Warning - super long post. Today I'm sharing my heart with you all about a subject that is very personal and dear to me. The postpartum experience is a sensitive one and I share this because I want others to know that if you've experienced this - you are so not alone. And I also share this because I want others to understand what some mothers go through during postpartum. Be kind, you never know what people are battling with.
This is a space for real talk, so let's have it :)
I've waited a long time to write this post. I wanted to write it when I was all better. When I finally had a fresh perspective and wasn't in the middle of a messy open heart of spewing feelings and emotions. But here I am, typing these words, on a day when I experienced more anxiety than I have in months. Today I cried, I snapped at my children, and spoke unkindly to my husband.
I don't like to admit these things and I certainly don't think this kind of behavior is okay, but you know what? It happened. I'm not perfect, though I am trying my best to improve my character, my tone of voice, my heart stance. My patience.
In this season, I've learned to tell myself:
1. I am not an anxious person. Even when I feel anxiety, it's not who I am.
2. My anxiety doesn't define me.
Okay, let me back up a bit.
I never realized that I dealt with postpartum anxiety the first time I had a baby. I didn't even know that was a thing. I didn't realize until after Everett's 1st birthday that I was starting to feel better. "Have I been feeling worse and not realizing it??", I remember thinking to myself. I reflected on the previous year, the first year of my baby's life. Becoming a mom was the most incredible experience that had ever happened to me. Everett was a riot and a joy and so full of personality and passion. But. He was also exhausting, colick-y, and such a mama's boy. I couldn't leave him with a sitter because he would have full-out meltdowns. I had more than 1 sitter think that he was legitimately dying when I left him (to this day he still can still enact this special talent of blood-curdling screaming and body slamming himself to the ground, which he does every so often to keep us on our A-game.) He spit and hissed if we dared to offer him a bottle. He never slept. He didn't want to be held by anyone but me. And Stevie. And my mom. But if anyone else held him he barely tolerated it. His mission was to be with mommy always.
I was anxious about all this. But what is there to do? He was my baby, and I wasn't going to traumatize him by continuously putting him in situations that caused him to turn into a werewolf. I'm certain I've given in too much and probably made so mistakes with him, but gosh, I have done everything to my best ability. That boy is my prize, my treasure. Unfortunately, I didn't identify that I probably needed some extra support during that first year of his life until the year had already passed me by. The thing about becoming a parent is that you think what you're experiencing is normal - everyone is tired. Everyone is running on coffee and adrenaline. But now I know that not everyone experiences panic attacks when they go into church with their baby. Not everyone sweats through their clothes at just the thought of a stranger asking to hold the baby. Not everyone is brought to stressed tears when people look at their baby, talk about their baby, even if it's a compliment that is being spoken. Not everyone feels dwarfed by the smallest tasks of the day when they include taking the baby with them. Having your chest pound and feeling like your throat is going to close and your airways are constricted is not normal. I thought this was normal. I didn't know this was a sign of a deeper problem.
Not until after the year was over.
These symptoms drastically improved after Everett's 1st birthday. I was stunned at how lively I was beginning to feel again. I chalked it up to my changing hormones, but still, I wondered why I had experienced such a swell of emotions for an entire year.
The more I talked to other women, especially other moms, I realized a common theme. So many women dealt with postpartum depression but didn't realize it until after they were on the other side of it. I remember at my 6-week postpartum visit with Everett, I filled out the mental health checklist, the one where they identify feelings of postpartum depression. I wasn't battling feelings of deep sadness, or having urges to hurt myself or my baby. Those weren't my symptoms. I still laughed, still had fun, still had motivation for life and work. But these feelings were compounded by intense situational anxiety. I had a hard time wanting to leave the house because I couldn't predict what might happen. This sense of paranoia wasn't really like myself - I've never been a fearful person. I knew I didn't feel like the old Kristen, but I just thought this anxious feeling is how all new moms feel. So I left that appointment knowing that I wasn't depressed. But still, I didn't feel quite right.
I didn't know that postpartum anxiety was a thing. I thought it was depression or happiness, black or white only. I didn't know there were mannnnny shades of clinically defined emotions in between.
