Postnatal Anxiety and Me
The Pre-child Me
I have always been a worrier, but it was not really a big deal. Annoying yes – those ruminating thoughts could keep me awake at night – but they never really held me back.I would fret over little things (my husband Phil would joke that I would worry if the sky was blue and the grass was green) – things like work deadlines, unfamiliar situations or that I might have offended someone. I’d always been able to mask over it; I’m chatty and sociable so I probably don’t strike most people as the anxious kind. I would have the occasional panic attack where my heart would beat quickly and I would pace the floor, but these were rare and fleeting and I could ground myself quite quickly, then laugh it off as a funny little quirk. And as I got older these incidences got less and less. Phew!
However, after my son’s birth came the most debilitating postnatal anxiety I could possibly imagine.
I’m a registered midwife and health visitor and, through this work, I knew that postnatal depression was a possibility for me; I’m a sensitive soul and feel emotions strongly. I’m also very sensitive to hormone changes and usually cry a lot before my period (too much information?) and also when we were having fertility treatment; those extra hormones set my mood haywire! I discussed the possibly of postnatal depression with my husband during our pregnancy so he could ‘keep an eye on me’ after baby was born.
How it began
Things started out very well for us as a new family. I had the most wonderful and empowering birth experience and I felt like a real living and breathing superhero. My birth was completely calm, drug free and I was amazed by the power and strength of my mind and my body working in unison (on some of my darkest days it was this that kept me going).
However, my son suffered from a condition called gastro oesophageal reflux disease (GORD). This is quite a common condition in newborns but he had a really severe form, which meant he cried in pain constantly night and day; often only sleeping for ten minutes at a time (probably through sheer exhaustion) before waking up and resuming his screaming. Nothing could settle him; and he needed to be held upright almost constantly to stop his stomach acid rising up and burning his oesophagus.
We moved in with my parents so that there were many more hands keeping Sam held upright.
With medication and time, my son’s condition gradually started to settle. However, my emotions did not. Sam’s constant crying took a huge toll on my husband and I; we barely slept or ate for weeks on end.
Going down hill
So, what does postnatal anxiety feel like? I guess it’s different for everyone but this is how it was for me…..
I was extremely agitated all of the time; my head often spinning with muddled thoughts and I looked and felt dazed and bemused. I felt and looked completely lost. Friends who had had babies around the same time as me posted photos on social media of them in play groups and beer gardens, whilst I sat in my mum’s house most days, watching the clock go around, with tear-stained cheeks and blood-shot eyes, and absolutely no sense of time whatsoever. I avoided most social activities but also never wanted to be left on my own with my son. I needed constant reassurance that we were ok and we were safe.
On a good day (I use the word “good” very loosely) with postnatal anxiety, I felt very nervous all the time…a kind of “I’m going to be late for work” type of feeling – most people can relate to that can’t they? My stomach would be in a knot, my mind racing with constant “what ifs” and my hands clammy and shaking. I had a sense of urgency about everything. Although unpleasant, I could generally function with these feelings. And, on the outside, I think I looked almost “normal”.
On bad days, however, (which for about 8 weeks was every…single…day) my body felt like it was raging with nervous energy – I could literally feel hot adrenaline coursing through my body and through my veins in my hands. My shoulders were tense and my fists clenched. It felt like I could literally explode into a million pieces – though I knew that this was impossible, my irrational thoughts convinced me that this could really happen. My heart would pound through my chest, and I would often claw and flap my hands whilst pacing the floor, or rock back and forth. Sometimes, it actually felt like I might die. The panic I would feel was as though I had been buried alive and I was screaming and shouting to get out, but no one could hear me.
Hitting an all-time low
On many days and for many months, I would fantasise about being run over by a bus, being in a car accident or falling down the stairs; anything to get away from feeling like this. On very dark days, I also had more intrusive thoughts about taking paracetamol overdoses, cutting all my hair off or running away. One day I left the house, leaving my husband to care for our baby, and I walked the streets for most of the day, returning hours later. It was a very hot summer’s day, I had no food or water, and I walked and walked until I reached a sign saying I had reached Warrington (from my home in St. Helens), at which point I turned on my heels and just walked straight back home. I cried for the whole time I was out. I would often burst out crying and could not stop crying for hours.
