Photo courtesy of Risa Kerslake

My Postpartum Anxiety Was A Secret For Two Years

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When I envisioned bringing my baby home from the hospital, I thought about all the hours I would spend in front of the TV, holding a sleeping newborn. I thought about how much joy my life would have, now that I finally had my miracle baby, six years after starting fertility treatments. When I envisioned bringing my baby home from the hospital, I had no idea how intense my postpartum anxiety would be. I had no idea the thoughts running through my head about her would scare me so much, to the point that I didn’t feel safe admitting I needed some help after her birth.

My hospitalization with my daughter was nothing like I thought. I couldn’t sleep, and every time I would try to drift off, I would find myself being violently jerked awake by a body I could no longer control. Later on, my doctor would explain this was due to a hypersensitive nervous system because of severe sleep-deprivation.

Photo courtesy of Risa Kerslake

The first two nights were a blur of breastfeeding every two hours and trying to get comfortable lying flat on my back due to my c-section incision and the multiple tubes and wires I was hooked up to. By the third night, I was convinced I was going crazy. The nurses knew how bad I was sleeping, so they put a “Do Not Disturb” sign on my door, informed the rest of the staff I was not to be disturbed for blood pressure checks overnight, and my baby — much to my dismay — was sent to the nursery so I could try to get some sleep. I closed my eyes and felt my body relax, only for it to jerk awake again, me gasping out loud and starting to cry. I was so freaking tired, and my body wasn’t letting me sleep.

And then I heard it. My baby crying. I knew her cry as intimately as my own. I lay there in the darkness for a moment, my husband snoring softly on the couch next to me. My senses were heightened. There. She was crying again.

I would later realize how far the nursery actually was from my room. It would have been impossible to hear her. But in that moment, I wrestled with my own head — should I push the call button and ask if it’s her? What if I was hearing things because I was so sleep-deprived? Should I push the call button?

I pushed the call button.

The nurse came to my side quietly. “Is my baby crying?” I whispered.

She leaned her head to the side and looked down at me. “No,” she answered, confused, “She’s sleeping.”

And then my body went cold all over. I felt tears come to my eyes. They think I’m crazy, I thought, They’re going to send me up to the psych unit and I’m not going to get to see my baby.

“I — I thought...” My breath started coming faster.

I don’t know how it happened, but all of a sudden there was a doctor in the room with us, and I tried to explain to her through tears about my body jerking me awake, how I thought I heard my baby crying.

The doctor told the nurse I was not to get out of bed for any reason, until we found the cause of the jerking. I already was battling pre-eclampsia — this might be due to it, she thought. She kicked up the foot rails, locking me into the hospital bed. As she walked out of the room, I broke into wracking sobs. Because this is what I got for calling the nurse. For asking if my baby was OK. Next time, I would keep my mouth shut.

Photo courtesy of Risa Kerslake

When my husband and I returned home, now responsible for a seven-pound and helpless infant, the intrusive thoughts continued. I would awake suddenly in the dark, unable to breathe, terrified to look into the bassinet because I just knew she had died in her sleep and my life was going to be over. I would awaken long after feeding her and putting her back to sleep, digging around the covers, heart pounding in my chest because I had fallen asleep with her and now she’s in our bed somewhere dead, suffocated. I was a sh*tty mother. Maybe they should take her away from me before something happens to her.

I didn’t tell a soul. I knew I wasn’t experiencing postpartum depression. I didn’t have the baby blues. No one ever asked if I was having anxiety, or intrusive thoughts, or if I sometimes thought I was going insane. And I wasn’t going to volunteer it.

I wasn’t alone, however. The National Alliance on Mental Health says one in five adults experience a mental illness and 60 percent don’t get the help for it. And according to Postpartum Support International, 10 percent of new moms will develop anxiety. A 2016 study in the Journal Of Affective Disorders that found anxiety to be more common than depression in new moms — part of the reason mental health professionals prefer all-encompassing terms like "perinatal mood and anxiety disorders" these days.

Photo courtesy of Risa Kerslake

Before becoming a mom, I was only focused on recognizing postpartum depression, since that’s what all the childbirth books and classes talked about. Before becoming a mom, postpartum anxiety wasn’t even on my radar. And when I was in the thick of it, I never considered the fact that I was experiencing something I could have gotten help for. At best, I thought I was just a worried new mom. At worst, I thought if I told someone, I would get my child taken away for being an unfit mother. After all, who drives down the highway imagining what would happen to your baby if a car crashed into you?

It took me two years before I finally sought out help in the form of Effexor and talk therapy. I was given the diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder due to some other issues in my life, so I will never know what was truly affecting me during that first year of motherhood. I wish I would have spoken up. I didn’t have to suffer as long as I did, especially in isolation. I wish I would have recognized that my thoughts weren’t normal new-mom thoughts and with that, I could have gotten help sooner.

If you or someone you know is experiencing depression or anxiety during pregnancy, or in the postpartum period, contact the Postpartum Health Alliance warmline at (888) 724-7240, or Postpartum Support International at (800) 944-4773. If you are thinking of harming yourself or your baby, get help right away by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or dialing 911. For more resources, you can visit Postpartum Support International.