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Anatomy of an Anxiety Disorder

My heart was beating so hard in my chest that I could hear it over the sound of my own harsh breathing as I hyperventilated. I was hot and sweaty but covered in the goose bumps of a person chilled down to the bone. My fingernails were digging into the palms of my hands in the hopes that the searing pain would jolt my overwhelmed psyche back to reality. I huddled in the fetal position, buried in the dark recesses of my closet, rocking back and forth to escape the feeling of drowning. Seconds stretched into minutes.

I never knew what was going to trigger the panic attacks that were interrupting my life. What triggered me one time wasn’t always a trigger for me the next time. Sometimes I couldn’t figure out what the initial cause was that started my heart racing. I was diagnosed with Postpartum Depression and Anxiety but the medication that had been prescribed to combat my symptoms didn’t seem to be helping. Most days I felt worse.  I felt out of control of my body and my mind. I was angry- at myself, at my brain, at my body. I felt scared and alone.

The only adequate way to describe my panic attacks to other people was to use drowning as an analogy. I was stuck in a whirlpool of panic and I was being sucked down underneath. I was grasping and flailing in desperation, trying to grasp onto anything that would pull me back to safety. The panic invaded every aspect of my life; leading to the intrusive thoughts that had me fearing for my sanity and my safety. If I walked past the banister on our second floor, I envisioned the baby falling over and hitting the ground. If I had to drive to the grocery store, I would see a fiery car crash as my van hit a pole. If I heard a knock on the door, I immediately saw a home invasion in progress. The mind can play the cruelest of tricks when you are in a vulnerable state.

Image Credit:mialundin.com

My first panic attack had me rushing to the ER, afraid that I was suffering from a heart attack. With a strong family history of coronary diseases and disasters, it was a very real fear. I remember being amazed at the speed in which a potential heart attack will get you in a little paper gown on top of a cold, sterile table. The incredibly abrupt and unsympathetic doctor that I had the misfortune of seeing concluded that I was suffering from a panic attack, dosed me with Ativan and sent me home with a referral to pysch. There were no relevant questions asked along the lines of “do you feel like hurting yourself?” or “have you thought about hurting yourself or anyone else?” or even “do you feel safe at home?” If any one of those questions had been asked I might not have continued my spiral down the rabbit hole in the coming weeks. Instead, I was handed  a small slip of paper with the phone number of what I presumed to be a psychiatrist and my discharge papers. Wam, bam, thankyouma’am and I was out the door.

I felt somehow soiled by the doctor’s indifference and cold bedside manner. I felt less than human, unworthy of the assistance I desperately needed and tainted by my experience in the ER. Those few hours spent lying on a table, feeling alone and disparaged, led me to suffer silently. I never used that psychiatric referral, fearing a repeat of the harsh judgment that I was subjected to by that one doctor. Instead I found myself hiding in the darkness of my closet, hyperventilating and desperately trying to just survive. Just waiting for that one little beacon of light at the end of the tunnel to give me hope that I would find my way out of the darkness.

Just waiting.



REVEALING THE GIRL BEHIND THE PPD MASK

The Happy Face.

The Mask.

I guess everyone has one of these. The mask that they plaster on their face when they don’t want anyone to see what they are feeling or thinking. The smile that never quite reaches their eyes. The laugh that is a little too forced.

I use that mask a lot. I don’t let people see the real me. I don’t let them see the problems I face or the demons that haunt me. I don’t share that part of myself easily. I don’t want to be judged but I also don’t want to be pitied. I don’t want to feel the weight of the stares or the comments or the whispers. Being the center of attention has never been my things. I’ve always been perfectly content to fade into the background and do my thing without an audience.

People close to me did not see the severity of the postpartum depression and anxiety that plagued me after Zoey’s birth. They didn’t see it because I didn’t let them. I hid in my house. I made excuses and cancelled plans. I avoided social events and family get togethers. I kept it all locked inside myself. I let friendships lapse because I didn’t want to bother anyone. Or maybe I didn’t want to be bothered with anyone.

I find myself now letting little things slip. Giving people a glimpse of the turmoil of the previous year. It’s scary to bare your soul and let people see who you really are inside. In my head I know that postpartum depression does not define me and it’s not who I am. But in my heart, I hate to show that vulnerability to anyone else.  I shared a incident that happened in the height of my Postpartum Psychosis with a friend who is struggling in her role as a new mom for the third time. I didn’t want to share it with her. I didn’t want to scare her off. But she asked and then she insisted. You see, she’s a survivor too. She knows, she’s been there. It’s an incident that I have not shared with anyone other than Mr.McHunky. It felt good to lay it out there and release it from my soul. Telling her gave me the courage to write about it.

This is the face of PPD-unedited and real

To say that I had hallucinations is probably the biggest understatement I could make. I had visions of things that will haunt me to my dying breath. I was hyper aware of my surroundings, I was paranoid and I was seeing things that threatened to steal every last ounce of sanity from my mind.

On this particular night, I was trying to run a bath in the hopes that soaking in steaming hot water would soothe the thoughts running mercilessly through my mind. I just wanted peace. I wanted to be still. My hands were shaking so badly that I spilled the entire bottle of bubble bath all over the floor. I hurled the empty bottle across the room, striking the mirror and make it wobble dangerously on the wall. I had hot tears pouring down my cheeks but I didn’t even realize I was crying. My chest felt so tight and I was sure I was dying. My skin felt like it was crawling, thousands of tiny pin pricks went up and down my body. As I retrieved the empty bubble bath bottle from the sink, I glanced up at my reflection in the mirror. I studied the pale face staring back at me, with the dark smudges under the eyes, the sunken in cheeks, the lines of exhaustion and stress around the mouth. I stared at her. In the blink of an eye, the image before me changed. Gone was that woman, replaced by a corpse. A corpse covered in blood with rotting flesh and dead eyes. She stared back at me. She smiled.

