The Bright Blue: My Experience with Postpartum Anxiety

postpartum anxiety

I knew something was wrong with me on the day that I looked at my beaming, bouncing six-month-old daughter and thought, We never should have had her.

It was about 2 weeks after September 11, 2001. I was sitting on the couch, staring at a cable news broadcast, something I had been doing non-stop since the World Trade Center had been hit. I hadn’t eaten in days, and I barely slept. I woke several times a night to turn the television on and check the news to see if anything new had happened, as if the continual checking might keep the bad news at bay. I was hollow-eyed and silent most of the time and had withdrawn into a cocoon of television news from which I could not escape. It did not make me feel better, but the lack of it did make me feel worse.

On the day of the attacks, when the first plane had hit, I was alarmed. When the second hit, I became frightened. As the news filtered back about other planes and other targets, something snapped in me. I had looked at my baby daughter then, sitting in a play yard beside me in the home office my husband and I shared, smiling around the drool-covered fist in her mouth to show her first teeth beginning to emerge. She was our first baby, and a joyously easy one at that, who had been nothing but a bright ray of light for her six months on the planet, and the center of both of our worlds. She had fussed and held out her arms that morning, but for the first time, I did not reach back. I had turned back to the TV, changing from one channel to the next to see any difference in what they were reporting. As day turned to night, I did not move. My husband had come home early in the morning, and had begun taking care of Maeve when it was increasingly clear that I could not.

As the days went by, people were still stunned, but began to go about their business again. The days were crisp and beautiful the way they are in Tennessee in the fall – all fantastic blue sky and yellow leaves. But to me it seemed that a dark pall had fallen over the world. The light in the sky seemed physically different to me; menacing and unfriendly. Friends, desperate to find some normalcy, invited us to a fall fest the following weekend. I remember walking the booths with my stomach in knots, longing to be back at the television. Commercial flight had just been reinstated, and every time a plane flew over in that bright fall sky, my heart lurched into my throat. I longed to be at home again with the television, even though each Breaking! report would send my nervous system into the same panicked spirals.

I could tell my husband was worried about me. I am not a stranger to depression, and have struggled with it off and on for years. I had experienced depression during my pregnancy, a time when I jealously watched my pregnant friends grow more beautiful and glowing and excited while I felt increasingly out of control and joyless.

“It’s hormones,” my midwife had said, “It will pass.” And she was right. It did get better as my pregnancy went along.

During the first months of my daughter’s life, I had believed that I had felt pretty good. I knew I was weepy and had some steep emotional changes sometimes, but I considered that part of the new deal of motherhood. I felt vulnerable in a way I couldn’t quite verbalize, as if the world were nothing but a pit of dangers that I’d never really noticed before, and I had nearly obsessive thoughts about impossible accidents befalling my daughter and my husband, but I thought that must be the normal changes that occur with a new baby.

And so as I sat watching the television in that second week past 9/11, too distracted to make or plan for meals, go for walks, take showers, or most other normal daily tasks, I barely heard my husband when he said, “Isn’t she just a glowing ray of light?”

“Who?” I asked, never taking my eyes from the screen.

He was folding laundry while he sat beside me on the couch. Our daughter kicked her feet and bounced in her seat next to him.

“Maeve,” he said. “Doesn’t she make all of this…” he waved his hand at the scenes on the TV, “Doesn’t she give it some hope?”

And that’s when I looked at her, grinning and bouncing and drooling in her seat, and I thought, No. It just makes me sad that I have to take care of her and that the world is hopeless and I wish we never had her.

I didn’t say that out loud. But my silence must have conveyed all that was needed, because it was then that my husband held my hand and said that he thought I should talk to someone.

Of course at first I lashed out at him. No one likes to admit they are broken in any way. Physical problems garner support and sympathy. Mental illnesses, on the other hand, seem more like weaknesses and personality flaws. Once they are admitted to, there’s no turning back, I thought. I’ll be forever that person who couldn’t hold it together.

But the concern on his face was so earnest. “Don’t you want to feel better?”

I did very much want to feel better. I wanted to stop replaying terrible hypothetical scenarios in my head, to eat normally, care for my family, sleep without waking to check and see if the world had ended while my eyes were closed, and to look at my daughter the way my husband did and see her as the bright hope in all of this.

I agreed to talk to my midwife who immediately got me an appointment with a therapist who dealt in postpartum issues.

“It’s not postpartum depression,” I told the therapist on that first visit. I remember even folding my arms across my chest and shaking my head. “My daughter is six months old. Plus, I’m not depressed.”

The therapist calmly explained to me that the postpartum period covers more than just a few days or weeks after having a baby. It can be up to a year. And though it’s the most commonly used term, depression isn’t the only postpartum problem; postpartum anxiety is very real and can be debilitating.

She metaphorically and literally patted my hand throughout that hour and many other hours to come. She explained to me that my reactions were not normal, and were robbing me of a fulfilling life. She also explained that postpartum anxiety and depression are real, happen more often than most women admit, and best of all, are not only treatable, but curable.

And it was true. I began a combination of talk and medication therapies. Slowly, the pall began to lift, and I began to see the crispness of the sky again. The TV faded into the back of my consciousness, and my daughter rose to the front again.

As the feelings faded – the constant pounding heart, aching neck, numb face, panic, and gnawing worry – and as I felt better, I began to become anxious that I would become anxious again. Sometimes I would smell the air in a certain way, hear a plane or see the Breaking! news bumper on TV, and I would feel around in my mind and body for those familiar reactions, like a tongue seeking out a bad tooth to check the level of tenderness.

When I felt for the reactions, I still found them, but they had changed somewhat. There was tenderness, yes, and pain, but it was different and reached outside of my own body to others. There was also concern, but concern that doesn’t want to just watch television, and instead wants to mobilize. There was also a sadness I hadn’t noticed before, and newfound feeling of connectedness to my countrymen.

And there was also Maeve, who did begin to look like a shining ray of light. It had been so impossible for so long to care for her, for anyone else, or even for myself because the anxiety consumed so much space and took so much effort to contain. I felt around for the tenderness and was not disappointed to find it. It was still painful, but it was pain that was not in charge of me anymore.

I smiled at my shining, grinning, drooling ray of light, who stood in her play yard and reached her arms out to me. I switched the TV off, swung her onto my hip, and walked out into the bright blue.

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