Thank you for the label. My story of Postpartum Anxiety and OCD
We all expect that bringing a newborn into the world will be life changing. We spend months preparing for this little human to join us in our home, and in our family, and most people anticipate overwhelming feelings of love and joy, and a connection that can’t even be described using the words that we have in our human language.
We also anticipate sleepless nights, because that’s what everyone tells us as first-time parents. We think we’ll sleep when the baby sleeps, and that life will go on as it did before, except that we’ll just do it all with our little baby in tow. At least that’s what I thought.
I thought that I’d have a delivery like the one we saw in our birthing class, and that sure, it would be painful, but I’d ask them to pump that epidural as soon as it was allowed, and I’d be walking out of the hospital a few days later with my son, ready to take on the world and provide all the love I’d ever dreamed of to this tiny human that my husband and I created.
Those are the things that I thought would happen, however a majority of my birthing experience and the first year with my baby was nothing like my anticipations, and I suffered. Mostly in silence. For far, far too long, but now I’m ready to tell my story in hopes that other mamas out there do not have to suffer in the way that I did, for as long as I did.
My water broke while I was getting ready to go on a dinner date with my husband. I talked him into taking me to Thai even though it was his least favorite. I had a craving like no other! I walked into the living room and expressed disgust for my fat thighs, face, and disdain I had for the summer heat using several 4-letter words, and then scooted off to the bathroom where after I had peed for the 10th time in that hour, I stood up, and felt a trickle continue down my leg. Oh shit!
I told my husband as I stood in the shower leaking, that I thought something was happening, but that Thai food was still 100% necessary. He of course looked at me and told me I was crazy and then went into panic mode, getting all of our stuff together to head to the hospital. I begged him to at least order me some Thai food that I could eat it in the car because I knew that this labor thing would take forever. He denied my request, saying it would take too long, and we grabbed fast food on the way to the hospital.
Once I was there I was hooked up to several machines, and they started me on a Pitocin. It was about 8pm, and I rode the waves of contractions all night long while my husband sat next to me, and tried to stay awake.
At 6am, I was still only dilated to a 4, and I begged for an epidural, but was told I had to wait until I progressed further. Finally an hour later I was given the epidural, except it didn’t work. I could still wiggle my toes, and feel my legs. So I was given another dose, but the same thing resulted. I was given a third dose, and was told it was enough for 3 people – whatever man, I thought I might die without it.
At 10am, I was fully dilated and ready to start pushing. I pushed and pushed, and an hour later, my epidural wore off, and I felt excruciating pain in my back and entire left side. Back labor? Wtf is that?
The nurse told me to stop pushing, and I was given another epidural, and as I waited for it to kick in, I dozed off. When I woke up I gave myself a pep talk that would put Tony Robbins to shame – I was getting this baby out, and I had everything it took to push with confidence, and strength.
A nurse that I didn’t recognize walked in to check on me and I told her that I was ready to start pushing again, and I could feel the contractions getting stronger. She told me that my nurse was on break and that I’d have to wait until she got back, it might be another 30 minutes. W.T.F.!? I was ready, I had the eye of the tiger, and I wanted this baby out!
She wouldn’t budge, and left the room, and I wanted to cry – or maybe I did, I have no idea anymore. But as time passed and I watched the clock, I pushed a little anyway, and I felt what I knew would inevitably happen – my epidural started wearing off, and that fiery pain radiated once again through my back and side.
When my nurse returned, I started pushing again, but the pain was overwhelming, and I was told the baby’s head was stuck on my pelvis. After another hour, and throwing up all over my hair, I couldn’t take it anymore, he wasn’t coming out. The nurse told me to stop, and that I could have another epidural and try again, or I could have a cesarean. I opted for the latter while gasping for air and trying not to scream my response through the pain.
As they prepared me for surgery and gave me more drugs, I laid there feeling defeated. I couldn’t do what I was supposed to instinctually have the ability to do. My family came in, and I burst into tears when I saw my dad. “I couldn’t do it,” I sobbed. He just smiled, and touched my head, and told me it would be ok.
They whisked me off to surgery, and strapped my arms to the table like Jesus on the cross. I was paralyzed from the chest down, and shaking uncontrollably. They said, they were ready to start, and I almost had a panic attack, where the hell was my husband!? They gave him a gown, and never told him where to go. Someone went to get him finally, and when he arrived I just stared at him like a deer in headlights.
At 3:33pm, they pulled my son from my womb, and showed him to me for a second. Literally, one second, before he was taken to be cleaned up while I lay there, paralyzed and unable to move my arms. My husband had a beautiful moment with our son, as they met for the first time.
After what felt like a lifetime, my baby was finally wrapped in a blanket and placed near my head, and I cried and cried. Looking back, I realize that those tears were not because I was so overjoyed to meet my baby, but because I was so relieved that my labor and delivery were over.
