And speaking of our journey…some of you may or may not know that our family grew last year, with the addition of a beautiful (albeit surprise) boy! Born near the end of the year, baby B is just now turning six months. After my severe battle with postpartum anxiety (lasted for a couple years) after P & K, I was hesitant to share much of anything about baby B for fear that my sweet baby bubble would burst. And to be completely open and honest with friends, I was terrified throughout the entire pregnancy that PPA would strike again. For any of you that question what true anxiety really is, I can assure you, I too was once in that camp. I never quite understood what someone meant by “panic attacks” and frankly assumed it was more of a decision or state of mind. After all, this life provides so many good, beautiful things, why not turn the focus on the positive?! Well, like life does, I was given a front row seat to truly see and experience what it means to have true, severe and uncontrollable anxiety. Like a headache, anxiety is something that comes on regardless of if you want it to or not. And I think if a lot of people treated anxiety as such, there wouldn’t be as much stigma around the subject (gotta love all the mental health discussions going on through social media currently!) And because I know some of you will be curious to know, my personal battle (it’s different for each individual), mine included debilitating panic attacks and intrusive thoughts. Throughout my pregnancy with P & K and even after, my doctors shared so much with me about postpartum depression, but no one mentioned anxiety. There truly is a huge distinction between the two, and for so long, it was this misunderstanding paired with a lot of shame, that prevented me from really seeking relief and treatment. It wasn’t until the twins turned one, that a particularly scary situation, got me to finally address what is now so very obvious. Yes, I ended up going on anxiety medications for quite awhile and was able to speak with mental health specialists and counselors to really help me understand what my own version and battle was about. For the actual panic attacks, the way it was described to me is that it’s your body’s physical reaction to fear. It’s your instinctual reaction to fight or flight, and while there aren’t any actual predators or ‘bears in the living room’, as Brian and I now refer to, your body, being directed by your mind, acts as if there is. Your body produces a surge of adrenaline and without anywhere for it to go (no fight or flight)…it manifests as a panic attack. Weird, right? But also, oddly normal. And by normal, I mean so many people experience this in varying degrees. For me, medication is what really helped the severest of these attacks, then later on coping mechanisms helped to manage them. One of the most surprising ‘therapies’ that helped me was to do an abundance of jumping jacks, or run in place, whenever an attack seemed imminent. I think for me it allowed me to release a lot of the build up of adrenaline before it got out of control and manifested into an actual panic attack. Now, before this statement is misunderstood ~ NO, I’m not saying jumping jacks cures panic attacks…but I am saying, that for me, this ended up being a very helpful tool in helping to cope with my own. For example, a lot of my attacks would come on in the middle of the night…I’d wake up with a fast heartbeat and hyperventilating. Once I was able to recognize these as symptoms prior to an attack, I could on occasion jump out of bed, exert all that energy and most of the time prevent a full fledged panic attack. Yes the anxiety was still there, but at least I could gain some control of my own body’s response to it.
Ok, now I know all of this is going to create even more questions for some of you. Like, what are intrusive thoughts?
For me, my intrusive thoughts never were about hurting myself or my children or others, but rather about the fear that something bad would happen to them. A car accident, an intruder, a kidnapping, forgetting a child in the car. Again, nothing intentional, but rather the fear of the unintended. Essentially it was normal, natural worry taken to huge extremes…and most of the time, me not able to recognize or acknowledge where or why the thoughts would take over. For me, these panic attacks were typically brought on while driving, mainly on highways/interstates (which led me to not drive for a very long time) and in public places like the grocery store. Trust me, nothing is as humiliating as being terrified that you may go into a full fledged panic attack while in line at the grocery store (it happened to me).
Typing all of this now…all of this sounds a bit absurd and ridiculous, especially to someone who hasn’t experienced a panic attack first hand. And I think a lot of peoples reaction is to say or act as if someone is ‘over-reacting’. And hands down the worst thing someone can say to someone in the midst (prior, during or after) a panic attack or severe anxiety is that they’re ‘over-reacting’ or they need to ‘relax’ or ‘get over it’. Hands down the best thing someone could say is “anxiety/panic attacks are totally normal. this is your body’s reaction to fear. You are safe, you are ok, and this will pass”. Because, at least my own experiences during an attack included a feeling of no longer having control over my thoughts…no longer having control over my body…and that physical response (hyperventilating, fast heart-beat, sweating, etc)…would make me feel, in the moment, that death was imminent. Seriously, I was certain I was having a heart attack, or a blood clot, or any other irrational thought that guaranteed me I wasn’t going to make it. It’s a weird, viscous cycle. So, you quickly find yourself avoiding ‘triggers’, for me that was driving, and being in public places. And before you know it you’re a complete recluse, who sincerely believes that you’re the only one ever to experience all of this.
