Anatomy of an Anxiety Attack

I had an anxiety attack today.  My first in many months.  One of only a few I’ve had since my son was born.

After my daughter’s birth, they were a regular occurrence.  I was treated for postpartum anxiety and depression and felt the walls closing in on me on a regular basis.  It’s not a great feeling.

But this time around, my disposition has been pretty great overall.  No major mood swings or blue spells.  I’ve been optimistic despite our constant financial troubles, and haven’t really let too much get to me.  I’ve been in a good place.

So today came out of left field.  I wasn’t prepared for it and didn’t handle it well.  I ended up on my parents’ doorstep, sobbing hysterically and begging for help with the kids.  The entire time I’d been driving over there, I hadn’t been able to stay on top of my breathing.  It was like being in labor.  That feeling you have when your contractions are overwhelming you and you cannot catch your breath.

My vision kept shifting from clear to tunnel.  My hands and face felt numb.  I kept repeating the same thing over and over again, screaming “What?  What?”  I wasn’t asking anybody a question.  It was just something that came out.  It terrified my poor toddler, and I’m sure the infant was freaked out, too.

Life is just a little overwhelming right now.  We have a lot of big changes going on and I feel as though the weight of it rests entirely on my shoulders.  All of the decisions that have led to this point have been mine.  It was my decision to leave my job; my decision to leave our house so that I could stay at home to raise our children.  I am 99% satisfied with the choices that I’ve made, but that one percent of me tickles my brain from time to time, asking, “Did I really do the right thing?”

Whether or not I did the right thing was the star of today’s anxiety-riddled sideshow.  I was pondering this very question while sitting on a park bench at the playground, my toddler climbing a slide slick with last night’s rainfall nearby.  And, of course, she slipped and fell, hitting her head and screaming in pain for several minutes.

Image

Typically, my daughter is a master of playground equipment. Here she is on a different, sunnier day (in more ways than one) than today.

I knew I shouldn’t have taken her to a wet playground.  I knew better than that.  I should have been wearing the baby in the Ergo so that I could have supervised her more closely with two free hands, ready to help her.  But I wasn’t.  I wasn’t there.  I made a bad decision and it resulted in her getting hurt.

And suddenly, the knot on the back of my little girl’s head was a metaphor for my whole life.  Look at all these bad decisions I make.  Look how I screw everything up. 

The next thing I knew, I was crawling along at 25 mph in a 40 mph zone, terrified of giving the gas pedal any more pressure for fear that we’d veer off the road.  Drivers behind me honked and waved their hands in frustration while my heart raced and my skin went clammy.  There was nothing I could do to stop it.  I had to just let it run its course, run through me, and eventually run out of me.

Why am I sharing this?  Honestly, I don’t really know.  Maybe because writing about it is cathartic for me.  Maybe so that if you, too, suffer from a postpartum mood disorder then you’ll know that you’re not alone.  All I know is that feels good to put it on paper.  And I’m not afraid of it.

I’ve been through this before, and it was a hundred times worse than this the first time.  I know what to do, I know what changes I need to make in my life.  I’ve worked with an immeasurably helpful postpartum therapist in the past and I intend to implement the same measures that worked then, now.  Among these include:

  • Eliminate caffeine.  Caffeine is an upper, and can trigger or aggravate anxiety.
  • Eliminate processed foods and refined sugars.  I try so hard to do this already, but have slipped lately.  It’s an ongoing battle that I don’t think I’ll ever conquer.  But for right now, I know that my body needs more whole foods and less junk.  It always, always, always makes me feel better emotionally to feed myself healthy, nutrient-rich foods.
  • Exercise more.  This almost goes without saying.  Endorphins are mood-busters.  Exercise is nearly always the answer – or part of the answer – to any problem.
  • Supplement with Vitamin B12, Omega-3 Fatty Acids (preferably cod liver oil), and herbal remedies as needed.  Passionflower is great for anxiety, as is skullcap, catnip, and lavender.
  • Get 15 minutes of direct sunlight each day.  This should be no problem if I can get a handle on exercising.
  • Take a break.  Ask for help.  Hand the kids over to the husband or to the grandparents and go into a room, shut the door, and read a book.  Or nap.  Or knit.  Or watch a TV show on Hulu.  You get the idea.  Just take some time away from Motherhood.  It’ll still be there when I get back.

