[Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post comes from Katie Collins. With a history of anxiety, she knew she might experience a postpartum mood and anxiety disorder, but it wasn’t until the birth of her second child that things spiraled out of control. Trigger Warning: Katie discusses her Intrusive Thoughts. -Jenna]
It’s easy to think everyone except you has it together when you look at social media. Most of us only post the good stuff. While I was going through one of the darkest parts of my life, many people who saw my photos online told me that my life seemed perfect, that I was such a good mom, that my family was picture perfect.
In retrospect, the truth is that I was trying to capture the happy moments in photos and cling to them like a life raft because I felt like I was drowning in my own anxiety. I have experienced generalized anxiety for all of my adult life, but my anxiety exploded after my second son was born. I am sharing my story with that hope that other moms who are going through the same thing will see that it’s not uncommon, and you are not the only one who is struggling.
I felt like I was really good at this parenting thing when I only had one child. I could handle Michael’s typical toddler unreasonableness and tantrums with patience, I never yelled at him, and I viewed his strong emotions as a good project or challenge to work on. I really enjoyed using strategies I had read about to help him learn to deescalate or to gain his cooperation without having to use threats or bribes. I loved coming up with new art and play ideas for us to do together. I followed lots of attachment parenting sites on Facebook and read article after article about helping my child grow and thrive in a gentle and supportive way. Mike, my husband, was on board with this style of parenting and agreed with most of the ideas and strategies I shared with him. As a family, we were all generally happy.
When I got pregnant with our second child, I felt nervous because I knew that my anxiety would resurface. I could already feel it bubbling beneath my skin during my third trimester. Can I really handle two kids? How will I get them out the door in the morning? How do you put a newborn and a toddler to bed? Can I still make it to yoga twice a week, knowing that I won’t want to leave my new baby long enough to go to a class? Can we really afford daycare tuition for two? What if Michael gets jealous and angry when his new brother arrives? These might sound like normal worries, but the amount of time and energy I spent obsessing over them was not normal. [Read also: The Endless “What-Ifs” of Postpartum Anxiety.]
Fast forward to three months after I became a mother of two: I just started working again. I had only recently started getting over my fear of Jack dying before I got to know his personality. I felt guilty about sending him to daycare at such a young age and hoped that he wouldn’t get confused and think that his daycare teacher was his mommy, too.
At work, I felt like a sub-par teacher because my priorities had changed again and I felt less concerned with my job because the rest of my life was consuming me. Michael learned to yell at the dog because he heard me doing it so often. My husband cooked dinner most nights because I didn’t have the mental or physical energy to do it anymore.
I wasn’t getting enough sleep. I yelled. Sometimes I threw things. I often wanted to sneak upstairs and shut the bedroom door and just not think or talk to anyone for ten minutes. If both of my children needed my attention at the same time, there was a 50/50 chance I would end up crying. I couldn’t pay attention to one child without feeling guilt about not interacting with the other. I felt so disconnected from my two year old because my baby needed so much attention, and yet I felt like I was ignoring my baby because even though I wore him in the carrier all afternoon, I didn’t think I was interacting with him enough.
In general, I put a lot of pressure on myself to do things “right.” I had adjusted fairly well to being a mom of one child, but the pressure was magnified when I became a mom of two. I was always upset with my perceived failures. I yelled at my two year old? Fail. I let him watch YouTube so I could rest for a bit? Fail. We ate frozen burritos for dinner instead of cooking a real meal? Fail. On a good day, I just felt wracked with guilt. On a bad day, I cried because I kept thinking about that time we were admonished about my oldest son’s screen time, which means that I’m not the only one with an irrational worry about his exposure to technology, and maybe his brain really IS going to rot away and it will be because I can’t handle having two kids.
That kind of thought process is called “catastrophizing.” When one bad thought or event colors your entire existence and you’re pretty sure that everything is ruined, forever. It sounds so absurd when I put it into words, but that’s what my brain is always telling me—every slip up, conflict, or struggle has negatively impacted the rest of my life. Sometimes I can tell when I’m doing it, and sometimes I can’t. I’ve spent so many years thinking this way that it’s hard for me to tell the difference between rational and irrational fears.
