Sitting on the floor of my bedroom walk-in closet, I robotically dialed the number of my general practitioner. When someone answered the phone, I spoke very quietly because I was afraid that if I spoke at a normal volume, I would start to cry uncontrollably.
I said I had given birth two weeks ago and was having severe panic attacks. I said, "I think I have postpartum depression."
I said I needed help.
Quickly, the doctor told me a prescription for Zoloft was going to be ready for me at the drugstore and that I could pick it up in half an hour. I practically whispered, "Thank you," and hung up to rejoin my family downstairs.
Getting a prescription over the phone for a drug I've never taken before was odd, I thought, but I really didn't care. I was very fortunate that it ended up working out for me. At the time, I had no idea that I was actually suffering from postpartum anxiety. I had never heard of postpartum anxiety. But the symptoms — restlessness, agitation, shortness of breath, fear of going crazy — seemed to completely fit me.
It all started as far back as 2004, the first time I was pregnant. I got pregnant after just three tries, and it seemed to be going so well. But at my 12-week ultrasound, we lost the heartbeat. Devastated isn't even close to how I felt. Empty is a closer estimation. We wanted a baby so badly.
I naturally passed the "tissue," as the doctor called it, on December 27th at 5 a.m.
Afterwards, I spiraled into a depression that, looking back, was probably some form of postpartum depression. It makes sense — your body is building a baby, and after a miscarriage or abortion where growth just stops short, you are left with those hormones swirling around inside you. There's chaos. No one talks about that.
After a prior miscarriage and another two years of my obsessive need to conceive, I again became pregnant. My husband and I were beyond excited, but carefully this time. We were having a girl. I named her Abby after a favorite doll I had played with as a child. Having a little girl was what I'd always dreamed of.
After I gave birth, things seemed fine while I recovered from a C-section. Then, after only a day, Abby needed to go get treatment for jaundice. It shouldn't have been a big deal but, for some reason, I was shattered. What a failure as a mother, I thought. Jaundice is just something that happens and is very easily treatable; still, I remember my husband and I sleeping next to Abby's cradle, the room glowing with the special lights for her jaundice, and feeling scared. Scared of the baby. Scared of what she might do. Will she cry? When? What do I do? I didn't sleep much.
I started having this funny feeling of not being present. I was detached. I was outside of myself. Nothing felt real and that was what scared me the most. I couldn't get back inside myself, no matter how hard I tried. The only thing I could feel was helplessness, as if the "real me" was shrinking so far inside of me that I was just a hollow body. Conversations bounced off me like echoes.
The night before we took Abby home, my husband brought beef kabobs with yogurt sauce and hummus for us to eat in the hospital room. Normally, I'd tear into my meal like a rabid dog, but I could barely touch it. I remember starting to feel further away. My husband urged me to eat, but I couldn't.
When we took Abby home, I sat in the back seat like I'd seen new mothers doing on TV, but I really didn't want to. I didn't want to touch my baby because she scared me. When we first put her down to sleep in the bassinet next to our bed, I cried. I held my cat Lucy and whispered into her fur that I wished I never had this baby, that I wanted to take back the child I had worked so hard to bring into this world.
Family would visit, of course. I was only too happy to let others hold her. I gave her to anyone. I was first to leave the room if anyone, other than my baby, needed anything. My sister-in-law was the first to voice this strangeness.
"Is Tami OK?" she asked during one visit. "She seems like she wants to avoid the baby."
"Nah, she's fine," my husband said. Later on, though, he told me he had been unsure.
Time passed, and I still couldn't eat. I physically could not put food in my mouth, and when I tried to force myself, I'd gag. It was very, very strange and created yet another stress because it was affecting my milk production. I thought that maybe eating my favorite junk foods would help. Surely donuts will save the day! But I couldn't bear to even lick off the frosting.
About a week postpartum, I said to my husband, "Something is wrong with me."
I had noticed that I'd started speaking very quietly and that my voice had lost all my inflections. I started to move and behave like a robot. I couldn't snap out of it, and nothing helped. My husband was concerned. He asked me to try to describe how I was feeling. I stared dully straight ahead, not meeting his eyes.
I said flatly, "I don't know. It's like I'm terrified at all times. I can't move. I can't talk. I can't..." As I tried to finish my sentence my face turned green.
"Are you going to throw up?" He asked.
I slowly nodded, turned to the sink, and began to retch. Only bile came out. I retched for a few more minutes, and when I was done, I looked at my husband. White as a ghost, he said, "You need to go to bed. Don't worry about the baby. Just take a sleeping pill and go to bed."
I didn't argue; I turned and went upstairs.
These blurry, empty states of mind continued until I started taking Zoloft. After the third day on medication, I remember a crack of sunshine entering my brain for the first time. My husband had to go to work, but he was obviously and rightly hesitant to leave me to care for Abby.
"It's OK," I told him. "I actually think I will be OK."
And I was.
I had returned to my body. I wasn't afraid of our baby. I was feeling better. Some people will argue that diet, meditation, sunshine, or prayer are the things we should do to combat anxiety and depression, not pharmaceuticals. Yes, those things are important and work for some people as well, but I really don't think I'd be alive if it weren't for the medication. The difference for me was night and day. I began to relax and enjoy my baby. I took her out for long walks, Mommy & Me classes, and to splash pads. The Zoloft didn't zap my personality or turn me into a mombie (zombie mom).
One day, I was walking over a bridge with my daughter in a stroller. I thought about how when I used to cross over bridges, I would always have some sort of vertigo-induced temptation to jump, to toss myself into the traffic below. But I noticed I didn't have that urge anymore. I decided then and there I would continue on this drug, as I believe that it not only helped me get through my postpartum anxiety, but also the depression and anxiety I've had all my life.
There should be no shame in finding your path to healing. Mental illness is not a failure on your part. It's no more a failure on your part than cancer is a failure on your part, or diabetes. It's a health issue.
After struggling with severe postpartum anxiety, I now have peace of mind, and I'm grateful to be alive with my now 9-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son. Don't have any shame or embarrassment about what your struggles are. Pursue help. It could save your life.