When It’s Not “Just” Postpartum

I’ve gone into detail about how anxiety and panic disorders have affected my life in a couple of posts so far (here and here), and if you follow me on Instagram you can see more about how they regularly pop up to say (a rather unwanted) “hi” now and then. What I’ve been thinking about lately is what it meant to become a mother with an anxiety disorder.

Please don’t let the title of this post fool you. I of course know that any mental health issue, postpartum or other, should be taken seriously and is not a minor deal. What I mean by the “just” part of this title is: what if you are a woman who already has mental health challenges before having your kids? What if it’s not just a possibility that you’ll struggle postpartum, but you know you will because you already do? Or what if you are part of the 30 something percent of women for whom postpartum depression, anxiety, or OCD becomes a long term diagnosis?

I am lucky.  Though I went through a time where panic affected my everyday life, I’ve largely been able to manage it through therapy, self-care, and communicating about my mental health and needs.

However, while anticipating motherhood, I worried about how I would function as a mother with anxiety and panic.  When I was kid-less and having a bad mental health day, I could climb into bed or sit on my couch alone, coping with whatever symptoms flared up at any given time. I could worry about myself alone and not have to worry about keeping another human alive while my heart raced and I felt the world slip out from under me. How would I keep it together enough to care for another tiny human if I could barely care for myself at times?

Some other things I worried about regarding my mental health and motherhood:

  • What if I experience brain fog or depersonalization more times than not with my daughter? These two scary symptoms have made me spend too much time feeling like I’m not living my own life, like I’m in a dreamworld. It is similar to the feeling you may have when extremely tired…but often I would have it for days and weeks. What if I can’t be present with my child and miss our whole lives flying by?
  • What if I experience panic when I’m alone with her? Panic attacks are a very real, physiological thing, and leave a person exhausted in body and mind. What if I’m alone and I pass out and she gets hurt? I worried about passing out while wearing her. (Note: I have NEVER passed out due to anxiety or any other cause, this is one of my personal irrational fears).
  • What if I experience panic while I’m driving her? What if I pass out in the car and we crash? Again, cue irrational thinking.
  • What if I go through an extended period of anxiety, like I have before, that leads to depression, like it did before? What will my daughter remember of me? Will she resent if I’m not strong enough to be a “normal” mom? Will I miss out on some of the best times of our lives?
  • How can I care for myself so these things don’t happen when I am a man and will have less time to myself? How can I make time to see my therapist or exercise to ward off the nasties?

Please consider these fears with kindness in your heart. Like I said, anxiety isn’t always rational. Because of the stigmatization of mental illness, I already often felt like the crazy lady before becoming a mom. I feared being the crazy mother. But the reality is, I’m a normal woman with over or under active brain hormones that cause frightening thoughts and physiological symptoms.

And this is why I speak up. Because you or your friend or your sister might be in my boat and afraid of being that crazy lady, too. But we aren’t. And our voices are louder together.

Ok, back to my topic here.

So what did I find when I became a mama with a mental illness? Well, it’s been a lot less scary that I thought. I can’t speak for every woman, but for me motherhood has unveiled a strength in me I never knew I had. I didn’t have it for myself, actually. This strength exists for that little girl that beams up at me, even in the darkest hours. From the get-go, I’ve wanted to be better for her in most areas of my life, not excluding the area of mental health.

In seeing my little girl’s value and wanting her to value herself just as I do, I’ve realized how important it is to value myself just as much, and work in my own wellness.

Here are some other things I’ve learned about mental illness and motherhood:

  • It’s not gone. Despite finding new strength to conquer my demons with, motherhood is not a magic wand that waves all my anxiety and panic symptoms away. In fact, I had to go to a pretty deep and dark place right after birth to find that will to pick myself back up again.
  • It might change. After birth, I experienced a new and different wave of disordered anxiety. I had new symptoms: scary dreams, intrusive thoughts, rage, and insomnia. I still experience some of this from time to time, but I believe this was mostly due to postpartum hormone shifts and the demands on a brand new mother. I was surprised by how different anxiety can look for the same person at different life stages.
  • I still need help, sometimes even more, though it is harder to make time for it. I still see a therapist every three weeks. I have to carve out time for this, but it is necessary for my mental health. I tell my husband I need an hour or take an hour leave from work for these appointments instead of being able to stop by after work like I used to. Think of it this way: if you had a chronic illness, you would HAVE to make time for a doctor, possibly even to keep yourself alive. This is true for your mental health as well. It’s worth it. You’re worth it. Similarly, I also have learned to ask for help from my husband more if I feel anxiety coming on or when it hits suddenly, and take breaks when I need them.
  • It takes work. Still. This is something I knew before having a child, but I’ve really seen the fruits of my labor since giving birth. I’m managing my anxiety much better these days, but I’m not “cured”. I’m no miracle, there was no single amazing thing that whisked my symptoms away for good.  I’ve done the hard work of therapy, self-therapy, meditation, exercise, and self-advocacy that has gotten me this far. It will take maintenance, likely forever. But again, the relief I’ve found is so worth it!
  • The act of simply being a mother can help alleviate my anxiety. This one was most surprising. Caring for my daughter, being present with her in play or diaper changes or reading books or meals, helps me to stay out of my brain and not worry about the past or future. I’m sure, scientifically speaking, the endorphins and dopamine that are released when we’re enjoying time together help, too. Caring for someone who has no other reality except the here and now forces me to be here and now. It’s the way we were all really meant to live before these crazy modern lives took over. What an unexpected blessing!

It’s hard to predict how parenthood will change you, good or bad, temporarily or forever, until you are in it. For me, my fears about how I could parent as a mom with significant anxiety and panic problems were greater than my reality, much like many of the other experiences anxiety has high jacked. I’ve found strength in my role as a primary caregiver. I’ve learned to talk about my needs in any given moment and celebrate my triumphs, small and large.

I hope for similar experiences for all of my friends with mental health struggles who are anticipating parenthood, but I recognize that might not be the reality.  My greatest advice would be to seek help when you need it and fill your cup when it’s empty.  Someone great somewhere once said, “You can’t pour from an empty vessel.”

Also, friends, there is hope.  This, too, shall pass.  And, most of all, you are not alone.

Look for a future post about specific supports, treatments, and therapies that have worked in significantly alleviating my anxiety and panic!

Peace and love, friends!

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