Almost as soon as I got the positive pregnancy test with my third baby, I started having panic attacks. I would wake up, anxious and scared, from a dead sleep. This was a surprise pregnancy that I did not plan. In my mind, the timing wasn't right.
I dealt with these panic attacks as best I could. They came in the day and in the night. When I found myself begging my husband to come home from work and help me cope, I realized I was dealing with more than just a little bit of scared feelings.
I opened up to my midwife. Being a doula and childbirth educator in the community, I felt utterly embarrassed to divulge my secret. Even though I could tell other women this was a common struggle pregnant and postpartum parents experience, I still held a deep shame that I did something wrong, that I made this happen: I felt this was my fault. Despite having a negative bias against medications used to treat emotional health issues, I must admit I was hoping my midwife would have some magic pills for me.
Instead of medication, she offered me coping strategies to move through the panic attacks. I had a ritual I was already embracing -- I would move to the recliner and begin rocking. I had a paper fan I would use to cool myself down. The TV would turn on to some benign TV show I could have to focus on, or just use as background noise. I had a blanket nearby for when I inevitably would cool down and get cold. As most of these occurred at night, I would rock and fan myself. Soon I could stop rocking and recline back into the chair, putting my feet up. Next would be the blanket, until finally sleep would come. The whole process took about an hour. My midwife offered me strategies to shorten this process, and over time, it really seemed to work.
When I say I shared with her what I was feeling, I have to say I half-shared what I was feeling. Like a half-truth, I didn't tell her the full extent of what was going on in my mind. So while my panic attacks got better, I was living with a daily truth that caused me worry without end.
I said this was a surprise pregnancy. My first two babies I planned. In my "perfect timeline of life events," I thought we would wait longer before adding a third child to our family. I spent a lot of time feeling sad about this accident. I got to the point where I was afraid to be happy, because in my mind, that was opening the door to fate -- I would be punished for my bad feelings and something would happen to my baby. I had this mental math equation in my mind always, and this is what it looked like:
I did grow happy about this new baby, and my panic attacks stopped being so present. And sure enough, as excitement and joy built up inside me, so did the knowledge that something was going to happen to my baby. My everyday reality told me, he would not be born alive. This is a hard fact to live with, and this is what I never shared with my midwife.
At every check-up, I would search my midwife's face, looking for clues she knew something was wrong. I would dwell on random words she chose, or mentally extrapolate on nil what-if's. Alone with him in my belly, I waited, knowing someday those swirling movements and gentle rumblings would stop and my reality would be borne out.
Today is November 11, 2018. Twelve years ago today I stood in my kitchen as silent tears mixed with soapy warm water, convinced sometime in the next 14 days my baby, not yet born, was going to die.
That never happened. My 12-year-old just got out of the bathtub (ordered there under threat of me scrubbing his dirty feet myself). Right now he is getting ready for bed.
Nothing happened to him in those two weeks. So what happened to me?
Cognitive distortion. There are many cognitive distortions we humans fall prey to, and the one I was living with was "emotional reasoning." Pregnancy is a time when hormones make many changes in the body, and these hormones can also make changes in the mind. In my situation, my hormones ramped up my anxiety and fear, and I interpreted these feelings as fact -- they were my truth. And I lived with them, alone, everyday for 9 months. I never told a soul what my mind was telling me.
It makes sense that hormones would influence us to prepare to be parents -- to collect together the things our babies will need, to secure a safe place to birth, and to confidently care for our little ones once they are here. Sometimes these normal feelings go into overdrive. Of course we fear something happening to our babies when they aren't near us, but needing to check on them over and over and over -- to the point that it is inturruptive to other activities -- is a normal feeling gone into overdrive. Babies come with lots of "gear," and no one wants to be caught away from home without a spare bottle or a diaper -- but choosing instead to avoid leaving the house at all, citing this as the reason why, could be a normal feeling gone into overdrive.
Cognitive distortions can come hand-in-hand with anxiety and depression. I encourage you to check out the link above for excellent information about how these look and what they do. Weekly I hear from pregnant or postpartum (which means after the baby, it's not a specific mental diagnosis) parents who are reaching out for help. Just today I had a conversation with a former doula client, friend, and new mother telling me she has finally recognized she is stuck and she cannot fix herself alone; she made an appointment to see her doctor to start the process of meeting with a therapist.
I cannot say how much strength this takes -- to reach out to someone! It can feel like the hardest thing in the world to do. As a Volunteer Support Coordinator for Postpartum Support International, I try to link families to resources. I am not a counselor or therapist, but I do have a listening ear, and I care about what families are facing. I believe PSI's mantra: "You are not alone. You are not to blame. With help, you will be well."
We hear so much about "postpartum" mood disorders, but these can actually occur during pregnancy. In fact, they do so at a higher rate. While the graphic above states 1 in 7, during pregnancy it is actually 1 in 5! Have you heard that before? I would guess sometimes mood issues in pregnancy go ignored, and then are labeled "postpartum" caused when a person shares them with their doctor or therapist after birth.
Keeping my secret was not positive in any way, shape, or form. It held me in an alternate reality where my mind was free to ignore the facts and instead, formed around emotions. Shame kept me from confiding in my very-trusted midwife. I know now she would never have wanted me to be stuck in that place alone. I know, too, she would not have blamed me in the least.
But I was afraid to tell her because then, my emotions told me she would judge me, and that judgement would last forever.
You are not alone.
You are not to blame.
With help, you will be well.
It's not easy, I know. And you can feel so much better than you feel right now.
♥ four young boys and a boy dog (offspring)