I had my son when I was 38, in 2009. I had a planned c-section that was easy and uneventful – my son was expected to be much larger than he actually was, and since I had gestational diabetes my doctor didn’t want to take any chances. I stumbled through first diaper changes, and nursing, and the usual worries.
A total extrovert, I had been looking forward to having visitors at the hospital even though I knew very few people in Austin at the time, having lived there less than a year. But when my in-laws arrived at the same time as our family friends and five extra people crowded the room, the walls closed in on me and I started feeling panicky for the first time. It should have been a sign for me, but I brushed it off.
Once we got home, life resumed as much as it could for a new family of three. He slept, I took a million photos and stared at his perfect face most of the day.
My husband scheduled a business trip when our son was a month old, and my mother-in-law was coming to stay with me. I didn’t want him to leave but was afraid to tell him; I knew he needed to take this trip. Luckily for me, my mother-in-law is a retired obstetrical nurse and I was in more than capable hands while my husband was gone.
During the week of my husband’s trip, I started feeling increasingly nervous. I could only sleep from 9 to midnight, and my mother-in-law stayed awake for my son’s 10 PM feeding. After that, I was lucky to get any flashes of sleep until morning. “Sleep when the baby sleeps,” became a wicked, taunting refrain in my head. I constantly monitored his breathing and checked to make sure he was fine. I reached out to scores of mothers for advice on sleeping and read just about every baby sleep book ever written, driving myself nearly insane trying various schedules and methods.
It was an email to a childhood friend that saved me. This email, packed with questions and concerns and anxieties, rang a bell for her. She was already the mother of seven herself; she knew what postpartum anxiety looked like from her own experiences. She called me within minutes of reading my email.
“Kristin,” she said gently. “You need to see a doctor. And soon.”
She explained to me that she thought I was experiencing some postpartum depression symptoms, and I needed help. I thanked her for reaching out, but I was confused. Postpartum depression? I was feeling a little nervous and anxious and cried a lot, but wasn’t that normal?
By the time I got to the doctor, two days later, I was a mess. I was sleeping two hours a night, and I couldn’t focus on one page of a magazine long enough to read. My stomach jumped as if I had an electrical stimulation unit hooked up to it 24/7. When I did sleep, I had to lie face-down to try to calm the feeling that I was going to jump out of my skin.
On the morning of my appointment, my doctor had a complicated delivery, and I waited in her office for 90 minutes, first patiently, and then anxiously, and then pacing the floor and crying. She walked in the door, took one look at my face, and sat down to write a prescription for Zoloft to regulate my sleep.
I went home with my prescription in hand, and struggled to make sense of it all. My husband, as supportive as he is, didn’t get it. “Go to the gym. Take a walk. Work it off,” he said. I tried. I got on the treadmill while the baby was sleeping, I walked with him, and I paced, heart racing the whole time.
It was a brutally difficult two weeks while I waited for the Zoloft to work. I prayed for sleep. I lay in bed for hours with my eyes open, then shut, then open, waiting for sleep to come. I tried Tylenol PM and worried I’d dry up my milk supply. I tried Ambien, and one whole pill knocked me out for only three fitful hours. I’d take it and have nightmares that I would experience the side effects that were listed on the instructions. My body was spinning out of control and I couldn’t stop it; my brain and my body were at war.
One night, I nearly asked my husband to lock me in the car in the garage in case I was an Ambien sleepwalker. I was terrified. He took over the night feedings as I lay in bed, desperately trying to sleep but wanting to be with my baby.
Nursing was the only thing that kept me from checking myself into the hospital. I thought to myself, “If I go to the ER, they will let me sleep. They will see I’m desperate,” but I couldn’t bring myself to leave my baby. I looked into an in-patient program in North Carolina where I could bring my baby along and see him at certain times of the day, but even the thought of that broke my heart.
Finally, I had to kick the Ambien to the curb and face my insomnia and anxiety head on. I knew I couldn’t keep taking it, and I didn’t want to be controlled by a sleeping pill. I quit cold turkey on the date my doctor told me to do it. And then the Zoloft kicked in.
Thank heaven for medicine; I am sure that I would have ended up in the hospital from exhaustion before much longer. I never had any destructive thoughts about hurting my son or myself, for which I am grateful. My anxieties were that some accident would befall one of us; I still struggle to avoid seeing every stick and every rock as a potential hazard.
Postpartum anxiety is the number-one reason we decided not to have another child, even though we always dreamed of two. Sure, there’s a chance the second time around could be easier. There’s also a chance it could be worse, and I couldn’t bear it. It’s a choice that we still struggle with sometimes. I hate PPA for stealing my confidence and giving me fear.
Asking for help is hard. Not knowing that you need help is even harder. Educate everyone around you about postpartum mood disorders, because it can happen to anyone. There is no shame in needing help, and there is no shame in taking medicine when you need it. It could save your life, and the life of your baby. ASK.
Kristin Shaw is a freelance writer, a full-time wife of an Austin native, and mother of a mini-Texan. Her favorite things are family, 80s hair bands, classic cars, sports, Italy, and dessert, not necessarily in that order. She’s proud to be a co-producer of the 2014 Listen to Your Mother show in Austin. You can reach her via Twitter (@AustinKVS), her blog, Two Cannoli, or on The Huffington Post, where she is a featured blogger. In 2013, she was named a top blogger of the year by Babble.
Postpartum Progress, the world’s most widely-read blog on all things related to emotional health around pregnancy & childbirth, is a service of Postpartum Progress Inc., a 501c3 nonprofit devoted to raising awareness of postpartum depression and similar illnesses. Please consider making a donation today, Mother’s Day, so we can continue and expand our work supporting maternal mental health. Thank you!