I’m writing this because during the darkest hours of my life, I was that person searching endlessly online for a solution, for someone who understood my situation and could tell me full-heartedly that it was going to get better, that everything was going to be ok. I am not a doctor, and this is not medical advice. This is a brief summary of my postpartum depression, anxiety, insomnia and OCD. You are not alone.
I struggled for a few months with anxiety and panic attacks after the birth of my second son, but I was never diagnosed with postpartum depression. I wish doctors and nurses were more aware of PPD symptoms. It could have better prepared me had they diagnosed me correctly. I didn’t have any postpartum anxiety and panic attacks after my 3rd and 4th babies. I feel it was because I had learned to manage my anxiety, was running 3-5 miles daily, and spaced the pregnancies further apart. I also had a better support system at our previous duty station.
Before this bout of PPD, I thought I was mentally invincible. I was that person who has always been laid back as a mother. I never worry about money, moving, new people, new cities, new schools, etc. I was a mother to four boys and was used to handling everything on my own, with the help of my husband when he wasn’t working odd hours. After the birth of my fifth son, however, it was like the perfect storm was generated by specific stressors in my life and my sensitivity to hormones and drove my mental state into total darkness. I can’t explain how terrible my anxiety, OCD, and depression was, but I will try my best.
I was always that person who believed positivity was an easy choice for everyone. I never really took depression seriously. I always thought people who claimed to be depressed were simply not choosing to be happy or trying hard enough to be positive. I’ve never been more wrong about anything in my life. I remember the exact moment my brain “switched-over” into this specific state of mind that is pure torture. After my second son it was after a struggle with recovery that my thinking changed. It felt like my mind shifted into a state of panic, and I couldn’t shut it off. My intrusive thoughts were fixated on something happening to me while I was caring for my kids, and there was no one around to help. The postpartum anxiety diminished over time, and eventually went away on its own. I wasn’t aware I had PPD, so I thought I had developed coping strategies that would protect me from anxiety and panic attacks forever.
After the birth of my 3rd and 4th babies, I had well established friends and routines at our duty station. I had a running partner, and we ran 3-6 miles daily. The only time I experienced anxiety was during PMS when I had finished nursing. I realized I am very sensitive to hormones; I am unable to take hormonal birth control because it makes me feel like I am stuck in never-ending PMS. However, I always managed my anxiety fine, and I felt I had total control over my emotions and happiness. I felt happy and healthy for 6 years. Then we decided to have our 5th child, and I feel that the pregnancies were too close together. I think this may have contributed to the severe hormonal imbalance.
My mom flew out to help me after our 5th baby was born. This had been a normal practice for us. I felt irritable after coming home from the hospital, but I knew this was normal. I started working on a Master’s Degree about 8 weeks postpartum since I had received a full-scholarship. My husband also started working nights, and I basically never saw him except for an hour or so in the afternoon before he left. I continued to push forward, feeling stressed-out, but I was still myself. My mom went home after a month, and I was still trying to work-out regularly, read my textbooks, complete my schoolwork, and care for my children. Then everything crashed a few weeks later.
It was 2 months postpartum. I lay in bed with some anxiety (normal levels) since my husband was at work and it was night. I prefer to sleep with him. However, I woke up with a severe panic attack. I tried to deal with the extreme anxiety how I normally did, with thoughts like “just ride it out” and “just accept it and it will go away,” but this extreme panic would not go away. I also felt like it was something I actually couldn’t control. No matter what I thought or did, I couldn’t shake the extreme feelings of fear. I now feel like this was because my subconscious was so beyond stressed, that I literally couldn’t think of anything but stress. I had no free time and no relaxation. I was constantly going, reading, cleaning, taking care of children, and doing school work. I would be in a state of stress all day, and then go to bed with no down time. I also know that having no outside support, no one to really talk to or spend time with, contributed to my feelings of isolation. I was so busy that I had been choosing a schedule over relationships.
Well I was stuck in this extreme hellish agony all night. My husband came home, and I told him I hadn’t slept and that I felt terrible. I stayed calm, and I don’t think he even realized at that point how terrible I had been feeling. At around four in the morning, I remember laying there and I had the thought “something is wrong, I’m never going to sleep again.” At that moment, I felt my brain “switch-over.” I say that to refer to a specific state of mind that I had only felt the one time before. In this state of mind, I recognize something is very wrong immediately. I feel out of control, and I start wondering if I’m crazy. It feels different from a regular panic attack. I hate even reliving it to get this information out there, but I want to help people understand what women go through, and also help those women who are unbearably trapped and tortured by their own hormones and minds.
I remember I was so stressed out. I called my parents, desperate, and cried to them about not sleeping and having panic attacks. I remember my Dad saying, “Well usually when you have a bad night, you sleep really well the next night.” I kept worrying that if I didn’t sleep, there was no way I would be able to handle my responsibilities…and I had a lot of responsibility with 5 kids.
I was an over-stimulated, alert, zombie all day. My mind was racing, and I could barely function. The next night came, and I literally woke up every 30 minutes from panic attacks for 8 hours straight. I started googling “can’t sleep.” I thought I had developed a phobia of not sleeping, and I had all sorts of bizarre thoughts attacking my mind. I now believe that while I was in such a vulnerable, sleep-deprived state, I believed my thoughts were truth. Let me tell you right now, your thoughts are not truth. They are just thoughts.
