As someone who has lived with an anxiety and panic disorder since I was a teen, I can tell you that there is nothing more reassuring than when others share their anxiety battles with me. Knowing that I am not “crazy,” that anxiety really can be that dark and frightening — and most of all, that I am not alone — has healed me in more ways than I can count.
That’s why I was totally awed and moved when I saw that Alyssa Milano (who happens to be a major icon of my ’80s childhood!) recently penned an essay in TIME magazine sharing her raw and harrowing story of postpartum anxiety. Like Milano, I experienced postpartum anxiety after the birth of my first son — and I, too, was too afraid to seek help until things had spiralled out of control.
In the article, which she wrote in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, Milano shared that she experienced postpartum anxiety after the birth of her first child, Milo, in 2011.
“My Generalized Anxiety Disorder was most likely triggered by my postpartum depression, and my journey with mental illnesses began with my journey into motherhood,” Milano wrote.
She shared that she became pregnant with Milo after suffering a miscarriage, and as such, she entered her pregnancy vulnerable, wanting everything to be as perfect as possible.
“My miscarriage was heartbreaking, but this pregnancy was beautiful,” she shared. “I did not experience morning sickness; I went to prenatal yoga five times a week; I walked two miles a day; and I took naps in the afternoon.”
Milano’s wish came true — that is, for the pregnancy. But we all know that birth and postpartum can be a different story, and don’t always go according to plan. So many of us experience new motherhood as a rather traumatic break from our formerly controlled and picture-perfect reality.
Milano said that she prepared for a vaginal birth, but that after 18 hours of labor, she ended up with a C-section. The recovery from that, along with her milk coming in, was much more painful than Milano expected, and this tumultuous start to motherhood triggered her first panic attack.
“That first night, after we returned from the hospital, I suffered my first anxiety attack,” she wrote. “I felt like I had already disappointed my child. I felt like I failed as a mother, since I was not able to give birth vaginally or nourish him with the breast milk that had not come in yet. My heart raced. My stomach seized up. I felt like I was dying.”
Wow — these words are hard to read, whether or not you’ve experienced a panic attack yourself. But if you have, then you know how authentic this sounds. I myself experienced a similar panic attack in the days following the birth of my first son. It felt like the room was spinning and I had nothing to hold on to. Absolutely terrifying.
Milano suffered another panic attack a few months later when her son had a febrile seizure as a result of a high fever (febrile seizures are usually harmless and common, but scary nonetheless).
Like many new moms — myself included — Milano shared that she brushed aside the attacks at first, wanting to be the strong mom who had it all together.
“No, no, no, I thought to myself. This can’t be happening again. I don’t have time for this,” she recalled, describing her reaction to her son’s illness. “This was still 2011, and I was supposed to start work on a television show the following week. I told myself that I needed to keep myself together.”
And that’s exactly what she did, through weeks of filming and 16-hour days when she was separated from her son, imagining the worst possible things happening to him while he was out of her care.
“Every night, after working 16-hour days, after I was finally able to hold my child and put him to sleep, my day’s anxiety would culminate into a debilitating anxiety attack,” Milano wrote.
Finally, her anxiety had reached a peak and she could no longer function. Milano said that she checked herself into the ER and then a psychiatric ward for three days. And thus began her long, harrowing, but hopeful road to healing.
Milano shared that while there were definitely “angels” out there who took the pain of her anxiety disorder seriously, there were others who dismissed her feelings altogether, not willing to believe that she could be suffering as she was. Her psychiatrist and therapist are the ones she credited with saving her, and she shared that she is still under their care, and probably will be for the long haul.
Besides hoping to destigmatize mental illness and make sure that everyone suffering gets the help they need, Milano used her platform to call out her own privilege. She knows that while she had the ability to pay for and receive coverage for her care, not all of us do — and this is something that desperately needs to change.
“I was lucky enough to have the means and the insurance to get the help and support I needed,” she wrote. “What happens to those mothers who don’t have the kind of support I received?”
This is a good question, and one that needs an answer. As Milano points out, we are not talking about a small minority of people who suffer with these conditions.
“One in six Americans face mental illness, and less than half of them receive any form of mental health services,” said Milano.
Honestly, I’m not sure exactly what the answer is here. But I do know this: We all should be given the chance to be heard, to be taken seriously, and to heal. So bravo to Milano for sharing her story and bringing these issues to light. And let’s hope that anyone suffering from a mental health disorder receives the compassionate care that they deserve.