By Billie Criswell
I was overjoyed when I became pregnant at 28 years old, and gave birth just before my 29th birthday. My pregnancy was planned, and was fairly uneventful. Because I had struggled with anxiety throughout my 20s, I prepared for postpartum, which in hindsight, sounds funny because who can really prepare for postpartum? But I did what I thought was my due diligence…I attended regular therapy sessions. I prepared my one-line birth plan: no interventions. I lined up my placenta encapsulation. I hired my doula. I had a plan for accepting help from my “Grandma dream team,” compromised of my mom and my mother-in-law, who supplied us with food and help for two full weeks.
I had an unmedicated, vaginal birth in the hospital. It was pretty routine except for a couple of things. Unbeknownst to me, a doctor or midwife in the rotating practice wrote in my chart that my baby was breech (she was not) and there was confusion about me getting a c-section. The second thing happened while I was pushing. Out of nowhere, the midwife who was attending asked the nurses to bring a mirror. I asked them not to. She nodded and insisted, “bring in the mirror.” Seeing myself giving birth in a mirror felt very violating. It was distracting, and disturbing as though I was having an out of body experience and being forced to watch something that I found traumatizing.
But all of that behind me, I left the hospital and came home. I was exhausted after having been awake for 36 hours straight, but I was well cared for by everyone around me. In those first days, I felt disconnected from everything. Trying to catch up on sleep, learning to breastfeed, and adjust to caring for an infant is pretty haze-inducing. I took the placenta pills. When people asked me how I felt, I responded with “good.”
I got to know my baby, who loved me above all people and never wanted to be put down. EVER. We adapted. We co-slept. We had a sling, and an Ergo baby carrier. Little did I know that I would literally be carrying my child around for the next 10 months (she is the most attached child I have ever, ever met.)
After two and a half weeks, it was time for my husband to go back to work, time for my mother and mother-in-law to go back to cooking for their own families. And that morning, as I kissed my husband goodbye, I was feeling a bit excited to be alone with my baby for the first time. She was asleep, and I took a breath, sat down, ready to admire her until she woke up. And that was when it happened… I felt a hot wave rush over me, and I thought I was going to pass out. The room was spinning. I panicked. I grabbed the baby and got into bed, thinking I was surely about to die. I was experiencing what would be the first of several months of panic attacks.
I was terrified to be alone with my baby, afraid that I would drop her, or that I would faint while carrying her and kill her. I was afraid that the walls were closing in. I was afraid of everything, all of the time. I had these horrible visions of bad things that could happen to her. She would be sitting in her bouncer, and I would be cutting carrots and suddenly be horrified that I could cut off her finger, even though she was ten feet away. I felt crazy.
I knew that something was really wrong in my mind, and so when she was a few months old, I told my primary care doctor about how I was feeling. She flippantly looked at me and said “Well stop breastfeeding, you’ll feel better. And by the way, if you have any more kids, this will only get worse for you.” I went home and cried for five days straight. I didn’t want to give up breastfeeding…it was the one thing I was doing with success. So I dug in my heels, and decided that I would continue breastfeeding, consequences be damned.
I attended regular therapy sessions. My therapist knew that I was struggling, but I don’t think that even she knew the extent of the pain I was in mentally. I think the anxiety had become so bad that I didn’t know how to properly express how bad it was. I coped by always scheduling a visit with a friend or family member while my husband was at work or school (he was finishing his degree at the time.) And crying when I was alone, wondering if I was a bad mother, whether I would ever feel normal again, and hiding some of the darkest moments away.
When my daughter was six months old that everything really came to a head when I had this strange pain in my groin and a rash on my back. I had become so stressed and riddled with anxiety that I had gotten shingles. It was probably the best thing that happened to me postpartum. On doctor’s orders, I had to lay down, rest, and keep myself from being too stressed. This was when I finally began laying down with my daughter for naps. I began resting, and knowing that I had those two hours each day to lay down, helped tremendously. It also gave me an unspoken permission to actually ask for help from those around me.
The fog slowly began to lift. Then, around the 8 or 9 month mark when I was arbitrarily surfing Facebook, I came across an article about postpartum depression and anxiety. It talked about how people who had been sexually abused or assaulted were more likely to feel violated by childbirth and had higher instances of postpartum depression and anxiety. I had no idea.
Suddenly everything clicked. In all the preparations I made, in all those OB/GYN appointments I had, not one person ever asked me if I had been the victim of sexual abuse or assault—not even my therapist knew to ask. Even though I had the birth I “wanted,” I still felt so traumatized and I finally understood why. In those moments of realization, it was as though I could finally come out the other side. A huge burden lifted off me, as if all at once.
Since then, I’ve still had my ups and downs… breastfeeding was a huge culprit as well in the hormonal cocktail that spikes my anxiety. I breastfed my daughter until she was 3 1/2, and when I weaned her, the anxiety was once again palpable. Now, having weaned her, I feel like my postpartum period has FINALLY, at long last, come to a close. It’s been an often dark place for me, but understanding where the sense of trauma comes from really helps.
I have been lucky. I reached out, and I had a number of people who came to my aid. My family, and a few close friends really hung in there with me and, on numerous occasions, dropped everything to come and literally sit beside me as I struggled. My husband has been a major support for me in both my mental health and my extended breastfeeding. The journey has been hard, and full of love.
Coming through this period of my life has changed me. It’s made me more able to acknowledge when I need help, and it’s made me more thankful for my moments with my daughter where I feel like myself. Postpartum anxiety robbed me of a precious time with my newborn. Guilt is motherfucker and she doesn’t go easy. But just like the initial trauma of sexual abuse, the birth trauma wasn’t my fault, and the postpartum anxiety wasn’t my fault.