When Scarves Attack: My Lesser-Known Symptoms of Postpartum Depression
Three months postpartum, I was diagnosed with postpartum depression. I experienced some of the hallmark symptoms: panic attacks, intense anger and intrusive thoughts. At the same time, I experienced other symptoms I had never read about. I couldn’t complete sentences, felt like I was suffocating and became incredibly sensitive to noise.
I’m sure the lack of sleep played a role, but it was more than that. My brain seemed to be failing me. Even when I knew exactly what I was trying to say, the words couldn’t come out. This was a symptom I experienced every day. Here are examples:
1. I struggled to complete sentences.
2. I forgot the names of basic, household items.
3. I would try to describe a situation or something the baby did to my husband and he would just stare at me blankly.
4. I often had to take a breath mid-conversation to re-focus my brain.
Words would just disappear from my brain, even mid-thought. It was so frustrating to not be able to communicate to others. I would try to describe what I was trying to say and it would just make me frustrated and set off the other major symptoms: panic and rage. This ultimately led to an awful cycle of panic attacks, not being able to communicate what was happening, and then the attacks getting worse. More than anything else, my struggle to communicate made me feel stupid and worthless. Normally, I’m a very strong communicator. I excel at synthesizing other’s thoughts, I regularly find the words others are looking for, and I find ways to communicate group consensus at work.
From my perspective, not only was I a complete mess as a mom, I could not even clearly communicate what we needed or what I had managed to accomplish.
Without postpartum depression, I’m pretty sensitive to noise. For example, there’s a very fine line in my house between “I can’t hear the TV” and “The TV is too loud.” It’s typically plus or minus one notch on the remote! Through therapy, I learned this is quite common and totally normal. However, with postpartum depression, any excess noise made me want to run away. Coincidentally, my husband had recently discovered an affinity for NPR (National Public Radio). NPR for someone sensitive to noise is pure hell. Every segment and every radio personality has a different volume level. When NPR transitions from one to the other, it is a roller coaster of noise. Every day on the car ride home, B wanted to listen to “All Things Considered.” I enjoy listening to the day’s headlines and human interest stories, believe me, but I could not tolerate the sound of it. When I shared this with my therapist, she asked me, “What is the worst thing that will happen to you in that moment?” Other than saying it annoyed me, I didn’t have an answer. My homework that week was to listen to it every day. The point was to retrain my brain that nothing bad would happen to me, effectively teaching my brain not to enter a panic state. Every day, I tried to make it a minute longer than the day before without asking B to turn it off. Slowly, my brain did adjust and I felt better.
The Sense of Being Suffocated and Strangled
1. I Couldn’t Wear Scarves or Jewelry
Honestly, this symptom was really not that big of a deal because it wasn’t dangerous and didn’t impact my everyday life that much. However, it did exist and, when combined with other symptoms, became problematic. I felt suffocated by scarves and jewelry. Anything on my neck made me feel like I was choking. If I wore different earrings, I obsessed over the weight of them on my ears or, if they were “dangly,” the sensation of them against my neck. Whenever I had a panic attack, the first thing I wanted to do was crawl out of my own body and run away. If you think about it in terms of “fight or flight” survival mode, I strongly align with the “flight” response. When my body overflowed with heat and pent up anger, I would immediately rip off any jewelry, scarves or excess layers.
2. I Almost Shaved My Head
On more than one occasion, I almost shaved my head out of desperation. My hair constantly bothered me. My brain would easily become consumed with the sensation of any rogue hairs. If my hair was down, I could not focus on anything but the hairs touching my neck. If it was up, any little straggler out of place or touching my ears/neck/face was impossible to ignore. When I curled my hair, then I was obsessed with making sure all curls were perfectly placed and even. If it was straight, it had better be even all around and no signs of my natural waves. Of course, all of this obsession led to panic attacks and anger.
Two Years Later…
While none of these symptoms dissipated overnight, through therapy and my low dose of medication, I was able to manage them. Two years later, I am happy to report I regularly wear scarves, sometimes allow NPR in the car and never actually shaved my head.
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Thinkstock photo via Dirima