Another mom in a Facebook group of parents asked about an offhand remark I made about postpartum anxiety, and so this is an elaboration on my response, which got too long for a comment. I share it because mental health is just health, and shouldn’t be a secret, shouldn’t be shameful, and shouldn’t be hidden.
I’ve always been a worrier, and pretty Type A about life. I’m a librarian by education but an academic administrator by career meanderings, and I manage people, projects, budgets, politics, relationships, and a facility… and that’s just my day job. I also have a husband who’s self-employed and has a couple of chronic health challenges, my own chronic physical issues, a dog, two cats, a house, two aging cars, student loans, family scattered across this country and two others, and all the trappings of American middle class living. I worry about stuff. A lot. I’ve always framed it as a way to keep track of things, to make sure I wasn’t missing anything, to ensure that I handled all that was supposed to be handled, to keep our lives moving forward as we wished they would. I keep mental lists, I check things off of them, and our life proceeds apace.
On a good day, that’s a true framing. On a bad day…
Immediately after Gwyn was born, I started having dreams that really were nightmares, the kind I’d wake from, sweaty and shaking and mentally shaken. They had two forms: In one, I had fallen asleep holding her, and had tangled her in the blankets or under my body and in the dream I was ripping off bed linens trying to find her before she died. In the other, I was carrying her and dropped her, and that one always ended with me watching her little head hit concrete, and then I’d wake up. I can still see images from both of them vividly in my mind if I think about them, a year later. It was pretty clear to me that this was a response to the hormones pumping through me, postpartum, and that my brain was acting out some of the anxiety I felt about being a brand new parent to this little creature. It seemed pretty reasonable, if utterly horrible. I figured it’d fade as the hormones settled, and as I got comfortable with this massive and major life change.
Except it kept ramping up, slowly. I felt better about being a parent, and my hormones did settle, but I never felt less anxious about it. It all came to a head when Gwyn was about 8 months old. I was back to work full-time, Justin was home with G, and things were good — they were totally fine, on a basic “how’s life?” scale. I was healthy, G was happy, Justin liked being a stay at home dad, and we were doing pretty great, overall. Except I was coming home from work every single day and in the course of just living in my life, I would burst into tears. The stress of existing had me just falling apart. I couldn’t relax. I couldn’t let go of a single thing on my mental list of stuff to worry about and remember, and I couldn’t prioritize anything on that mental list of stuff to worry about and remember. I couldn’t parse what was big and what was small, and I was freaking out about everything.
After a literal week of sobbing every night, I happened to have a regularly scheduled check up with my doctor. I probably wouldn’t have scheduled an appointment just because I was “sad and stressed out”, but since I had one on my calendar already, I did what I always do with my regular check ups with him — I think through “what’s up with me”. My checkups are intended to monitor my blood pressure, since in my early 30s I started demonstrating signs of chronic hypertension, and we’ve managed it together for 6 years now. As a part of that, he always asks about stress levels, my mental health, and how I’m sleeping. So I thought all of that through, as I do… and when I got to my appointment I looked at him and said “I’m not okay.”
We talked about why I thought I wasn’t okay. He asked good questions. We identified that I had just weaned Gwyn fully, and that was probably messing with my hormones even more than usual. He agreed I didn’t sound like myself. And he prescribed a low dose of Zoloft.
I took it. Gratefully. FIX ME, I thought. And for a week, the drug just made me sleepy.
And then about 10 days after I started taking it, Justin said, “You’re back.”
And I was.
I don’t know how long I was trapped in a spiral of anxiety I couldn’t break free of. I don’t know how long before I noticed it began. I don’t know if it was even truly related to pregnancy, childbirth, or weaning. I don’t know if I’ve always carried a low base state of overly concerned about everything. What I do know is that after I started taking the SSRI, I started feeling like a person I recognized, who I didn’t realize was missing from my life. I started to feel like my life was manageable again. I laughed more. I relaxed more. I got better. I still worry about Gwyn, but now my stress dreams are like they have always been before — the classic “show up naked to work and realize you forgot you have a final exam today” variety of dream. No one is maimed or killed in my sleeping mind, anymore. That alone is worth its weight in gold.
And if I hadn’t had the option of a drug that could right my brain’s chemistry, I don’t know where that dark, sad, frustrated, terrified, anxious road would have gone. I was doing everything right, had all the support I could ask for, and was having no crisis worth noting — and I couldn’t do it alone. So if any of this sounds like you… please ask for help. It’s out there. And it’s worth it.