I am very excited to welcome Emily, our first mom to be interviewed for the Surviving the Darkness series. Emily is a postpartum anxiety and postpartum obsessive compulsive personality trait survivor. I met Emily through the Climb Out of the Darkness leader Facebook group we are part of and I’m honored to share her story with you all.
1) Tell us a bit about yourself:
I live in Edmond, OK with my 3 1/2-year-old twin girls. I am a fourth-grade teacher. I like family movie nights, British & Australian mysteries on Netflix, PBS dramas, all shows HGTV, traveling with my husband, photography, reading when I have the attention span, listening to folk rock, breathing in special little moments with my daughters, and having girls’ nights with my Edmond Mothers of Multiples group and besties.
2) What was your diagnosis?
My diagnosis was Postpartum Anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Personality Trait
3) When did you realize something was wrong or that you needed help?
There were several distinct times I knew I was in trouble. I remember being fearful about postpartum depression (PPD) while I was pregnant. I had battled infertility for over four years, was already in therapy to cope with that and my mild anxiety disorder (which I failed to acknowledge and called “being uptight”). We had lost our triplet at 8 weeks gestation and I knew that having multiples put me at a higher risk for PPD. A family member even told me I shouldn’t be “anything but overjoyed” after the girls’ birth after everything we’d been through trying to have them. I was VERY stressed toward the end of the pregnancy, even telling my husband that I “couldn’t do it”. When the girls were born, they were thankfully very healthy. But my baby A was only 4 lbs. 1 oz and had to be in the NICU for one week. Being apart from her in the hospital and then going home with my baby B and not both of them was excruciating and left me numb.
I was in the hospital for 4 1/2 days and 4 nights and on night 3 or 4, I remember my husband’s phone was playing Neil Young’s “Southern Man”. I had been feeding my daughter B, supplementing with a bottle and pumping every 3 hours around the clock the whole time I was at the hospital, so I already felt sleep deprived and off. The lyrics haunted me and I felt almost a spiritual oppression, a weighing down of my spirit. That freaked me out. A random line from a commercial also kept entering my head over and over again: “Roll that beautiful baked bean footage”. I couldn’t make it go away. I felt like I was going crazy.
I was terrified to go home and try to do this twin thing on my own. I was terrified to even care for one baby, much less two. I had no confidence and was wholly overwhelmed. 5 days after giving birth, we attended a class about caring for our premature infant. I was in such rough shape, a NICU nurse stopped me and told me to just pump and try to get more sleep. At one week, we picked up our daughter A from the NICU and brought her home.
At home, I couldn’t even cry. I’m a crier, so that was a bad sign. It was as if I didn’t even have the energy to cry. It took a lot of effort just to move across the house. I couldn’t tell if that was from c-section recovery or depression or both. I wasn’t hungry during the day and then I was, of course, starving at night since I was pumping. All I wanted to do during the day was sleep, but I couldn’t, even when I tried. Nights got harder and harder even with family members helping me. I felt less and less connected to the girls since others were changing their diapers and feeding them overnight. I got up to pump every 3 hours. People kept saying it’d get better, but it didn’t.
Every passing day, life in my head seemed to get worse. Everything was an end-of-the-world situation. Not enough room in the fridge for the food being dropped off by church members? Freak out. The nipples to the bottles being the wrong size? How could my husband “take a break” and watch TV? Schedule. Feeding. Sleep. Learning how to care for them. How could we ever go to the grocery store? There’s no time. No time. No time. I was hyper-obsessed with every detail of every day for the rest of my girls’ lives. It was as though the worst anxiety I’d ever had was multiplied by a thousand. I was unable to process or receive suggestions from anyone. I was too overwhelmed. A family member staying at my house and helping told me I could never tell anyone about this or I’d lose my job. I kept repeating, “I’m just trying to get better so I can take care of my girls.”
Eleven days after they were born, I thought of popping pills and ending it. The thought startled me and I called my parents in the middle of the night.
A trip to a psychiatrist and postpartum therapist the next day led to a weekend at my parents’ in which I continued to spiral out of control. I had decided to “take breastfeeding off my plate” and in retrospect, I now realize the additional hormonal flux escalated my condition. I vacillated between depression, lack of feeling and no energy, and manic anxiety attacks. I woke in the night every hour and a half in a panic and sweating. I had mental confusion and memory loss and couldn’t even remember how to work my iPhone.
At my darkest time, I made the decision to check myself into an inpatient psychiatric hospital for treatment of my suicidal ideation. 48 hours later I was released back into the care of my treatment team. I went back to the psychiatrist and postpartum therapist and got on the right medicine. After two weeks at my parents, visiting my girls almost every day, I moved home. By around 6 weeks postpartum, I was myself again.
4) Were you screened for a PMAD?
No. Despite 3 risk factors: having multiples, having a child in the NICU, and having infertility. However, mine appeared so quickly and severely, there was really no need for a screening.
5) What did your treatment plan look like?
I was put on a few medicines that did NOT work, but at just over 2 weeks postpartum, I was put on Klonopin/Clonazepam for anxiety and Remeron/Mirtazapine for depression and to help me sleep. I saw a psychiatrist every 2 weeks at first, and a therapist twice a week. After a few sessions, the postpartum therapist referred me back to my therapist who “knew me”. I continued seeing my therapist, eventually tapering down to once a week, then every other week, and now I see her once a month. After two years, I switched from a psychiatrist to a general practitioner. I now take Cymbalta for both anxiety and depression.
My parents, husband, sister, as well as friends, were an amazing support system. I also became a part of the Edmond Mothers of Multiples group, which continues to prove to be an extraordinary support group of caring, nonjudgmental women.
SLEEP. When I first moved back home, I went to bed at 9 p.m. and church members took turns watching the girls until midnight. My husband went to bed at 5 p.m. and took the midnight to 8 a.m. shift. After a few weeks’ rest, I took 5 p.m. to midnight. This allowed us both to get a full night’s sleep. Sleep allowed my mind and body to recover.
My pastor came over and prayed with me during this time. And, although I didn’t have enough focus to open a book and read, I turned in my Bible to Psalm 34:4-5: “I sought the Lord and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant. Their faces are never covered in shame.” This verse was and continues to be a great comfort to me.
6) Did you face any challenges on your road to recovery? What were they?
The family member who was not supportive during my crisis later called me selfish and said I wasn’t getting better. I continue to work at forgiving her. My husband and I had to work through feelings of abandonment. We had both reverted back to our parents for our primary support: me, as I tried to get well, and he as he cared for the girls.
7) Did you come across any resources that helped you?
8) What is one thing you try to do each week as self-care?
I get out of the house one night a week, whether that’s for a Mothers of Multiples event or to Bible Study to see a friend.
9) What advice would you give a parent struggling with a perinatal mental illness?
Reach out to a family member or friend IMMEDIATELY if you feel like something is wrong emotionally or mentally. Don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor and ask about options. If you feel like you’re going to hurt yourself or others or you want to run away, these are warning signs that you have more than just “baby blues”. 1 in 7 woman experience some type of postpartum mental illness. You are NOT alone.
THANK YOU so much, Emily! If you have any kind, encouraging words for Emily, please leave them below.
If you’d like to share your story, please fill out the form at the end of this post.