The thing about calling a warm line is that, by its nature, it’s something you do when you need help, or someone you care about needs help. And leaving a message is a leap of faith; you need to believe that someone will call you back. If you’re me, the minutes that pass until the phone rings are dissected, analyzed, and agonized over; how long will it be? Can I make it that long? What if someone doesn’t call me back? Should I call again?
When anxiety had me in its grasp, I was completely immersed; submerged almost. The weight of a panic attack, especially one that is sustained over a long period of time, makes every moment more vivid, but also laced with the acidic urge to simply run out the door, in what you’ll know is a pitiful attempt to outrun the fear. Putting my trust in a voicemail message system was such a monumental act at that time, I almost can’t believe I did it. But I left that message. And another. And another.
I don’t remember how many messages to the Moms Supporting Moms warm line I ended up leaving for volunteers that summer. It became an addiction for me; I had to call, had to do the one thing that I ended up counting on. But before I got to that point, there was Andrea.
It’s no small thing to say that without her words and open conversation, I don’t know how I would have managed those early days. I would replay our initial conversation over and over again in my mind as proof that someone other than me had felt this way. Had known the loss of control that comes with postpartum anxiety that we liberally mix with a heavy dose of Type A-like actions. For me, the more I tried to keep things in order, the worse they got and the more I realized how bad things really were.
Andrea understood this. It was like someone put her on that phone just for me. It didn’t even occur to me that other moms were calling the warm line that same week, and month, and year. That’s the thing about depression and anxiety. It forces us to tunnel down so far that unless we really try, we may forget that we aren’t the only ones in this particular boat. Andrea provided that perspective and even though I didn’t know her other than our initial call, I knew her, and she knew me.
For all that was to come, and the gratefulness for which I have always had in my heart for what she did for me, it was only fitting that we would meet for the first time two years later, at a national conference for Postpartum Support International. By that time, I was volunteering for Moms Supporting Moms, responding to calls on the warm line. I could only hope to help someone as much as Andrea had helped me.
By 2014, I was fully immersed in my graduate program, teaching three days a week, and continuing to get stronger every day. But seeing her, and realizing who she was, brought me back to a place I hadn’t forgotten. I could easily access the panic and pain of a few summers before. She didn’t know who I was, but I changed that with one sentence: You don’t know me, but two years ago you saved me.
The day of my appointment with Dr. O’Connor marked a turning point in my life. It was the day that I received and filled the Zoloft prescription, not knowing the terrifying effects it would have on me. I sometimes wonder if I would have even had postpartum anxiety or depression if I hadn’t ever taken the Zoloft in the first place. Or, maybe the one dose I took sped up a process that was going to happen anyway. Maybe none of the above. I would torture myself with these thoughts in my darkest times. But the truth is that I’ll never know, and what happened is what happened.
But the universe never takes away without giving something in return. I truly believe that. It may not be what we wanted, and it may not be recognized at first, but in my heart, I believe that for every loss there is something that comes into our lives as a measure of balance. The most difficult part is to accept what comes to us, whatever fears or uneasiness are circling about.
That same day that Dr. O’Connor scratched out the Zoloft prescription, she also mentioned a local moms support group which happened to meet in the lobby of her office. She gave me a flyer and suggested that I call if I continued to feel anxious. I remember looking at the flyer and remembering that I had received the same one in the hospital with my check-out folder. At that time, I didn’t think much about the group. I was feeling incredible and had other things to occupy my thoughts. Now, three weeks later, I took the flyer with a different mindset. I had no idea what this group could offer to me, or even if I needed it, but I decided to call when I got home.
The window that opened to me that day, when I first called the warm line for Moms Supporting Moms, became my life line, the string that I held onto the same way that Bryce would wrap his arms around me on those first few days of preschool: Honest, a little desperate, and with trepidation. Although I was still a few days out from the true onset of my anxiety, I knew in my heart that something wasn’t right. Whatever made me call that day, I am and will always be thankful.
