Sometimes something follows you home.
Let me first say something to all of the pregnant, anxious, near-term moms out there who found this post while doom-scrolling. I am alive and my babies are alive. So it’s not really a horror story. More like one of those slow-burn Shirley Jackson stories I wrote about in my last post. Still. Anxious moms-to-be, listen up. You’ll be ok. It could get bumpy and downright weird as you’re about to read, but you’ll be ok. You got this.
I think it’s time to tackle my experience with postpartum anxiety. Postpartum anxiety, or PPA, is a sneaky sonofabitch. Brilliant, really. Mental illness is the only type of illness I can think of that manages to convince the sick person that they are not really sick at all. I’m not aware of many cancer patients or stroke victims that are convinced–truly convinced–that nothing is wrong even as their body is wasting away or their face is drooping on one side. Like I said, it’s a sneaky sonofabitch.
While I don’t think that the birth experience caused my postpartum anxiety, it certainly didn’t set me up for success.
Basically, the story is this: I walked into a routine prenatal check, happy and clueless, until a blood pressure reading imprisoned me for five days. When it was over, I was gone, and a shell of a human with a tiny new human strapped to it took my place for quite a long time.
The first two days of that hospital stay were devoted to trying to get my body to go into labor. 36 hours of trying every painful thing until my daughter showed signs of distress and was delivered by cesarean. I did not sleep more than a cat nap in those 36 hours. So, yeah. Not a great start.
Because of the rough start, I stayed three more days (two nights, I think). I didn’t sleep much then, either. I was in a baby-friendly hospital, so she stayed in the room with me. Or on me. This seems lovely until it isn’t. I needed sleep and recovery but got precious little of that while in the hospital. While I don’t think that’s unusual, it turned out to be the nail in my mental coffin.
Why didn’t I sleep, you ask? Even with an armful of lover-ly drugs being dripped into my exhausted system? Turns out, something else slithered out as I was giving birth to my daughter. Something sinister. It stayed pressed back in the shadows of our fancy maternity suite until it knew I was ready to see it. That sneaky little monster was postpartum anxiety.
So PPA doesn’t have the same gnarly, infanticidal reputation as it’s unruly sibling, postpartum depression. Those with PPA don’t typically have impulses to harm their babies, or even themselves, but it is crippling and mind-melting nonetheless. This article from Scientific American captures it beautifully:
I became terrified that the fever-pitched panic would never abate. Unlike a lot of new moms, I wasn’t obsessing over my daughter’s breathing, her heart rate, whether she would wake from her next nap. But I was convinced that panic had become my new normal, that something had snapped in me and would never unsnap.
Something snapped after about 4 days of sleep that could be counted in minutes. Something snapped after my body kept trying to heal a deep and complex wound while also trying to produce food for another human, even though I gave it little fuel to go on.
PPA had flicked on my fight-or-flight switch, and it jammed. I remember trying to catch a nap in the hospital (on a cushioned bench in my room, for some reason–not even in the bed, which should tell you something) when I started awake after only a few moments with a panic that caused me to sit straight up, lightning fast. The adrenaline was running so high that it took me a while to feel the damage I had done to my incision.
The moment I knew I might actually be in trouble is when I started hearing the machines whisper to me. You know, the machines over in the next room? They started talking to me. I don’t remember what they said, but they were words, and those words were for me. I was sitting in my bed, holding the new kiddo, listening to the nurse and nodding while keeping my husband in my peripheral vision (what if he was telling the machines what to say?), and this thought slammed into my mind so hard that I almost felt it: if you tell them that you can hear the machines talking to you, they won’t let you leave. They’ll take the baby, and you’ll have to stay locked up here with the machines.
Ok, so you know there really weren’t machines in the next room, right? Ok, good. I just had to check.
One of my favorite spooky books of all time is The Shining by the incomparable Stephen King. You know, the novel I read when I was 11? The antagonist of the novel is Jack Torrance. Or protagonist, depending on your interpretation. Come into my class sometime and we’ll hash it out. Anyway, let me tell you about chapter 23. In one quietly horrifying scene, he is stalked by predatory topiaries in the playground he is tasked to maintain. He never actually sees the lion-shaped shrubs move, but he hears them rustle closer when his back is turned. When he looks up again, they are much closer and much more threatening. It is a very eerie scene (made me terrified of the cheerful topiaries outside of the Small World ride at Disneyland for a long time after), and we are left not knowing if it even really happened.
He had a bad scare but it was over now…He felt all right. He saw no need to mention his hallucination. He had a bad scare but it was over now.
Just like I tell my students, when you see repetition like this, it is significant. You know who repeats things to themselves? People who really, really need to believe what is being repeated. Jack was very shaken, but you know what? He knew. He knew he couldn’t tell anyone because they would think he’s losing it and they would look at him differently. He would lose their respect. He would lose their belief that he was capable of taking care of them.
So, he kept his mouth shut.
So, I kept mine shut too.
That was a bad decision. Ok, maybe it was worse for Jack.
We will continue down the haunted, hellish road that was my PPA in later posts. For now, if you are reading this and expecting a baby soon, try to remember that it’s ok to tell someone about the machines. It could save you later.
If you want to read more of my story, subscribe below and check out the links to my social media accounts. I am glad you are here. Until next time, let’s lighten the mood with a little Friends. You know, the one where Joey is afraid of The Shining? Ah, that’s better.