The worst part was the intrusive thoughts. Intrusive thoughts are upsetting thoughts that constantly enter your mind even though you would never, ever want them. They were upsetting but manageable before I had children. Once I had beautiful, innocent, and helpless babies to protect, my brain was always coming up with worst case scenarios or creating situations to fear. When I hugged my newborn, I would find myself thinking about him being smashed by some invisible force. Every single time I carried him on the stairs, I pictured myself falling and breaking him. When he gazed at me while he nursed, I saw his precious eyes being lacerated by some invisible blade. I think his fragility terrified me, but I don’t know why my mind would be so traitorous that it would give me those awful, awful visuals.
One of the worst recurring intrusive thoughts was Jack’s little head being smashed by a hammer. My heart quickens and I get a lump in my throat as I write this. There was a hammer on top of a high cabinet in my hallway that I walked by every day. I hadn’t gotten around to putting it away after some project or another. I loved my sweet baby, so why was my mind using that hammer to harm him? I was sure that I was a terrible person because my brain was capable of coming up with such violent thoughts. The hammer appeared in my thoughts so often that I sometimes cried because I was so emotionally exhausted from trying to ignore it.
I would look at my two boys in the bathtub at night and think, “I should be so happy. This is what I wanted. Why can’t I just be happy?” I’m ashamed by how inept I suddenly felt once I was expected to function in the world as a mother of two.
What was so hard about it? I had two healthy kids. I had a job to return to that allowed me to provide for my family. My husband switched his gym schedule so he could be home with us after work. Jack was relatively easy to please. Breastfeeding was going smoothly. Michael was a typical toddler. Yet I felt like I was going to explode.
I was exhausted from worrying, planning, and over thinking all day. I was so, so tired of trying to block out my intrusive thoughts. At the same time, I was also full of pent-up, anxiety-driven energy. My house had to be clean and organized or I had this feeling that everything in my life was unresolved and unfinished. There were things I had to do and I had to do them immediately and maybe THEN I could relax. I would lay awake at night, trying to figure out what I forgot to do because I was so sure there were things I should’ve done. There was always a to-do list posted in the kitchen but my house was never clean or organized enough, so that feeling never went away.
I started to worry about how my behavior was influencing my children. I felt like a hypocrite when I yelled or threw things in frustration because that meant I had to talk to my two year old later in the day to remind him that throwing things is not a good choice, even though he saw Mommy do it. I told him that I would try to make better choices next time, which made me feel like such a sad example of a parent. But, the last thing I needed was for him to start acting like me, so I kept owning up to my mistakes.
If it weren’t for this worry about influencing my children, I may have just stayed in the maelstrom of my brain and carried on. I don’t remember when I decided that I had to make some changes. It might’ve been one of the days when I sat on the kitchen floor and cried, which always brought on concerned questions from my oldest. “You sick, Mommy? Why you cryin’? You sad?” It was so hard to answer these questions because the answer could not be easily put into words, and it surely couldn’t be understood by a toddler.
I made the terrifying leap of asking for help—admitting that my brain was so messed up that neither I nor my husband can help me. That simply loving my children and being grateful for their existence was not enough to get me out of the darkness. That no amount of yoga could help me regain my usual level of patience. That things weren’t going to get better on their own unless I did something different.
I started seeing a therapist. Her children are a few years older than mine, so she could relate to many of my struggles, but she also had a motherly kind of nature towards me. She helped me begin to separate reality from fiction and to see that I am unnecessarily harsh on myself. Through working with her, I discovered changes that I could make that would allow me to find balance again.
I already knew that my hormones were partly to blame for what I was going through, but it helped to learn from where the intrusive thoughts came. She explained to me that mothering instincts are in overdrive during the postpartum period, and when those instincts are combined with a propensity for anxiety, your brain can play a nasty trick on you by surveying all possible threats and making you aware of them so you can make sure they don’t happen. This is where my intrusive thoughts come from. It sounded far-fetched, but I did find some research to support that idea. I also read that when mothers have these intrusive thoughts about harm coming to their babies, it does not mean that we will hurt our children. It only means that we are terrified of our children getting hurt. When I understood the cause of the thoughts, I started to shift my reaction to them to lessen their power over me, and they slowly began to decrease.
