When Courtney sent me her story she told me I could feel free to edit it down as she was concerned it was too long. Although it may be long I promise you that you won’t regret reading it all the way through. As I read through I became so captivated and emotionally involved in her piece that I couldn’t even consider taking anything out.
Courtney’s story is about perinatal anxiety and also discusses how our previous mental health issues can be exacerbated during pregnancy and after birth. It is raw, it reads as a real story, and I hope you are as moved as I was.
My story actually begins long before my beautiful boy was born. At the age of 12, I was diagnosed with panic disorder after suffering from severe daily panic attacks. I went through months of therapy before it was finally decided that I also needed to add anti-anxiety medication to the mix. So, with a combination of therapy and Paxil, I became a much more relaxed and happy young adolescent. Things were not perfect, nor will they ever be, but I felt so much better and like a completely different person. I continue to take medication today, although I have switched to Zoloft. I have attempted a few times throughout my life to wean off, but I have never been able to completely. And despite what many critics may say, I’m okay with it for now.
When I found out I was pregnant in November 2014, I discussed being on medication throughout my pregnancy with my OB. We decided it was best that I continue on it due to my history. I knew that I would be at a higher risk for postpartum anxiety and depression, and I kept this in mind throughout.
Almost immediately after getting that positive pregnancy test, I felt my anxiety creeping back and getting worse. The medicine was continuing to help control my panic attacks, but I was having terrible thoughts that something was wrong with the baby. Was he not moving enough? Was he moving too much? What if something is wrong with him? Anything and everything concerned me and consumed me. I had a very hard time relaxing. Going to the doctor for my checkups was terrifying and a relief all at the same time. I would get all worked up until I heard the heartbeat and then feel complete relief for the rest of the day. It was short-lived relief though. I knew that I needed to reach out and get some help. I even asked my OB for a recommendation, but I never scheduled an appointment. It’s silly to me now thinking about it because I had gone through therapy off and on for years. I don’t know what was holding me back, and I don’t know that I ever will.
I continued through my pregnancy trying to tough out my constant anxiety. I refused to open up and wash all the clothes and new things. I only opened up the essentials. I feared the worst…that I would be coming home from the hospital without my son.
I ended up with high blood pressure toward the end of my pregnancy, which ultimately lead to my early induction at 38 weeks 6 days. I was induced around 8:00 p.m. and delivered my healthy, precious Camden at 11:45 a.m. the next day- July 16, 2015.
I felt a mix of emotions when he was born- relief, joy, love, but I also felt completely overwhelmed, anxious, fearful, and exhausted. It got worse when he wouldn’t latch when I tried to breastfeed. I tried and tried and the nurses also tried as well. It was difficult, and I felt helpless that I couldn’t give my baby the one thing he needed to survive. I was getting zero sleep because I had to hand express and start pumping to try to get my milk to come in. I was constantly trying to get whatever I could out to spoon feed/dropper feed him. Every little drop of colostrum I got was gold in my mind. But I had never been so tired in my life. I got him to latch twice throughout my 3 days at the hospital. I was feeding him from the dropper constantly, and I just knew we wasn’t getting enough. However, because I did get him to latch prior to being discharged, I was released and sent home with my new little bundle.
I can remember being wheeled down to go home with Camden in his carrier in my lap, and I was shaking uncontrollably. I was weepy and so nervous. I started feeling a panic attack setting in. I tried to control my breathing, but it was harder than I remember. It had a been a long time since I had a panic attack. We got him in the car and set off for home. I sat in the back and just looked at him with a million different thoughts running through my head. How am I going to care for this little guy? What if I can’t do it? When am I going to sleep? What if I can’t get him to latch? I was absolutely terrified of SIDS. Some of it is a blur now, but I don’t forget the sheer terror and panic I felt.