Another night passed, and I was unable to sleep again. I flew my mom out on the earliest flight, but even with my mom caring for my children, I was still unbelievably unwell and unable to sleep. I went to the emergency room, and this was when I was told I had postpartum depression. I didn’t believe it. I told the doctor I wasn’t depressed, I just couldn’t sleep. Something was wrong with me. “I’m not depressed, I just can’t sleep!” Later, through therapy, I learned that I did have postpartum depression; it manifested as insomnia, but my mind would have fixated on whatever I would have been doing, or whatever the thought processes were when the combination of stress and hormones hit.
I was given sleep medication and anti-depressants, but since Bipolar disorder runs in my family, I was terrified of taking anything due to the risk of spiraling into a manic state. I was also breast-feeding, so I would not take sleep aids. I did try some over the counter things like 5htp, but nothing seemed to help. I depended on my faith alone to get me through, and every day and night was a struggle. I was on my knees constantly, begging for God to take this away. He didn’t, but I learned so much about myself and about others during this time. I thoroughly believe that we are tested during our time on earth, and that some experiences can change everything about us. Our trials can shake us to our core…we can experience so much terror and pain, but when it begins to lift, we see things with new eyes. We appreciate being able to eat, to sleep! Oh, the things people take for granted!
I struggled from 2 months postpartum to around 6 months postpartum with severe mood swings. I never felt “good feelings” during this time. I could read the most uplifting stories, scriptures, and poems, but they were just words. I read everything positive that I could find. I tried to use strategies like purposely repeating positive mantras in my head to overcome the fear and doubt, but it was such a fight. I just felt feelings of anxiety and hopelessness, and I felt powerless to change it. My faith and family was enough for me to never consider suicide, but while going through this, I fully understood the agony of what it feels like to struggle with suicidal thoughts. The worst I allowed was “if this doesn’t end, I can’t live like this,” but I fought and fought to never allow my thoughts to linger in a place I knew was wrong. I couldn’t always control what popped in my head, but I could always control what I chose to dwell on. I fought to dwell on finding a solution to the insomnia, so my OCD fixated on researching help. I would research and research the same information over and over. I used the research as a coping mechanism, since while I was reading, I was focused on something other than how I was feeling.
I was given multiple blessings, and I had the house blessed. These blessings gave me so much insight into the purpose of my life. They also gave me hope that this would end, and let me tell you…it felt like it would NEVER end or even let up. As soon as the sun went down, I felt like I was wrestling with demons. I felt trapped in hell, and I couldn’t understand why or how this could happen to me. “I’m a positive person,” “I try to be kind and good,” and “I take care of my family!” I kept trying to figure out what I did wrong for God to allow this to happen to me, but I understand fully now. No one is safe from trials. This was one of my faith-challenging, life-changing trials, and I had to drink the bitter-cup and just endure it the best I could. I started to look at people differently. I didn’t want anyone to suffer what I was going through. I wanted to help everyone!
Well I’m over 6 months postpartum and things are going so much better now. We took a trip to visit family, and it helped me so much to be around people I care about. The trip taught me that I will fully recover. I am having so many more good days than bad, and I am feeling like myself again. I had to give up my scholarship, but these struggles gave me perspective. I don’t need to focus on 50 things right now. I don’t want to spread myself so thin anymore. I want to be happy, and I want to have peace as a mother. I want to dedicate myself to my children for the short time I have them, before they go off on their own. They are going to get the best of me, not what’s left over after everything else.
I have also fully recovered from insomnia. Here’s my advice: you WILL sleep. Insomnia happens when you lose faith in your body’s ability to do what it’s meant to do. I learned to sleep again by telling myself “I am going to lie here calmly all night regardless if I sleep or not,” but guess what? I fell asleep, always. Sleep is not something you can control, so there is absolutely no reason to worry about it. Keep telling yourself that. “I can’t control sleep anyway, so I won’t worry about it.” I also got a Fitbit that lets me see when I am actually sleeping. Those times when it felt like I was awake for hours, were actually only 10 minutes. I have fallen asleep with extreme anxiety, and you can too. I always sleep now. I still sometimes get anxiety at bedtime, but it diminishes more and more overtime. If you wake up at 3 am, don’t listen to the thought “oh, no! I can’t get back to sleep.” It’s not true. Remember how I said just because you have a thought, doesn’t mean it’s true? Well just because you tell yourself something, doesn’t make it true. You WILL get back to sleep. You can fall asleep thinking about ANYTHING. You don’t have to count backwards from 100, and you don’t have to do relaxation techniques. Just know that you will sleep eventually….but you can’t control when that time will be.
Go to bed when you are tired, and try to get up the same time. I was up for days, and I had to get through it without anything. I had good and bad nights for months. I have never used sleeping meds, and I think that may be why I learned to cope quicker than most PPD insomniacs. I am also LDS, so of course I ignored the advice to drink a glass of wine to sleep. You will start to feel better as time goes on. If you are struggling after giving birth with emotions that you feel you cannot control, and are having intrusive thoughts or a racing mind, seek help immediately. Do everything you can to get better quickly. I personally did not take medication, but I know many women who did and felt that it helped. I started cognitive therapy, running and lifting, and taking a prenatal vitamin, Vitamin B6 & B12, and fish oil. Do whatever it is you need to do to get through this. It will get better. I still have mood shifts, but I recognize what is happening and I don’t jump to the worst conclusions about how I am feeling. I also don’t make decisions or say hurtful things when I am feeling low. I am extra careful to be kind to my kids when I feel anxiety. I finally feel “good feelings” again, and things continually get better and better. Hang in there!