Recently my youngest daughter turned 1 years old. But as I looked back on pictures from her first days on Earth, I didn’t feel warm inside. Instead, I felt fear — a familiar fear that prickled the back of my neck, making my heart beat accelerate. I should be able to look back on her birth with an overwhelming sense of happiness. I should be able to talk about those days with a smile on my face. But I don’t. I can’t.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my daughter. She’s a beautiful, chubby, soft little ball of love and I can’t imagine my life without her. But our first months together were spent on rough, uncertain seas. And despite the passage of time, I cannot yet look back on them and remember anything but how terrified I was. I hope someday I can.
While we were preparing for her arrival I had a lot on my mind. Will her siblings accept her? How will we survive the teenage years with only one bathroom? Will I go into labor early? Will she have hair, or be bald like her sisters? Will she have her daddy’s big brown eyes? One question I didn’t ask was, what happens if I develop a postpartum disorder? I didn’t think it was something I needed to worry about. Had I known then what I know now, it would have been the first question I asked.
I thought I knew everything there was to know about pregnancy, labor and delivery. Having already gone through pregnancy and delivery twice, with one vaginal delivery and one delivery via C-section, I thought I had experienced it all. Needles, IVs, episiotomies, catheters, epidurals, spinal blocks, breast feeding, bottle feeding, abdominal surgery, gas. I was, I thought, a seasoned professional.
Ignoring a history of anxiety and depression in my family, I couldn’t imagine feeling anything other than love and happiness after giving birth to a baby. Of course I’ve heard about postpartum depression, but my head was filled with stereotypes. I didn’t know anyone who had actually experienced it, and even considered myself to be above it. I thought there was no way it would actually happen to me.
Due to her position, and to my previous C-section, I was scheduled for a repeat C-section at 7:00 a.m., September 16, 2014. I was nervous about getting a spinal block, but I felt calm while I waited, posing for photos in my hospital bed with my oldest daughter and fiancé. One of the nurses even remarked she had never seen anyone so calm. I had no reason to believe this would be any different than last time.
When it was time to head into the operating room, although my nerves started to peak, I didn’t think much of it. But as my heart started racing I felt something terrible building inside of me. A feeling I tried to rationalize, and then tried to ignore – terror. Not fear. Terror. I tried to breathe and wait for it to become manageable, but it never did. It just got bigger with every step I took. I could not, physically, make myself walk into the operating room. Even with the help of several nurses and promises my fiancé could come into the room with me, I dissolved into screams. I started screaming that I wanted to go home, that I couldn’t go through with it, that I was too afraid — I should have known right then that the intensity of my feelings meant something deeper was going on.
I went back to my room and laid down with my fiancé who was able to calm me down. The nurses told me I had a small window of time before I would have to reschedule the C-section. But I had already been in the hospital for hours. I knew I had to do it now.
Eventually, when it was all over, someone held my daughter up. I could see even through my terror that she was beautiful. But the moment I had been waiting for, through nine long months of pregnancy, through the terrifying hours leading up to her birth – it didn’t come. Seeing her didn’t make everything better. Seeing her didn’t make my fear go away. There was no explosion of love that made everything OK. I was still scared.
When they finally wheeled me out of the operating room and back to my room, I was scared. When our family and friends came to visit, when she met her siblings for the first time, my heart still raced. I still felt trapped. My brain was like a TV full of static. Something was wrong. I didn’t know what, I didn’t know why. I just knew that something was wrong. I did my best to have the necessary conversations with our family; I did my best to smile for pictures like I knew I was expected to. But with every second that passed I felt more disconnected from the real world and more lost in my feelings of terror, which were just growing larger by the second.
I managed to stay in the hospital for around 48 hours before I decided that the problem was the hospital itself. But when we got home I didn’t feel better and the two weeks after the birth of my daughter were without a doubt the worst weeks of my entire life. I’ve never experienced a fear so intense. I hope I never do again.
Though the days felt like years, it was eventually time to go to my follow-up appointment with my doctor. I had, by then, adjusted as well as anyone can to living in a constant state of never ending terror. There was no part of me that connected it to a postpartum issue. I almost didn’t say anything about it to my doctor. But I did. There are a lot of things I can’t (or don’t want) to remember from the days and weeks shortly following the birth of my daughter. But what my doctor said to me will always stand out.
I think you have postpartum panic disorder.
What? I had never heard of it before. He prescribed me anti-anxiety medication, which ended up being like water in a desert to me. Just knowing there was a name for what I was going through, that I would be OK – those things made me feel a little bit better, instantly.
It wasn’t an easy fix, but my panic attacks dwindled from constant, to just a few a day, to just a few a week, to rare occurrences. Postpartum panic disorder robbed me of so much, but I consider myself lucky to have a few dim good memories. Like how soft skin of my daughter’s face when I put my check to hers, when she was like my little raft in an endless sea of terror and uncertainty.
I often wonder what would’ve happened if I had educated myself about postpartum disorders sooner. Maybe I could’ve recognized what was happening and gotten help sooner.
Now, when one of my friends announces a pregnancy, I usually blurt out my congratulations and follow up very quickly with, “Have you read anything about postpartum panic disorder?” And then I tell them my story.
Having a postpartum disorder changed my life, but if I can educate even one woman it was all worth it. Despite all the stigma that surrounds these conditions, there’s no reason to be ashamed. There’s no reason to feel embarrassed about not feeling the “correct” way after giving birth.
My daughter was immediately adored by all of her siblings. She was born with a head full of beautiful black hair and a red birthmark on the tip of her nose. She has her daddy’s big brown eyes. As for making it through the teenage years with four daughters and one bathroom? After surviving postpartum panic disorder, I can live through anything.