When I got home, all I wanted to do was sleep. I was so tired. I hadn’t gotten more than maybe 6 hours of sleep in 4 days. Sleeping at the hospital was impossible. I also began to have no appetite. My uncontrollable shaking was getting worse. I tried to lay down when I got home, and it was pointless. I cried and cried in bed and my thoughts consumed me. Is he still breathing? What if he spits up and chokes? Why is he sleeping so much? Why won’t he latch? Is he dehydrated? Is he getting enough to eat? You name it, I thought about it. I was so sleep deprived, and I couldn’t eat a thing.
My parents and in-laws came over shortly after we got home to help with him and to try to let me rest. It was no use. My anxiety was out of control. I felt helpless. I couldn’t stop crying and shaking. My mom tried to calm me down, but it wasn’t helping. I couldn’t get Camden to latch, and my milk wasn’t still fully in. I was pumping nonstop and feeding him everything I pumped, but I just knew it wasn’t enough. I became obsessed with the pumping and breastfeeding. By 9pm that first evening, my anxiety was getting the best of me. I decided I needed to call my OB’s office to see if there was anything they could do for me. The doctor on call was very nice, I will say, but she didn’t help me whatsoever. She told me to lean on other people and rest as much as I could. Easier said than done.
At that point, I hadn’t eaten for 14 hours and still hadn’t gotten any sleep. It was time for everyone to go to sleep, which was absolutely terrifying for me. Luckily, my parents were spending the night. My husband was so supportive and tried to do everything he could to help me, but he was just as nervous and clueless about taking care of this new little man. We laid down in bed, and my thoughts raced. I knew I wasn’t going to sleep at all. Every little noise he made, I panicked. I was constantly checking to make sure he was breathing. This, combined, with trying to get Cam to latch, followed by pumping and feeding him what I pumped, left no time for sleep. I continued to cry and shake. Around 3 am, Cam woke up coughing and sounded congested to me, which put me over the edge. I was losing control. I called the nurse on call convinced that something was wrong with Cam. He’s congested and just coughed. She reassured me that this was probably all normal behavior, but that she could get me in to see a pediatrician the next day (Sunday) if I wanted. I immediately accepted the offer and counted down the minutes until he would be back in the care of a doctor. By Sunday morning, I hadn’t eaten for 24 hours. I couldn’t get anything down. I hadn’t slept at all for a few days, so I was completely sleep deprived. I was a mess and still crying nonstop. I was down 35 pounds in just a few days. I felt like I was losing it.
I was grateful to see the pediatrician. Cam had lost more weight and the doctor confirmed what I had thought. He was definitely not getting enough to eat. His plan was for me to try to get him to latch, pump after, and then supplement with formula EVERY two hours. By the time I would be done doing all that, it would be time to start over. But I was adamant that I could try to make it work. It was after this that I became obsessed with tracking how much he was eating and monitoring the amount of times he peed and pooped. I had daily logs that I tracked all of this on and panicked when something was different from normal. I kept up with these logs for months!
After meeting with the pediatrician, we stopped and got formula on the way home. We immediately started feeding him it, and I was thankful he was getting more to eat, although I felt tremendous guilt that it wasn’t coming from me. I felt ashamed that I couldn’t breastfeed, but I wasn’t ready to give up. By the time we got home, I still had barely eaten anything. I was so tired I could barely function, and I wanted to give up. I once again tried to get some sleep, but I couldn’t relax, and by the time I would get close to sleep, it was time to try breastfeeding again
Later that day is when things took a turn for the worse. I was so sleep deprived and weak. I couldn’t stop crying and my mind started getting irrational. I started having dark thoughts about myself. I felt that I couldn’t continue any longer like this. I was terrified and had never felt so scared in my life. It’s hard to explain, but I was scared that I was going to start having suicidal thoughts. I wasn’t actually thinking about hurting myself, but I was scared that those thoughts were going to come. I was having awful scary thoughts about harm coming to Camden. I had these images of me holding him and falling down the stairs. I had images of waking up to see him no longer breathing. I never had thoughts of hurting him or anyone else, but I couldn’t get these scary thoughts and images out of my head. I came downstairs to my husband and mom after trying to sleep and told them I needed help. I was in a pure state of panic. I told them I was starting to have dark thoughts and I couldn’t take it any longer. My mom told me to call my OB right away. I got the nurse on call who suggested I go to the ER since it was a Sunday.
