What Postpartum Anxiety Feels Like

Friday afternoon. Pouring rain on the tail end of a week of nonstop rain, and I was exhausted from trying to keep the kids occupied inside for a week. Will was finishing his lunch and I went upstairs to get things ready for naps since we were already running behind. After laying Bridget down on the bed, I headed downstairs to get Will and bring him up. I found him sitting on the dining room table, the contents of my wallet strewn all over, and three $20 bills torn to shreds in his lap.

In an instant,I went from zero to blinding, furious rage. I grabbed Will and practically threw him off the table, screaming at him for tearing up Mommy’s money. I yanked on his arm, dragging him up the stairs and spewing a verbal tirade of anger and frustration until we reached the top of the stairs and the fury just….evaporated, and was immediately replaced with shame and regret.

“I’m so sorry, Bubby. Mommy is so sorry she yelled and pulled on your arm.”

“It’s okay, Mommy. Do you remember that I love you?” Guilt, guilt, guilt. My poor, sweet little man.

After some stories and songs and snuggle and kisses, I put him down for his nap and sat down on the couch to nurse Bridget in hopes she’d pass out. Mindlessly scrolling while she nursed, I came across an article about postpartum anxiety. It said that one of the major symptoms of PPA is rage. I’d never heard this before and it never occurred to me that what I was feeling was a postpartum mood disorder. I wasn’t having trouble bonding with Bridget. I didn’t want to hurt her or myself. But there was a constant, seething rage always just barely under control. Until it wasn’t. Until my toddler tore up my money. Or my husband had the audacity to leave the house to get gas and a mocha on a Saturday afternoon while the kids napped. In those moments, the rage would rise up and take over, spitting out angry and harsh words. I thought it was just a character flaw, that I needed to go to confession again for my impatience and irritability and resentment. As I clicked around, reading more about postpartum anxiety, I realized that this was my problem. (Not to say I don’t have plenty of character flaws, but that isn’t what was going on here.)

I hate asking for help. Hate, hate, hate it. I want to have it all together. I want to be competent and collected and never need help for anything. More than I want that though, I want my children to know how loved they are. I want my husband to know how loved he is. When my children remember their childhood, I want them to remember feeling safe and loved and cherished. I don’t ever want them to think that I resented or felt burdened by them. And I needed to ask for help in order to love my husband and children unconditionally and joyfully.

It sounds melodramatic, but my voice was shaking and I had to blink back tears of humiliation as I made the call to my midwife’s office, asking to come in to talk about my anxiety. After meeting with me, the midwife prescribed a low dose of Zoloft, which I started that day.

Two weeks later, I felt like a different person. The rage and resentment that had become my constant companion started to dissipate. Though I can sometimes feel them reassembling like clouds before a storm when certain triggers present themselves (ahem, screaming toddler), they are manageable. I can recognize what is happening and stop myself. Before, it was an almost out of body experience, seeing myself screaming and knowing I needed to stop but not being able to.

I started to notice other symptoms as I got better. I had felt brittle, as though I would shatter into a thousand pieces if someone tapped me in the wrong way. I was white knuckling my way through everyday, hanging on and hoping no one would bump me, and completely destroy my tenuous grasp on holding it together. It was as though a glass wall no one else could see floated along between me and the rest of the world. Everyone else went about their business, and it seemed as though I did too. But the glass wall kept me apart from the rest of the world, and behind the wall, I dragged an enormous weight behind me, just trying to do normal things.

I remember the exact moment when I realized that I felt better. It was akin to the day you wake up after a bout with the flu, the fever having broken and your body no longer aching. The return to normalcy is a striking relief after having suffered through the previous days of sickness. “I feel normal again!” I told my husband, on more than one occasion. The general feeling of overwhelm, the invasive thoughts (“What if I trip and the stroller rolls into oncoming traffic?”), the obsessing about whether or not the kids’ crib mattresses are going to off-gas and give them cancer- it all dialed back from a 10 to a 2. I still think those kinds of things, but I’m able to move on instead of fixating.

I don’t remember experiencing this after Will’s birth and I don’t know why I did after Bridget’s. Maybe it was the perfect storm/cocktail of moving a week before she was born + a husband with less than a week of PTO after her birth + houseguests twice in the following month + a freezing cold winter that made it difficult to get the toddler out of the house + and a baby with nursing complications and a hospital admission for RSV. Maybe not. Maybe it was just a hormonal thing. I do know that in the very worst of it, I remember thinking that maybe we would only have two kids after all, because everything was terrible. I was resentful of and angry at my husband and infuriated by every obnoxious toddler behavior. Really, the only person in the world who wasn’t pissing me off multiple times per day was Bridget. Getting help has made a huge difference for me, but also in our family dynamic.

In the wake of postpartum anxiety, I’ve wondered how many families are smaller than they would otherwise be and how many marriages have ended because of untreated postpartum mood disorders. Even though we have made huge strides in this area, it’s still very easy to fly under the radar undetected. Growing and giving birth to and sustaining a whole new person is a huge undertaking. Take care of yourself, too, mamas!

 

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