I’d never called a warm line before, and I expected someone to answer the phone. Instead, I heard a recorded message telling me to leave a message and that someone would call me back. I had no idea what to say. What exactly was going on? Butterflies in my stomach? A slight feeling of dread? More worry than normal? I paced outside on the front porch as my mother-in-law and her mother-in-law sat inside, completely unaware of what I had even gone to the doctor that day. I paced and recorded, then erased and re-recorded my message, until I finally got somewhere close to the truth.
The call I made that day was the first step on a winding road toward eventual peace and the reclamation of my mental health. I couldn’t have known that before the week was out, I’d have the bad luck to be the one in 7 women diagnosed with a maternal mental health illness. How I would convince myself that I shouldn’t have been allowed to take this perfect baby home, let alone care for him. How I’d end up weighing less than I did before I got pregnant so after, so weak I could barely get into a car. I didn’t know any of that, but that afternoon I did find out one thing: The name Andrea Bates. And that, it turns out, was all I needed to know.
“I want to sing my own song that's all, cried the bird and flew into a wall. There must be some way out, he cried, and his desperation echoed down the hall.” T. Sheaffer, Bird in a House, 2002
Then there was the day with the kitchen knives. Having barely kept it together for 48 hours without a major panic attack, I was starting to think that maybe the good days would keep coming. My Wellbutrin seemed to be working a little, even though I really couldn’t tell. I was still so foggy-headed that I didn’t want to drive, so the days passed in a blur of trying to sleep, trying to get Bryce to sleep, and trying to sleep some more. To this day, there are relaxation apps that, if I were to hear them, bring me immediately back to my semi-lit bedroom, tossing, turning, counting, and praying. Unfortunately, no amount of zen chanting or waves crashing on the beach was going to help me sleep, and medication for that particular purpose was proving to be its own challenge.
In the span of under a month, I had been prescribed and tried almost 10 different medications, plus some other, less-traditional methods. Klonopin, Lorazepam, even straight-up Ambien did not work. I worried right through them and into the night. Truth be told, sometimes I scared myself out of taking any of it, because I was convinced that all the side effects would come upon me at once, just like they did with the Zoloft. My medicine cabinet was becoming a junkie’s dream, and I had no dreams left to speak of. Eventually, and after many trips back to the doctor, I was prescribed a souped up version of Benadryl, which I think helped me because I didn't think of it as a sleeping pill. I was so traumatized by my current situation that even my medicine had to be "sanity" friendly. No crazy people's drugs here, it's just a strong antihistamine. With a firm reminder that this prescription would not be renewed, I finally put an end to weeks of insomnia.
But that was yet to come. Today, it was another beautiful family scene. Bryce was happily tucked into his swing, while Chris made his daily French Toast and bacon breakfast for me. One day, I assured him, I would be able to eat it. I walked into the kitchen to scrape my plate, and my eyes caught the set of kitchen knives on the counter. Without warning, my mind went somewhere new, and down a very slippery slope.
You know what those knives can do, right?
Well, of course I do.
Stop looking. Leave the room, Amanda. Get out. Go.
The room had gotten dark. It was just me, and some well-hidden part of my psyche, battling it out on a gorgeous July morning. After surviving the continual onslaught of panic attacks and still pretty much convinced that I’d never again be the same, much less get to work and school, or even the grocery store by myself, this new twist came at an especially difficult time. It would be almost a year before I could look at my own kitchen knives without a cloud of shame surrounding me, at first for the visions they brought to my mind, and then, for not having the courage to talk about what I was experiencing.
