The following is edited by Lisa Smith, but courageously written by guest Mama Blogger, Kelly Williams.
It’s taken me a long time to sit down and write this post. I think it’s just difficult to relive those few months after Story’s birth. Not that I’m not aware of my struggle with postpartum depression and anxiety every day. I am such an open book when the topic comes up because one of my goals is to not only increase awareness, but to normalize PPD and PPA. I am thankful that I had the necessary support to get through to the other side. If I can help save one life by sharing my story, it’s worth it.
As I wrote in a previous post, Story’s birth didn’t go as I had hoped or planned. Initially, I had planned for a natural, unmedicated birth. Not so quickly, that all went south. I’m about as type-A as you can get, but I was able to ease into every decision with Story’s birth with an unexplained peace. Our hospital stay went well. Story was able to latch and begin breastfeeding. I barely felt any pain from the c-section. Everything seemed to be going so well.
Our first night home was rough. I couldn’t get Story settled, but I didn’t want to wake Seth because I knew at least one of us needed to get a good night’s rest. I didn’t wake my mom either because I felt like I should somehow know what Story needed or like I was really the only one who could help her. I was exhausted. At 5am, my mom woke up and quickly ushered me to bed. When I woke up 3 hours later, that was the first time I remember that anxious feeling – my heart was racing as I jumped out of bed to make sure that Story was okay. Sure enough, she was perfectly content in my mom’s arms, but I couldn’t get myself to fully relax.
Fast forward to a couple of days later. Our dear friends Scott and Susy came over to see Story and check in on us. As I began talking, I couldn’t control my tears. I completely broke down. I recall saying something to Susy along the lines of “I feel like I might have made a mistake.” The fear that I had entered into parenthood before I was ready gripped me like a vice. I felt trapped. I literally felt like I had walked into a season of life I wasn’t prepared for. The crying was constant. The anxiety was never-ending. I remember looking at Story and feeling like I didn’t have the physical strength to pick her up. I just wanted things to go back to normal. I felt like I was a terrible mother. Story was such a content baby, rarely making a fuss. But I just felt like I didn’t have the tools to care for her and I was terrified that her precious little life was in my hands. The worst was when she started to lose weight – this was after she had a gain after her initial loss upon coming home from the hospital. The doctor suggested that I begin supplementing with formula. It was almost too much for me to bear. I was her mother, the one that was supposed to be providing her with the nutrition she needed to grow and thrive, and I couldn’t even do that. Feedings would take forever, as I fed her from both breasts and then gave her a bottle. I was exhausted. I was at my breaking point.
Susy ended up writing Seth an email after they had been at our house. She expressed a great deal of concern for me, and suggested that I was perhaps dealing with more than just the “baby blues.” She sent him a link to a site called Postpartum Progress where they list the symptoms of PPD and PPA. I remember as Seth and I looked over the list together, tears streaming down my face as I mentally checked off almost every symptom. We knew I needed to get help.
Roughly two weeks after Story was born, I had an appointment with my OB to discuss my mental and emotional state. I remember looking at my swollen face in the mirror and not recognizing myself. My OB was kind, but I don’t think she saw the severity of my state in that first appointment. She prescribed Zoloft, which is a fairly mild antidepressant, and a pretty typical “first try” when it comes to mental health medication. A couple of days later, the panic attacks started. I knew I couldn’t be alone, and I was more than Seth could handle. My mom drove down to Nashville from Cincinnati to pick me and Story up. I felt a surge of peace, but my emotions were shot. At this time, I also made the decision to quit breastfeeding so that I could begin taking Xanax and allow my body more time to rest. Typically, it takes about 2 weeks for any type of antidepressant to cycle through your body, and having never taken any type of mental health medication before, it was a bizarre experience.
