I knew I wasn't going to have an easy pregnancy. I'd spent the greater part of my twenties ruling it out entirely, recognizing that my panic disorder and association of a growing fetus with claustrophobia would likely prevent me from being able to tolerate nine months of a racing heartbeat. But when my husband and I decided in our thirties that we wanted to try, I knew I couldn't just wish myself a happy pregnancy; I'd have to find a new therapist who specialized in reproductive mental health and women's wellness. I searched long and hard, and finally found someone who, with weekly after-work sessions, played a huge part in getting me to the finish line.
Sitting in her chair during our Thursday evening sessions, I'd tell her that being a mom would be easy compared to what I felt during the pregnancy. "I'll just be really tired and it will just be really hard, but I'm not scared to have a baby in my life," I'd said many times. But what I didn't realize at the time was the hormonal storm I'd endure following delivery.
Coming home from the hospital
I see photos of happy women smiling in their hospital beds with their partner and new baby squeezing in on the cot. That was not me. My hips were destroyed and I could barely move. I bled everywhere, so much so that they'd just stopped cleaning up the floor of my bathroom. I tossed disposable underpads in layers on the floor so I didn't have to step in my own filth any time I needed to collapse onto the toilet to pee. In the hospital I was in too much pain to be scared.
Thirty minutes after coming home from the hospital, though, I noticed myself having panic symptoms. I say "noticed" because part of what makes my particular panic so frustrating is that the symptoms themselves are the trigger. I felt my heart race first. I was in the middle of eating a hot bowl of chicken matzo ball soup my mom had lovingly made and immediately put it down. I was nauseous. My stomach was in knots. I started to shake.
I took a seat on the edge of the couch in the nursery with a bowl of blueberries and completely zoned out staring at a Melissa & Doug giraffe, feeling dizzy and meek. I chewed slowly, telling myself that every blueberry I could get down would keep me alive. The thoughts weren't logical, but I knew I was panicking and depleted. The blueberries would save me. And the giraffe.
I kicked my mom out on day two
I've never kicked my mom out of anything. Her opinions, even when totally wild, are something I respect, and we've regularly disagreed and fought in ways I consider healthy.
We have photos of my daughter's first week of life, but I'm absent from every one of them.
I remember clearly seeing my mom come into the bedroom in the morning with a concerned look on her face. She walked over to me with large eyes and that was all I needed to fire off my internal alarm. Mom thinks something is wrong. Something must be wrong! My heart started racing again, I couldn't breathe. "I need you to leave the room, I'm sorry." When I heard her futzing around in the kitchen. I texted my husband to come in the bedroom and begged him to have her leave the house. She was there to help with the baby and prepare food for us — a huge luxury — but she was triggering me and had to leave the house. I couldn't have someone there who was worried.
I couldn't eat
When I panic I have intense gastrointestinal issues, which is common. When your body is pumping blood at a rapid rate it moves things like having regular GI functions to the backseat — they aren't important when your body thinks there's a real threat. This makes eating impossible. I started Instacarting high-fat protein shakes to the house so that anything I could consume would provide me with as much nutrition as possible.
Did my daughter even see me?
Other than taking her to necessary doctor appointments and poking my head into her room when I did feel well, I have no memory of bonding with her in that first week. Did I hold her? Maybe? We tried night and day to get a healthy latch going to so I could nurse, but two lactation specialists quickly advised me to begin exclusive pumping in order to get her milk by any means necessary. This tethered me to the bedroom, alone. Without her, and without anyone. I love that we have photos of her first week of life, but I'm absent from every one of them.
I became scared to be in my bedroom
After a dozen or so intense panic attacks took place in my bedroom, I no longer felt safe in there; it swallowed me. But I had to be there because that's where my breast pump was. And my body was still recovering from an intense 22-hour delivery, so I needed to rest, but the bedroom was no longer a space space.
I saw my therapist three times a week
Thank God my therapist offered video sessions, because other than going to the pediatrician and to see a lactation specialist, I didn't leave the house. Forty-eight hours was about the maximum radius of independence I could handle before needing to see her again.
My poor husband
He gave me the same look my mom gave me, the only difference was that he too was supremely stressed out and exhausted. He was also in the midst of launching a company at the same time, and carried around a world of pressure and responsibility. He was starting a business, acting as the primary caretaker, and guiding me through each obstacle that came up. He needed his own paternity leave and never got it.
Night became a trigger
Around 4 p.m. every night when the sun began to glide its way over to the ocean, I would start jittering. I wasn't worried about my daughter's health, or my husband's even. I was solely focused on myself. Was I going to have a panic attack? After working with my therapist, I started a self-care routine that began at 3:30 pm each day — before the panic would hit. It started with a slow solo walk to the deli where I'd get a plate of BBQ rib, then mosey back home eating them, fingers swathed in sauce. Eating outside of the house helped me keep food down, and I needed the calories to produce milk. Then I'd come home and sit with a light lamp to help my mood and energy, and finished with a shower. These were small things I could look forward to that helped replace the dread.
It was a slow return
I wish I could say it all clicked one day and I returned to my normal self. But it didn't happen that way. I had to work very hard. I saw my therapist three times a week for the first few weeks. My mom, mother-in-law, and husband were the primary caretakers. They understood what was happening to me, and were so proud of how hard I was working on my mental health. I invested tons of time and energy into breastpumping so I could get my daughter milk. I stuck to my routine. I did every possible thing to break the cycle. I paid close attention to the moments I wasn't panicking, and found ways to create more of those. I moved the breast pump put of the f*cking bedroom, where I felt like a hospital patient, and put it on the couch. I bought HULU Live so I could pump and watch the Olympics in the living room instead of just sitting like a vegetable in bed.
It's sad to remember
It's hard to parse through this time in my life. What part of the experience was hormonal? What was postpartum anxiety and panic? What was just the normal fog that mother's go through? I don't think I need to know the exact answer. It's a blip of time that trapped me and I'm so fortunate I had the resources to climb my way out.