These are the tips that have worked for me in the past, though they might not work for everyone (and they are NOT intended to be medical advice).  Some people may do best with prescription medication, or with meditation.  I know myself Imagepretty well and I know that I suck at meditating and that I can’t tolerate the side effects of pharmaceuticals.  So this is the plan of action I intend to take for me and for my circumstances.

The silver lining about having a postpartum mood disorder the second time around is that you know what to expect, and you know how to treat it.  I’m not suggesting that I have postpartum anxiety again – I suspect that mine is more of a case of situational anxiety due to some of the huge life changes that are happening right now.  But it gives me peace and optimism to have a game plan, to know that I can survive it again if I have to.

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My 2011 Sucked. Or Did It?

There are about 8 hours left in the year 2011 and frankly, I’m not sad to see them – or it – go.

This was a big year for our little family.  In fact, I’d be willing to go on record as naming it the single biggest year (in terms of change) I’ve ever had.  That’s not necessarily a good thing.  Here’s my wrap-up:

  • I fed my child another woman’s breastmilk this year.  After finally coming to terms with my low supply and B’s subsequent poor weight gain, I reached out to Human Milk 4 Human Babies (formerly Eats on Feets) to ask for donations from moms who, unlike me, were blessed with an abundant supply of the good stuff.  I’m grateful for the donor milk – and for the newfound friendship in the woman who shared it – but I could never quite shake the feeling of failure.  This was my tipping point for the peak of my PPD/A.
  • I suffered from acute postpartum depression and anxiety (PPD/A) this year.  Technically, I suffered from it in 2010, too, but 2011 was the year I faced it head-on and got myself into a therapist’s office  to do something about it.  Confronting this truth was painful and ugly and difficult.  And I didn’t make it through the full 52 weeks without smashing a few things and crying myself to sleep on occasion.
  • I quit my job this year.  To be more accurate, I quit the entire professional workforce this year.  After evaluating our life and what we considered to be really important (such as a happy marriage, time with our daughter, my mental and emotional health), my husband and I made a bold decision to let me stay at home to raise our child.  It took many long conversations, debates, late nights, and tears, but Mr. T and I eventually agreed that the best thing for me was to jump ship.  We knew that this decision held unpleasant consequences, but the benefits outweighed the risks as far as we were concerned.  Which leads me to the next highlight of 2011:
  • My husband and I walked away from our underwater mortgage this year.  When we bought our house five years ago, we thought that the market was as low as it could go, and were assured as much by our realtor at the time.  As the months and years ticked by, though, we watched our home’s value drop dramatically, our property taxes increase exponentially, and our hopes of ever selling our “starter home” to move on to bigger and better things crushed under the weight of the botched American dream.  We tried to do the right thing and short sell the property but were hijacked at the last minute by the insurance company who held our Private Mortgage Insurance, AIG.  They demanded $22,000 from us in order to allow the sale to go to closing.  Obviously, for two people who could no longer afford the mortgage in the first place, this was out of the question.  So we’re now in the midst of a fine foreclosure mess.  In the grand scheme of things, it’s a blip on our radar.  I mean, so what?  So we got foreclosed on.  Big deal.  So have tons of other people.  But it’s hard not to feel ashamed sometimes, to wonder if we did the right thing.
  • I peed on a stick in a Kmart bathroom back in June and found out, then and there, that we were pregnant again.  (At the time, our daughter was only 9 months old.)  I cannot begin to describe the whirlwind of emotions that followed that moment but, in brief sum, it looked something like this: terror, shock, elation, worry, excitement, acceptance, fortitude, joy.  And that was all within the first 24 hours of the positive test.

This pregnancy came as a bit of a shock.

