I've been away from this site for quite sometime, but was frequent flyer back in 2010, when I was expecting my first baby. Hannah was born on October 21, 2010, and has been a pure joy since that day. So why am I here? Well...first of all, I thought I might be able to offer some support to those of you who are suffering through depression during a time that should be a joyous one...trust me, I know what it feels like; however, I am also looking for some support/reassurance from others that what I experieneced at Hannah's birth, and what rears it's ugly head now and again, isn't just happening to me.
I should start by telling you all that I have always been an anxious person. I worry about lots of things that are out of my control, which surprises some, because I am a professional, I am generally put together, and appear to be fairly go with the flow. Before I had Hannah it was always about my health and well being. I am a self-proclaimed hypochrondriac, no doubt about it; however, since I've had Hannah, all of my fears of getting sick or something bad happening in my life have shifted to worrying about the well being of my daughter.
I miscarried shortly before becoming pregnant with Hannah, and thus, was pretty worried throughout my pregnancy. I constantly worried that I was going to miscarry again, that I was going to go into premature labor, that I was going to deliver stillborn...you name it, I worried about it in one way or another. My thoughts always centered around, and still do, keeping Hannah safe, which why it seemed so strange when intrusive thoughts started to invade my mind like an unstoppable enemy force.
I remember the first time I had a terrible thought. I shudder just thinking about it. I was sitting in my hospital bed, and my mom was rocking Hannah in her arms next to me. I had this horrible vision of mother purposely dropping my baby to the floor. It was like an alarm sounded inside of me, but I was quickly able to shrug it off. When my husband and I brought her home, however, the thoughts started coming back...what if she drowned in the bathtub? What if she flipped to her stomach at night or during a nap and smothered herself. Horrific, unimagineable images that still haunt me.
The scariest part was that the thoughts of accidentally hurting her transformed into worries of intentionally hurting her. I was afraid to be alone with the baby because I constantly had these "What if" scenarios that would play out in my mind, particularly relating to the bath tub. I knew that what I was feeling wasn't right, so immediately sought help from my OBGYN. I didn't tell him the extent of the anxiety that I was feeling (I should have), but I did tell him that I recognized that I was under anxiety that was leading to depression. He prescribed me a low dose of Zoloft, which was very effective, and I was able to get myself back to reality and relaize how irrational my fears were.
Because I began feeling so much better, I stupidly and without thinking, stopped my medication on my own when Hannah was about 6 months old. I continued to feel fine for the next few months, and then summer hit. Over fourth of July weekend, we went out to spend the weekend at my parents' house on the Finger Lakes in CNY. I remember being very wary when I when I saw the expanse of the water. Again, it was as if an alarm was sounding in my head. What if I dropped Hannah while walking down the dock and couldn't save her? The danger of the water scared me to no end. Again, out of nowhere, thoughts of accidental harm morphed into, "What If I...?" I tossed and turned at night, I felt like a complete monster, I began comapring myself to Andrea Yates, Casey Anthony, and other women like them...it turned into a total nightmare. While most people experience intrusive thoughts now and again, it was as if mine just wouldn't let go. It was like my worst fears in movie version were playing over and over again in my mind.
There were two times in these horrendous weeks of fear that will haunt me forever. I was alone with my mom and Hannah, spending an extra night at the lake house. My husband and dad had to return home for work (I am a teacher, so was off for the summer). I had been feeling the anxiety and fear rising within me all day long, but tried to suppress and ignore it. It was bathtime, and I was sitting by the tub watching Hannah happily splash around and play with her bath toys. The thought just popped into my head out of nowhere. She was so small, vulernable, and weak against my adult strength, it would be so easy to just push her under the water. I immediately began to panic, unplugged the drain, yanked Hannah out of the tub and screamed for my mom to help me. It was only then that I told her what I was going through. I have not shared this with anyone accept my close family and doctor, so this is a big moment.
