The birth of my first child, Charlotte, was picture-perfect, and I was an anomaly of postpartum recovery. Less than a week after she was born, I was cleaning house, getting up early to see her, and walking every day while pushing her in the stroller. Things couldn’t have gone any better, which is why I was so caught off guard by the challenges I faced the second time around.
My descent into postpartum depression began right before Patrick was born. At thirty-nine weeks, I checked in to the hospital to be induced. I was nervous but ready to see my little boy.
When the nurse went through the routine health questions, I felt a rush of terror. She asked me if I had a living will, and upon saying, “Yes,” my blood pressure dropped. I started to feel faint. They hadn’t even drawn any blood or hooked me up to an IV, but I started having a panic attack.
They decided to put in the epidural before inducing me so they could regulate my blood pressure. The nurse’s hands were unsteady as she put the epidural into my spine, and I immediately knew something was wrong. She told me that she had performed a wet tap, hitting the spinal fluid instead of the epidural space. The result, she said, would be horrible spinal headaches and an inability to get out of bed for days at a time.
Something wasn’t quite right when Patrick was born. I was sort of happy, but couldn’t shake the feeling that deep down I was not okay. Patrick was beautiful—he looked just like my husband—but unlike the joy I felt upon seeing my daughter, holding my son brought upon great feelings of fear, feelings that only intensified the longer I spent in the hospital.
Paranoia began to set in. I felt as if the nurses were ignoring me, that they were trying to force me to tolerate the pain I was feeling in my head and back. I told my husband that I wanted to go home as soon as possible, though the nursing staff seemed reluctant to let me leave.
I expected everything to get better when I got home, but the pain in my head worsened. I decided to return to the hospital for a blood patch to stop the leaking spinal fluid that was causing my headaches.
When I got back home, I felt better but still scared. I told my mom several times that I was sure I was going to die. I couldn’t look at my son. My mother kept trying to get me to hold him, but every time I did, I cried. My daughter didn’t understand what was going on with Mommy, and she missed me horribly when all I could do was stay in bed. Listening to her cry about missing me made me sink deeper into my sorrow. My family needed me, and I couldn’t even force myself out of bed. I thought I was going to die right there in my own home, because no one believed that something was very wrong with me.
After three days of agony, I finally tried to shower on my own. When the hot water hit my body, I felt like I was in another place. I started screaming and crying. All I could do was sit in the shower and hope that someone would come get me out. I thought, If I have to live like this any longer, then I don’t want to live any more. It was the first in a long series of panic attacks.
My mother and sister recognized that what I was experiencing was more than just the Baby Blues. They convinced me to call my OB, and I made an appointment to see him that same day. The doctor asked me what I was feeling, and I was totally honest with him. When he asked me if I wanted to hurt myself or the baby, I said that I didn’t think so, all the while questioning if that was true. Part of me didn’t trust myself.
The doctor decided that an immediate fix was necessary for my condition and prescribed Xanax. I did start to feel better, but it was short-lived; it wasn’t long before the feelings came back. A nurse called to check on me twice a day for the next few days. I admitted to her that I still wanted to die and that my pain was more than just complications from the wet tap. I couldn’t even bear to hold my new baby, and my husband had to do all the feedings and changing, while taking care of a two-year-old at the same time. My OB was starting to get scared for me, too, and suggested that I see a psychiatrist.
The psychiatrist was a kind soul. He explained to me that everything I was going through was biological, and that I was going to be okay. He immediately started me on antidepressants to wean me from the Xanax.
The first night after seeing the psychiatrist, I woke up in the middle of the night in a horrible panic attack. My brain was on fire, and I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t feel my body. My husband was so scared that he called my parents, who rushed down to our house. I was screaming at them to take me to the hospital. My father convinced me to call the psychiatrist instead of going to the hospital. The doctor told me to up my dosage of Xanax so that I could sleep, and he called me the next morning to see how I felt.
