed me how to have better grace with others. We all are going through hard things. Seeing past the saccharine Facebook statuses – there’s nothing quite so valuable.
I’ve also learned to have a lot of grace with myself. If you want proof, just come to my house and see how badly it needs vacuuming.
I have family members who have dealt with chemical depression their whole lives. I don’t understand that struggle at all, however I now have a glimpse. I now understand what it’s like to not be in full control of your mind. I have my own sliver of understanding at how scary it is. I now understand the value of showing up and just sitting and watching Gilmore Girls in silence.
I’ve learned to listen differently. If I get a call from a friend going through a hard time who wants to get together, everything might be fine. She might just want an adult conversation or a pedicure buddy.
Or that phone call might be the loudest cry for help she can muster.
I’ve learned that when I bring dinner to a friend who just had a baby, I need to ask questions like, “How are you feeling emotionally?”
This year – fertility treatments, miscarriages, pregnancy, labor, scary birth, anxiety – I’ve learned that I’m stronger than I ever thought possible. But I’ve also learned that I’m weaker and more vulnerable than I knew. There’s beauty in this strength and fragility.
I’ve learned that, just like that song said, God is faithful. He’s faithful through the hardest of hard times. He’s good.
If your friend or wife is going through this, all I can say is this: Show up. Just be there. Be the one she can call. Be the one who doesn’t judge. Arrive to do dishes or watch the baby so she can go to counseling. Be her support, even though what that looks like might change from day to day or moment to moment.
The closer you stay, the better you’ll know what she needs.
I know this whole thing doesn’t seem rational. That’s because it isn’t.
If you’re going through postpartum depression or postpartum anxiety/OCD or PTSD, I wish I could come give you a hug. I wish we could sit in silence, together. I wish I could take your scary thoughts and throw them far away. Since I can’t, I’ll just say this: Go to counseling – don’t mess around with this. Get medicine if you need it. Release the guilt. Know that you can simultaneously hate what’s going on in your mind and fiercely love your baby. Find the friends and family who will truly support you, and don’t worry about the rest. Learn your triggers and avoid them like the plague.
And slowly, it will get better.