  • The joy didn’t last for long.  Before I even had a chance to dig out my old maternity clothes, the rug was pulled out from under us when I started bleeding.  All day.  Every day.  For almost a month.  (Sorry, this next part is going to get a bit TMI-ish.)  I passed huge clots and, each time I did, I was certain they were tiny little embryos or placentas.  I called my midwife nearly every other day, crying and worrying and asking what we could do.  Eventually, I saw a perinatologist who tested my progesterone levels, confirming that they were low and that this was the cause of the heavy bleeding.  Because I was still nursing B at the time, my progesterone levels hadn’t regulated yet and were being suppressed by the nursing.  The doctor put me on progesterone supplements and advised me to stop nursing my daughter.  I was not given great odds that, even with these efforts, the pregnancy would continue.  So I took only half of her advice and continued to nurse B.  I was distraught enough as it was over the idea of miscarrying; I couldn’t then handle the emotions that were sure to come with a weaning process that, quite frankly, neither of us wanted.  So I took a gamble.  Eventually, the bleeding did stop once I’d made it into the safety of the second trimester and the placenta was developed enough to produce progesterone on its own for me.  And I’m still pregnant.  31 weeks today, to be exact.  But damn, that first trimester was a physical/emotional/mental doozy.

So that’s that.  My year, in a nutshell.  Pretty shitty, right?  A breastfeeding failure, a PPD mess of a mother, a job-quitter, a foreclosure statistic, then knocked up again – years before we were ready – only to come this close to suffering a traumatic miscarriage.  Oy.

Except, let’s spin this a bit:

  • Breastfeeding failure?  How about breastfeeding SUCCESS.   I mean hey, I didn’t quit, right?  In fact, I still haven’t.  31 weeks pregnant and am actually nursing Big Sister-to-Be as we speak (er, type).
  • Postpartum depression SURVIVOR.  As in, I’m better.  Happier.  More aware of what to look out for this next time so that I can get treated right away if it shows up again.  That’s a huge advantage to have.
  • Job-quitter, yes.  Also, though, a life-restructurer.   Not long after I quit my job, I dove headfirst into doula training with Birth Arts International.  I’ve already had two birth clients and am eager to take on more once I’ve given myself some maternity leave for O’Baby.
  • Yes, I am a foreclosure statistic.  Again, though, this was part of a restructuring of our entire lives.  The roof over our heads – and whether it was owned or rented – was just one small piece of a much larger puzzle.  I’ve come to terms with this one.  We were proactive about it and made the decision that was best for our family; not the one that was best for the mortgage company.
  • So I almost had a miscarriage.  But I didn’t, did I?  I may not be having the easiest pregnancy in the world (Braxton-Hicks since 20 weeks, daily morning sickness well beyond the first trimester, out-of-control heartburn, insomnia, I could go on and on), but I am, in fact, still pregnant.  And having that too-close-for-comfort brush with the unthinkable made us realize just how badly we really wanted the baby that we didn’t think we wanted.

I suppose putting things into perspective like that makes 2011 look not so bad.  I’m actually pretty grateful for these experiences.  Good ones and bad ones alike; for the former gave us happy memories and the latter, lessons learned.  They’ve each laid the groundwork for a happier, healthier 2012 and beyond.

May your New Year be chock-full of all kinds of experiences.

-Suzanne

Does Staying at Home Give Moms a Case of the Sads?

A study from the December issue of the Journal of Family Psychology was released this week revealing that mothers who work outside of the home are “happier and healthier” than stay-at-home mothers. The study’s authors, Cheryl Buehler and Marion O’Brien from University of North Carolina at Greensboro, suggest that working mothers reported to be in better health and were less likely to report symptoms of depression than their stay-at-home counterparts, potentially because the latter group is more “socially isolated.”

Is she happier than you?

The timing of this report couldn’t have been more perfect for this newbie blogger. For the intents and purposes of Homestead Instead, a discussion about the health and well-being of working versus stay-at-home mothers couldn’t be more relevant… or juicy, for that matter. I’ve been mapping out my argument in my head for this all week.

I relentlessly pored over study after study about the benefits of being a stay-at-home mother and the positive effects it has on children. I bookmarked countless pages and copied and pasted excerpts that would support my “Nuh-uh! Stay-at-home moms are better and you can suck it” rebuttal that I would publish.

