I am a happy, bubbly person by nature, and I always have been. I’ve bordered on hyperactive for the better part of my adolescent and young adult years. I always found the positive in things, even when faced with adversity. I was the only one of my friends who was consistently energetic, charismatic, and motivated — despite all of the outside stressors in life.
Fast-forward ten years, and the journey to motherhood.
My pregnancy was normal. I probably gained a little more weight than I should have, and the mood swings were something to write home about, but nothing earth-shattering. I had a fairly routine 36-hour (ouch) labor and delivery, and welcomed my beautiful baby girl on December 23, 2015. I was sent home on Christmas Day with the ultimate present — a healthy, happy little miracle. Things were perfect.
That first night at home was rough. I woke up for her first midnight feeding, and couldn’t fall back asleep. I was in full-blown panic. Once I got her back to bed, I cried to her father for two hours. He told me this was normal, my hormones were going haywire. I listened, and I eventually fell asleep.
Fast-forward to that six-week postpartum check-up. Things were perfect, again. I was recovering well, I was getting more sleep, and my baby was thriving. They asked the question, “How are you feeling?” to which I said “Fine.” They asked if I had any blue thoughts; thoughts of hurting myself or my child. I did not. And that was it. I was sent on my way with a pat on the back, and an “atta-girl,” like I had made it past what should have been the hardest part.
That wasn’t true for me. The hardest part of my pregnancy journey was only just beginning.
Fast-forward again, this time three years.
I now have an energetic, brilliant, vivacious toddler who has taught me more about love and patience than I had ever known. I don’t have those blue feelings. I don’t want to hurt myself or my daughter.
But the anxiety, the panic I had the first night home from the hospital? It’s still here. And it’s worse, much worse.
Six months ago I was going through a lot. I had some serious life changes — ending of old relationships, beginning of new relationships, promotions, co-parenting struggles, family issues, you name it. The heart palpitations got worse around then.
I attributed the uptick in my usual palpitations and anxiousness to caffeine, and lack of self-care. So I cut back on the caffeine and paid more attention to self-care, but it was still happening, and worsening, with every passing day.
A typical episode would look like this:
I’m laying in bed, about to fall asleep. I had a normal day at work, with the exception of getting stressed out a few times. My heart pounds so hard, it feels like it runs straight into my rib cage. I can’t catch my breath and my heart starts beating more quickly. It races for five minutes until I can take a couple of deep breaths, and begin to calm down. Then I start speculating. The internal dialogue begins and won’t stop. “Was that a sign of a heart attack? Am I going to die? Is there something wrong with me?” Boom. Happens again. Repeat.
This vicious cycle starts repeating itself over and over again, now up to thirty times a day. I’m left exhausted, fatigued, constantly stressed out, unhappy. My quality of life is suffering. I’m lashing out at coworkers, family members, my spouse, my child. I am the opposite of the energetic, charismatic, free-spirited person I once was.
Finally, at the urging of everyone around me, I sought help. I explained to my doctor the feelings I was having. That I thought something was wrong with my heart, I was sure of it. She ordered a series of tests, including holter monitors, stress-tests and ultrasounds of my heart. She also warned me that, in the event that blood work and heart monitoring comes back normal, that it may be time to start talking about my postpartum anxiety.
I brushed her off. Surely what I was feeling was a proper, physical heart condition. I felt it. I felt my heart beating quickly, off-rhythm. I nearly passed out every time. There was NO WAY that it could be of my own making. Besides, if I had postpartum anxiety, this should have been caught years ago. Right?
Wrong. And spoiler alert, my heart was completely fine.
The cardiologist thoroughly discussed the results of the testing with me. Of the 75 (yes, 75) episodes I had self-recorded over 24-hours with the holter monitor, not one episode showed a change in heart rhythm. My heart was healthy, my heart wasn’t “racing,” my heart was fine.
When I tell you that the feelings I had were physical, I’m not kidding. They were earth-shattering. They were the scariest feelings I have ever experienced. I genuinely, from the bottom of my perfectly-healthy heart, felt like I was going to die. But it turns out, I wasn’t. I had untreated anxiety, likely attributed to a missed diagnosis at my six-week postpartum check-up.
I can’t tell you the overwhelming comfort, and confusion, that followed that visit. I met with my primary care provider, who suggested, again, that it is time to treat my anxiety. At first, this felt a lot like failure. But now it feels like peace of mind, and that is a feeling I haven’t had in over three years.
But, I’m also pissed off.
At six weeks postpartum, I was still in the throes of my “baby-moon.” Any “anxiety” I had, I could have easily chalked up to hormones. When my doctor asked how I was feeling in terms of my mood, not once was I asked about this anxiousness. This conversation needs to change.
Not every mother experiences postpartum depression. Some mothers experience postpartum anxiety. Some mothers experience nothing at all. Either way, the conversations we’re having with new mothers that could help diagnose any problems are inadequate.
I’m fortunate to have people in my life that could urge me to seek help. I’m fortunate that I have people who care about me, people who knew me before I became a mother, and have seen the toll motherhood has taken on me and my body.
Not everyone has that support system. For some women, that postpartum checkup is the only adult interaction they’ve had in weeks. It may be the only opportunity they have for an honest conversation about their feelings, without the fear of being judged as overly emotional, hormonal, or depressed.
Postpartum anxiety is real. It manifests itself in the most frightening ways, and if left untreated can be debilitating. I wish I could have saved myself three years worth of progression with my anxiety, with just one quick question at my postpartum visit.
If you are a new mom, LISTEN TO YOUR BODY. If you are feeling uncharacteristically sad, anxious, or overwhelmed, speak up.
These feelings do not make you a bad mother. These feelings do not make you weak. These feelings do not make you unfit for motherhood. These feelings do not make you a failure.
And these feelings do not have to define you. You do not have to live with these feelings. These feelings do not have to be your new normal.
You deserve a better quality of life. You deserve to be happy. You deserve to be free of anxiety. You deserve to be your own advocate.
You’re a mom, and an AMAZING one. So if no one has told you today that you’re okay, or to listen to your body and to seek help, I will.