My mom began to take care of me and Story. Every morning, I woke up and experienced panic attacks immediately. I remember running downstairs to find my mom and she would wrap me up in her arms and rock me. She’d brush back my hair while I sobbed into her shoulder. She was so strong. Afterwards, she’d make me fresh juice and a healthy breakfast and encourage me to eat – I had already lost all of my baby weight at this point, and weighed even less than I did before I had gotten pregnant with Story. I had a mix of good moments with mostly bad days. My mom would have soothing music playing almost all day long, and I would just hold Story and sob. I didn’t understand why I was going through this, why I had to suffer, why I couldn’t be the mom that I had imagined I would be. I was worried that Story would suffer later on in life because of my PPD and PPA. One weekend, Seth came up to visit us, and I remember having a horrible panic attack where I was clinging to my dad, screaming that I thought I was going crazy. Having a medical background, my dad urged Seth to call my doctor and have them change my prescription. He could tell that I was having a negative reaction to Zoloft, and that it was indeed making my mental state worse.
The next several weeks are all a blur. I went back down to Nashville and began seeing a counselor. I also met with a nurse practitioner at the same practice who put me on a couple more antidepressants (one was meant as a sleep aide). My 30th birthday was horrible. I had one of my worst panic attacks that evening, and it was all Seth could do to just get me into the shower to calm me down. None of the medications seemed to be “working.” After a rough go with the nurse practitioner, my OB got me an appointment with a psychiatrist who I remember being incredibly dry, but very smart. He started me on Effexor XR, which is in a different class of mental health medication. I also went back up to Cincinnati to be with my parents once more, and then back down to Nashville. So many family members and friends were there for me. They took turns with Story’s late night feedings, sleeping on the floor next to her Moses basket. Ultimately, I had to learn how to be a parent apart from my parents, but I wasn’t ready to be on my own with Story. I tried to do “normal” things, but it was so difficult because I was as far from myself as I could be. I remember Susy coming over to clean our house and stock our fridge because I couldn’t. She then had Story and I come spend the afternoon and night at her house so I could rest all day in their guest room while she took care of Story. I will never forget how vulnerable I felt as I laid curled up in a ball on that bed, my eyes closed but unable to sleep.
Shortly thereafter, my sister Therese came and stayed with us for two weeks. As a professional counselor and as my sister, she was a huge resource. Therese was so good at refocusing my thoughts, and saving me from the downward spiral of another panic attack. She’d also have me focus on doing just one thing a day in addition to taking care of Story, instead of the never-ending to-do list that I was tempted to focus on. I had to learn that taking care of a little human being was enough – I didn’t need to fill my day with chores, errands, and projects even though my type-A self was so used to that behavior. For some reason, I had a completely idealized version of what it would look like to be a stay-at-home mom in my head. I don’t know where it came from. My perfectionism? My desire to be-all and do-all all the time? Probably some of that and more.
My mom-in-law came down and stayed with me for a week, and then my parents hired a postpartum doula to stay with me while Seth was at work. I had two doulas from the same group—A Village Birth Services—Leanne and Brittany, but Leanne spent the majority of the time with me. She was amazing. Leanne would make sure my physical needs were met while at the same time encouraging me in my own mothering. She helped instill in me a confidence I didn’t realize I had. She became a true friend. I began taking some natural supplements as well – Vitamin D being at the top of the list. And I also switched counselors – I was now seeing a counselor from Hope Clinic for Women who specialized in perinatal mood disorders.
Slowly, I found life again. I remember laughing and suddenly thinking, “Wait…is this okay? Am I okay?” I was outside running. I was fixing myself lunch. I was smiling at Story. And it all felt glorious. As I look back, I don’t remember there being a particular “lightbulb moment” where I became myself again. It was a gradual progression. And the more Story grew, the stronger our bond became. Here’s one of my most favorite photos with Story:
If you are struggling, know that there is hope. Reach out to those around you. Talk openly with family and friends. There are far too many mamas out there who are feeling ashamed and afraid. You are not alone. You will get better. And if you have a day where hope feels too far out of reach, think of me and remember that I was once right where you are. You will move forward, I promise. One step at a time. And you know what? Your sweet baby will be okay too.