What happened next felt like a blur that continued for next 8 months. He was placed on my chest, and I attempted to breastfeed. I had no clue what I was doing despite having taken a breastfeeding class only weeks before. I knew this skin-to-skin thing was so important, as was breastfeeding. But I was told by one nurse that my nipples were too small, and he wanted them to be bigger in order to really breastfeed. Umm, what? They grew to the size of silver dollars, and had turned the color of Hershey’s kisses during pregnancy, how the hell could he miss them?
On our second night in the hospital, all hell broke loose as my son cried. All. Night. Long. I picked him up and rocked him, and fed him, and rocked him some more, and at 8am he finally fell asleep. In the afternoon when we all woke again, I was holding and soothing him, and a nurse came in. She told me that I shouldn’t get him used to being rocked to sleep, so I immediately placed him back in the clear, sterile bassinet where he remained unless I was feeding or changing him.
We went home from the hospital, and I felt like I’d been through war. I placed my son in his mamaRoo when I wasn’t feeding or changing him, because Lord knows I didn’t need a spoiled baby. I mean I was supposed to get back to life, right? The one I had before I was sliced in half and welcomed this baby into it. The one where I used to travel, entertain friends, and run a business. The one where I just kept going, and took him along for the ride.
I don’t remember a whole lot of the newborn phase other than the feeling of constantly being overwhelmed. I had a horrible time trying to breastfeed. I never produced enough milk, and would supplement using a tiny tube attached to formula. I’d pump in between breastfeeding to try and get my body to produce more milk. I visited that lactation consultant, and drank weird smelling teas, oatmeal, and anything I could get my hands on that had fenugreek in it. I smelled like IHOP all the time, because fenugreek makes your sweat and pores smell like maple syrup.
None of it worked, and I cried. I cried a lot. I cried when the baby cried, and I cried because I felt like my body was failing me, and I again wasn’t able to do the things that I was supposed to do as a mother.
I cried because I was sleep deprived, and overwhelmed with feeding and pumping every 2-3 hours. I cried because I saw my friends and cousins with their newborns, making it look easy, and not having any trouble breastfeeding.
I cried because anytime I told anybody about how much I felt like I was drowning in this whole breastfeeding and taking care of a newborn thing, they asked me if I had tried x, y, or z? And after I tried what they suggested and it didn’t work, I cried some more.
After 3 months I had enough, and I’m pretty sure my husband did too, and through my tears I decided one morning at 3am that I couldn’t do it anymore, and I stopped breastfeeding. I had such a hard time telling anyone that I had switched to formula, and every time I did I had to fight back tears and make it seem like it was totally my choice.
It did make life easier for a short time. My husband was able to feed the baby a bottle late at night while I slept, and soon after that our son started sleeping through the night. When that happened I felt like I had survived, and things would get easy.
That feeling of survival was short lived. That was when my overwhelming anxiety and OCD began. I returned to work, and after two months I began dreading it with every fiber in my being. I said it was because I missed my son, but really, it was because of the horrifying thoughts I had begun experiencing.
When I’d get into my car and drive him over to my aunt’s house before work, my palms sweated profusely, and I had an intense fear that I would get into a car accident that would kill my baby. I couldn’t relax, and I checked my mirror every single time I came to a stop to be sure he was still breathing in his car seat.
When I drove in the car alone after dropping him off, the intense thoughts and fears didn’t stop. I’d get behind a big-rig and have visions of my car slamming into the back of the truck, and its contents shattering through my windshield. The thoughts were so vivid, I could almost feel what it would be like. I never had a true panic attack, but I was on the verge anytime I got into the car.
Although driving seemed to spark most of my intense anxiety and vivid thoughts, I had others as well. When I carried my son into the kitchen, I’d have visions that I would suddenly trip and fall onto a knife, and hurt him, or that I’d find him in his crib one day, blue and dead from SIDs.
None of the thoughts I had were because I felt like hurting him. The thoughts were so graphic and detailed and they scared the shit out of me, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get them to stop. I thought I was going crazy, and I felt like I was a prisoner of my own mind.
But how could I tell anyone? I’m a Marriage and Family Therapist, and my job is to help others, I wasn’t supposed to be the one who lost my shit. Soon after the thoughts began, I started having difficulty sleeping. My son was an amazing sleeper, and he never woke during the night and he took two very long naps at the same times each day. Even when he was asleep, I couldn’t relax, and I’d lie awake at night feeling tense with my scary thoughts flooding my mind. I felt dread about getting into the car the following day, and it would keep me up all night long.
After months of this, I was able to let go of my full-time agency job, and work solely in my private practice. I thought that the anxiety would lessen since I’d no longer need childcare, and I could spend more time with my son, and more time doing what I loved.
