By Angie Myers, PS-WA Board Member
Content warning: Postpartum Anxiety, intrusive thoughts
When my son Joseph was born, I was elated after a wonderful delivery with an incredible OB. During my maternity leave, my spring baby and I took daily walks and did lots of tummy time. I was on cloud nine, feeling like maybe I could actually do this whole thing – being a working mom of 2 young children. After experiencing postpartum depression after the birth of my daughter, my husband and I were vigilant for signs of depression, but the exercise I was getting and my confidence as a second-time mother seemed to be warding it off.
But as the end of my maternity leave approached, I became anxious. I had trouble sleeping, cried more, and my body and heart felt heavier. And then fear crept in. It was like a little devil had perched firmly on my shoulder, whispering in my ear all the things I should worry about. Joey getting hurt at daycare. Joey not waking up in the morning. Then fears turned to nightmares. Fleeing with my daughter in a warzone. School shootings. Car accidents. I stopped watching the news because I couldn’t separate myself from others’ tragedies. One night, I awoke with a jolt, gasping for air, nauseous, drenched in sweat. I ran to the bathroom, alternating between sobbing and wretching. I woke up my husband, who recognized that I was hyperventilating. He turned on a fan, counted for me to slow my breath, and rubbed my back. Eventually, I calmed down enough to go back to sleep, but the next day I felt emotionally bruised. I came to fear sleep, but also knew the dangers of severe exhaustion. I didn’t see a way out.
Later that day, as our PEPS group shared our highs and lows for the past week, I said I didn’t have any highs. All I had was fear. I relayed the nightmares, the terror and the exhaustion. And I cried. I was met with more understanding than I could have ever anticipated. The girls encouraged me to talk to my doctor and told me I didn’t have to go through this alone.
Confident that reaching out could solve my problems, I called a lactation consultant I had worked with. She suggested if I hire a nanny, it would alleviate the fears of sending Joey to daycare. But what I was feeling was bigger than a logistical challenge. I relayed my experiences to my OB. She said it sounded like hypomania and asked if I had ever been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. At every turn – the lactation consultant, my OB’s office, a digital mental health referral system my OB used – I was met with a postpartum depression questionnaire. I kept scoring low or “fine”. I knew I wasn’t depressed – I had experienced that before– but I knew I wasn’t “fine”. I could feel my sanity slipping away. I reached a perinatal mental health office, but they had a 6-8 week waitlist. Through more tears, I asked the receptionist how I was supposed to get through the nights until then. She said to call 911 if I thought about hurting myself, and said that Perinatal Support Washington might be able to help.
As a last resort, I left a message on the PS-WA Warm Line. Calls into the Warm Line are completely confidential, but I’ve since learned that my message probably sounded like a common script “Ummm, hi, I had a baby a few months ago, and something is wrong. I’m anxious, can’t sleep, I’m exhausted, and I need help but can’t find it anywhere. I don’t know what to do.” When a volunteer called me back, she spent an hour on the phone, and listened to me. She told me that I wasn’t alone, that I could call her if I needed to, and that it would be ok. She sent me resources – suggesting meditation apps and some techniques for getting through panic attacks. She literally got me through the night so I could see another morning.
Coincidentally, I had an epilepsy checkup with my neurologist a few days later. He asked, “How are you?” As the flood gates opened, I choked out sobs about the horrible thoughts chasing me constantly, the fear that clouded my vision, the exhaustion from feeling like I needed to outrun whatever was just a step behind me. I had stopped caring about sounding “crazy” and just decided that I wanted to make it through this alive, whatever it took. A pharmacist came in and gave me an anxiety questionnaire. Finally, I answered every single question with a resounding YES. With a diagnosis of postpartum anxiety, we were able to establish a care plan. The pharmacist checked in on me weekly until I was able to get in to see a perinatal mood specialist.
As I revisit these memories, this time in my life seems like a fight to stay afloat in a dark and violently storming sea. Bolstered by support from friends, I would get my head above water and seek help, only to be knocked back down by a wave of invalidation or disbelief from a health care provider. The volunteer at PS-WA was my only life ring. I clutched on to that beautiful, long conversation I had with her for dear life. I went back to it when the fight was too hard – I used the meditation app she recommended nightly to lull me to sleep, and her kindness and validation gave me strength to keep seeking care when it seemed hopeless.
Now, as a board member, I have learned so much about Perinatal Support Washington. In addition to their Warm Line, they teach healthcare providers to recognize perinatal mood disorders and provide the resources they need to help mothers when they are most vulnerable.
Learn more about the incredible resources PS-WA offers here.
Lastly, please know that if you have gone, or are going, through something like this, you are not alone, you are strong, and there is help. Keep advocating for yourself, and for your babies, and please contact Perinatal Support Washington if we can help.