June 20-27, 2012
In the days that followed my 24-hour long panic attack and slide into a state of anxiety that left me completely debilitated, I developed what could only be described as the ultimate case of verbal diarrhea. I had a desperate need to talk to anyone and everyone, which still surprises me, even years later. It was, I now realize, the only way I felt I could get better; if I told everyone what was happening to me, maybe someone would have the answers, the magic serum, to fix me, because I was unraveling by the minute. I had to have that answer, and I would do anything to fix myself. I am glad I didn’t have a looking glass into the future, because even though I would emerge from this horrific time stronger and a much better person for it, it would be several months until I could say I felt “right” again.
After being assured by several doctors and our local pharmacist that the small dosage of Zoloft I had taken should be out of my system within 48 hours at the most, the end of June 2012 was the darkest time I have ever known. This includes the year or two following my parents’ divorce, when my already absentee father literally walked out the door the summer I turned 12, and never looked back. I could rationalize the benefits of him leaving because he had never been a part of my life anyway, and I didn’t like being with him. Even during my black crushed velvet and Doc Maarten-wearing days, I don’t recall ever questioning my will to live or my sanity, although my mother may tell you differently; she still refers to Trent Reznor’s gigantic poster which hung above my bed as the “Nine Inch Nose.” Until I was able to find the right medication and feel it working; I had no hope for the future, or my abilities as a mother. I started having intrusive thoughts, which sent me scurrying upstairs like a tortured soul heading for the heavens. I had nowhere to go, and nothing but time.
Time. The one thing the universe loves holding over my head. I find in my life that when I need it most, time gets snatched out of my grasp. In these days, I had a surplus, and it was terrible I couldn’t bottle it up for later. It was almost as if time was a curtain, and each day, I had to decide whether to pull back that curtain of time and continue fighting for air, fighting to find some shred of light when everything else was sharply defined within the context of survival. Curtain after curtain piled up each day, making it harder for me to find any sunlight, any hope.
I had so much help at home that I was able to feed Bryce, and head upstairs for the kind of rest most new mothers (or all mothers, for that matter) could only dream about, but it only made me feel more alone and lost. I would lie in bed, tossing, turning, thinking, absolutely terrified of my thoughts. Completely exhausted, yet unable to rest in any capacity of the word, I would stay as long as I could, and often picked up the phone or texted someone. I remember how much I learned about people during that time; I found out that the people in my life were so willing to share things with me as I opened up to them. I’m sure it was a little odd to hear from me in those days; I cried through most conversations. What do you say, other than, I’m so sorry? And even though out of everyone I came in contact with there was really only one person who could personally relate, that was OK. I had to surround myself with people so I could prove I wasn’t a complete societal outcast. In the process, I learned that one of my friends has struggled with anxiety for many years. Another told me that she had phantom cries so badly that shopping trips to Target became almost unbearable soon after the birth of her first son. Everyone I called wanted to make things better. That was most horrible part for me; none of them could help.
Thankfully by this point I had been made aware of an insidious obsession with Internet research that had begun right after Bryce was born. I had joined an online baby blog for May 2012 babies, and at first it was a great place to connect with other moms. I began visiting the blog all the time; especially during late night feedings when I would perch my Nook on my lap while Bryce ate. Since reading has always been one of my favorite pastimes, I didn’t think anything of this new behavior, which quickly turned into very careful and deliberate searches for information. How much tummy time was enough? Exactly how much should DS (Internet-speak for darling son) be sleeping, and should we be making sure we put him in his Rock and Play sleepy, drowsy, or soporific? I couldn’t get enough information, and one link turned into another, until my eyes were so cloudy from staring at the screen that they ached.
I had found myself searching out the most obscure questions, things that I shouldn’t have been concerned about, and after I had my panic attack, I began to read everything I could about antidepressants. I knew there was something out there that could help me, so if I just spent enough time looking, I would find that pot of gold. Instead, I found websites that scared me, that provided nothing close to scientific or medical findings, just the rantings and ravings of people who were also hoping for answers to the mysteries of life. It was obsessive behavior, and thankfully Chris and my mom were there to recognize it. I realized that I was dragging myself deeper and deeper into my own fears, and somehow was able to stop. At least I had that going for me, because otherwise, I spent far too much of my time staring out the windows of our bedroom, thinking it was a shame that we had just moved into this beautiful house a few months ago, because I hated living there, and I was sure I always would. When I was with Bryce, I ached to be away from him because I was convinced he knew how weak I was, but when I wasn’t with him, my arms felt empty and I cried more than I knew was possible for everything I wanted but couldn’t have.
