I was emotionally and physically depleted. Image: Thinkstock.
I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to stop crying.
I thought I had it all together when I had my daughter. She was my second baby; my son was nearly 3 at the time of her birth.
She came out of my vagina like a hurricane. After five days of prodromal labor, she was out in an hour.
Samara was born with the cord wrapped around her neck. It was scary, to say the least. My OB-GYN wasn’t even there yet! A resident delivered my baby and I was fairly certain she was going to either have an aneurysm or faint during the process.
“Paging my supervisor, this is Dr. Matthews! I need assistance.”
It was pretty hilarious — in hindsight.
The cord was cut and Samara was placed in my arms. It was an unintentionally natural childbirth: I begged for an epidural, but my girl was too quick. When the nurse handed me my baby, she immediately latched on and began to nurse.
I thought this was a good sign.
But from the start, I had difficulty getting her to nurse for long periods of time. She would cry and get frustrated during the process of feeding. I was baffled, since my son had been an excellent nurser, and ultimately was breastfed for a year.
I found myself sitting in the hospital bed, crying my eyes out, hoping I could get it together to feed my baby girl. She was beautiful; I wanted to love her.
But there was this nagging voice inside me: What if I can’t love this baby as much as my son? Is there enough love for both of my children?
I started bawling. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to stop crying.
I got home and continued to experience trouble with nursing. My milk wasn’t coming in fast enough, and Samara was frustrated that she was only getting colostrum.
Thankfully, my mom came up at 3 AM to help me. It was taxing on my whole family: I was emotionally and physically depleted. My son would wake up at the same time as the baby.
And when my infant would cry, I would cry. I felt like I wasn’t enough for her. I was used to feeling anxious in everyday life, but the level of anxiety I was experiencing during this time was off the charts. I wasn’t able to regulate my emotions. It was truly scary.
Things got real when my daughter was three months old.
I developed a cyst on my face. I tried to leave it alone, but I found myself obsessively touching it, because it disturbed me. One day, I woke up and the cyst was red and inflamed. I tried to heat it with a compress, but it didn’t budge. The next day, I couldn’t open my eye.
I took myself to the ER while my parents watched the kids. I was diagnosed with a staph infection, admitted, and told that my face had to be surgically drained. I was absolutely terrified — I had no idea how long I would be away from my infant and toddler son.
I sat in the hospital room shaking and scared.
A resident doctor told me that, due to the fact that I was going to be on IV antibiotics, I couldn’t continue to nurse my daughter.
I told him that was bullshit and demanded to see the lactation consultant.
The lactation consultant came into my room like a breath of fresh air. It was seriously the first time I’d smiled in days. She told me the doctor was full of it and that he knew nothing about breastfeeding. She said there were plenty of antibiotics that were safe for nursing and that I could be put on one of those.
I asked the hospital for a breast pump. I had a milk delivery system in the form of friends and family who delivered bottles of milk to my infant daughter at home with her grandparents and my husband.
Being away from my little girl for five days while I was in the hospital was heartbreaking.
She wasn't even four months old. I started to have insomnia because I missed her so much. I’d look out the window and cry, thinking about what she was doing, wondering if she would remember me when I got home.
I called my mom, sobbing. “What if she forgets me?” I asked.
“That’s not possible,” my mom replied.
After five days, I was released from the hospital and got see my little girl. I was put on oral antibiotics. My reunion with my baby was bittersweet — I missed her so much and cried when I held her, but then I started to experience debilitating anxiety about my health.
At 9 PM, I lay down for the night. Suddenly, I felt a sharp pain in the back of my head. I started to panic. What was wrong with me?
The pain was followed by an overwhelming tingling sensation in my skull. I was afraid to move.
What’s wrong with me? Am I going to die?
I truly believed that I was going to die.
Spoiler alert: I didn’t die. But the experience was miserable. I was lying there in my bed, praying that the pain and tingling would cease — and it didn’t.
It was 3 AM, my own personal witching hour. I called my mom in a panic.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I can’t sleep. My head… it’s on fire,” I said, shaking. My entire body was shaking so hard.
“Make some chamomile tea,” she advised.
I got up out of the bed and made some tea. I knew that chamomile was a natural sedative, so I thought I had nothing to lose. I drank the tea and began to feel calmer, but the pain in my head persisted.
I didn’t sleep at all that night. The next morning, I called my doctor and told him that I believed I was having a bad side-effect from the antibiotic. He told me to discontinue it immediately, that he would replace it with a different drug.
