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When PPD Doesn’t Look Like Depression

Image Source: Wendy Wisner

Shock — that is how I would describe first few days after my first son was born.

When I was pregnant with him, I knew that the end result would be a living, breathing (sometimes crying) human baby, but when my midwives placed his slippery, screeching body on my chest, I felt entirely disoriented and bewildered.

Slowly, but surely, I got used to the idea of being a mom. After a few days of breastfeeding difficulties (that made me feel even more disconnected and frightened until they were resolved), I finally began to get into a groove with my son. And suddenly, one afternoon as he lay happily nursing in my arms, I had a good long cry, and realized that I had fallen deeply in love with him.

After that, I held onto him with an urgency that was part instinct, and part … well, something else. I didn’t want him out of my arms for the first few months — like, ever. I’d watch him as he slept, often unable to sleep myself. Each and every breath he took felt like my responsibility, and I felt finely attuned to all of his needs — for food, for sleep, for comfort.

I do think there was something normal and beautiful about all of this. After all, I was a first-time mother, and I was deeply attached to my son. Perhaps I sound too possessive in certain ways, but he was a tiny baby, and I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong about a mother tethering herself to her baby this way in the early days.

I remember feeling a sense of relief when I realized that I probably wasn’t suffering from postpartum depression. After those first few days, I didn’t feel disconnected from my baby. I didn’t feel sad, down in the dumps, or depressed. What I felt was what I considered to be a somewhat normal feeling for me — a ridiculous amount of care, attentiveness, a smidge of obsessiveness, and a fair amount of anxiety.

As someone who had suffered from anxiety on and off all her life, it didn’t surprise me that I was having thoughts in the postpartum period that filled me with fear.

What if he died? How could I go on living? … Wait, what if I died? He’d have no mother, no milk.

My heart would start to race. Anxiety and sleep deprivation were not a good mix, and sometimes I’d end up feeling faint, dizzy, and nauseous.

Still, I didn’t think there was much out of the ordinary about this. All new moms feel this way to some extent, I thought. I’m just an anxious person, I’d tell myself. So that’s what this all is.

Image Source: Wendy Wisner

I had been in therapy for anxiety for years before my son was born, but soon after his birth, I decided it was too much to keep my appointments, so I stopped going. I truly believed that the anxiety I was feeling was normal.

I didn’t realize until a few years later — when my anxiety surrounding motherhood reached an awful crescendo — that I was actually suffering from a postpartum mood disorder.

It all happened within the span of a week, the summer that my son was 2½. First, I had a miscarriage. It was an early miscarriage, and I didn’t even know I was pregnant until I started having unexpected bleeding which I sought medical attention for. A blood test revealed I was pregnant, and likely miscarrying. The whole experience sent a confusing mix of panic and shock through me.

I wasn’t ready at all to have another child and it freaked me out that I might have had one. But then I was flooded with both guilt and fear that the mere idea of having another child scared me so deeply. It was a whirlwind of feelings (and hormones), and I was having trouble sorting them out.

And then, that very same week, my son had a medical incident that left me terrified to my core.

He was taking a bath when he suddenly turned white and dropped limp into my arms. I picked him up out of the bath and tried desperately to wake him, but I was in too much of a panic to even check if he was breathing. Immediately, I called 911, because I was certain he was dying.

After five of the most terrifying minutes of my life, my son woke up, and the paramedics arrived. We rushed him to the hospital, and after a series of tests, we learned that he had simply fainted.

He was fine, but I wasn’t.

Daily panic attacks, and a feeling of sheer and utter terror washed over me. It was as though I was living in a horror film; an alternative universe where all I could feel was fear.
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Let’s just say that I didn’t recover well from this week full of scares. What followed was the worst two months of anxiety I had ever had in my life. Daily panic attacks, and a feeling of sheer and utter terror washed over me. It was as though I was living in a horror film; an alternative universe where all I could feel was fear. The whole world was tinged with it.

The miscarriage and fainting episode were both scary in and of themselves, but now I believe that they were simply the peak of a postpartum mood disorder that had gone unaddressed. A few months back in therapy helped bring me back to normalcy, and I would say that the next bunch of years of motherhood (including the birth of my second child) have included a much more normal level of anxiety (at least for me).

But last year, I came across a study that truly opened my eyes — and I think the eyes of many mothers like me, who have suffered from undiagnosed postpartum anxiety. The study, which was conducted by the University of British Columbia, found that in terms of mood disorders, postpartum anxiety is actually more common than postpartum depression. In fact, mothers are almost three times as likely to experience anxiety after the birth of their babies than depression.

When my first son was born, I had actually never heard of postpartum anxiety, just postpartum depression. And when my mood didn’t center on depression, I brushed my anxiety off, just thinking I was suffering from run-of-the-mill “new mom anxiety.” I truly wish I’d known that what I was dealing with was real — and that it was common, treatable, and most of all, not something I just had to put up with or suffer through.

The passage into motherhood can be intense for all new moms, but the truth is, some of us experience a much more difficult time than others — and we need support. We need our voices to be heard and our stories to be told. And above all, we need to know that we’re not alone.

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