“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
I first noticed something was wrong when I got into bed. Yes, we were in bed at 8 p.m., but that wasn’t totally unusual for those days, or even now if I’m going to be honest. I felt the room spin a bit, and then my stomach started to heave. The dizziness was palpable even when lying down, and all of a sudden my heart started to race.
“I think I have to call the doctor.” I could see Chris look up from his side of the bed.
“I don’t know. I think I’m having a reaction to the medicine.” I got out of bed and went downstairs. Maybe some water would help.
After leaving a message for the doctor on call that night, I tried to calm down, but just couldn’t sit still. I thought I would throw up, but it never happened. After what felt like hours, I got a call from the doctor who had delivered Bryce.
“Hi, yes, something is wrong. I took 10 mg of Zoloft around 6 p.m., and I am feeling strange.” Please just tell me this is normal, that it will go away.
“Yes, that can happen often within the first few days of taking the medication. It will go away.” Dr. Cook was so confident, I had to believe this was true, even though I had never had a reaction to any medicine before like this. I hadn’t even had morning sickness when I was pregnant, and I always joked about my iron stomach, capable of handling all manner of foods and spice levels. This was unfamiliar territory.
“Ok, so how long will I feel like this?”
“The dizziness may last for a few days, but it will go away. Continue taking the medication; it’s important that your body gets a consistent dosage.”
Funny, my first instinct even then was to throw it all away. But, OK. Trust her, Amanda, I told myself.
“Thanks, Dr. Cook. I will.”
“Good luck, call us if you need anything.”
And the line went dead. I went back upstairs and got into bed. I’ll just ride this out. I had no idea what the potential side effects could be before I took the medicine, but I would have still taken it, I was sure. It’s important.
Fast forward to 1 a.m. I was able to sleep for a few hours, but I woke up again, Bryce snoozing in his Rock and Play next to me, with chest pains. I couldn’t breathe. My heart was racing, and I wanted to reach in and pull it out, Indiana Jones-style. This was not good.
“Chris,” I whispered, not wanting to wake up Bryce. “Something is wrong. Really, really wrong.”
We crept outside our bedroom to the hallway so we could talk. After a few minutes, I raced back to get my phone and called the number for the doctor on call again. I paced, with Chris upstairs, completely unaware that my body was having a reaction to the Zoloft that would catapult me into a significant state of anxiety. All I knew at that time is that I expected Dr. Cook to help me. And soon.
“Yes, hi Dr. Cook. I know we just talked a little while ago, but my symptoms are getting worse. I am having some trouble breathing normally, and I feel very anxious all of a sudden. I am dizzy and I feel like I can’t focus.”
What happened next was crushing. I will never forget it. There was nothing that could be done, and I was told that I must be experiencing a significant and very unusual reaction to the Zoloft. I was ready to get my stomach pumped, thinking that would help, but no, this was different. This was my brain malfunctioning, and a stomach pump wouldn’t help. I had to ride it out, this panic attack that was getting worse by the minute. It would end, but until then the only thing to do was stay home and stay calm.
“Please. Please there must be something. I need to go to the emergency room. I think I am having a heart attack,” I was on the verge of sounding pathetic.
“I’m sorry, but you just need more time.” I could tell my call from the dispatcher had woken up Dr. Cook, and she sounded exhausted. I knew she had a little boy at home, too. In my mind, though, I was irate. How dare she go back to bed and tell me to relax, leaving me like this? I was almost clawing at the couch trying to jump out of this new feeling. It was like a hole had been opened in my brain and I was leaking out all of my normalcy. All I was left with was a little voice telling me that something was wrong, something was wrong. Now confirmed, something was wrong, with no way out.
In the interim, Chris had called my mom, who lived on the same street. I thought I had heard him talking upstairs, but my ability to focus was so turned inward (where it would stay for many weeks), that I had no idea what he was doing. Talk about good fortune, though; who ever thought our small family from New Jersey would end up reuniting in North Carolina, with some of us on the same street? It was the first of several miracles that saved us. She was there in ten minutes and quickly surveyed the scene.
It’s now 2 a.m. and Bryce needs to eat. Chris brings him to me on the couch downstairs. That couch, the witness of surprise parties, get togethers for our favorite tv shows, and my only comfort when I was on bed rest, now witnessed another set of memories being made. Me, in the corner, huddled over my baby, feeding him and it’s me crying. Scared is not the word. I am ready to jump out the window. The night is long, longer than any so far. I am breathing, trying to remember my labor breaths, thinking that may help, but nothing helps. Chris and my mom look at me, reassuring, but clearly they know that something big is happening. Someone takes Bryce when he’s done, and Chris goes upstairs while my mom sits with me. The tv is on, but I don’t even register what show is on, or who is talking.