Well, clearly I’m here to share that no, I’m not the only one. Maybe you reading this is or has gone through something similar. And if not, hopefully my experience will shed some light and hopefully some compassion towards others who are or who have.
So, what is it I was so ‘scared’ or ‘anxious’ about? Well, that’s the thing with true, uncontrolled anxiety…it’s often times irrational and often times, it comes on with absolutely no notice or real understood trigger. For me, at least in public, the fear of having a panic attack, often brought on more anxiety and then my response was to avoid that place all together. The only real way I was able to overcome my panic attacks in public was to address the fear head on. Seriously. That meant going to the places that I had panic attacks and acknowledging (for myself…not for others), that I was indeed in control. And acknowledging, worst case, I have a panic attack in public. Which for awhile there I did. The shame, fear, and humiliation surrounding postpartum anxiety is what perpetuates the viscous cycle.
And now it’s so easy to see the spiral that ensued. But when you’re truly in it, it’s so hard, if not impossible to recognize it. And without treatment (whether medication, counseling, or coping strategies), it’s nearly impossible to get yourself out of it.
And like a headache…it strikes with no permission from the recipient.
In the summer of 2017 (and after the passing of my mother), in a desperate attempt to get control of my PCOS (a discussion for another day)…over a nine month period I got off all anxiety medications, really found healthy ways to manage my physical and mental health and made some huge lifestyle changes. I was finally feeling more confident in motherhood and finally feeling joy in the ordinary.
And in March of last year, is when I got the shock of a lifetime in the form of a positive pregnancy test. In no way were we ‘trying’, frankly we were absolutely done having kids, especially after the very trying experience of PPA. And after my PCOS diagnosis and ten years of no birth control, doctors had told us natural pregnancy wasn’t an option for me. (The twins were conceived through IUI). Well, I’m here to say that doctors don’t always have the answers and there’s clearly always hope through infertility :)
Of course I was terrified throughout my pregnancy that PPA would strike again. And in an attempt to take more control over the situation my doctors and I came up with a plan. For me that meant having medications in my cabinet should I need them. (Full transparency: in the past 6 months I have only taken 3 pills ~ they’re intended for ‘as-needed’ use… the first time, Brian had been out of town for an extended period of time and I hadn’t slept for a few days…started feeling extremely anxious…and the other 2 in the middle of the night to prevent an actual panic attack). Outside of those three (minor in comparison) situations…I have felt completely different this go around.
Like night and day different!
THIS is what the newborn and infant phase is suppose to feel like. Pure, unabashed (exhausting) joy! For the past six months I have soaked up this baby of mine. He is sweet, and silly and so, well…
Yes, this go around is feeling ‘easy’! And by no means do I mean to say it is easy, but now I can say that the hardest transition to parenthood is with the first. And add any additional hurdles (like PPA), and it’s no wonder all of us can at times feel overwhelmed and guilty in this journey that is parenthood.
Goodness me, this post really went off the rails. Between friends I felt like I owed you a true, sincere response to my distance these past few years. And more importantly, I felt it important to share my own experience should any of you have similar feelings postpartum. Once I shared my struggle openly on IG, I was shocked to hear how many of you are and have suffered and struggled privately yourselves. I truly believe there’s power in numbers and power in knowing you’re not the only one.
Friends, I appreciate your never ending support! I appreciate the platform you’ve given me over the years to share the things I love with you. I’ve missed the creative outlet here, and maybe for a long time, I’ve felt like a fraud to share pretty pictures and projects with you, knowing that behind the lens my life felt in shambles. So, thank you for today for allowing me to share deeply with you. Thank you for coming to this space for positive, creative inspiration and thank you for allowing me to at times share with you the reality that life sometimes brings. Again, I hope to get to a place, as time with three kiddos will allow, to be able to share more with you. Because I indeed miss documenting the journey. Life is precious and what I want to remember are the good bits and those fleeting moments that can easily be forgotten if not held on to tightly enough.
With love, Michelle