Maybe not every time, but most often as I would walk by them, my mind flashed with visions of scarred wrists, and pain. Me, the girl who couldn't watch commercials for scary movies. The girl who was heavy on comedies with a side of documentary. It was the last thing I could have imagined happening. I’d be washing a dish, and in my peripheral vision would see those knives, and I’d get clammy imagining what someone else could do to themselves with that knife. It was disturbingly realistic, but I had never in my life had thoughts of suicide, and I wasn’t having them now. I was, though, highly aware of the potential of those knives, my medications, and even the glassware in my house. Potential for hurt. A spotlight would shine on those objects around my house that could cause problems, as I wanted to think of it. The bathtub. The stairs. I couldn’t get away from it, and to this day I’m sad to say I could never bring myself to tell Chris or anyone else what I was thinking. The closest I came was in a counseling session some weeks later, but I wasn’t completely honest with myself, or anyone else. I came close to getting it all out there, and backpedaled. As if I had anything to hide at that point - I had pretty much hit bottom and stayed for a little while. But it was fear -if I was so out of control emotionally, what might happen to manifest that in a physical sense, if not saying it out loud? Add that to the list of things I didn’t know.
Understanding that I would have done anything to get better, I knew in my heart that I would never have taken all my sleeping pills at once. I was afraid to take them at all. And I started a very solid relationship with dry shampoo to sometimes avoid taking a shower, and therefore knew I couldn’t drown in the bathtub. What I didn’t know, is where those ideas came from in the first place, or if they would ever leave me alone. They did, and soon, but I will forever understand those whose visions don’t leave them, and take them to the breaking point.
500, 499, 498, 497 - “Please, just go to sleep.” Chris’s voice comes through the darkness. He must have heard me moving, trying to find comfort in this new and unfamiliar hour of wakening. How many nights have I been up past last call? Too many to count.
The faint smell of spit-up lingers everywhere around me. My nose is on high alert these days, even more than usual. Another sense to assault me and make me think. What’s too much spit-up? Too little? Next feeding time will undoubtedly turn into a research session on my Nook, which has an Internet history that reads like a woman obsessed. Five weeks postpartum and I am running out of places online and in print to find information to ease the ever-changing round robin of questions and concerns.
“I’m doing everything I can here. It’s not working.” My voice doesn’t even sound like me anymore. Just some tortured version of myself that’s worn down and lost.
“Just keep counting. It always worked for me. It will work this time, it has to.” He is so upbeat, so hopeful, but there is a just a hint of terror. What if it doesn’t work? What, then? Partners in crime, we always called ourselves, now partners in insomnia.
496, 495, 494 - If only it were that easy. Why did no one tell me this could happen after I had a baby?
493, 492 - “Please, I don’t understand this. How can you not be sleeping yet?”
491, 490, 489 - This night will never end. How am I going to function with no sleep again? It’s been at least five days so far with less than the minimum 5 hours I know I’m supposed to get. Mom’s down the hall, thankfully, so we’ve got backup. Still, though, I am sure she can hear this latest plea.
488, 487, 486, 485 - “What can I do for you? Are you hungry, thirsty? Hot, cold? Tell me, I’ll do it. Anything, just please sleep. Please.”
484, 483, 482, 481 - I don’t even know the answers to those questions. Heart racing, stomach queasy in depths of my body I never knew existed until a few weeks ago. When will this end? I’ve never wanted to feel the sense of my body relaxing into a pillow quite so much. I used to love this bed; it’s become the place I dread.
480, 479, 478 - “Please, Amanda, you’ve got to try. Please.”
The worst part of all is that our baby sleep soundly, at least for a few more hours, while I cannot. The counting is for me, just as the worries, the questions, and the concerns are for me. Guilt would overwhelm me if I could even think past right now, past this time that is unending, and will never end, I am convinced. And when that sweet little boy wakes up, I will go to him, if I can, and eventually the sun will come up, bringing what I know will be another day of the walls closing in. Of not eating, or sleeping, or worse yet, living within a body that is not mine. My body has been replaced with something completely alien, which starts in the pit of my stomach and rushes out to my fingers and toes. It makes my thoughts cloudy and the tears come.
“I’m sorry,” I barely manage to say the words. All I do is apologize lately. For what, I can’t even begin to describe.
477, 476, 475 - It’s going to be a long night.