by Tina, a mom in Illinois
That was the horrible thought that I repeated to myself over and over again when I was first struck with the fear that I would hurt my daughter 36 hours after she was born. After working as licensed counselor specializing in psychiatric crisis assessment for the last 10 years, it never occurred to me that I might be the one in need of help. The beginning of my story goes something like this:
Around 11 pm that night, the nurse brought Alyssa in for a feeding. I fed her until she fell asleep, then set her down on the bed and watched her for a while. Suddenly, out of nowhere, I was seized with the fear that I would pick her up and throw her against the wall. I could imagine myself doing just that, and the fear that overcame me was a physical presence in the room. I felt what I can only describe as a hot flash (not that I have ever had one), and my heart started pounding in my chest. The fear seemed to move down my arms to my hands, and they started to twitch. I took this to be a sign that I was going to make a move to pick her up, and I quickly jumped off the bed and backed away from her as fast as possible. As quickly as the fear came, it disappeared, and I was left shaking and weak. I quickly swaddled Alyssa the best I could and called for the nurse to take her back to the nursery.
Once she was gone, the horrible thought that I would throw her against the wall returned. For the next few hours, this thought returned over and over. It was like swimming against the current. One minute I would be drowning in fear, unable to breathe, and the next I was calmly telling myself that I was being ridiculous and all I needed was to get some sleep. I cried a lot that night as I battled my overwhelming anxiety. When I was overcome by the fear, I wanted to reach out the night nurse and tell her what I was feeling. Every time I was about to do that, I was then seized by the fear that I would be hospitalized and Alyssa would be taken away from me. I sobbed as I played out the scenario in my mind of what this horror would do to Nick and how my life would be over. A large part of my job as a therapist is to evaluate people for psychiatric hospitalization. The belief that I was now someone that needed to be evaluated because I was a danger to my baby was too much to take. I vowed that I would do whatever it took to hide this fear from everyone and make sure Alyssa was safe no matter the cost to me.
I finally fell asleep sometime after 3 am and slept until about 6. Looking back, they must have brought Alyssa in for a feeding again that night, but I can’t remember that. When I woke up, I found that I was still terrified and could not make the fear go away. For lack of anything better to do, I started organizing my things so I would be ready to go home. Cleaning and organizing has always been a coping skill for me. It didn’t work this time; I moved around my room as though I was in a dream, battling back the fears that were getting stronger by the minute. Every time I would hear a sound in the hallway, I would both hope and fear that it was the nurse bringing Alyssa in for a feeding. I felt myself torn between wanting to see my daughter and knowing that seeing her was likely to trigger my crippling anxiety. I felt myself shutting down in order to avoid dealing with what seemed like the end of my life. I hopelessly watched the clock wishing away the hours until my husband would arrive.
When Nick came in, I smiled and laughed and pretended that nothing was wrong. We fawned over the baby when she was in the room with us, and discussed our concerns over her jaundice. At around noon, my doctor came in to examine me for discharge. I listened to her instructions about caring for my sutures and other physical issues as my anxiety ramped up again. When she asked how I was feeling, I started to cry and told her I was really anxious. She asked me what I was so anxious about, and I blurted out “I am afraid I am going to hurt her”. It was as split-second decision to speak those horrible words out loud, but I did so in order to protect Alyssa. My anxiety was so all-consuming by this point that I knew I couldn’t shoulder the burden myself. I knew I was at risk of being hospitalized, but decided that I no longer cared. I felt a small measure of relief as my doctor calmly told me that we needed to talk about this issue and referred to my symptoms as Postpartum Depression (PPD). She advised me that the symptoms don’t usually come on this quickly, but that she would write me a prescription for Zoloft. She then shifted into making what I knew to be a “safety plan” with me; I have made countless safely plans with clients over the years. She wrote out my prescriptions and gave them to my husband with explicit instructions that he was to keep control of the medication. She scheduled a check-in call with her the next day, and instructed me to call my therapist to schedule an appointment. I listened to her making this plan and felt like I was having an out-of-body experience; I couldn’t understand how I had come to be on the other side of the psychiatric crisis work I had been doing for years.
It’s been just over a year since those first horrible moments. The months that followed can only be described as a roller coaster, although that doesn’t really give the experience justice. I was terrified to be alone with my daughter; sometimes even just thinking of her or seeing her made me so anxious that I could barely breathe. I saw a therapist and a psychiatrist, both of whom were never worried about the safety of my daughter. They made it very clear to me that the thoughts I was having; “intrusive thoughts” they called them; were a manifestation of my anxiety and nothing more. I was not a danger to my baby. The judgment and shame I was sure I would get from everyone I spoke to about this never came.
I have done a lot of self-help work that I integrated with my professional work, and can finally say that I, too, believe that I am not a danger to my baby. These symptoms are scary and awful, but you CAN overcome them and become the mother you always knew you could be. I have not only seen the light at the end of the tunnel, I am living in it.