It is 1:00 in the morning, and my 18-month-old son wakes, screaming. He is teething. For the past few months (which seems like forever), he has been getting his molars and canines. I feel for him; I cannot imagine the pain he must be in, and I wish I could make it go away. I should go to him, comfort him, give him ibuprofen, maybe a cup of milk. But my heart pounds, my throat tightens, my stomach churns, and I can’t move.
I am frozen in the bed. I try to talk myself through, using the various techniques my therapist and I have practiced. “This is not a threat,” I whisper to myself. “This is an inconvenience, but not a threat. I am not in danger. I am safe. It will be okay. I will go into Fitz’s room, pick him up, check his diaper…” I continue to list off all the individual steps I will take. I try to move my legs, but they are suddenly incredibly heavy. I feel like I will vomit. Tears well in my eyes… and I nudge my husband.
Without a word, my husband gets out of bed and leaves the room, shutting the door behind him. I listen as he enters Fitz’s room and deals with a toddler who is tired, confused, and in pain. I listen as they go into the living room to sit on the couch and have some milk. I listen for as long as it takes… sometimes 10 minutes, sometimes almost two hours. The guilt comes in unrelenting waves. I feel like a failure. When I finally sleep, I have nightmares about being in a car wreck or a plane crash, or my husband divorcing me or having an affair.
This post is supposed to be a story of triumph and hope… so why does it sound like such a downer?
Because while the above paragraphs reflect the truth of what happens more nights than I care to count, there is another side to the story – and it is this equal truth with which I am working to reframe my perspective. The day after my son’s birth, postpartum depression and anxiety hit me luck a Mack truck. I could not make the simplest of decisions. I felt anxious 24 hours of the day. I cried constantly. I was terrified of my newborn. I wanted to be dead so that I wouldn’t have to feel that way for one second longer. If this was motherhood, I was certain I had made the worst mistake of my life. Even as I read through the list of symptoms of PPD and PPA and saw myself reflected in one bullet point after another… even as I remembered the various risk factors I had, such as a history of depression… I was sure that in my case, it wasn’t a serious but common medical condition from which I would recover with treatment, it was a fundamental flaw in my character and a reflection that I was not cut out to be a mother.
This was my life for weeks and months on end. Wracked with fear, guilt, and sadness; body in a constant state of fight-or-flight; paralyzed by small decisions; going through the motions in public, smiling for pictures, thanking strangers who complimented my baby, but inside feeling like I was dying. I went to my therapy appointments every week even though it felt like nothing was changing. I worked with my psychiatrist as we tried different medications, some of which did nothing, others that had side effects I couldn’t tolerate. I listened to other women who had survived a PMAD as they assured me I would recover, and I did not believe them.
Then, one day, when my son was 4 months old, I was on my way to get a car wash, and suddenly… I felt normal.
The feeling didn’t last long. A few hours, maybe. But it was a glimpse at the way things could be – an indication that I wouldn’t be in this horrible place forever. It sounds like a horribly cheesy cliché, but that day it was as if the clouds parted and I could finally see hope. And little by little, sometimes at a frustratingly slow pace, I made progress. Motherhood started to be a source of happiness and pride, rather than a source of terror and pain.
My middle-of-the-night anxiety episodes are proof that I have not yet recovered 100%. But they are also proof of how far I have come. Because I used to feel that way every minute of every day. My entire existence was one never-ending anxiety attack. I had no joy in any aspect of life. Now, the anxiety takes over only at night – on most nights, but not every night. That is progress. I may be frustrated that this is an area I’m still working on, but I am working – and I didn’t get as far as I’ve come without work. If I look back on everything I’ve overcome (“look at the evidence,” as my therapist says), I see that I no longer give a second thought to countless things that once seemed insurmountable. If PPD and PPA have taught me anything, it is that I am strong and I don’t give up – the past 18 months are a testament to this fact. So I assure myself that one day, when my son cries in the middle of the night, I will be able to go to him calmly and offer comfort, and the paralyzing anxiety will be nothing more than a distant memory.
Amber Rhea wears many hats: full-time grad student, part-time historic preservation intern, and proud mom of an energetic little boy who was born in May 2011. She is a survivor of postpartum depression and anxiety and feels strongly about raising awareness of these conditions and increasing support for moms in the Atlanta area.