Living with postnatal anxiety

This is a guest post by Tina from Adventures of Mummy and Me. Please check out her blog and follow her on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and/or Pinterest.

It’s 4am, and I’m laying in bed, staring at the ceiling. I’m physically exhausted, my head hurts, and my eyes sting – but I can’t sleep. I haven’t actually been to sleep yet tonight. Or is it this morning now? I don’t even know what day it is anymore.

I’ve just got up for possibly the 4th time in the last hour to check on Chase. Each time I’ve got up, it’s taken me around 6 minutes to walk the three steps back into bed. And now I’m back in bed, I’m worrying again.

Why might you ask? Because I suffer from postnatal depression and anxiety (PND/PNA).

These invisible illnesses make doing even the simplest things, such as checking on my 18-month-old son only a few feet away from me – seem as difficult as climbing Mount Everest.

I want to start out by saying that this has been a really tough post to write. Generally speaking, when I’m writing, the words just flow out of me. But this one post has taken over a month of writing, editing, erasing; then back again full circle. Namely because, if I’m honest, it’s a subject I don’t like to talk about out loud. I guess I have this naive conception that if nobody knows, then it can’t be true. I wish that were the case. When in reality, it’s a fear of perception and acceptance that stops me speaking. So I’ve decided it’s time to open up, and to share my story with you today.

Meeting the midwife

Scroll back to two years ago, and I’m sitting at my dining room table meeting my midwife for the first time.  She’s just finished completing my 16-week pregnancy health assessment, and is giving me “the talk” after the results flag me as high risk for postnatal depression and anxiety.

At the time, I remember thinking to myself: perfect. Once again, another healthcare professional looking at my history of depression and anxiety, and immediately thinking I’m unstable. My “history” spans out over 15 years, and generally speaking, I self-manage my mental health pretty well. But on the few occasions I’ve needed extra help, I’ve asked for it.

Although any new mother can develop postnatal anxiety, it’s been found that those with a personal or family history of either depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are particularly vulnerable. Which is why those with a history, like myself, are flagged up during the pregnancy health assessments as someone to keep an eye on during pregnancy and initial postnatal care.

Giving birth & going back to work 

Following quite a traumatic birth experience, I was surprised to find that I didn’t have any issues bonding with Chase. If anything, the only problem was my lack of mobility due to having an emergency c-section. After about four months, when I was fully mobile again, I started to feel a bit alienated being at home all day alone with my baby. I’ve never been girly, or one to have a lot of female friends, so I found the mum groups I attended overly feminine and cliquey. I realised I was struggling when some of my depression tendencies starting rearing their ugly heads. This prompted a long discussion with my husband, which resulted in me returning to work sooner than planned at six months post-birth.

At first, this all went really well, but after a few months in the office I started to struggle again. Whilst I was on maternity leave, there were some significant changes made within my company. Changes which, in the end, affected both my job role and the way I had been accustomed to working for the past few years. I trudged through for a long time, believing that it was just an adjustment period because I’d been away for so long. What I didn’t realise was that by compartmentalising the stress and anxiety I had at work, I was actually increasing my anxiety levels in other areas of my life. The main one being in relation to Chase.

Noticing a problem 

It was around five months after I went back to work that I realised I wasn’t getting better. If anything, I was getting worse. Chase was coming up to a year old, and I would constantly worry about him at night – getting up multiple times to check on him to ensure he was still breathing. My usual hobbies such as reading and watching films just bored me, and the closest I came to exercise was walking downstairs to the coffee machine and back again. I sought advice from my GP, who referred me to a local counselling service.

Despite numerous prompts from my husband, I had no intention of moving Chase from our bedroom. Everyone I spoke to told me I was being silly – a typical first-time parent overthinking it. But I genuinely felt terrified about his wellbeing if he wasn’t in the same room as me. During the day, when I was occupied with work, and he was with my husband (he’s a SAHP), I was completely fine. However as soon as nighttime came, and it was time for me to relax and sleep, the silence would kill me.

By the time I eventually saw a counsellor, I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Anxiety overdrive 

Every time I get into bed, I have flashes of Chase becoming ill or involved in an accident of some sort. I know now that these thoughts are common concerns that parents have. The only difference being that most parents have these thoughts as a fleeting moment. An errant thought, gone before it can be fully processed. But my over-anxious brain doesn’t work that way. It overcompensates, analyses, and looks for ways to make sense of the flashes. Even when they are, in reality, highly unlikely situations.

It’s then, when my brain can’t put the pieces together of “How?” and “Why”, that it overthinks the situation. And that’s when the thoughts of “Did I put him into that compromising position?” come to play.

Which is crazy. I would NEVER do anything to put my son into harm’s way.

But that’s not how the brain of someone with PND/PNA works.

It actively LOOKS for ways to make sense of the thoughts, and therefore puts the only “logical” response into your head. That you must have done something to cause it. And this feeling opens up a whole can of worms for me. Most notably, I have obsessive-compulsive (OCD) tendencies. Meaning that I have to do specific things, in a specific order – with the fear that if I don’t, something bad will happen.

All time low

That nervous breakdown I mentioned? Yea it happened. But in a way, it was a good thing. It made me realise that in order to get better, I needed to take action, and focus on me and my family.

