Saturday, June 9, 2012

Putting Out The Fire

I haven't struggled with postpartum depression in over 20 months.  But hey... who's counting? :) What I do still struggle with is panic attacks.  The only way I can think to distinguish between the two is like this:  postpartum depression was a fire that lit immediately after I gave birth to my daughter and continued to burn out of control until I took control.

Panic attacks come upon me like the leftover burning embers from the fire that was once postpartum depression.  These burning embers flake from the died down fire and come upon me at inopportune times during life. Over the past year or two, I've learned to recognize signs and signals that tell me I am close to having one.  My husband and I have (finally!) nailed down caffeine as a significant catalyst for my attacks.  Which is frustrating on so many levels- the most frustrating being that after Mack was born, my sleep deprived self was inhaling regular coffee by the pound.  Had I known three years ago that my anxiety was being severely heightened by caffeine, it would have been cut from my diet immediately.

I can tell when an attack is coming on because my pulse begins to race.  My concentration falters and I often find myself pacing our house and ringing my hands.  Things that wouldn't usually bother me (like extra loud noises or the sound of my little girl whining about something trivial) suddenly become things that set me on edge.  My mind becomes a mess of anxiety, overcome with insecurities and accusations that remind me of my past.

Sometimes I can defend against these attacks and strong arm them.  Other times, I lose myself to them, and I find myself an inconsolable, blubbering mess, unable to rationalize against the malicious thoughts that have invaded my reality.  As much as I am grateful to be beyond the dark cloud of PPD, these panic attacks do make me feel like a freak. I've had them in the middle of a Subway sandwich shop, in the bathroom stall of a church, and recently at a friend's wedding.  And it's hard.  Hard to know that people have seen you at your worst.  Hard to know that you have made a fool of yourself in a public setting and have given others the chance to judge as though you can't handle life.  It's hard to realize that sometimes you really can't handle life like you want to.

Katherine Stone, the founder of the incredible site Postpartum Progress, describes her own experience with a perinatal mood disorder.  She writes, "Before, back then, I believed the real me was the person full of anxiety.  The person who was and would always be ill.  The person who was not and would never be fierce.  I was never going to be loved by my children and would never be a good mom.  I believed those things."

And sadly, I did too.

After Mack was born, and the "baby blues" didn't end within the first few weeks, I convinced myself that I was meant to live like that.  I thought that part of having a child, was dying to myself and learning to cope and complacently live like that.  I know, it sounds absolutely pathetic.  And yet, this is what I actually believed.  I wish more than anything that I could go back to my (then) self and shake the living daylights out of whoever that girl was.  I wish I could tell her to relax and let the baby cry sometimes.  To tell her everything would be okay and that life would become filled with more joy than she could have ever dreamed of.

I guess the biggest difference between my experience with my (then) postpartum depression and my (now) panic attacks, is what I truly believe about myself when all is said and done. When I've finally silenced the overwhelming voices in my head and the shaking of my body has calmed.  What do I really and truly believe about myself as a mother?  What do my daughter and husband see when they look at me?  What do I believe now that I didn't and couldn't believe back then?

I cried the other day, as I read Katherine Stone's experience of returning to reality after one of her panic attacks.  She writes, "Now, I am awaiting the moment when I go back to feeling like the real me.  It might be later today.  If not, it will most certainly be tomorrow.  I'll go back to feeling strong and fierce and as though the ground I'm standing on is not buckling.  This, right now, is not me.  This thing is the thing that tries to deter me.  I will allow it a few minutes to do that, but then I will go back to me.  I am a good mother."

I cried, because I resonate so strongly with every word that she wrote.  This person who is still overcome by occasional bouts of panic--this woman is not me.  It is not who I am.  It is not who I will ever be.  Those fears of being a bad mother, they are gone.  The feelings of being crushed by the weight and responsibilities of motherhood?  They don't suffocate me anymore. And even in the midst of my occasional panic attacks, I now know and believe these in the deepest parts of my heart:

I am an excellent mother. 
In this place and time, I am meant to be a mother.
I bring joy to my daughter and my husband each day.
I am strong and resilient.
I am brave. 
On my most difficult days, I will survive.
Anxiety does not control me.  
Fear does cripple me.
I know how to love. 
I know how to be loved. 
I do both well.
I am an excellent mother.

"She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future." Proverbs 31:25

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