“Every day when I open my eyes now, it feels like a Saturday
Like the lift of a curse, got a whole different person inside my head
No more trudging around, stony-eyed through the town like the living dead
Who’s to say how it goes, all I know is I’m back in the world again.”
– David Gray
A hallmark of each of my pregnancies was Google’s auto-fill. By the end of each pregnancy, search terms like “pregnancy depression,” “panic attack + pregnant” and “dizzy + hyperventilating + baby safe?” would automatically pop up in my iPhone’s browser after just a few letters typed. I was searching so often for answers that even Google had memorized and grown tired of my neuroses.
When Emilie started this blog back in June, I was thrilled to see someone writing about experiences that so many people have, but so few people admit openly to having. One of the biggest reasons why it’s important to talk about these things is because it helps others – others who are in the midst of their own struggle, absently Googling questions and hoping someone has written something that might connect to their own suffering. There is hope in not being alone.
Well, for SEO purposes, let’s tag this post ‘perinatal depression.’ Or maybe ‘severe panic attacks during pregnancy.’ Or maybe ‘just another person’s story of how things sucked really bad and then they got really good again.’ That last one might be too long.
My story starts very happily – I learned I was pregnant with my first son in July 2011 and I was thrilled. For the first few months I had all the standard pregnancy things happening – nausea until week 13, excitement over tiny clothes and tiny shoes. Then, like they had been waiting down the block for a scheduled appointment, the anxiety and panic and depression all arrived at week 18. I let them know they were totally unwelcome in my home, but they kicked down the door and settled in anyway. For the remainder of the pregnancy I had multiple panic attacks every single day and was deeply worried about the safety of the baby every second. It was the hardest thing I had ever done, and I truly didn’t think I would make it out alive. By the time I delivered Jack, I was fully incapacitated by the severity of what my OB/GYN had gently described as “common third trimester anxiety and depression.” Whatever I had, it felt far from common.
After Jack arrived, it all disappeared within hours. I still remember the recovery room as the place I came back to life – joy returned and I could finally sleep again. The sun peeked through the windows and for the first time in months, with my beautiful newborn son safe and my newfound freedom from pregnancy, I was deliriously happy.
Two years later, around week 18 of my second pregnancy, the sunlight went out again. I knew it was a risk to get pregnant again – I knew it was possible I would experience all the same stuff. But I wanted a sibling for Jack and everyone insisted all pregnancies are different. I might have a blissful one this time around – the type that all my lucky friends seemed to have, with all the glorious earth mother stuff, glowing and taking pregnancy photos in fields and whatnot.
No such luck.
I learned the second time around that there was a name for this – perinatal depression and anxiety*. Unlike post-partum, which happens after you deliver, perinatal can be during or after pregnancy and is related to your hormones during pregnancy – as they build in your system (and apparently around 20 weeks is when they really get going!) you slowly feel worse and worse. I know that you aren’t supposed to say “crazy” – mental health professionals really do not like that term – but that’s how it feels. It feels like something takes over your thoughts and your body and your life and you are not “you” anymore.
What I found most difficult with the second pregnancy was that I knew what I was in for – I knew it wouldn’t get better until the baby arrived. It’s an odd type of jail. When you have down times in normal (not pregnant) life, there is some level of hope that the next day or week or next medication might help relieve some of the struggle. Pregnancy was hard because I knew that I was locked in – the next 20 weeks would just be this way, every long day, until I finally could meet my son and hopefully experience joy again. Waking up every day was a nearly impossible task. But somehow I did wake up and do life, every day. Humans are designed to do what must be done to survive, and for those long months, I was surviving only.
The good news was the story had the same outcome the second time – delivering Henry at exactly 40 weeks, finally holding that tiny little trouble-maker that I loved so darn much, I was all good. Again. Praise the Lord, indeed.
It seems like telling this story doesn’t have as much value if I can’t also offer up some of the things that helped me through both experiences. I’d say two things helped: (1) finding something that gave me some sense of hope, and (2) getting out of the house.
Most of the time I had absolutely no hope. If you’ve been there, you know how bad it feels – it’s a really dark place. It was around week 25 that my husband suggested we go to church one Sunday. He was thinking it would be good for me to get out of the house. But we’d been so removed for so many months that we didn’t know where to go – we didn’t really have an established church we attended regularly, and I didn’t really want to see anyone I knew anyway. We ended up just picking one that had sent us a flier in the mail a few weeks back, and off we went. We sat in the back, and the sermon was on…. hope. About clinging to hope – and the difference between faith and hope. I sobbed. It was like a sermon written just for me. I clung to that sermon hard.
Another way to cope was just forcing myself to leave the house, and to literally plan every hour of my day. When you are depressed or especially anxious, you tend to push everything away, block everyone out and sequester yourself on a couch somewhere until it gets better. But some wise people let me in on a secret: this actually makes it worse. Going about your life helps establish a sense of purpose, and purpose is critical to happiness. So I just kept doing life, even though I so did not want to. Ugh, it was the hardest, but it did help. A little bit. And that little bit mattered and got me through.
Today, it’s a relief to have those months of life in the rearview. It’s likely I’ll struggle again with some of this at some point – although thankfully I don’t think I’ll ever have that much estrogen in my body again (during pregnancy, estrogen levels are approximately 100 times higher than normal). My sons were worth every second of the struggle – but it was the hardest thing I have ever done to make it through that time. Twice. Having escaped, every single day feels like a Saturday.
*For more information on perinatal anxiety and depression, the best sites I’ve found are not based in the U.S. There is an embarrassing research void at the intersection of mental health and women’s reproductive health in our country, which may or may not surprise you. Try the Centre of Perinatal Excellence (Cope.org.au) for a holistic overview of the condition.