My husband and I got in the car, left Camden with my mom, and headed back to the hospital just 36 hours after we had come home. I was triaged and immediately taken back to a room. I felt so badly and embarrassed that all this was going on, but I knew I needed help. My husband once again was so supportive. He listened and comforted me as best as her could even though he didn’t understand why I was being so irrational. They ran a bunch of tests to rule out anything else. I spoke to several different people who asked me the same questions again and again? Do you have thoughts of hurting yourself or your baby? Do you hear voices or see things that aren’t there? Do you have an appetite? The list goes on. Of course, the questions began to trigger my anxiety even more. I now began to worry that I was going to start having these thoughts or things that they were asking me about. After their evaluation and being informed that they had a “full house” for psych patients I was given an option. I could stay overnight in the ER by myself away from my husband and baby and get transferred to a hospital in the morning, or I could go home with some additional anti-anxiety medication and instructions to follow up with my OB and a therapist immediately. Luckily they pulled my husband out in the hall to discuss this with him, and he decided going home would be best. He knew he had to monitor my symptoms and bring me back immediately if anything worsened. I was relieved that I was able to go home and anxious to get some relief from the medication. The one caveat was that I could not breastfeed while on the new medication, Ativan, which was heartbreaking to me. So, being stubborn, I decided to “pump and dump” to keep my supply up. I only had enough of the medication to last me for a few days anyways.
The next day, I called multiple places trying to find a psychiatrist and therapist that could see me right away. Every place I called it was like a 2-3 week wait for an appointment. I was feeling defeated until I found a place that heard my desperation and said they would fit me in somehow. I was able to meet with a therapist within a few days. I met with the therapist and cried A LOT while in my first session. I let loose on her about everything I was feeling, my fears, my complete sense of panic, my inability to sleep or eat. Afterward, I was still crippled with anxiety, but I knew I was taking a step in the right direction. I had a plan in place and an appointment set up to meet with a psychiatrist about adjusting my medications.
At the point in time that I had met with the therapist, I had stopped taking the Ativan (only took a few doses), so that I could continue to pump and try to breastfeed. I had convinced myself that I HAD to breastfeed. I felt tremendous pressure from everything I had read and heard that it was not an option to fail. In turn, it was causing me so much additional anxiety. I told myself that Cam wasn’t going to be as healthy or was going to suffer from SIDS if I stopped. Camden still wouldn’t latch, and I wasn’t getting enough rest pumping every 2-3 hours . The time in between pumping sessions was not enough time for me to try to fall asleep. I was lucky to fall asleep at all with my anxiety and usually by the time I did, it was time for me to pump again. I was driving myself crazy and realized I needed to do what was best for me, so that I could be my best self for my son. After talking at length with the therapist that day and discussing it with my husband and family, I decided to stop trying to breastfeed. I felt horribly guilty and ashamed, but I had a lot of support from family and friends. I knew it was what I needed to do. I began to feel the weight on my shoulders begin to lift slowly. I was able to sleep for longer stretches of time now that I had my husband and mom to help with feedings. My mind started to clear a little bit with more sleep. To this day, I still feel some guilt and sadness that I wasn’t able to experience breastfeeding to its fullest, but Camden doesn’t know either way. He is a happy, healthy boy.