I’ve also finally accepted the truth that I need to take care of myself before I can take care of others. I aim to get to yoga at least once a week, which is not nearly enough, but it’s a start. When Jack was around a year old, I also started running and I swear I can actually feel my anxiety decrease with every step. Running is easier to fit into my schedule than yoga classes, and I know that I can take the edge off of escalating anxiety by going out for a run. More recently, I’ve been working on saying “no” to things and people that will put me over my edge.
I unfollowed many parenting pages on Facebook when I realized that they made me feel guilty and inadequate and didn’t teach me anything groundbreaking. Many of them focused on not yelling at your kids, not rushing them, and getting them to cooperate without bribery and threats. I know all I need to know about these topics, but now I see that sometimes I’m going to yell, and that’s okay. Sometimes I’m going to rush my preschooler out the door in the morning, and that’s okay. And sometimes, when my son doesn’t want to clean up his toys and I’m too damn tired to gain his cooperation by making it a super-fun game, I’m going to tell him that he’ll lose his TV time unless he cleans up. Yeah, because he watches tv, and that’s okay, too.
I’ve also started to make some small changes around the house to make life easier. Most of the changes involve releasing control and giving myself permission to stop striving for perfect. I now understand that I want an orderly kitchen when my mind is in disarray. I realized that I was holding my husband up to unrealistic standards because I wanted my kitchen so clean that my mind would stop racing, but that simply wasn’t possible. When my sink is overflowing with dishes, there are fingerprints on the refrigerator, and the floor is littered with trains, I am now less likely to spiral into a manic cleaning spree and more likely to decide what’s most important at the moment. I still loathe going to bed with any kind of mess in the kitchen, but I’m now more likely to take care of just the essentials and then go play with the boys. I also hired a house cleaner to come once or twice a month and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. For a long time, I said a house cleaner was not in the budget, but she is worth every penny for the sanity she provides.
Each of these strategies are what my psychiatrist calls “the real work” of taming an anxiety disorder. Shifting my perspective, carving out time for self-care, learning to say no, a yoga practice, exercise. I knew all of these things would be essential to my escape from postpartum anxiety, but I could not engage in them until I found a medication that helped me reach a place where I was able to do this “real work.” I don’t even take Tylenol when I have a headache, but I came to realize that an SSRI is necessary for my well-being, at least for the time being.
By nine months postpartum, I was still getting intrusive thoughts once or twice a day, but I was usually able to brush them off and move on. I rarely yelled. I hadn’t thrown anything or cried in a couple months. I was once again able to wait out most of Michael’s tantrums. I tried new recipes a couple times a week. Sometimes I had the mental energy to make clean-up a super fun game. My thoughts had slowed enough that I could appreciate any yoga class, rather than seeking out hot power classes as a way to wring all the bad energy and tension out of my mind. I stopped biting my nails. I had started to sing and dance with my kids again, which was a sure sign that the old me was returning.
I still feel itchy on the inside when my kitchen is messy. I can’t fully relax until a certain level of neatness has been achieved. I still regard my dog as a furry, loud anxiety trigger and nothing else. I still feel as if I will never find balance when it comes to the attention I give each boy. Despite all this, I feel that I have emerged from my postpartum anxiety with a better understanding of myself and what I need in order to feel balanced and content.
Today I found the notebook I carried around with me to take notes for my therapy and psychiatry appointments last winter. There are only about ten entries, each one a laundry list of my current concerns and symptoms: racing thoughts, restlessness, can’t sleep, intrusive thoughts, nausea, fear about one thing or another. Reading through my notes, I see how far I have come. I almost can’t believe that was my life. Last winter was the most difficult season of my life. On top of my personal issues, we had so much snow that many places were unrecognizable or inaccessible. We were stuck in our houses, thrown off our routines. Looking back, I see the weather as a reflection of my circumstances: the warm, fertile earth was still there, but it was buried under layers upon layers of cold, unforgiving snow. I remember walking in to work one spring morning and noticing how different the grounds looked without snow because I had gotten so used to everything being obscured by mounds of white. I thought to myself, “The grass was still under there. The flowers will bloom again. The old me can come back, too.”
Although the “old me” has not returned, I do believe a more resilient and self-reflective person has appeared in her place. I have been experiencing social anxiety and general anxiety for around twenty years, yet I have only recently begun to truly understand the way my brain works. After surviving my postpartum anxiety “explosion,” I believe that I have the understanding, tools, and confidence to overcome anything that my brain chemicals or life situations might send my way in the future.