If someone had told me that one of the most important things I would ever learn after the birth of my son was the difference between anti-depressants, I would have literally thought they were crazy. Now, I was the one struggling to retain my sanity. After getting on hands and knees at my doctor’s office, shaky from not being able to eat or sleep much at all for over a week now, I had in my hand a new prescription to try for what I was praying would be my miracle.
The uncontrollable panic attack that the Zoloft had initiated still hadn’t left me; and I was terrified it never would. Because of that reaction, which had mystified every doctor and pharmacist I had spoken with, I was now officially unable to take any of the class of antidepressants labeled SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. This took Paxil, Prozac, and Lexapro, among others, off the list of potential medications. Since it was agreed upon by everyone involved that I needed some kind of medication to get through this time, my doctor, who had patience I can’t even begin to describe, began doing her research. I would sit on the examining table, wringing hands, crying, while she very calmly looked through her reference lists, making sure that anything I tried would be safe for breastfeeding. Of course, the term “safe for breastfeeding” was becoming in my mind something of a misnomer. I realized early into my many calls to the pediatrician’s lactation consultant, that very few medications or herbal remedies have really been proven safe for breastfeeding mothers. This entire situation fed into my anxiety to a point where I was again online trying to find safe ways to help me sleep. It was getting out of hand, and by the time I was sleeping soundly again, I would have tried nearly a dozen medications and other remedies, with varied success.
“Wellbutrin. Have you heard of that one?” Dr. Lloyd interrupted my latest runaway stream of thoughts with her question. No, I hadn’t, I said.
“Wellbutrin has a different chemical structure from any other antidepressant on the market,” Dr. Lloyd said. “It may work for people who haven’t had success with others.”
That was putting it mildly. It’s different, I thought. Maybe it would work. The side effects of decrease in appetite, dizziness, dryness of mouth, increased sweating, nausea or vomiting, even tremors, all seemed so mild in comparison to my current physical and mental state.
“Let’s do it.” With the knowledge and understanding that I would return to Dr. Lloyd in a week, which in itself was a safety net, I took the prescription, and mom and I left her office, for the third time in less than seven days.
On the way home from the doctor, I called my friend Megan. We had known each other for years, and spent many weekends going to see music, and having a great time. Megan had given birth to a beautiful baby girl just two months before I had Bryce. She was doing great, legitimately. I wanted to hear her voice; to remind me of my life before all of this madness. She also had no idea what I was going through, but I knew she was on summer vacation from teaching, so I made the call while mom drove me to the pharmacy for what would end up being one of our many trips there to try different medications. Today though, I felt a ray of hope through the weight of this dreadful, disturbed place.
“Megan. Hi, it’s Amanda.”
“Amanda, how are you? How’s Bryce? Matt said he was so happy to meet him when he was in town last week.”
Oh, right. I had almost forgotten. Megan’s husband, who runs sound for a band I actually used to work for, had been in town recently for a concert. He and our good friend Kyle, who also works for the band, had wanted to get together. I couldn’t get out of bed that day, so Chris got Bryce in the car and met them at their hotel. They came back to the house, and I managed to make it downstairs for a few minutes. I don’t remember what we talked about, other than how Megan and Matt’s daughter was sleeping through the night at only a few weeks old. I wouldn’t know that joy for months, but was happy for them. I remember thinking that if things were different, we’d be going out to eat or for a walk, and I would be so proudly showing off Bryce, that gurgling, chubby-cheeked masterpiece that he was. Instead, I fumbled down the stairs, a shell, barely able to respond to conversations, and wanting to scream out, “Hey! Things are not OK. Can you please save Chris, and take him with you when you leave?”
Chris was a trooper, though. He must have been so happy to see old friends, and spend some time with them. When I went upstairs, I could hear them laughing, and telling stories. Late night stores. Wedding stories. Those were my stories, too, but I wasn’t sharing in the moment. I couldn’t do it. So I went upstairs. I missed the concert, of course. I was so happy for Chris to go, and reacquaint himself with society, but I was also so jealous, and so frustrated. Here I was, with mom downstairs taking care of Bryce, and I once again, a prisoner in my bedroom. We had only lived in that house for a few months, and I worried I would never want to spend time there. I started plotting for a way to sell the house and buy a new one, free of these horrible memories, and then shocked, remembered that it was only a month or so ago that we had walked with Bryce into this house, floating on the wave of happiness of being a family. How had things changed so quickly to the point that if I could have managed, we’d be living somewhere else tomorrow?