I was starting to see that maybe things were going to be okay. I still had horrible thoughts of something bad happening to Cam and had a lot of trouble sleeping. And I had a new fear to conquer….being alone with him. I was TERRIFIED. The first day my husband was at work and my mom wasn’t there (she had stayed for a week) I cried most of the day. I was scared to be alone with him. I was scared I wouldn’t be able to handle taking care of him alone. I was terrified that something bad would happen. I would fall while carrying him or drop him accidentally. He would stop breathing while he was sleeping. Then, I started getting sad all the time. I was confused. I loved this little guy so much, and I was terrified of harm coming to him, but at the same time, I longed for the simplicity of my life prior to him. I missed being able to do what I wanted when I wanted, to get a full night of sleep, to not have someone so dependent on me. Once again, I felt terrible about myself for even thinking these thoughts. I was tired of the monotony of my day and the constant anxiety.
I decided that I needed to start getting out of the house. I felt better when I was out and about. I started going anywhere and everywhere. Babies R Us was my first adventure because it had a room that I could easily feed and change Cam in. Next, I went to Target and eventually the grocery store. It seems silly but these moments out of the house really began to help. I also reached out to a neighbor who was a stay-at-home mom. She knew I was struggling and offered for me to come over whenever. I walked down with Camden a few times and just sat and talked with her. That made me feel a lot better.
I finally met with a psychiatrist after a few weeks, and she worked with me on adjusting my medications. After I tweaked my medication dosages, I started to feel like a new person. Combined with the therapy, I was seeing huge progress. I developed a daily routine with the little guy and started to enjoy my days and my time with him. My anxiety greatly decreased, and I felt like me again.
Each day got better. I began to venture out on my own while others watched Cam. I treated myself to a monthly massage and went shopping alone. I also joined a weight loss program, which helped me feel even more in control of myself. I began to lose weight and felt good! Eating the right things for my body was a huge help. Therapy was helping me tremendously too. Every day, I used a wonderful app, called Pacifica, that my therapist recommended. It helped me to relax, focus on my breathing, and journal about my thoughts.
Obviously, I wasn’t “cured” and I still am not today. I don’t think my anxiety is something that will ever go away completely. I am thankful I have learned so many strategies for coping now though. I am still working on myself, and I still go to therapy 10 months later. I can proudly say now that I am the happiest I have ever been and my anxiety is under control. I love my son more than anything in the world. I can’t wait to see him when I get home from work or when I wake up in the morning. He is the light of my life. I love him more and more each day. I never knew that I could ever feel this kind of love. My husband and I have a wonderful, loving relationship as well. I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive partner. He was there for me through the worst of it. He didn’t always understand it, and would get frustrated with my irrationality at times, but he never gave up on me. He was patient and understanding and still supports me every day. When I have a rough day, he immediately takes on the duties of caring for Cam or getting things around the house done. He has been my rock through it all. I feel so incredibly blessed to have him and our beautiful baby boy. I couldn’t be happier.
My advice to anyone struggling, is to reach out for help! The sooner you can get some professional help, the better. I should have gone during my pregnancy when my anxiety started getting worse. If I had, I may have avoided some of what happened after. I would also suggest to go out as often as you can. Force yourself to go for a walk, go to the store, find a support group, anything you can to keep yourself from being cooped up in your house with your racing mind. My other piece of advice, which is something I still struggle with daily is to stay off the internet. I developed a bad habit of Googling anything and everything. Even before I became pregnant, I would look up stuff about my health and convince myself I had some disease. During my pregnancy it got worse. I was looking stuff up on the Internet daily. I was reading worst-case scenario stories and convincing myself that something was wrong. I continued to surf the Internet after Camden was born and get myself all worked up. This is something I am still working on today. There is a lot of information out there…some good and definitely some bad. My best advice is to discuss health concerns with a doctor instead of looking it up on the Internet. Finally and foremost, tell yourself that you are not alone. You will get through this. There is hope for you and you are already an AMAZING momma.
Courtney is a Cleveland, Ohio native where she lives with her husband and son. She has been a teacher for 6 years and currently teaches kindergarten. She enjoys traveling, spending time with family and friends, and reading. She is bless to have such a wonderfu support system in her life. she continues to work on herself daily but feels confident in the progress that she has made.