Horror Movies In Her Head: One Mom’s Story of Postpartum Anxiety

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Trigger warning: If you are currently suffering from intrusive thoughts this story may trigger additional upsetting thoughts and it may be better to skip it. ~ Katherine

Following is a story on intrusive thoughts and postpartum OCD from a mom I met as a fellow finalist for iVillage iVoices. I’m so glad I got to know her as a fellow survivor. She shares her experience here today, and it is one I identify with 10000000000%. Introducing the fabulous Stephanie Stearns Dulli from Dial M for Minky Moo:

Sitting in the doctor’s office I read the pamphlet she handed me about postpartum depression. Bleak thoughts, intrusive thoughts towards yourself or the baby. Oh good, I thought. I don’t have any of those, I’m safe.

I was on the lookout for postpartum depression. My grandmother had suffered a great depression as had my mother, and while my struggle had been with an eating disorder and not depression I knew that statistically I was at a higher risk. The depression I was expecting never came, I was madly in love with my son and as happy as could be.

I mean, except for the non-stop panicking. No one told me that postpartum anxiety and intrusive thoughts could be a facet of any postpartum struggle. I had no idea that what I was experiencing was out of the norm, which now seems positively absurd. I can remember very clearly the first vision that took over my thoughts. I say vision because I could see it, eyes open or closed it didn’t matter. It wasn’t just a thought. It was a scene from a movie that might happen, playing on a loop, a never ending loop. Every time it played my body reacted physically. Viscerally. It was this: carrying the baby down the three stories of cement stairs that led from our apartment to the street, he slips from my arms and his head explodes – pops – like a tiny cantaloupe. I became vigilant going up and down the stairs. We never left without a nearly hysterical admonition to be extremely careful with the baby.

I had been told repeatedly before he was born to sleep when the baby sleeps. This was an utter impossibility. It wasn’t that I just couldn’t sleep, I was holding a vigil. What if this was the time he stopped breathing? What if he opened his eyes, didn’t see me and then died? What if he needed me and I wasn’t there? What if, what if, what if. I resolved to never leave his side. At least that way if he died I would know I had done everything right.

We lived near a lake and we would take long lovely strolls with him safely tucked in his stroller. He would coo and doze while I panicked. What if the stroller rolled into the lake? This panic would stay with me for days causing to repeat to myself over and over again: “He is safe in his stroller.” Or if he was sleeping: “He is safe in his bed. He is not in the lake.” It didn’t help. Nothing helped. And soon it wasn’t just the lake, it was a car jumping the curb and hitting the stroller, it was him wandering off and being hit by a car. The visions became more complex and terrifying and I was powerless to stop them. I tried.

Then watching the “Today Show” they showed footage of a young mother letting go of her stroller for a split second, helpless as her baby rolls right off the platform and under the oncoming train. They played that video over and over….but I had already seen it in my mind’s eye for months. I didn’t sleep for nearly 7 days, my postpartum anxiety leading to panic attacks every night. My son was almost a year old at this point and I was trapped in panic. It was robbing me of my life. We had made two moves since my son had been born and not really knowing anyone in the new area allowed me to rarely leave the house. I’d venture out to the store, sure. But that was an all day event. One thing a day; that was all I could do.

I’m not sure what caused me to blurt out that I was terrified when the doctor asked me how I was. I was there for a yearly check-up and had my son with me. He charmed the nurses while I burst into tears at the question “how are you?” Things moved pretty fast then. I am grateful that I have a good doctor who immediately saw I had postpartum anxiety and reassured me that intrusive thoughts were not normal but that he could help. I left there with a prescription for Zoloft and a referral for a counselor.

I thank God every day for whoever invented Zoloft. I still panic, but now it’s reasonable. I can talk myself off the ledge, so to speak. My son is two now, and I can’t see myself getting off the medication any time soon. I lost it on a trip and after three days of no Zoloft I experienced a large increase in my anxiety level. Whether that was psychosomatic or real doesn’t matter; I am not ready. With medication and centering tricks learned in therapy I can enjoy my son now, I can let him dip his toes in the ocean without a complete panic attack that he will be swept away, or eaten by a shark. I am careful with him, of course, but I am able to let him be a rambunctious two-year-old.

It’s been a long journey, and I’m not done with it. Every day I have to breathe, I have to remind myself of reality versus my view of things. I get better every day, but I do wish I had known that there were more postpartum issues than just depression.

And if you think someone is struggling, take their hand, look right in their eyes and ask “How are you?”

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Tell Us What You Think

  1. This is quite similar to what I experienced. My PPD was definitely more on the anxiety end of things. So glad you had a good doctor and that the zoloft is working for you! It does get better. My youngest is now 5 and I am to the point that I don't have much beyond my "normal" cycle related depression/anxiety. Just be prepared for it for baby #2. I went into S' birth knowing it could happen again. My midwives knew about it, my friends and family knew so everyone was keeping an eye on me. Thankfully, I was lucky and didn't experience anything like it the second time, but I think some of that was from being prepared and having my support network in place and checking on me.
    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Did I write that? exactly that. wow.The head cantaloupe image is straight out of my mind. I still suffer from some PP anxiety but can stop the attacks from coming now with #2 but I still see that stroller footage too.

  3. awesome description of yet another 'face' of PPD. My son is also 2, I am on Zoloft, and do not plan on getting off anytime soon. I, too, thank God for it and for how far I've come (although it's been quite the bumpy ride!) My PPD was more on the side of anxiety as well.