“Mom, what is happening? I can’t breathe.”
“I don’t know, honey. You’re having a bad reaction. It will go away soon.” She takes my hand. It does help, and God, I hope she’s right.
I look out the window. It is so dark, like what I imagine is now inside me. The worst of all thoughts of fear and panic have officially taken hold, and won’t start letting go for almost a week, even though I am assured countless times that the half life of the dosage I took should wear off within 48 hours. It doesn’t. Maybe this would have happened regardless of whether or not I took the Zoloft. Maybe I was destined for this descent. But I will never stop wondering if I did this to myself, and everyone around me, out of a well-intentioned desire to make things better. What if I had just waited? Or never gone to the doctor in the first place? I was consumed with many feelings at that time, and guilt was one of them.
In the end it didn’t matter because for the next two and a half months, I lived in a space created by that night, and those terrible moments when I felt so alone and out of control. By the next morning, with panic still raging through my entire body, I was convinced I would feel this way forever, and had mentally signed the papers so that Chris could legally put me away somewhere. Only two days ago, I had been on top of the world. Now, my birthday was a distant memory, and I was weak, helpless, and completely shattered.
The day started out like many during those first few weeks after Bryce was born. I got up early, fed him, did a little tummy time on the floor in his room, and watched some Bravo while he napped. I was officially on summer vacation from my teaching job at that time, and was also getting ready to start a PhD program in August, so I was really enjoying the quiet before I went back to work and school.
The day before I had seen my OB-GYN about some twinges of apprehension I had been noticing throughout the day. At certain moments I would get a sense of impending doom in my stomach, kind of like the butterflies someone feels right before the big drop on a roller coaster ride. I also had what I would in the future refer to as “fuzzy moments” when I would be unfocused and feel a little discombobulated. I decided that it would be good to call someone about it, and had made an appointment with my gynecologist. Why wait, I thought, surely they would just tell me it was motherhood and hormones adjusting. Things had been so good since Bryce was born 3 weeks ago, I knew I was OK.
At the doctor’s office, I waited, remembering all of the visits I had when I was pregnant, and before, when I was trying to get pregnant and not having success. The ultrasounds, when we saw him for the first time at 8 weeks, and then weekly when my fibroids got so big they started contractions. Even through that pain, I was always so excited to see Brye on the big screen, and get reassurance that I was OK. I was hoping for reassurance that day, but of a different kind.
I ended up seeing the same doctor for that appointment who had called personally to congratulate me when I found out I was pregnant. Dr. O’Connor was feisty, a mother of four, and told it straight. I loved her. She listened to my very vague explanation of why I didn’t feel quite right, and gave me a prescription for Zoloft, along with contact information for the local postpartum support group and a recommendation to call a therapist if needed. I was a little surprised because I hadn’t considered any of my sporadic “flashes” of trepidation to be anything more than my body re-aligning internally. Still, I listened. I trusted these doctors, so I took the prescription, filled it, and made an appointment for the next day with Pamela, a local therapist I had seen a few times. I never really intended to use the Zoloft, but I wasn’t against it, either. Today was the big day - my first car trip with Bryce of over a mile or two.
There is a sweet picture from the early afternoon of the 19th, of Bryce in his car seat. I was triumphant because I had managed to get him and myself to North Raleigh to see Pamela all by myself. The picture is the last time I remember before everything changed. It defines the line between who I was, and who I would become a few short hours later, when nothing was the same.
Pamela is a kind, patient person who has had her own share of personal challenges. She knew me well enough, I thought, to provide help and I really enjoyed talking to her that day while I fed Bryce. At the end of our time together, she suggested that I try the Zoloft, at a smaller dosage, to “take the edge off” what may be baby blues, and help regulate how I was feeling. I had never taken anti-depressants before, but knew I could cut the pill in half, so I decided that when I got home, I would start.
No one other than Chris and my mother knew about any of these appointments because I honestly hadn’t thought that anything was wrong. I was happy when I got home. It was a great day, and I felt like I was doing everything I could to prevent future issues with postpartum depression. True to my nature, I was taking care of things. I was being proactive, and isn’t that what everyone is supposed to do with their health?
After dinner, and a great phone conversation with my friend Ellen from college, I cut one of the Zoloft pills in half and took it. I went about my evening as normal, until 8 p.m.