Fast forward to my second pregnancy, labor and delivery with my second son, Daxton. My emotions were sky high during that last month of pregnancy, and when I look back, I can't help but laugh at how super hormonal I was. After having an unexpectedly long labor and c-section with him, during my recovery I experienced a resurgence of the anxious feelings. This time around, I knew that those feelings weren't my personality, and at my 6-week appointment with my Doctor, I told her so.
Even though my recovery was extremely challenging, this baby boy was a completely different person from my first. Daxton was calm, he was quiet, he slept peacefully, he took a bottle, he rested in anyone's arms. He was the definition of peace. And yet, I was still experiencing the feelings I had when Everett was a baby. I began to realize that perhaps it wasn't the situation (or the baby), that had brought on those feelings of anxiety. It was just me. Or I guess I should say, it was just my hormones. I shared everything I was feeling with my doctor - especially about how I felt and the situations that triggered the anxiety. She asked me lots of hard questions and offered me a medication. Ultimately, I told her I didn't want to take any drugs and instead wanted to find alternative solutions. She was completely on board and helped me formulate a plan - I would begin exercising again (a natural way of detoxing anxiety), I would resume journaling my feelings (surprise surprise - I like to write), and I would meet with a counselor. I felt settled in this plan.
For the next few months I did just that. I met with a counselor (wow, did I learn a lot about myself!), started exercising again (I heart you, Pure Barre!), and got lots of prayer from my friends and family. I also visited a naturopathic doctor and got on some supplements to help balance my hormones. All of these things helped.
But friends, they just didn't help enough.
My anxiety was still present. I felt a heaviness in my chest almost all day every day. It lifted when I was being counseled, and most of the time it was gone while I was exercising. But other than that, I couldn't get my tightened chest to relax, I couldn't take enough deep breaths to calm the vibration inside.
So at about 4 months postpartum, back to the doctor I went. This time, I went back to my OBGYN, the one who had sliced me open on the operating table. The one who asked me all the right questions and had once offered the anxiety medication. I went back to her, explained where I was at, and accepted her offer of a prescription.
"It's a very mild dose", she told me.
It took me a few weeks to actually fill the prescription. All the naturally-minded instincts within me wanted to resist taking a medication. Wanted to resist the need for it. But something else within me begged to get back in the game again, to shake this anxiety loose, to be in the moment with my family, to enjoy this season, to finally relax. And if a little white pill was going to be the answer to all those prayers, then so be it.
I finally filled it.
Within 2 weeks on that anxiety prescription, I began to feel like myself again. Not drugged, like myself again. I felt like the medication was a bridge, bringing me back to the best version of myself. Laughter came so much more easily, social situations were enjoyable again, going to church was suddenly just not a big deal, and everything that had previously caused such a heightened mess of twisted stressors inside my heart didn't trigger that response anymore.
Thank goodness for my husband, my steady rock, who has been holding my hand throughout this entire journey. My slow recovery process, my mess of emotions and my ugliest moments haven't scared him away in the slightest (at least not that he's let on!), and I am the luckiest woman in the world to have him as my partner. My mom has been like a fairy godmother angel, coming to help with my boys on days that were just bad. I couldn't have survived this past year without her encouragement, prayer and parenting input and support. It didn't hurt that she would also come by and clean my bathrooms, fold my laundry and take my boys on stroller walks so I could have a few minutes to myself, which I mostly spent updating this blog of mine.
Basically, friends, it's been a messy journey. I'm not out of the woods yet. I have days where the chest pain returns for a few moments, but that is truly so rare now. Most of the time I am able to overcome pangs of anxiety when certain situations trigger it. I am so happy and free, and thanks to my incredible support system, I am blessed blessed blessed beyond what I deserve. Thanks for being part of my journey and taking the time to read this heart of mine. If you struggle with postpartum anxiety or depression, please talk to someone who can get you some real help! It is such a game changer, there is no reason to delay your healing. Today is your day for success and victory and whole-body healing!
This post is a lengthy one so I will share my coping tactics in another post. I hope this snapshot of PPA was helpful to some of you who have dealt with this, and hopefully, this helps shed some light on what some mothers go through during the postpartum journey. We are all in this motherhood gig together and we have every good opportunity to lift each other up in prayer and encouragement!