When I gave birth to Chase, my second baby, I was prepared; I was ready. “I’ve done this before,” I thought - the hormonal shifts, sleep deprivation and isolation I was about to face; pregnancy, birth and postpartum healing; raising a newborn. None of this was new: I had learned the skills to cope with the stress and exhaustion that come in the first few months with my daughter. So to say I was disappointed, let down and defeated when the depression and anxiety creeped in within a few weeks of labor is an understatement.
This unfortunately wasn’t my first rodeo with postpartum depression and anxiety.
My first postpartum experience was nothing short of horrific. “You should call and speak to someone, no one should be this upset about breastfeeding,” the lactation counselor said without even trying to hide her shock and surprise to my reaction as I choked down tears at the realization I might be starving my newborn daughter by not producing enough milk two weeks into becoming a new mom. Is anyone else sick of the shoulds of motherhood?
A social butterfly and extrovert turned borderline recluse, I was crippled by the feeling of being trapped in this new role and stage in my life; grief and mourning over the loss of my independence and previous life, feeling like an absolute failure struggling with the challenges of breastfeeding and unable to advocate for my own mental and physical needs.
I vividly remember sitting in the corner of my bedroom getting ready to go out to lunch with my husband, Bobby, alone, for the first time since our daughter Charlie was born, hysterically crying because I couldn’t find a shirt that fit me. I sat there on the floor, gasping for air as I cried, when my husband sat down with me and suggested I talk to someone about my constant state of despair and sadness.
That very same day, while my husband and I were down the street at Chelo’s for a quick lunch date, our 4-week old baby girl starting seizing. After a week-long stay at Hasbro the week before, we rushed back to the ER where she was admitted to the PICU as the start of a month-long touch-and-go hospital stay began. Suffering from bacterial meningitis complicated by a stroke, our daughter was ventilated and intubated as a hospital social worker approached me about seeing a therapist. I resisted – being a mother is my job, what every woman is in some way born to do, and I *should* know how to handle this. As I sat behind a curtain pumping in the corner of my daughter’s hospital room, I finally agreed to see someone.
Blessed by her recovery and the care of the amazing doctors at Hasbro, Charlie fought her way back to health. Our hospital stay was followed up by endless neurology and early intervention appointments, and our already packed schedule was not simplified by the many mental health appointments I was so disappointed in myself for needing. My mind was filled with all of the shoulds again: “this should feel more natural,” and “I shouldn’t think this is so hard” and “I shouldn’t feel sad all of the time.”
Within a few months, I started the Woman & Infants Day Hospital. In my humble opinion, this program should be available to every new mom in the world. I learned to accept my depression and anxiety, learned coping skills that I use to this day and found confidence in my abilities as a new mom with the help of the amazing providers and other moms that went through this experience with me. After a 6-month leave from work, I finally felt like I could handle returning to a somewhat normal life. My recovery was not static: I went through peaks and valleys, but with continued therapy and medication I fought my way through to a “new normal.”
Going into my second pregnancy, I thought this made me “strong enough” to face postpartum depression and anxiety head on – it “should”, right?
What I didn’t factor into the equation was raising a newborn with a toddler running around the house, living and parenting during a global pandemic (we were almost 2 years in, I *should* have this under control) and the effects of PTSD from Charlie’s newborn months. I kept up with doctors, therapy and medication, kept myself active with the kids and put myself out there socially when my body was trying to hold me back. Yet the crippling depression, constant anxiety and intrusive thoughts wouldn’t subside.
In November - five months into my postpartum journey and still unable to return to work - my anxiety was strongly presenting itself in a compulsive need to mitigate risk of ANY kind to my children (exacerbated by almost 2 years of avoiding the risk of covid for fear that unvaccinated children under 5 would become gravely ill - don’t forget about that lovely PTSD!), be prepared at all times and all costs, and shove any negative thoughts or impulses deep, deep down so they couldn’t resurface. The more I tried to feel better, the worse I felt, despite all of my tried and true depression and anxiety coping skills. I was waking up in the middle of the night with intrusive thoughts of falling on a steak knife carrying Chase and envisioning myself driving my car with both of my children in it off the side of the highway on the way to doctors appointments.
The weekend before Thanksgiving, I was drying my hair in the bathroom getting for Friendsgiving. As I stood there feeling a wave of depression and anxiety at the thought of going out with my best friends to one of my favorite restaurants, I almost couldn’t fight the urge to run the blow dryer under running water and kill myself. I felt my mind telling my hands to move the blow dryer closer and turn the water on, I thought I did NOT want to act on but felt powerless to. I dropped the blow dryer and laid in bed for the rest of the day, terrified. What do you know, I went to Friendsgiving that night and didn’t tell anyone except my husband. From the outside, you would never realize I had contemplated suicide just hours before. My best friend caught me irrationally upset being embarrassed by the bartenders at Twin Oaks, but other than that, I carried on and had a great night.
Two days later, I started the day program at Women & Infants, again. Even though this program saved me from suicidal ideations after my first birth, I was so disappointed with myself. I *should* be able to handle this. Within hours of starting, I had a new diagnosis - postpartum OCD. I didn’t even know that existed (I’m willing to bet that most don’t) and all of a sudden, I am enrolling in exposure and response prevention therapy - the gold standard of OCD therapy.
This was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. An 8-week program brand new to Women & Infants, I had to face my core fears HEAD ON - thoughts of killing myself, hurting my kids, being responsible for an accident or event causing them harm – to just name a few. Instead of trying to keep myself busy and distracted, I had to focus for several hours a day on the very things I was terrified of, and sit in that anxiety. The more time that I spent in the program, I realized that I have been suffering from OCD my entire life and never knew I didn’t need to suffer the way that I was.
I was living in a constant state of mental review - reviewing every conversation, interaction, movement to ensure that I did things right, perfectly and in a way that wouldn’t embarrass me or offend anyone. I was so afraid of making a mistake or an imperfect choice that I would avoid decisions altogether, from picking a restaurant for dinner to making decisions about healthcare. I felt responsible for EVERY outcome. Charlie’s PICU stay? Probably a freak coordination of events that led to an infection, but I have spent every day for the last 4+ years trying to pinpoint exactly how I was at fault. All of this, combined with the hormonal imbalances that come with the postpartum period, made my symptoms so severe that my world had shrunk into a tiny box, and ERP was the only way out.
This treatment was the most unnatural and uncomfortable process I have ever experienced, and I would do it 100x over to get the outcome that I did. On Janaury 27, I graduated from the Women & Infants Perinatal OCD Intensive Outpatient Program. I connected with some amazing, strong, resilient moms who encouraged me, challenged me and grew with me. I got to know myself better than I ever have in my life. I built up the confidence to know my worth, what I deserve and what I want to spend my time advocating for.
I know that i will not stay quiet about the hardships of being a mother in 2022 and the stigma around mental health. I know that I never SHOULD feel a certain way, and that exactly how I am feeling is okay and appropriate and part of my experience. I will continue to share my story in hopes it reaches another mom who is struggling to ask for help, struggling to get the care they deserve because that means they are weak, in hopes that it reaches some version of my isolated self 5 years ago that didn’t know anyone else that had ever dealt with these experiences before. To put yourself through therapy and treatment does not make you weak: you are stronger than you realize. I hope it shows other moms that during one of the most isolating periods of your life, YOU AREN’T ALONE. I am by no means a therapist, but I am here if anyone EVER needs to talk (literally makes my heart so full to connect with other moms on a similar journey and share any resources I can). they say you lose yourself when you have kids. I found myself. 🖤