  4. Ohhh, Steph. I am so proud of you for speaking out. I had anxiety laced in with my PPD and I can still sense the edge and remember the visions. And that was five years ago. Women need to know that this isn't a normal part of motherhood that you just get over.

  5. FABULOUS post! The visions and the thoughts are what haunt you the most.. and it is hard to explain to someone that you don't WANT to throw your child over that cliff… but you see the going – clear as day in your mind and you freak out… PPD and PPAnxiety needs to be talked about.. it is scarey and sometimes it can be a very long battle… at just past 4 years from giving birth to Alex I feel like I have it under control.. that I am regaining my life…. and everything that I lost and walked away from.. I worried about going through it with my second… and am so thankful that I was already on meds and knew what to look out for… I too have tried to wean from Zoloft.. and it is always a bad result.. intensifies everything.. know you are not alone.. and people – women and men appreciate you speaking out about it all.

  6. Great post. While my anxiety was from PTSD, it was shockingly similar to what you're describing.. .http://drmommyhealthtips.com/guest-post-my-sinking-ship. I think what you're doing is a powerful thing, speaking up, telling women it's not normal and giving them the confidence they need to talk to their doctors. Thank God for women like you – and all the women on this site – that continue to spread the word about PPD and all that it encompasses. XOXO

  7. I had way more anxiety than depression with my PPD. Your thought of – what if this is the time he stops breathing – echoed some of my own thoughts. I was absolutely terrified that my baby was going to die in her sleep, and that was an additional reason my sleep deprivation was so bad. I was convinced I had to constantly check on her to make sure she was alive. It was absolutely terrifying. And…it was before medication. We are very big fans of medication in this house, too. Thanks for such an honest and brave post. I think PP Anxiety/OCD don't get enough time in the spotlight when people talk about PPD and that's why there's such a misunderstanding and gap in the knowledge that's out there. I think it's awesome that you put it out there. And I'm glad you're getting better.

  8. Anxiety has been my enemy through all of this, far surpassing the rage and depression part. I am glad that you asked her to talk about this other facet of PPD. I think a lot of women, including myself, never knew that anxiety is a symptom of PPD. When I started experiencing symptoms, I was terrified to say anything because I thought I was just going crazy.

  9. I also could have written this exact post! I remember when my son was an infant (he is one now) and having to stop the car because I was convinced that I left him in the parking lot! He was asleep. I too spent a lot of time watching him breathe and being almost hysterical when anyone else was holding him. For months I didn't realize that this wasn't normal. And even after I saw my doctor for depression, it wasn't until my therapist said I was having severe anxiety that I went back for a different med. I am now taking Lamictal and Celexa and it has changed my life!

  10. Wow. I consider myself an advocate for PPD and I still learn new things about myself every single day. When I went to the psychiatrist for the first time and took their evaluation (it was about 100 questions or so assessing my mental state), I didn't even know to say that I had anxiety. I didn't have a definition for it like I did for depression, so it was never really talked about in my appointments. But reading your description of what life was like after your son was born, I'm almost positive that I should have been talking about it. I had exactly the same visions of dropping my son down the stairs, and I lived by a lake and walked around it too, and I'd hold the stroller handle so tight that my joints would lock. I can't count the number of times I woke my son from a deep sleep because I needed to check on him just one more time. I wouldn't say that my anxiety was as sever as yours, because I never had a full-blown panic attack, but it was definitely beyond normal.
    Thanks so much for sharing, you've definitely helped me.

  11. Wow, I could have written that too….I also had anxiety with the OCD too. I am glad u wrote this because I still think there is something wrong with me bc I am not 100% back to "normal" and my son just turned 2. I also try to come of the meds with no success. Does anyone have intrusive thoughts during PMS? It is strange how that happens and then once your cycle is over they are not there (with meds tho, lol). Thanks again for writing this, it gives me hope!!

  12. I had both pp depression and anxiety and I can really identify with this post. The constant panic, the inability to sleep. I am so thankful for Zoloft as well. I never have been one to take medicine but that little pill, although not the complete answer, took me out of my panic and fog so I could start making better choices. I'm glad to hear someone else is not ready to get off it. I'm not either and I've tried but it's just not time yet and my son is about 20 months. Thank you again for the post!

  13. oh and I did suffer from it with my first and second….I don't know which one was worse, pretty much both of my pp experiences were like a personal hell on earth…..that's why I'm so thankful to be recovering instead of sinking…..

  14. Thank you very much for posting this article. I wish more people talked about PPD. I know there are many women out there going through it, but until someone shares their story with you, you tend to feel very alone.

  15. It actually really helped me to think of the thoughts as just waking nightmares. I wasn't getting enough sleep at night for my mind to sort things out through actual sleeping nightmares, so that's why they happened during the day. That was my belief anyway, and it really helped to think that rather than attributing it to me being an insane monster (which was my first impression!). I'm not taking any medication. I was actually on antidepressants when my OCD started. They didn't help me and I don't need them as I do ERT. It has pretty much cured me but when I get setbacks I just do it again. And get more sleep!!

  16. I've read and reread this piece so many times, yet it continues to break my heart. Substitute her worries about her son for my worries about myself, and it's the same story. I would be tired and would lie down on the floor in my kid's room while she played with a few toys or books, and my mind would think, "What if I had a heart attack and died right now? My husband would come to the baby crying and I would be dead." It's a ridiculously long, twisty road that you have to travel postpartum, and I firmly believe that we are paying all women a fatal disservice by not focusing on and talking openly about this. It breaks my heart, it just breaks my heart.

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