I recently had a video come up in my photo memories from a year ago. I was laying on the floor with my baby girl, Eliana, and she was laughing and cooing at the camera. Then, for a second, the video panned over to my face. I looked utterly hopeless and helpless. Present-day-me wanted to cry as I paused at the girl on my screen. I was staring into my depression. I can see it now, but I didn’t know it was depression at the time. I thought I was just exhausted. Well, I was exhausted, but it wasn’t from a lack of sleep or lack of resources. I was exhausted because my head was stuck in an endless cycle of obsessive and existential thoughts.
It happened slowly. I didn’t experience the classic baby blues that often follow pretty quickly after giving birth. I felt an immediate bond with my baby girl. For me, it was a slow build. It started with anxiety and obsessive thoughts. I became obsessed with sleep. I used research and baby sleep experts to rationalize to myself that I was doing everything right by my daughter. When anyone tried to question if I was a little too preoccupied with the sleep stuff, I scoffed and said having a good sleeper would help me be less tired. In my mind, less tired equaled less anxious.
But if a clinician could have looked at my inner dialogue back then (I wasn’t in therapy…YET), they would have seen a clear case of obsessive thinking. I was obsessively thinking about baby schedules–sleeping, eating, and waking time–to the point where I couldn’t shut it off. Ever.
Sleep, eat, sleep, eat, sleep, eat.
When we were playing, I was thinking about when she would go to sleep next and if she would actually take a good nap this time.
When she was napping, I was on pins and needles waiting for the inevitable cries that came from another short nap.
When she was feeding, I was thinking about what time she would need to eat next and if my milk would let down for her.
There were other obsessive thoughts, too. I imagined myself tripping and having my daughter fall out of my arms over the banister upstairs to plummet to her death on the floor below. Over and over and over again. I still get a chill up my spine every time I walk by the banister just at the thought of my old thoughts.
And then there was the anxiety around illness. I was hesitant to have other people around or to go out anywhere with her because I was afraid of the germs she’d be exposed to (and this was pre-pandemic!). We went nine months without Eliana getting so much as a sniffle. But around nine months, she inevitably caught her first cold, and I stared at her O2 stats and heart rate on her Owlet monitor all night long. She seemed to be getting better, but then she suddenly woke from her nap covered in vomit. She was going in and out of consciousness. We rushed to the ER. She was ok, but it was terrifying.
After that first illness, if she so much as sneezed I would feel my chest tighten and experience a panic like I was being delivered the worst news of my life. Stories on social media of infant illness, choking, and drowning accidents would validate my fears, and I began to see everything around me as a threat.
To top it all off, we discovered Eliana had food allergies. She reacted with full body hives to several main allergens and some obscure ones, as well. One time even got so bad that her allergist had us drive with her to the ER parking lot and sit there in case her symptoms progressed and we needed to take her in. Luckily, the reactions have always been managed with Benadryl, but that didn’t stop me from feeling full-body terror every single time we sat down for a meal and she tried something she had never eaten before.
This is why I was exhausted. There is a difference between the exhaustion from lack of sleep during the newborn phase and the exhaustion of having your mind running on a treadmill at full speed all day. The exhaustion from my anxiety gave way to depression.
The depression didn’t look how I expected it to look. That’s the reason I’m sharing this story. I didn’t realize I had it. I thought being depressed meant feeling deeply sad. I wasn’t sad, per se. I was lost. And that lostness was causing me to ask myself questions like “why does any of this matter?”
If I had been an objective outsider who could somehow hear my inner thoughts, I would have easily said, “Honey, you are DE-pressed!” But I was so deep in it, I couldn’t see.
I think here is a good place to note the lack of other “characters” in this narrative. It’s not like I wasn’t surrounded by a loving, supportive husband or amazing family and friends. I was. But that’s often the nature of anxiety and depression. When you’re deep in it, it feels like you’re in it alone. Since I was using “the research.” to justify my approach to caring for my daughter, I felt justified in my thinking that no one else could do it “right” except me.
If I’m being honest, what didn’t feel “right” was that I didn’t feel the way I had expected to as a mother. I had expected motherhood would feel natural, purposeful, and fulfilling 24/7. Society has done women no favors in this department. Listen, I love my daughter more than anything in the world. I cannot imagine life without her. Period. But, I also found myself deep into motherhood feeling so overwhelmed that I wished I could disappear. The incongruence of how I thought I should feel and how I actually felt had me deeply confused.
I reached my breaking point at Eliana’s first birthday party. I spent the whole day consumed with thoughts about whether her nap would be the “right” length so that we could get to the party with enough time to have her happily enjoy it, yet not push bedtime too late that she’d get overtired and have a bad night’s sleep. Insane. And yet it felt like the only way to think.
Then, when we got to the party, I didn’t want to set Eliana down. I wanted to keep her in my arms so that no one else could touch her (because if they did they would obviously get sick). Naturally, everyone wanted to see her and play with her, but if anyone so much as reached out to grab her hand, my heart began to pound. I started to hear my heartbeat in my ears. I felt faint. I watched the clock the entire party, praying time would go quickly so we could go home.
After we put Eliana down for the night, I collapsed on the couch and explained to my husband, Zak, how I was on the verge of a panic attack the whole night. He had noticed my anxiety, but for the first time I communicated honestly and bluntly enough that we both finally saw it. I needed help.
I got a list of referrals from someone I trust. I began seeing a therapist within a week. Just like the build of my anxiety was slow, the undoing of it was equally slow. There’s no quick fix. But bit by bit, we started chipping away at issues that had been there far before I became a mom. Becoming a mother shook it all loose.
Therapy helped, a lot. It still does. I also started practicing yoga and meditation on a consistent basis. Diving into meditation helped me understand that I could sit with uncomfortable thoughts and become an observer of them. I was able to recognize patterns and interrupt those unhelpful thoughts when they arose.
I think the final piece to my healing came about 6 months into therapy, when I saw a naturopathic doctor. She asked me about my own eating habit after I described my anxiety around mealtimes with Eliana’s allergies. She helped me see I was getting so anxious at mealtime that it was causing me to lose my appetite. I was eating very small meals and not hydrating well. I was basically running on fumes, which does not set a person up to feel good in their body or mind. Luckily, by this time, we had a much better grasp on Eliana’s allergies, so I didn’t have to be terrified all the time, but it was my default setting that had to be rewired. I did this by starting to take a few mindful breaths before sitting down to eat. And Zak helps out by declaring the time after the two of them are done eating as daddy-daughter time to give me extra time to eat a full meal.
I had already begun noticing improvements to my anxiety level, and after a few weeks of implementing some of the changes recommended by the naturopathic doctor, I felt like the elephant had taken his foot off my chest.
I still get pangs of anxiety, but it doesn’t linger like it used to. Now I have the tools and the awareness to help me navigate it. There is no end to the healing. I will keep working with a therapist, practicing mindfulness, and getting additional support when I need it. And I’m talking about it. I’m not letting the darkness hide where it feels safest, in the shadows. I’m putting it in the light.
I hope sharing this helps others feel less alone. Please know that it doesn’t have to feel this way. Help is out there. Postpartum Support International has great resources to get you started.