Read Part 1 of Aliyah's journey here.
In the beginning, leading up to our move, we hired a lovely young person, mature beyond her years, who came to our house mainly to hand wash all of our dishes and my pump parts, and sanitize those. That was a big, never ending job in our tiny kitchen with no dishwasher. She also did errands and shopping for us and held Nusaibah when I needed a break to lay down (mainly trying to escape my own thoughts) or take a shower. That was a hard thing to do, pride wise, to admit that I needed hired help in my tiny home with my one tiny baby while I was friends with super moms of 5 or 6 kids. They had no hired help. I didn’t want anyone to know but I did know that I needed help on multiple levels.
My husband, for a while at the beginning, did both our jobs. He took care of me and the baby, and I felt even worse: How could he still function? Why don’t i have the strength to do this? I felt bad about myself and guilty for burdening him. He had to take care of me and he didn’t get much back, for a very long time. I couldn’t be like the mothers I admired, those I planned to be just like.I know it was difficult for him to manage the transition to parenthood too, being as sleep deprived as I was in addition to the stress of work. Seeing me unravel was not easy for him, not by a long shot.
My mom came on weekends and fed me. She helped in ways only your mom can. My sister came to stay with us for a week or maybe a little more. She left her husband and kids to do this. She had just had a brain tumor removed a couple of months before. And yet, she was there taking care of me. Showing me how to cut my baby’s fingernails and assuring me that various worries and fears were normal. She was waking up some of the nights to help, even though she had headaches and pains still from her own recent ordeal. She tried to normalize a lot of what I was feeling, because a lot of it was normal for first time moms but nobody prepares you for it. But then, of course, not all of what I was going through was in the scope of “normal,” and she was supportive in that aspect too. She is the one that set up my first counselor in the town I was about to move to. She found me a wonderful therapist and had an appointment set up for the first week I got to this new place where I’d know nobody.
When I got to our new town, I joined a MOMS club chapter. It was pivotal to my recovery. Without it I may have been socially isolated and gotten worse after our move. In fact, I know I would have. When we moved, I experienced the same physical manifestations of my anxiety as I did in the beginning--not being able to eat without vomiting or needing the bathroom. This was when I realized that I may never have had a stomach virus at all, but rather began having physical reactions to my inner turmoil. I once again was having panic attacks that paralyzed me, as I looked around at my new house, new town, and new life. I’d have trouble controlling my thoughts enough to concentrate. My mind would just race and I’d start feeling short of breath and like all I could do was cry. MOMS Club allowed me to get out and meet other mothers. I met several who I could be open about my struggles with, and many who were also survivors of PPD and other postpartum mood adjustment disorders. I continued with therapy and medication until I was ready to start getting off of them
As time passed and Nusaibah was sleeping more at night, I could sleep in greater chunks. I experienced less and less extreme anxiety and depression. I knew I was on a path to recovery, and it finally started to sink in that PPD is not permanent. Every time I experienced a normal fluctuation though, I would get scared I was backsliding. Even regular, run of the mill bad mood moments or PMS I would have experienced earlier in my life sent me into a panic that I was going to sink into the abyss again. This too, finally subsided. I got through Postpartum Depression and Anxiety through counseling and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, self care such as nutrition, supplements, journaling, having “me time”, and antidepressant medication -- a low dose for almost a year before weaning off of it.
The looking back and wondering “What if....” has finally slowed in my mind, but for a long time I was always doing it. I was always searching for the “reason” this all went down. I constantly searched for the event or factor that would’ve prevented so much suffering. I don’t know if there is value in doing this, and at times I felt wrong to do this.
My faith tradition would consider this a lack of trust in God’s plans to be ungrateful in the face of His will, an arrogance to assume I could’ve changed any outcomes. But my faith had been weakened and torturing myself with the past was much easier than accepting my course as one God had planned for me. The entire journey overall, impacted my physical, mental, and spiritual self. I’m on the survivor side of this, but it’s still fresh enough to remember vividly and certain triggers will bring on the tears too. There are still so many unanswered questions for me -- and for so many women -- because there is still so much to learn about postpartum mood disorders and how best to prevent and treat them. I ask myself if I have another kid and breastfeeding is successful, will it be different? Was that the true reason this happened to me? Or am I just predisposed to PPD and PPA because of my genetic makeup? If it happened once, will it happen again?