But nothing changed. I finally told my husband that I was going to see my doctor about getting something to help me sleep. Along the way I had told him about my intense fears and anxiety, and he told me he also had more anxiety than ever before, and that he also had some scary thoughts about our baby getting hurt or dying. I knew mine were more intense than his, and that they often made me feel paralyzed.
When I finally went to see my doctor, I told her about my difficulty sleeping and feelings of anxiety, and I’ll never forget her response. She said, “Alicia, you have your own practice, you don’t even need childcare, your husband is supportive and you only work a few days a week, you have it so good! But if you insist, I’ll write you a prescription.”
It had taken months for me to make that appointment. I felt ashamed that I needed to ask for help, and take meds to help me with my anxiety, but it was so overwhelming, that I finally felt like I had no other choice. My doctor’s well-meaning comments only made me feel worse, and like I really might be going crazy.
I started taking the meds, and finally started to feel some relief, as I was able to sleep through the night. My anxiety lessened, but I still had the scary thoughts. One day, I was driving to work and I was listening to a podcast that my colleague had started about Maternal Mental Health.
In one of the first episodes she told her story about postpartum depression, anxiety, and OCD. I hung on her every word, they sounded like my own - if I were to ever say out loud what I had been experiencing for the last several months. I pulled my car over, and I sobbed.
Someone had finally put words to my story, and I wasn’t just going crazy! I immediately emailed her and thanked her from the bottom of my heart for putting the podcast out there, and I let her know how much I appreciated just hearing that someone else had gone through what I was going through. She gave me some referrals for therapists that specialized in Maternal Mental Health. I immediately called my husband to let him know that I wasn’t just bat shit crazy, and I’m sure I sounded much too excited to have discovered that I had been suffering from postpartum anxiety and OCD.
At that point I had been a therapist for almost 10 years. I had extensive training, but no one had ever in all my years of training talked about any other perinatal mood disorder, aside from postpartum depression. In fact, immediately after I earned my Master’s Degree, I started working for a women’s shelter and I would give presentations for a parenting group about postpartum depression, and in none of the research that I did to prepare for those presentations did I come across anything about postpartum anxiety or OCD.
I started learning more about perinatal mood disorders and mindfulness, and started implementing what I learned in my everyday life. I also started seeing a therapist. Through my work with her, we uncovered that in addition to the new life transition and intense hormonal shifts that had taken place for me after the birth of my son, his actual birth was pretty traumatic.
Before that I had never associated his birth with the word “trauma.” Together my therapist and I uncovered that during my labor and delivery I was so out of control of my body and what was going on, that it was traumatizing and extremely anxiety provoking for me. It’s the reason that I’ve included so many details about it in this story, in addition to the fact that it was one of the last things I remember vividly before my life turned into a haze, as I struggled through the first year of my son’s life.
After a year and a half, I felt like the haze was lifted. I felt like my old self again, but with a life that looked completely different. I finally had energy, and my mind was clear, and my anxiety lessened. My scary, vivid thoughts are called “intrusive thoughts,” and they come along with postpartum OCD. They almost completely diminished after taking meds, practicing mindfulness, and working with my therapist.
As much as I’d love to wrap this up with a bow, and tell you that I’ve lived happily ever after since, I have to be honest – there is some guilt that comes along with having had difficulty bonding with my son in those early months of his life. I feel a twinge of it when I look back at pictures during that time and know that I was just posing for the camera, faking a smile on my face, knowing that inside I was suffering silently, and felt completely disconnected.
I’m not sure when that connection clicked for me. I know I’ve always loved him, but with the clarity in my mind, the decreased anxiety, and having shook my intrusive thoughts, I’ve fallen head over heels for my little boy and feel a love that’s so intense and overwhelming that it sometimes brings tears to my eyes when I think about it. It's the feeling I thought I'd have all along.
As I prepare for the birth of my second baby, I am thankful for my experience - as crazy as that might sound. I’ve since done tons of reading, and gotten training in Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders, and I run a group for anxious mamas.
I’m thankful that I found a name for my experience. As much as I never want to be labeled, that label helped me to find healing. I know more about what to expect this time around, and I have a solid plan in place in case my postpartum anxiety and OCD come back.
I know my life won’t look exactly the same as it does now, and that it won’t be as easy as just taking my kids with me wherever I go, but I do know that I can find enjoyment and healing, no matter where this journey takes me. My husband knows what to look for and how to support me, I have a psychiatrist and therapist I trust that I can call, and I’ll be eating plenty of Thai food in the days before my next cesarean birth.
If you’d like more information about my Mindful Mums group, or need support through your pre or postpartum journey, please visit www.ranchocounseling.com/mamas for more info. For more information about pertinal mood and anxiety disorders, please visit www.postpartum.net.