My GP signed me off work with immediate effect, and my intention was to do my counselling sessions, and spend more time doing everyday things with my family – like going for a walk, playing in the garden, or building bricks in the playroom. This was actually a lot harder than I thought it would be. The colder and wetter weather didn’t help, but the main issue was my sleep. I had insomnia due to the anxiety, and would often have panic attacks in the middle of the night because of the OCD. My GP prescribed sleeping tablets, but unfortunately they didn’t help in sending me to sleep any earlier – they just made me sleep until midday the following day, and then sit on the sofa in a dazed state for the rest of the afternoon.

It took a few weeks being at home to start getting a balance back in my life. To become more involved in day-to-day activities, and to actually WANT to participate in them. After five weeks at home, I opted for a phased return to work. Being honest, I wasn’t completely ready. But with only one income, and minimal savings, that decision was unfortunately taken away from me.

Fighting back 

Now, two weeks into my phased return, I’m starting to feel better. I have good days and bad days. Bad days are still tipping the balance, but nowhere near as much as they were before. I’ve started doing housework again – forcing myself actually. I’ve found this can help manage the OCD better than just ignoring it. Think of it as refocusing the thoughts elsewhere – it does help.

The anxiety is still there. Very much so. But I’m not naive to think that it will disappear as quickly as it came. And I think that’s the difference now. I understand my illness better, and know that it is an illness, and not a fault.

I’m still not sleeping great, but on the upside, I’m not checking on Chase half as much as I did before. And I’m even thinking about the idea of moving him into his own room. Maybe. I have however, cleared his room out so that the idea COULD become reality when I’m ready.

I have a few sessions left with my counsellor, which I’m hoping will help me through the first few weeks of the New Year back at work. Then I guess I’m on my own. Well, not really. I have my happy, loving son and my devoted husband at home to help me through this. And at the end of the day, that’s all that matters.

The Pramshed
Keep Calm and Carry On Linking Sunday
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Why birth plans are a waste of time for first-time mums

Is that a nice controversial blog post title? Well, it got your attention, right? Right. Okay, so birth plans might not be entirely a waste of time. But I think first-time mums in particular should be warned that they very well might be.

You see, when I was pregnant with my first child, nobody told me that a birth plan wasn’t really a plan. It’s more like a sort of wish list. To me the word plan connotes something that I have control over. If I plan to go to work tomorrow, then there is a 99% chance that I’m going to go. There are some conceivable events that could stop me from going, but in all likelihood, it will be purely up to me as to whether I follow through on my plan.

But when it comes to birthing babies, we have very little control as to how things are going to pan out. That is the truth that nobody told little old me. My birth plan was written on my heart. It had the following points:

  • I wanted to deliver at a midwife-led centre instead of in hospital
  • I wanted a water birth with only gas & air for pain relief
  • No induction
  • No epidural
  • No continuous monitoring
  • I was going to have a beautiful, calm, natural birth

I was so certain that these were the things that were needed to help me cope with the delivery. I also thought they were the best and safest options for me and my baby. However, at 10 days overdue I was showing meconium-stained waters with no other signs of going into labour. So this is the birth I got:

  • Birth in hospital instead of the midwife-led centre
  • I didn’t even go anywhere near a water birthing pool
  • I was induced
  • I had an epidural
  • I laid on my back the whole time, being continuously monitored
  • I screamed and cried and swore and was absolutely terrified and NOT CALM the entire time
  • I had an emergency c-section

It was the polar opposite of what I had wanted.

And I was absolutely heartbroken about it. I had spent so much time thinking about how it was all going to go down, and researching what the best things to do were. When I didn’t get to do any of those things, I saw myself as a failure. For me, failing to have the “natural” (read vaginal) birth I’d planned was like failing at something I thought I was born to do. I’d been gallivanting around telling my friends that my body was built to give birth. And it was. Just not the way I had intended.

I just wish that someone – anyone – had taken the pregnant me aside and told me just how unpredictable giving birth can be. And that at the end of the day, all that matters is that you deliver a healthy baby. So if you’re pregnant now or recently gave birth and are feeling disappointed by the experience, here are a few things that I think need to be said:

  • Remember that there is a possibility that all plans, wishes and expectations will go completely out the window on the big day. Accept that and don’t dwell too much on a future you can’t predict.
  • A lot of advice I was given from various sources made me think that I would need to “advocate” for myself during the birth. I would need to keep those doctors and midwives in line by making sure they knew my birthing desires at all times. But when it came down to it, I was too scared and in too much pain to argue about anything. I just did exactly what they told me to. And that was probably the right thing to do, but the earlier advice made me feel as though I’d failed myself by not pushing my agenda.
  • There is no nobility in facing unbearable pain. If you want the drugs, take the drugs! There is nothing to feel guilty or ashamed about if you use every single pain relief method available to you.
  • It doesn’t matter how the baby comes out. You will give birth in the best way you can, be it vaginally, via a caesarean or with other assistance.

So in my humble opinion, the best birth plan is a plan to go with the flow. How can you plan something that is different every time it happens, even for the same person? But if you think it helpful to write down your wishes with regard to your birth – of course go ahead. Just be prepared that when you’re actually in labour, you may want to crumple it up and throw it at someone – probably your partner.

And if, like me, you are unhappy about how your birth went, then talk to someone about it. Many hospitals offer a postnatal debriefing or counselling service where they go through your delivery notes and explain why things happened the way they did. I took advantage of this service myself and it made me feel so much better about my birth. I stopped blaming myself for it not going the way I wanted.

Before I had the counselling, I was afraid to ever give birth again in case it was equally awful. But the counselling showed me that every birth is different. When I did eventually have a second baby, everything went exactly to plan. Because I didn’t have one!

Tammymum
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