RETROSPECT & ADVICE
My daughter recently turned 2-years-old, and I’m a functioning person with a decent amount of balance in my life. I have a job, I have friends, I go on dates with my husband, I exercise, and, most importantly, I love my daughter to pieces. We did bond, even without breastfeeding and without me being my best in the beginning.
She is smart, funny, and has such a happy temperament.
She brings me so much happiness, that I even miss her when she’s asleep.
But I can tell you, there was a very long time where I could not picture getting to this point.
I could not picture functioning like this again.
I could not picture anything but the darkness I was in.
I thought that the darkness, panic and fear was not going to end. I would just long to sleep through the day, and sleep through the night (of course I didn’t actually get to!). I just longed for unconsciousness. I would get up to do something, start shaking and breathing irregularly, feel my focus slip from my grasp and feel as if I was spiraling down into some kind of black hole. My thoughts would race faster than I could manage them.My emotional responses were extreme, my thoughts all negative, and I’d break down in tears constantly.
I went from being an independent, productive, achievement-oriented and overall positive person to someone who couldn’t make basic daily decisions and get through a half hour without crying. I lived in pajamas, had no drive for self care, and had never felt worse about myself. There was too much change around me, and I felt like I couldn’t accommodate it. I had this new baby, a brand new role and life as a mother. I had a “new reality” and a new version of myself.
Before we moved across the country, I’d look at the cardboard boxes beginning to take over our tiny home and the anxiety would surge back up. I experienced panic that I was going crazy, that I couldn’t be a mother. I experienced shame and guilt for not being able to cope and adjust. Most of all I remember the distinct feeling that this was forever. That this feeling could not possibly go away, that this hell could not possibly come to a happy end. Many other women told me they also were “sure” of this, starting with the woman on the other end of the first postpartum help line I called. Thankfully, they also told me they were wrong, and so was I.
I’ve had some degree of “generalized anxiety” for a good chunk of my life. At the end of college I saw a therapist about it, but it kind of dipped back down and didn’t affect my life to the point of needing more treatment. It’s not something that was at the forefront of my identity. However, I later learned that any sort of history of anxiety or depression would have been a risk factor for PPD/PPA. I never learned, even in the pre-birth classes when they talked about PPD, that there were risk factors you could identify. It turns out I have a lot of them. I have the history of anxiety, there are other mental health issues in my family history (bipolar disorder, depression), as well as thyroid issues (in most of my dad’s side of the family), major life event (we were moving across the country two months after the birth!), and personality traits such as liking control and being a perfectionist.
So right now here is my plea to you if you’re reading---If you’re pregnant and you have had a personal or family history of mental health issues, personal or family history of thyroid issues, if you’re a perfectionist, if you have a hard time with change: PREPARE. These are just risk factors, not guarantees, but PREPARE. It still may not happen to you. Your neurotransmitters and hormones may do something different, but if not, preparation could save you a lot of suffering. Read up on postpartum adjustment and mood disorders, in detail. Prepare your support system, so that you are ready to open up to someone and ask for help. Have a potential counselor picked out, train yourself to preemptively remove the stigma of this disease from your consciousness--because if it happens to you, you will feel embarrassment and shame. But those are simply barriers to you recovering, because THIS IS NOT YOUR FAULT. Get a postpartum doula. I’ll tell you, if I have another child, I will have a postpartum doula. I will have pre-arranged, regular help and I will not feel guilty for getting sleep, taking a shower, and taking care of myself. I will not be useless again. Feel insane when you’re house is dirty? Don’t feel guilty for arranging someone else to clean it for a while. Friends offer to cook meals? Don’t feel embarrassed to say yes.
I think that whatever your issues before having a baby, the biological, emotional and situational EXPLOSION that happens in your life when you do have a baby (especially your first baby), magnifies those issues. I realize now that I’ve always been a clinical perfectionist, I’ve always had negative thought patterns, low-level anxiety, and I’ve always had some rigid resistance to change. Those were all just magnified with all the changes within my body and around me. Self confidence was never a strong point for me, but it was especially low when I couldn’t “do it all.” Now, although I have much more work to do, I am growing into a more realistic and healthy view of myself. I hope that my story is of benefit to others. I found writing it to be very healing.