[Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post on postpartum anxiety comes from a Climb Leader who said, when she sent it to me, that sharing her story is the only way to begin fighting stigma in earnest. We 100% agree. When we share our stories, we help others and break down the walls of stigma. Every single time. So thank you, Sarah Michals. We appreciate your bravery. You are a true Warrior Mom! -Jenna]
“Motherhood is hard. You’ll get used to it.” These were my doctor’s words when I went to her for help. I had told her that my daughter was thirteen months old, newly night-weaned, and finally sleeping through the night. I had told her that I had a loving, supportive husband. And I had told her that I hadn’t slept in days. And, yes, I had agreed. Motherhood is hard.
So there it was, I thought. The reason that I was sleeping no more than twelve hours a week was due to my inability to cope, to become the mom that I had always wanted to be. When the panic attacks started—while watching a particularly dull episode of Mad Men or reading an article about Britney Spears’s new body—I figured that it must have been from the stress of being a working mom and, again, from my failure to adjust. It had to have been my failure when, with the slightest trigger, I would fly into a rage at my ineptitude to the point where I would punch myself in the head until the flooding stopped. The beginning of my daughter’s second year had become my own personal Fight Club and, according to my doctor, I should have gotten used to it.
For me, as a first-time mom, I didn’t know enough to question her. The only models of motherhood I had ever seen were well-adjusted, functioning women. When I talked to these women, they would say, “I know what you mean. I’m tired, too.” I would nod, and then I would go home and cry beside my baby because I was not them. For whatever reason, I could not adapt. All I could do was crack a little bit more every day.
I already knew what it was like to be tired. My daughter never slept for more than three hours at a time for her entire first year, more often than not in forty-five minute intervals, but that had been nothing compared to this. This insomnia, this five hours asleep—72 hours awake—three hour asleep rotation, was breaking me. I taught my classes and watched college students tilt their heads at my paleness as I spoke without hearing myself. I rode the bus across town and missed my stop because the scenery all started to look the same. Time seemed to spin around itself without progress like the ceiling fan I would stare at from the bed that tormented me.
As I stumbled bleary-eyed into my fifteenth month of motherhood and my fourth month of true sleeplessness, I knew that I could no longer fight against myself; it was going to kill me, and allowing that to happen was not an option. Instead, I had to fight for myself.
The Internet can be a dull weapon, but when you’ve exhausted all other resources, at least it gives you something to wield. I Googled until my fingers hurt and, somehow, I discovered something that I hadn’t found in my million previous attempts: Postpartum Anxiety Disorder. I clicked, and so did my sense of what was happening to me. The symptoms of Postpartum Depression had never fit, but with PPA, I checked every single box.
I called my doctor once again, and I knew that she would volunteer nothing, so instead of waiting, I told her what she had to do, and I told her she had to do it immediately. She sighed and consented. That evening I picked up my new prescription, and a week later my panic attacks had disappeared. My self-loathing had dissipated.
And I was sleeping.
This story began in darkness—the darkness of night after lonely night when everyone else was sleeping; the emotional darkness that had filled up the space for love in my heart; the darkness of the silence that surrounds postpartum mental illness; the darkness of my ignorance and blind faith in a medical system that was never designed for me. But I fought to the surface when I finally knew where to strike.
So many moms live in this darkness every single day, and what I can say is that through all of this, my night vision has gotten better, and I can see you. Other women like us can see you. And there will come a day when you can see yourself again. She’s in there still. She’ll be back.