As I have already said, I am hoping that my story will help give reassurance to others experiencing this that they are not alone. For the reaminder of that week, Hannah and I stayed with my mom, and I searched for support groups to help me get through. When I called the birth center at hospital where Hannah was born, I explained what I was feeling only to be met with the opinion of a misinformed staff member, who told me that I was experiencing post-partum psychosis...a mental illness that is completely separate from post-partum anxiety and ocd. I couldn't believe that this woman was so unaware and so uneducated about the various forms of depression that women face after giving birth. As you can imagine, this only heightened my anxiety and made things worse. I thought, "Geez, maybe I am crazy...Maybe Hannah really is in danger."
The second time that my anxiety reached a peak was during a weekend in the Adirondacks at my in-laws' summer cabin a few weeks later. I had tried everything to ease my anxiety that morning. I went kayaking, swam in the cool and calming lake, took my dogs for a fast paced walk...but nothing worked. I felt like I was on the verge of a panic attack all morning, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
It was time to get Hannah dressed, and my husband left the room for no more than 10 seconds to grab a clean diaper. Here was my precious, beautiful baby, crawling toward me with a huge smile. I began to shake again thinking of my sheer physical power over her. She was so dependent and vulnerable," I could never act out on the thought, right?"...is what I was thinking. With a trembling hand, I tested myself. I actually put my hand on my daughter's head to see if I had it in me to push it into the pillows. I know I sound like a monster. It's totally irrational, and of course, I couldn't do it. Feeling like a criminal and absolutely terrified, I immediately told my MIL and husband what had happened and insisted that I needed to go to the emergency room bc my anxiety had just taken over, and I was worried for the safety of my child.
Reluctantly, my husband drove me the nearest hospital. I say reluctantly bc he was worried about what would happen when I told the ER doctors what happened. Would Hannah be taken away? Would I have to be admitted to a mental hospital? Would I lose my job as a teacher? The truth is, I didn't care. All I could focus on was A. Making sure my daughter was safe, and B. Getting the help I needed. If I had to be away from my baby for a bit in order to ensure these things, I was willing.
Long story short, I was able to speak with a psychiatrist, who assured me that I was not psychotic, I was not going to hurt my child, and that I just had acute anxiety paired with OCD that was making these irrational and horrible intrusive thoughts play over and over again in my head. When you can't fight the thoughts off, they become real to the person experiencing them. They terrorize mothers into believeing that because they have thought, they must want to do these things, when in fact it is just the opposite. He described it as a mother's natural instinct to protect her child gone haywire. He explained that mothers who hurt their children are not frightened by their thoughts, see their children as some kind of inconvenience in their lives, and/or are delusional. I left feeling much better. He got me on the right meds and referred me to a great therapist and psychiatrist, both of whom I still see today.
I was able to conquer my anxiety with therapy, medicine, and good excercise. I also reached a point where I could fully enjoy my baby, but it really did take time and patience. I wanted to feel better immediately. I wish I had known how common this is among new moms, however. I felt very alone, and truly began to question who I was a person deep down. I've never been violent. I love animals and children, am empathetic, and love my family and friends to no end. I would have never ever imagined that this could happen to me. I learned that the thoughts were not there because I wanted them to happen or even worse, that there were going to happen...but it took time.
I've been great for many months now, with only the occassional intrusive thought that I can shake off pretty easily. The last few days, though, have been a bit tougher.I've actually noticed recently that my anxiety levels rise a bit when I am about to get my period. I wondered first if anyone can relate to my experiences or can attest to the fact that sometimes the anxiety waxes and wanes?
This was not an easy story to share, but I know from reading and speaking to people that it is more common than I ever thought...most women just feel too ashamed to talk about it. I thought this might open up a safe discussion forum for women who are experiencing anxiety/OCD to let their feelings out. I remember when I was in the throes of everything, it really helped to hear from other moms who experienced the same things that I was experiencing. It still does, actually :)
Best wishes to everyone who is experiencing depression of any kind. It can and does get better!
PS: I found www.postpartumprogress.org extremely helpful. Also, the book Dropping the Baby and other Scary Thoughts, by Karen Kleiman is wonderful!