Bringing myself back to my phone call with Megan, I answered her in a way that was quickly becoming my postpartum trademark: Brutal honesty. As always, I broke down and cried. I told her I was having troubles, and was really hoping my doctor could help me. And, as usual, my kind and caring friends tried to respond in a way that was helpful. I could hear it though - the shock. I realize now how difficult it is to catch someone off guard with such raw emotion, but at the time, I was an exposed nerve. Everything was wide open, and there was no way for me to find the words to cushion the blow. So, for those who had the pleasure of taking my calls, or texts, or Facebook messages, they got the real me. What continues to amaze me today is how responsive and understanding people were, even if they couldn’t relate. No one respects me less, or sees me as a person unable of coping. In my nighttime prayers of gratitude, which I instituted once I was able to get my anxiety under control a bit better, I constantly thank the powers that be for friends who didn’t run away.
I could hear in her voice how scared I was making Megan, but I couldn’t stop talking. Fortunately for us both, I am sure, my mom pulled into our local CVS, and it was time to pick up the prescription that would help signal a new phase for me: Healing. It would take months still, but that day, I let all the consuming anxiety live within me. I accepted it; maybe this new medication would cause another panic attack, in which case I was sure I would require hospitalization. Maybe it would do nothing, and I would continue to spend my days trembling and scared. Or, maybe it would help me. I knew the numbers. Up to nine weeks. Nine weeks until the medicine works with my brain chemistry to rewire me so I can breathe again. It was torture to think about it, and I had a feeling that I would need all of that time to get back on my feet. I was right; this was just the beginning of a long road ahead. I would eventually get back to what I considered a new normal, and after some time, feel better about myself than ever before. For the moment, I didn’t know any of that. I just prayed that the newest little bottle with the child-proof cap would do its job.
One of the hardest things about my postpartum experience was the fact that in the early days, I would have moments where I felt like myself. These glimpses into normalcy would come about unannounced, and for a brief time I would feel free of the oppressive weight and pincer grasp of anxiety that shrouded me at other times. I could sleep for a few minutes. Or feel like eating something. When this happened, I would almost cry with relief, but then just as quickly, I could literally feel my mind closing in, and the tingling in my fingers and feet would begin, as well as the ever-present queasiness that made it so difficult to eat or just “be.” I never self-identified as depressed, but found after a week of this that I was sinking into a depressive state. I had no answers, and no relief. On a day when I had to get myself back to the doctor again, I found myself laying on the couch as Chris and Bryce played on a blanket just a few feet away on the floor.
“I just want to do that,” I sobbed, through tears of exhaustion. “Why can’t I just do that?”
“Do what?” Chris still wasn’t sure what to call this new me, or identify what was happening. We hadn’t gotten an official diagnosis, so at this point, we were wading in a no-mans’ land, just making it day to day.
“I just want to be with you and Bryce. Sit there. Lay there with you both. I can’t even do that. I can’t do anything.” It was true. I was listless. Held back from even the simplest things, I would remember these words during a sunny winter’s afternoon about 8 months later, when Bryce and I spent two hours practicing his crawling skills. Looking back, I realized that I wouldn’t take anything for granted again. But in that moment, I could not conceive of a time when I would ever be relaxed again, enjoying life as it comes. It wasn’t in my grasp.
That day, in Dr. Lloyd’s office, I took the Edinburgh Scale. It showed a moderate level of depression. I was again shocked, as I had always held on to the idea that I wasn’t depressed, I was just anxious. It was another moment of revelation that challenged the very core of my identity. Almost swollen from crying, Dr. Lloyd and I devised a plan. We would try a new antidepressant, but that choice wasn’t an easy one. Because of my very unusually destructive reaction to the Zoloft, we felt all medications in the same class were off the table. I was also still managing to breastfeed, and that took a few others away as possibilities. We settled on Wellbutrin as the new medication, and I very hesitantly agreed to begin taking it immediately. I was so scared; what if I had another reaction like the one that had sent me into a blind panic I still hadn’t fully recovered from? What is something else happened I couldn’t even imagine? I had a day or two of Internet-searching “relapse” I will admit, but I felt so out of control, I had to know what could happen to me on this medication. Fortunately, while I didn’t feel one iota better that night, at least I could tell it wouldn’t poke another hole into my damaged psyche. I wasn’t willing to live without, and really, what choice did I have?
