Sometimes when you take the stairs and get distracted your foot slips and you miss a step. Or you feel the lip of the stop on the heel of your foot and catch yourself before you stumble downwards. The second you either slip or recover, there is a quick moment when your heart leaps to your throat, you realize you’re sweating, and your chest is pounding. Then you stabilize, go a little slower, and make it down fine. The feeling passes.
Having anxiety is slipping down the stairs and having that feeling replay on an instant feedback loop. The feeling never passes. Instead of a world of calm, interrupted by brief moments of slipping down the stairs, it’s reversed. It is a world of near misses with the occasional moment of calm. With postpartum anxiety it’s heightened. Travelling down the stairs is stressful enough. Travelling down the stairs with the child is signing the death certificate of peace.
My daughter is over three years old, and I have been living with postpartum anxiety since. With a second daughter due in just a month and a half, this has been something lingering in my mind and I want to share with you the things I have learned since being diagnosed. Not because I have the key to fixing or understanding it (wouldn’t that be nice?), but because I was entirely alone when I had it hardest and it almost swept me under, child in tow. I wish I had been told these things.
Not everything, but many small things can be a huge, larger-than-life deal.
I sometimes don’t just cry over spilled milk; on my darkest days I sob to Amy Winehouse because of it and let it undo my entire day. Postpartum anxiety is not necessarily a reaction to what just happened, but a reaction to what could have and probably will later because of it. The responsibility for my daughter can be crippling when I make stupid mistakes. Great, I knocked my coffee over while she was a foot away and now it will ruin the rug and I have to make more and my daughter could have been sitting right where I spilled it and she could have had her skin burn and scarred permanently and why wasn’t I more careful? It focuses more on what could have happened, and also takes everything as a sign for doom later on. You cannot relax at all. Everything leads back to how you messed with your kids and life, and these annoying thoughts are also great contributors to insomnia.
You sometimes feel like you are failing as a parent.
This is something I struggle with every day, even worse while pregnant. My pregnancy has been a roller coaster and every hiccup sends me into guilt wondering what I could have done to prevent the hiccup. I see other moms post photos with their kids at the park, while mine is watching reruns of Tom and Jerry and eating leftover macaroni and cheese from the night before, and the shame doubles down. Rather than just looking at her and realizing she’s happy and content, and that not every day can be a packed day with tons of crafts and fun projects, it’s an automatic reflection of who I am as a parent. I don’t just feel guilty; I feel that the photograph is valid proof that I’m not giving my daughter the tools she needs for a happy, healthy childhood and that I am ruining her future development. Then the panic attack hits and I need to buy more crafts right now and start making a calendar of fun, educational day, or go on a huge cleaning frenzy in order to calm down. I have to do something or else this intense feeling of unease will not pass.
It affects your marriage, too.
There are days when I completely misread my husband’s tone, or verbal and body language. I sometimes take very surface things as a direct insult to my capabilities as a wife and mother, and one misunderstanding can lead to major sulking, an argument, or an hour of him trying to reassure me that I’m doing a great job. If the day has been particular garbage, all it takes is “I think the milk went bad” to be translated as “you didn’t use the milk in time and now it’s ruined because it’s all your fault.” Or when he’s just really tired, I’ll think it’s because I did something. It couldn’t possibly be because he worked nine hours of manual labor in 95 degree weather.
But, anxiety can have some advantages.
It isn’t an all doom and gloom though. Having anxiety helps me become a more compassionate person. Because I don’t want my daughter to ever feel the burden of anxiety, or PPA with her own children, I’m more analytical of my actions and try seeking alternative methods for conflict resolution. “No” is definitely a word we use in this house, but how we use it makes all the difference between my experience and hopefully hers. It also helps me approach friendships and my marriage with eyes and ears open more, and I am a better communicator because I approach almost everyone as if they have anxiety. I make my feelings and thoughts as clear as possible, and the worst phrase in the history of the English language to everyone anxiety, “we need to talk,” is one I do not use.
There isn’t really “life after postpartum anxiety,” but instead, “life with postpartum anxiety in remission.”
I am in a much healthier, much better place than I was during my daughter’s first year of life that was when my PPA was at an all-time high. I was still undiagnosed, had not sought treatment, and was navigating life as a single mom. There were some dark times, and I am extremely fortunate that the darkest of those are behind me. I have a loving, compassionate husband and support system. My therapist rocks. I don’t always jump to panic and overreaction when my daughter gets hurt or when we have conflict. I don’t view this progress is being cured, however grateful for it I am. Especially since those hard days still exist. I still have to constantly clean, manage the bills, and be in control of almost every tiny thing in the schedule, lest I want my threads to unravel. Instead, I view my PPA as in remission. The darker times could come back at any time, set off by something beyond my control. I am about to have a second child, and the newborn stage in particular was the hardest for me and I have no idea what will happen next, especially with a toddler in tow. The best thing my husband and I can do is set up conditions that may help lower our chances of it returning. There is no lifelong cure for anxiety itself that I’m aware of, and there are days when the knowledge of that settles in the pit of my stomach.
Postpartum anxiety does not discriminate, and can and does happen to anyone.
I may know the how and why of my condition, but that does not mean that there has to be one. You can have a terrible upbringing, and be entirely alone like I was, or you can have amazing memories growing up, with the loving support group by your side and it can still happen to you. The mind is a terrible, wonderful, and complex thing and everyone experiences things differently. Pain is relative, and there is absolutely no shame in being an otherwise happy individual struck by a painful disorder. Anxiety does not care that your husband is loving. It does not care that you are a single parent. It does not care that you have no financial worries or too many bills to count. It starts at any time, with anyone. While happy, healthy surroundings can and do help with healing, they do not always help; a good place in life is not a reason to ignore your feelings. One of the most dangerous things someone suffering from any perinatal mood disorder can do is treat it as though it isn’t there, or belittle its weight due to surface circumstance. Lung cancer happens to healthy non-smokers at 25 years of age. Postpartum anxiety can happen to happy, active moms surrounded by a great environment.
Every day I wake up, I don’t ask myself if this will be the date comes back in full force. I don’t give myself a mental pep talk that says I can beat it, because I don’t know that I ever will. I don’t want to be in constant fear of that, hiding and trying to find ways around it. Instead, I say that I love myself. Accept myself. I am not my anxiety, but I am tourist with it, not despite it. I repeat these things to myself until I can get out of bed, and I take a deep breath before stepping down the stairs. It feels good when my feet find steady ground.