And then I deleted all of it.

You see, I have absolutely no desire to dip even a single toe into the Mommy Wars waters. I’ve been on both sides of this tall, divisive fence and can report rather objectively that the grass on each side is the exact same shade of greenish-brown. Neither landscape is perfect. Neither is better, neither is worse. Both are hard as hell and are deserving of the respect, sympathy, and camaraderie of those on the other side.

So here’s the crux of my juicy, relevant blog post on the subject: Let’s do better, get better, and be better. Let’s prove them wrong. I mean, if the alleged experts purport that being an unemployed stay-at-home mom is going to make you depressed and unhealthy, let’s do something about that.  If their suggestion that SAHMs are “socially isolated,” is correct, let’s all open our front doors wide and get ourselves and our kidlets out of the house. If this isn’t something you’re already doing, here are some tips to get started:

  • If you’re a breastfeeding mom, find a La Leche League meeting nearby and drop in to swap stories with some likeminded lactating ladies.
  • Search for a MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) group to join.
  • If fitness is your thing (or if you’re trying to make it become your thing) see if there’s a Stroller Strides meetup near you.
  • Other great places to meet other moms and their respective playdate companions include your local library, public park, city/county rec center, and even local coffee shops and bookstores as they often have singalong or storytime events during the week.

Still stuck in the house? Make the day something that’s fun for you and the kiddo(s) instead of something to be tolerated. There was a notable mood-lifting that happened for both me and my daughter when our days went from playing with the same boring toys over and over, to testing the waters with experiential and sensory play.  Oh, and Pinterest is an excellent place to search for more un-boring ideas for educational play for toddlers.

Personally, this study does not apply to me. Being a stay-at-home mom has been much better for my overall emotional and mental health. While I was financially more comfortable being a full-time working mother and had fewer life stresses in that regard, I was also riddled with anxiety – and a touch of depression – over being away from my daughter all day. I have found more happiness and health outside of the workplace than I did in it, so I suppose I’m an exception to what Buehler and O’Brien are suggesting is the norm. That being said, I can see how easy it is to become stuck in a rut, overwhelmed, feeling a loss of personal identity, or feeling less equal than your partner because you don’t generate income for the family. If any of these fit the bill for you, I would encourage you to talk to your partner, a trusted friend or family member, or seek support from a local parenting group like those I mentioned above.

The UNC Greensboro study isn’t the first to suggest that stay-at-home moms are more depressed than their working counterparts. In fact, it’s been reported that as many as 57% of stay-at-home moms report some symptoms of depression.  I’m a die-hard advocate for maternal health from all angles, including mental and emotional, so please take stock  of where you stand on the happiness spectrum and act accordingly. Motherhood ≠ Martyrdom, so don’t fool yourself into thinking that you should “suck it up” for the kids’ sake, especially since your health is almost as important to their well-being as it is to your own.

Finally, I would be doing a great disservice to my own efforts in reviewing and analyzing this study if I didn’t highlight a few key points that seemed to have gotten lost in the incendiary, Mommy War-declaration headlines that the media reduced its findings to (like this one and this one and this one):

  • The study did not account for the reason(s) behind the unemployed mothers’ status [e.g.: whether it was a conscious choice, a forced choice (perhaps due to unavailable/unaffordable daycare or familial/cultural pressure), or simply due to the unavailability of a job given the status of the economy (including whether or not the mother was terminated or laid off from a previous employer)]. Any of the aforementioned factors could certainly skew the reporting of depressive symptoms, but were not taken into consideration.
  • The mothers who participated in the study each only had one child; none were parents of multiple children.
  • “Working mother” was defined only by quantity of hours worked; it did not take into account professional status, shift work, or job flexibility, any of which could potentially alter the findings if the working mother groups had been isolated to these respective identifiers.
  • The relationship between the mothers’ well-being and their employment status virtually disappeared once the child entered grade school.
  • Couple functioning, or level of intimacy between the mothers and their significant others, was not affected by employment status.

Be well, all,

Suzanne