These feelings went on for months.
This is bad enough in itself but imagine having to care for a new baby (and reflux baby at that) whilst feeling like this. I guess this is the difference between anxiety and postnatal anxiety. A new baby – a person who is totally dependent of you for life, love and everything in between. No respite to put yourself first. No “lie ins” to recuperate or 8 hours sleep…or even 2 hours sleep for that matter. And if you do get some respite and someone is kind enough to mind baby for you….then comes the guilt. The feeling of guilt that your baby is your responsibility which you have pushed on to someone else. Followed by more anxiety (how ironic!) of “I hope baby’s ok” or “what if he’s screaming for me?”.
Moving in with my mum, dad and nan for extra emotional and practical support was one of the best things we did. My mum’s house literally became my “safe house”; a place where I felt safe from myself. My family were unbelievably supportive and helped share the overwhelming responsibility I felt in caring for our new baby. Other family members also took our baby out for a few hours to give me some respite.
I started to write my thoughts and feelings down, where they seemed to make a bit more sense. On one of my health visitor home visits, I shared my scrawled thoughts and feelings with her; I couldn’t say the words through the tears so it was easier to show her. My health visitor (Louise – if you ever read this – thank you, thank you, thank you!) was wonderful – she gave me a safe space to talk, and I never felt judged, even though I felt embarrassed at times of my overwhelming feelings.
As well as seeing my GP, my health visitor referred me to the Chrysalis Centre for Change – a charity in St. Helens who support women struggling with stress, anxiety and depression. I was sceptical at first (“arrrr…..group work!”)….but I was adamant that I would not live the rest of my life like this.
During August 2016, I had an assessment at the centre and, after hearing me out, the counsellor Julie discussed with me that I had experienced the time after my son’s birth as a trauma and was likely experiencing a kind of post traumatic shock. We agreed on the groups that I would join that might help. I felt relieved to have been listened to and have my feelings acknowledged.
Looking to the future
To say my life unravelled after the birth of my baby is an understatement. I felt alone (though I was certainly not), hopeless and in utter despair. The happy family life I had envisaged was nowhere to be seen. My marriage came under threat and I looked to the future only with fear and dread. I felt scared every day – of what, I still don’t know – and this was exhausting. During very dark periods, I felt no joy in anything, and if I’m completely honest, often felt it would be better if I was no longer here. I could see no other way out.
But, I was very proactive in getting myself well again and would literally do whatever it took to feel like “me” again.
With time, effort and therapy, I re-developed the resilience I had lost, learnt better coping strategies, and learnt to reign in my unrealistic, rambling and catastrophic thoughts and reshape them into more realistic and positive thoughts.
I realised I was not a failure because I had become unwell after my son’s birth. I realised people cared for me greatly whether I was well or unwell, happy or sad. I learnt to not beat myself up when things went wrong, I learnt to slow down, and I learnt that my best is always good enough – whether things worked out or not. I reclaimed my inner spirit – my sparkle if you like – and my self-determination. Since all of this, I know more about who I am and what I’m all about, and most importantly, I like this person. I realised that I had a future, and began to feel optimistic and hopeful.
I read somewhere that courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. And this is my proudest achievement. When you have felt the most crippling and devastating impact of fear – even when you don’t understand it and it seems illogical – but push your way through it regardless, with kind people beside you, you feel the most wonderful sense of JOY on the other side. I feel better now than I have ever felt before. Yes, I have “down days” but the joy I feel in my heart surpasses anything I felt before I even became unwell.
Postnatal anxiety and postnatal depression -what’s the difference?
It may seem irrelevant, but to me it’s important; my medical records document me as having postnatal depression, but I beg to differ. Though the diagnosis might be similar and the lines are blurred (feeling anxious all the time definitely makes you depressed), my primary emotion was always FEAR. I can only describe postnatal anxiety as postnatal depression’s equally evil twin sister – a twin sister who lurks in the background, not taking centre stage in quite the same way as postnatal depression but is equally as harmful, devastating and overwhelming.
