[Editor’s Note: In today’s guest post, Jen Bullet shares an encouraging story of how her doctors supported her through Postpartum Anxiety with medication, time, and reassurance. It’s important to share these success stories to ease the fears of moms initially seeking care. -Jenna]
When you return to work, everyone asks you if it is tough to leave your baby. I have perfected my answer to this question. I say that it is bittersweet. Which it is. As much as I miss Max, my three-month-old son, I also am excited to be back at work, and gaining back a little bit of the “me” I used to be.
My answers start to be less perfected when people ask me how my maternity leave was. How do I answer this question without fully disclosing the experience I had? Does anyone really want to hear that I struggled with what seemed like debilitating Postpartum Anxiety—a sibling to Postpartum Depression? Do people really care that my body was in a state of constant panic, and that I suffered through weeks of insomnia? Can I actually tell people that I felt nervous all the time … or that it seemed like a stranger was trapped in my body? Would people look at me funny if I said I barely made it through each day and sometimes had to count the hours or minutes until my husband came home?
That is the reality of at least half of my maternity leave. I existed in a state of panic. I felt like I had adrenaline pulsing through my veins. I had a pit in my stomach at all times. I had to sleep with an ice pack at night to soothe my burning chest. My arms and legs tingled relentlessly. I spent most of my days worrying. Would I be able to sleep tonight? If I didn’t sleep, would I be able to take care of Max tomorrow? What would happen if I couldn’t take care of Max? I worried all night long. I lay awake even as Max slept. My mind just wouldn’t shut off.
I would get up at two in the morning and feed Max. When he would go back to sleep, I would go back to bed and try to sleep as well, but sleep wouldn’t come. Soon the birds would be chirping, and Max would be up again for a 5:00 AM feeding. My day would begin. I would think to myself, “How will I ever make it to 6:30 PM?” I would struggle through the day. I would struggle through the next day, and the day after that.
During this time, I emailed my OBGYN asking her if I could take an over-the-counter sleep aid. I was nervous about breastfeeding and taking medications. She said yes. The first night I took it, it worked. The second night, it did not work, and it didn’t work after that. I called her after several days of no sleep. I was at the end of my rope.
Is there anything else I can take? She said I could try a pain reliever with a sleep aid included, but she said we may need to explore prescriptions. My six-week-postpartum appointment was coming up the following week, and we agreed to discuss further in that appointment.
But then I emailed her over the weekend. Something was really wrong; I needed help. She sent me the name of a counselor and said we would discuss medications at my appointment.
Not surprisingly, I “failed” my Edinburgh Postpartum test. Someone else might have scoffed at the term failure used by my doctor. However, I appreciated her candor. I was definitely not myself. In the short-term, she prescribed me a prescription strength sleep aid and an anti-anxiety medication. She also put me on an antidepressant. She said it would take two weeks for the medication to start working.
So now, in addition to worrying about whether or not I could sleep, I started worrying about how the medications I was taking might affect my breastfeeding. I rarely take prescriptions. I’m just not a pill person. So this was a shock to my personal sensibilities. My days were still filled with dread, nervousness, and constant mind chatter. I would tell myself that I just needed to make it to two weeks, and the medication would kick in. It took closer to five weeks, and two increased dosages for me to even out. Taking anti-depressants is not a magic fix.
My recovery truly started the day after my six-week-postpartum OB exam. It was a Friday, and I had my first appointment with Bridget, a counselor at The Blossom Method. I literally don’t think I would be whole again had it not been for her. I joke with my mom that everyone needs a Bridget in their lives. Week by week, she helped me build coping strategies and coached me to live in the moment—and stop envisioning the worst-case scenario.
She encouraged me to break my days into three hour chunks. Instead of jumping ahead and letting my mind start to worry about something that might or might not happen, I should train myself to stay present in each three hour chunk of time. She also encouraged me to see a psychiatrist who had experience in perinatal mood disorders. Dr. Venable tried several different medications and finally found a combination which helped me sleep, stay calm and, eventually, even out.
We often hear about how broken our healthcare system is. I know that in many instances it is, and I am lucky to have excellent insurance. I know that I am privileged. That said, I was amazed at how supportive and responsive the healthcare community was to my situation. Dr. Venable, Dr. McNair—my OBGYN—and Bridget would get back to me on weekends, at night, and other inconvenient times. They tried to calm my nerves about taking medication and breastfeeding. They helped me understand that treating mom meant that Max was getting better care.
I also asked the pediatrician about the drugs I was taking and feeding Max. He echoed the sentiments shared by my other doctors. I felt like I had a team of people—including my incredibly supportive husband and family—all focused on helping me succeed. I used every skill I had learned in the business world to drive my progress forward: follow-up, take action and try again when I failed.
What I have learned about Postpartum Anxiety and Depression is that there is no easy fix. It takes work. You will take one step forward and then two steps back. You will need to be aggressive about seeking help. This is not something you should try to muscle through on your own. When you do seek help, you will find amazing support systems and medical care. You will also make it back to baseline and once again feel comfortable in your own skin. You will be the amazing mother that your child loves so dearly.
My final observation is that so many women struggle with postpartum challenges, and yet we hardly ever talk about it. It makes me sad to think that there are women out there struggling alone and too embarrassed or ashamed to share with others. I wish we could paint a real picture of what those first few months are like, because they are equal parts wonderful and challenging.
Bridget had me take the Edinburgh test the first day I saw her. Initially, I scored a 25 out of 30. Failure, indeed. A few weeks ago, she had me take it again. I scored a 5. I’m not on certain medications anymore.
I’ve read lots of stories about women who have struggled with a number of different postpartum challenges, many of them much more difficult than mine. I am reminded of how strong women are, and how able they are to overcome adversity. I also know that I don’t regret for one moment having my son. I only regret not being able to fully appreciate what I now look back on as my lost maternity leave.