In the Shadow of Silence: Postpartum Anxiety
Words by Selena May
I wake to the sound of my own screaming.
I am gasping for air. Desperately searching, my hands move quickly, fumbling through the sheets. There is a hollow feeling in my chest, a sinking in the pit of my stomach. Hot tears are streaming down my face, the bitter taste of salt. Panicked pleas for help ring in my ears: it is my own voice, though it sounds frightened, foreign. I believe my son is here in my bed: I must still be breastfeeding, I must have rolled over on him. I frantically search for his lifeless body. I imagine blue limp skin.
A night terror.
Within seconds my husband rolls over and holds up the baby monitor. He speaks in a calm, loud voice: "He is safe in his crib. You're dreaming". He repeats himself. Twice. Three times. His hand is soft on my shoulder. I tell him he is wrong.
Then, I believe him. Relief washes over me, a release of the tension, a calming of the panic. My screams turn to soft cries as I try to find the air. My sobs are muffled against my tear-soaked pillow. I want to hide. I want to escape. My husband is running his fingers through my hair, kissing my forehead, whispering assurances in my ear.
I am so stupid.
This is our nightly routine.
The next morning
I am standing in front of the dishwasher, unloading the dishes. My one month-old baby is flat on his back, asleep in the pack-n-play. I watch his chest rise and fall with breath. I stare. I need to see that he's breathing, need to see that he's not turning blue.
I am picking up pieces of silverware, carefully placing each one in its proper place. As my fingers twist around a knife, I imagine losing my grip. I imagine the knife flying across the room. I imagine my son screaming, bleeding, hurt. My stomach drops. I can't breathe. Thoughts are flooding my head. I can't find the air.
That's when I realize it: something is wrong.
Although there's a part of me that knows my baby is safe and the knife will not slip, I truly believe it will happen. My shallow breath and rising pulse are proof of my panic.
Although there's a part of me that knows random tragedy is unlikely, I believe it is inevitable, I am somehow prone to chaos. I can't think of the future without the worst-case scenarios flooding my mind, drowning my hope.
Although there's a part of me that knows I'm doing the best I can to take care of my son, I believe I am incompetent and unable to handle being a mother, unable to adequately care for this precious gift. I never knew I could love someone this much. All I can think about is losing him.
As I am standing in front of the dishwasher, I realize it: Something is wrong. Something has been wrong for weeks. I have heard of postpartum depression before, but I know I'm not depressed.
I am anxious. Each time I lay my son in his crib, I imagine it might be the last time I see him. I imagine finding him dead from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. I try to memorize the curve of his cheeks, the scent of his hair. I count down the days till he turns 6 months old and the likelihood of SIDS drops.
I am anxious, too afraid to leave the house. If my son is with me I am convinced I will get into a car accident, or that he will randomly stop breathing in his car seat. The idea of leaving him home with someone else is almost unfathomable. I know I must be with him, I must watch him to make sure he is breathing. We stay home. I take his temperature obsessively. I google search constantly.
I am anxious, even in my sleep. Every night I wake up several times with night terrors, imagining him dead.
I am anxious, constantly on edge. When he cries I feel frantic. I feel like I am failing. His cries are confirmation that I have no idea what I'm doing as a mother.
This is not normal. This is not healthy. I need help.
Wax paper crinkles beneath me as I shift my weight. My eyes are focused on the closed door in front of me, waiting for it to open. I rehearse the lines in my head, willing them to come out when it is time. Anxiety. Panic attacks. Night terrors. My toes are tapping, fingers running through my hair, nervous energy coming out.
I am ashamed. Ashamed that I feel anything but overjoyed. Ashamed that I can't seem to control my thoughts.
My doctor enters the room. I tell her everything.
Shame can only survive in the shadow of silence.
Her big brown eyes stare into mine as she listens. She tells me I am not alone. Postpartum anxiety is an experience I share with many women. She tells me she believes life can be better. I don't have to live like this. I am worthy of help. She tells me speaking up and asking for help is a way of loving my baby. She tells me I am a good mom.
I believe her.
For the first time in several weeks, I am able to imagine something different. I imagine motherhood with my anxiety managed. I imagine getting the support I need. I imagine hope instead of despair, speaking out instead of suffering in silence.
Selena lives just outside of Portland, Oregon with her husband Andrew and their adorable sons Elliot and Jude. She enjoys reading overdramatic teen novels, knitting cozy infinity scarfs, and drinking massive amounts of coffee. Her writing has been featured on Coffee + Crumbs, Parent Co, The Mighty, and Upwrite Magazine. Selena writes about motherhood, healing, and hope at selenamay.weebly.com.