For me, these are some of the things that helped me recover:
* Asking others for help with baby, house stuff and shopping. I felt initially that my son was my responsibility but I learnt to love the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child”, and I really believe it to be true. You are not the only carer for your baby. Your friends and family will adore your new baby and they probably want to help. They don’t know unless you ask and sometimes you need to be explicit in your request. I used to hint, saying “I’m really tired” hoping someone would help. I learnt to say “I feel really terrible, and I need….”.
* Self care….an absolute must. Eat. Rest. Then eat and rest some more.
* Journaling my thoughts and feelings really helped. With time I also started to write down things I was grateful for (however small) so my ramblings weren’t all doom and gloom and I could see some light at the end of the tunnel.
* Talk to your health professionals, they want to help you. Your midwife, GP and health visitor are trained in mental health and in how to support you through it.
* Medication combined with talking therapies worked well for me, though it can take a while to get the right medication and dosage.
* Reading self help books – not straight away when you have a new baby but when you have more time. My favourites were “The Chimp Paradox”, “The Book of Joy” and “Depression – The Curse of the Strong”.
* Practising meditation. I loved using the Headspace app and it gave me some clarity.
* Massage, reiki or reflexology. Time to switch off and literally be made to relax.
* I loved it when people complimented my baby. This may seem ridiculous but when you feel unbelievably low, and strangers show kindness by say “oh…he’s gorgeous” or simply opening a door for you so you can get your pram in and out easily, really made my day.
* Patience with yourself. It takes time and ongoing effort to get well. There will be setbacks that throw you off course (for example, when you start menstruating again and your hormones are going loop the loop!).
* Some TLC from others. Very often, setting out the front door with my baby was too much to bear emotionally. I usually needed a “chaperone”…that might sound ridiculous to some but when you feel fearful and “in danger”, even if the danger isn’t real, you need a supportive companion by your side.
* Patience from others. They may not understand how you feel (Jeez…I still don’t understand it!), which can make them unsure how to help you. I often think that if I had broken my leg some people would have known how to help me much better, but, when it is your brain that is “fractured”, people seem unsure and even cynical. The number one thing that someone can do it to simply be kind to you.
I feel no embarrassment whatsoever about what happened after my son was born (though one unhelpful person said to me “do you not feel a bit ridiculous that you have postnatal depression and you’re a midwife and health visitor?”…errr…no I don’t actually, but thanks!). I share my experiences with anybody who will listen as I believe it is far more common than we realise and by talking about it, it reduces the stigma and will aid others’ recovery. I hope, if you are currently in the “thick fog” that is postnatal anxiety and/or depression, that I give you hope of a full recovery.
I love teaching hypnobirthing, and I’m working on a way of incorporating my experiences of postnatal anxiety into what I do. I have started monthly meet ups so new mums have the opportunity to talk, share and feel supported.
Love Rachel xxx
Now…(feeling a bit like Gwyneth Paltrow) I would also like to use this as an opportunity to thank those who aided my recovery. In no particular order:
My mum. Thank you for “taking us in” and taking responsibility in caring for Sam, we both needed you to do that whilst we figured out what we were doing. Thank you for your incredible strength at such a difficult time (that none of us predicted), and thank you for showing me what being a mum really is all about.
My dad. Super calm, super supportive and always optimistic. My dad actually understood my emotions better than me some days.
My Husband. It was tough wasn’t it?! We didn’t see that coming at all did we?! But here we are still going strong. You took a while to understand it I know. I’m sorry my patience with you was as limited as your patience was with me at times. But I know you “get it” now and you know how to support me. You really do have every faith in me don’t you?!
My brother and all my in laws – thank you for making me smile, listening to me and in looking after Sam at times when I wasn’t able to.
My friends and colleagues – thank you for your constant texts, phone calls, visits, chats and gifts….they really cheered me up and made me realise I was never alone.
All the professionals (health visitor, GP, chrysalis centre staff) involved in my care.
And thank you “to you” for reading – if postnatal depression and/or anxiety is affecting someone you love, please get in touch.