As my mother and I left Dr. Lloyd’s office, I saw several other people in her waiting room look my way. What must they think of me, I wondered? I have never judged another soul in a waiting room or hospital since those days; I understood for the first time just how hard it can be to put one foot in front of the other. We walked across the parking lot to Harris Teeter so I could buy some Ensure, a recommendation from Dr. Lloyd since it was now over a week since I had eaten much of anything. I wandered around the store like it was the first time I had ever been in public. Everything was too bright and too loud. I wasn’t ready to be there, and even though it felt like prison, home was my prison, and I couldn’t wait to be there. I had a ray of hope; maybe this medicine would be saving grace, and eventually, (and in part), it was.
June 24, 2012 -
I couldn’t believe that I was now in this position; unable to eat, sleep, drive, or hold my own baby without a concerted effort. Getting on the floor for tummy time was impossible; I felt invisible strings tying me back to the couch, my bed, anywhere but where I wanted to be. Everything inside was squirming and if I could have shed my own skin and found a new one, I would have, gladly. I ached to return to the person I had been only a week before, when I was tired and sore, but comfortable within my own body, in control of my mind and my emotions.
Mom came to take me to the doctor today. I sat at Starbucks with her before the appointment; sobbing, not even caring that people saw me and definitely unable to stop asking her to tell me why this was happening? What was happening to me? Between the blur of my tears through sunglasses, I could see people looking; it’s not every day a youngish woman breaks down in front of her herbal tea for all the world to see. It didn’t even matter. In 30 minutes I’d be standing in front of Dr. Lloyd, begging her to help me, make me better. I would do anything I said, just please fix me. I had gone from the ultimate heights of wonder at the beauty of my childbirth experience to something so low I couldn’t describe it to anyone. I was just...existing.
How did I get here?
The path to all-encompassing anxiety was for me, brief and intense. Just like a flash flood, the overwhelming sense of fear and dread that I was dealing with constantly came upon me without much warning, and without time to prepare. I was helpless in its wake. I couldn’t help thinking about the contrast to just a week ago, on my birthday (and Chris’s first Father’s Day), when things were still OK.
I was upstairs feeding Bryce. We loved this time; it was the most amazing I had ever felt about my body and what I could do with it, and I was in heaven. Bryce had latched in the hospital like he’d been through in-utero training on how to get it right, and we never looked back. Even the lactation nurses at the hospital, who have a reputation as sometimes been a little dictatorial about feeding techniques, didn’t have much to say when they walked into our room and I proudly showed them my careful notes on how often Bryce was eating. I knew how hard breastfeeding could be, and was grateful every time he settled in, when I could take the time to look at this perfect, beautiful boy that I had been given, gifted. He was a healthy, happy, chubby vision of love, and all the things that a baby should be.
Even my labor and delivery were, in my opinion and memory, a dream. I couldn’t believe that I had delivered this child through my own deep breathes and pushes from a place within myself that I didn’t know existed. Chris had told me that watching me push for those two hours, he saw a strength in me that surprised him. It was incredible to know what I was capable of, and so far, we had been doing great at home. We had a good routine, and Chris had even gone back to school for his last week of teaching while I stayed home. I knew I probably wasn’t eating enough, but I figured that I was busy trying to manage a newborn. Didn’t everyone struggle to get all those calories in each day? And occasionally in a quiet moment I had flashes of a hot white shot of adrenaline for no particular reason. Now I know it may have been anxiety, but I excused it and went about my business. I had so much to be thankful for; of course there would be a few things to iron out in time. All in all, life was great.
We had a good crowd over that day, at our new house. I’m still thankful we had that one day, when I was comfortable to just be in a room with other people, holding Bryce, and laughing. When I could go upstairs and sleep for a bit, soundly. I held onto that 32nd birthday for months to come as proof that I could be OK. I didn’t know that only a few days later, my world would crash down around me like a burning building, and that strength would evaporate, leaving me scared and unable to do the most basic things alone.
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.