“You are useless. You are stupid. You’re a horrible mother, your kids hate you. Why are you still here? Why are you still alive? You don’t deserve to be alive. I am you. And you are going to be me.”

The words rattled through my brain like bullets shot out of a gun. She was talking to me, she was telling me exactly what I already knew. She was right. I opened my mouth to scream but nothing came out except for a strangled gasp of horror.  She laughed at me. She pointed a blood covered finger at me. I was screaming in my head but no sound was coming out of my mouth. I don’t remember anything else except being found by Mr.McHunky an hour or so later in the dark recesses of my closet. I was naked, shivering and curled up in the fetal position rocking back and forth. I was covered in blood from the scratches that I had inflicted upon myself. I don’t remember hurting myself but I had deep scratches lined up along my arms and legs and blood caked under my fingernails. I was holding a clump of hair that I had yanked out of my own head and my lip was bloody and swollen where I had bitten clear through it.

I wish I could tell you that this was the worst incident. Or the catalyst that led me to getting intensive help. But it wasn’t. It got so much worse over the coming weeks.

So much worse.



Just Keep Swimming

I still have days. You know, those days. The kind that make me want to crawl back in bed with the covers over my head and hide from the world. The kind that makes me short tempered and cranky, irritated when my kids are being loud or whiny or doing the stuff that kids just do. The kind that makes me feel overwhelmed and inferior. The kind that makes me feel like a bad mom. I have those days more often than I would like to admit. I struggle with being present in the moment with my kids. I always have a running to do list in my head, all the stuff that needs to be done just keeps growing and growing until I feel like I can’t breathe. It’s a vicious cycle that never ends.

I hate the days when I feel so irritated with my kids. I want them to know that I love them more than anything in this world, that they are the sole reason I am still alive, that I would do anything for them, that they were my sunshine on the very darkest of days. There are far too many days when I fall short of making sure they know this. When I yell because I have reached the end of my patience, or when I snap at them out of frustration, I hate myself. I beat myself up, I call myself names, I tell myself that I don’t deserve my family.

PPD, Postpartum Depression, has done this to me. I have this need, deep down inside me, to make up for the last 16 months. To atone for the months where I was emotionally absent from my children. It eats at me all the time. I have flashes of memories from the worst weeks that pierce my heart like daggers because I know my children suffered, I know they felt my distance and they didn’t understand it. How do you atone for these things? How? I worry sometimes that Zoey’s bond to Matt is so much greater than her bond to me, simply because he was present during the time I couldn’t be. I’ll be honest, there are many a day where I’m not sure she loves me as much as she loves him. I understand why she wouldn’t but it still hurts to the depth of my soul to wonder if my baby loves me.

This is the reality of life after a Postpartum Mood Disorder. It is not pretty and it is not a path I ever thought I would have to walk. But here I am. It seems like people want to sweep Postpartum Mood Disorders under the rug or hide it behind closed doors so nobody will know. All that accomplishes is making the women walking the same rocky path feel more alone, more isolated and more ashamed. I will be one of the few that stand up and talk about my journey. I will be brutally honest and totally transparent about this struggle in the hopes that it will reach just one mom who is still stuck in the black hole.

The stigma must be broken. Women must feel able to ask for help without fear of judgement.

We have to Just Keep Swimming.



Insomnia

3am. 3:15. 3:30. 3:45.

4am. 4:15. 4:30. 4:45.

5am. 5:15. 5:30. 5:45.

Insomnia.

Knowing I have to be up in 2 hours. But I can’t shut my brain off. I’m restless and I can’t stop moving. I toss and turn, trying to be still. Trying to make my mind be still.

When I was at my lowest point last year I struggled with insomnia like never before. I have always had some insomnia and even took Ambien during my last pregnancy just to try and get some rest. Over the years I have found various ways to combat the insomnia and manage it. But when I was struggling so heavily with the PPD I had no reserves left to deal with insomnia. I would lie awake and watch the clock until I couldn’t take it anymore and I broke the clock. We still haven’t replaced it. I don’t think I want to. The clock makes it worse, just lying there and watching time go by while my body craves sleep so desperately.

Random things go through my head, off the wall and strange. I can feel the anxiety start to creep in and take over. I practice my deep breathing, accidentally holding the inhale too long until I see spots. I exhale, finally remembering to keep breathing. I can feel the twitching starting in my fingers, next will come the creepy crawly feelings and then the shaking. It’s always the same.

It’s always the same.



Anxiety Lingers

I still have days when I wake up and pause. I wait for the wave of anxiety to wash over me. I wait for the panic to hit, for my breathing to increase and my heartrate to become rapid. But it never comes. Or at least, it almost never comes. Those horrible days are behind me and I hope to never go back there again. I know over time the memories will fade.

I remember the dark days when the sound of my own baby crying was enough to make me hyperventilate. My shoulders would tense up, my jaw would clench, my eyes would shut tightly as I tried to block out the sounds of my own child. I remember the days when the simple task of deciding what we would eat for dinner was overwhelming. Making any decision was overwhelming.

When I wake up now, after those first initial moments of pause, I am filled with happiness. A bone deep, true, happiness. A hard won, battled for, sense of peace and joy. A sense of absolute gratefulness for the life I have been given. And every morning I vow to never take it for granted, to never forget how precious every single second of every single day is, no matter what. There will be bad days, there will be hard times, there will be tough memories to get past. That’s life and life isn’t always pretty and it’s rarely easy. But it’s so worth it.

And I’m grateful.