Though the pain persisted, I felt a little bit better about this — until I tried to go to sleep again the next night.
My head was on fire again.
When I woke up, I felt as if a bolt of electricity shot through my body. The pain was back with a vengeance, and it was unrelenting.
After the second sleepless night, I was freaked out. I called my doctor in a panic. “I still can’t sleep. My head is on fire.”
“Well, then it’s not a side effect of the antibiotic,” he said, rather flippantly for my taste.
“So what is it, then?” I asked anxiously.
“Hard to say,” he replied. “Could be lupus; could be Lyme disease.”
I started to shake vigorously. My doctor recommended that I see a neurologist.
The neurologist he referred me to was highly recommended, but didn't have an opening for two weeks. During that time, I had chronic insomnia, sleeping an average of 1-3 hours per night.
Mostly, I spent the time lying there in severe pain, trying to not to panic.
I took Tylenol PM some nights and it did little-to-nothing for me. One night, I managed to sleep for the entire night with the assistance of a sleeping pill. When I woke up, I felt as if a bolt of electricity shot through my body. The pain was back with a vengeance, and it was unrelenting.
One of the most terrifying points during this 14-day period came one morning after I slept for an hour. I was getting ready to open my eyes. While they were still closed, I saw, in a hypnagogic state, a floating face.
It scared the shit out of me. I thought, I am definitely fucking losing it and I’m probably going to die soon.
I finally managed to see the neurologist. After a battery of tests, he determined there was nothing physically wrong with me. He did say that I was experiencing a high level of anxiety and recommended that I go back on antidepressants. I was scared to do that, because I was still nursing.
His response: “Celexa will turn your breast milk into gold. Right now, your baby is getting cortisol because you are so stressed out. You need to calm your body down.”
I was so desperate to sleep at this point that I decided to heed his advice, and took the script for Celexa. Unfortunately, the antidepressant was so familiar (it was like a sister to me) that it did virtually nothing for me. I still felt so anxious that my heart was beating out of my chest.
I begged the neurologist to help me and fix what was wrong.
I was told, “Sarah, you simply have to calm down. You’re very anxious right now.”
Calm down, huh? Well, I think if your brain were on fire, you’d be pretty anxious, too.
After some persistence, I was given an anti-seizure medication called Neurontin. It worked immediately — the pain in my head went away and I was no longer experiencing panic.
But there was one problem: Neurontin only worked for six hours. When the six hours was up, I was in excruciating pain again.
I made an appointment with my psychiatrist, because I knew he would know what the fuck to do. He’d proven himself to be a genius since 2003.
My psychiatrist asked about my neck and head pain. He asked if I had been taking NSAIDs such as Advil. I told him no, and that no one had recommended that to me. He wondered why, and suggested I do that. He referred me to see a physiatrist.
Before I left, he took a moment to express his feelings about my neurologist:
“You know, head pain is real. When a patient tells you they’re having a side effect because of a medication, it’s a doctor’s obligation to listen to them, even if it seems strange. If a patient says they are seeing pink elephants because of a medication, it’s your duty to honor that.”
I left his office feeling validated and listened to. At the psychiatrist, I was given the same level of care and concern. He told me that I had popped my neck out of alignment and that’s why I was in severe pain. He assured me that I wasn’t crazy, and that anyone experiencing this level of pain would have insomnia.
I saw a chiropractor in conjunction with an acupuncturist two times a week. I also went to physical therapy three times a week. This regime of self-care, along with taking my psychiatric medications, got me feeling better.
After three months, I was able to come off the Neurontin and stick to taking an antidepressant daily. I also began seeing a therapist once a week, where I talked about the challenges of parenting two young children.
This was one of the most challenging periods of my 36 years on this planet.
I felt as if no one believed me and I was speaking another language. I tried to advocate for myself with medical professionals. However, they simply wrote me off as being a crazy, anxious person.
So I gave up. No one ever mentioned postpartum anxiety or depression to me.
In hindsight, I believe I had PPD. It went undiagnosed, but it all makes sense to me: My moods were erratic and I was crying at the drop of a hat. I had difficulty connecting with my daughter at first, and nursing was a fucking nightmare. I did manage to get through it, and she became a stellar nurser. She breastfed for 12 months, just like her older brother.
If you are experiencing postpartum depression or anxiety right this moment, I have a message for you: Hold on.
You will make it through this time. There’s nothing wrong with you.
The chemicals in your brain might be acting like fucking assholes, but that’s not your fault, OK? Please seek the help of a licensed psychologist. They can guide you through this experience.
I made it through, and so can you.