From then on, I had panic attacks at least once a night, waking up in sheer terror about two hours after I went to sleep. The panic attacks continued during the day, for no apparent reason. I barely left the couch after a while, but every time I’d get in the shower I’d fall to the floor screaming and crying. If I were ever left alone in a room I’d break down. My mother had to take me under her care 24/7, and I continued to see my psychiatrist every other day. He promised me that I would get better, but that I could expect to get worse before that happened.
I ended up having to leave my own house and stay with my parents for days on end because being near my newborn threw me into a panic attack. My mother, who had been my rock this entire time, also began to break down.
One night, I noticed my mother holding back her tears, and I asked her what was wrong. She told me that I was such a good mother, and that she didn’t understand what was happening to me. She wondered why I couldn’t be around my children when I had been so happy just weeks before. She showed me pictures of my son’s birth, reminding me how happy I was, and how much I loved him. She held me, and we cried together for hours. I actually had to sleep in the bed with my parents every night for about two weeks because I would often wake up in a panic and they would have to hold me and talk me down.
My husband also started breaking down from fatigue and worry. With my mother taking care of me, my husband was left to take care of the kids while still working. I started telling myself that I had to break out of this because my family needed me. My children needed their mom, my husband needed his wife, and my mother needed her daughter.
By my fifth week postpartum, I decided that it would be best for me to try to work again. Staring at HGTV all day was not helping my condition, even though it did distract me temporarily from my depression. I started going back to our family dealership a few hours a day, and I continued to see my psychiatrist a couple times a week. By this time, I started having good days and bad days. I would feel almost healed for a few days in a row, and then I would have a bad day out of nowhere. Through it all, my psychiatrist continued to encourage me, saying it was a good sign and that I was starting to get better.
Within a couple of weeks, there were more good days than bad, and my mother started looking at me like I was going to be okay again. I started taking turns with my husband at night so that he could get some sleep. That’s when I really felt like I was healing. When the antidepressants kicked in after a few weeks, the panic attacks stopped, and I finally understood that I was going to pull out of it.
I truly believe that postpartum depression could have taken my life, but instead, I developed a better understanding of myself. My relationships with my friends grew deeper. I realized how far they would go to ensure my health and safety. My husband and I are closer than ever after seeing each other sacrifice so much for our family.
To this day, I am proud of myself for telling my doctors, family, and friends what was happening to me. It allowed me to get the help I needed, face challenges, and come out on top. My experience has led me to seek more balance in my life, and I have become a stronger, happier person for it. Most importantly, I realize that my terrifying experience was worth the tears and pain, because I brought two amazing little babies into the world.
A Note from Dr. Shosh
No matter how terrible you feel in the moment, know you will recover. It may be hard to believe, but hold on to that fact. Keep searching until you find the right help. If you are unable to make the calls yourself, then ask a loved one to make them for you. Here are a few additional takeaways from Cackie’s story:
— Not feeling safe during labor and delivery, a time when we are most vulnerable, increases our risk for postpartum anxiety. Cackie had a shaky nurse who didn’t administer the epidural correctly. That didn’t elicit trust; it shattered it.
— Being told you will experience severe physical problems after delivery can bring upon more anxiety. Sometimes well-meaning healthcare professionals don’t have the best timing or bedside manner.
— Cackie felt that no one believed there was anything wrong with her. This may or may not have been true, but no matter what – it’s our perception that affects us the most.
— Usually when we are in pain and think of dying it’s not that we really want to die; we just want the pain to stop. It’s when we become hopeless and believe the only way to make the pain stop is to die that we become suicidal. It’s never the person that needs to die – it’s the depression and anxiety that need to end, and they will with proper help!
— Panic attacks are scary when you don’t know what they are, or when or if they’ll end. As a result, it’s common to avoid being alone with the baby or being alone with yourself.
— In toppling this nightmare you will identify your real supporters and discover just how strong you are. As Cackie experienced, your relationships can deepen, and that includes the most important relationship—the one you have with yourself.
Photo by Anne Worner CC BY 2.0