An insight into postnatal anxiety
The arrival of my baby boy was by far the most joyful moment of my life. The elation, relief, and flood of love were a heady mix. But one month in and the feelings of anxiety had started. And they had started strong. I don't mean the new mama anxieties we all share, that lead you to check your little ones still breathing one hundred times each night, although of course, I had those too. I mean repetitive and overwhelming anxieties that you just can't put out of your mind, focused on such specific, awful events that seem as though they could easily and logically occur.
For me, the first of these was that someone else, my husband included, would drop our baby on the hard tiled floor of our hallway. When someone else carried him along there, my heart would be in my mouth and my breathing would stop for the few but seemingly endless moments. Then came the fear that he would be dropped down the concrete steps leading from our apartment to the street. Time and time again, I would urge my husband to please hold on to the handrail as he carried our son in his car seat down the steps. He would try to assure me he didn't need to because he wasn't going to fall and the mounting fear would almost overwhelm me. Eventually, these focused, specific fears would subside and I would feel better for a while until something else came along to consume my mind.
One evening, my husband and I watched (perhaps foolishly, given my new found anxiety) a documentary about the disappearance of Madelaine McCann. It highlighted the window shutters through which it is thought the kidnappers gained entry. We have window shutters and all of a sudden I had my new anxiety. I became terrified at the thought that someone might get into our apartment and snatch our precious boy. When I thought of it, my blood would run cold and I would feel physically sick. It was around this time that we had been thinking about moving our son from our room, into his nursery at night, but just the thought of it would cause me to break down in tears of fear. I knew I couldn't be parted from him at night, even only by an internal wall. I had to be able to see him all night long at just a glance. My husband struggled to understand. He would tell me that my thoughts weren't logical, that we lived in a crime free neighborhood, that our window shutters couldn't be opened from the outside. But to my poor, exhausted mind there was always a chance and the more he tried to convince me that it wouldn't happen, the more scared I became that he was tempting fate. I would beg him to stop and he would be at a loss as to how to help me.
At Christmas last year, we were staying with my parents and we were discussing our son's poor sleep. They kept advising us that it really was time to move him into his own room, as we must surely be disturbing him during the night. They had suggested this many times before, as had friends and other relatives, but this time it just felt too much and I broke down in tears. I told them about the anxieties that I'd been hiding for over a year, the first time that I'd told anyone other than my husband. It wasn't something I ever felt I could discuss with anyone else. I didn't know anyone who had been through the same and I felt truly alone. I had never even heard of postnatal anxiety - postnatal depression of course, but never anxiety. It was only when a friend posted a radio interview online, in which a mother discussed her experience, that the pieces finally fell into place. I listened to the interview while I was doing the ironing- I grew more and more absorbed in the woman's story, I must have ironed the same thing ten times. It was all becoming clear, I was finally understanding what had been happening to me and all because one brave mama had the courage to share her story, to whom I'll be forever grateful. The relief was immense, it wasn't just me and no matter how strongly I felt it, I wasn't alone.
I talked to my husband more after that, I needed him to understand me better. The only way I could describe the feeling was to liken it to a boiling pan of water on a stove. As the water boils more rapidly, the lid of the pan starts jumping around and you have to hold it down to stop it springing off and the water overflowing all over the stove. I felt like I was constantly holding that lid down every day, to stop the anxiety spilling out all over my life and I was exhausted. To add to all of that, was our living situation and I was struggling. We had moved abroad when I was ten weeks pregnant. The pregnancy had been planned, the move had not, and we found ourselves as new parents in a country where we didn't speak the language, far from family and friends. My husband encouraged me to "get help", but the thought of seeing a therapist who wasn't a native English speaker was too difficult for me. I knew I needed to let my thoughts tumble out of my mouth without thinking about my turns of phrase or carefully choosing my words to ensure I was being fully understood. I had questions in my mind too - how would my anxiety be viewed here? Would they think I couldn't cope, couldn't care for my beautiful baby? Would they think I was depressed when I knew for sure this was very different? Would they try and take my precious boy away from me? These thoughts circled repetitively in my head like sharks, waiting for my legs to stop furiously kicking and my head to dip momentarily below the water so that they could drag me down. And so I did nothing. I sought no help. I had lots of mummy friends, perhaps I could talk to them, my husband suggested. But they all seemed so chilled out, so relaxed, and I didn't want to be seen as the "stressy mum", so instead I tried my best to swim through it all like a swan, serene on the surface, legs paddling like mad underneath and unseen, even though I desperately wanted to talk to someone just to hear them say "I know".
The recent "me too" movement in Hollywood has been so powerful and made it easier for women to say "me too - it happened to me too". I often imagine how wonderful it would be to create a movement of beautiful, brave mamas simply saying to each other "I know". I'm happy to say that the anxieties gradually receded. We moved our little man into his nursery and I began to feel better. I feel I've somehow conquered the anxiety and the only way I've done it is to just keep going. But I know it would have been quicker, and perhaps easier, had I sought help, which I urge any mama nodding and saying "I know" to do.
My gorgeous boy is now fifteen months and the anxiety has definitely gone. But he's never been a good sleeper, he is yet to "sleep through" and my tank is close to empty. I feel, physically and emotionally, a little of a mess. And I'm just beginning to feel the shadows creeping around the edges of my mind. I don't know what this means yet, maybe it's just the effects of far too little sleep for far too long, maybe it's something more, but whatever it is, I hope someone reading this will say "I know". But then, of course, come the days that bring joy to your soul and spark a touch paper in your mind. And I think to myself, it's okay, I just need to keep fanning the flames that will chase the shadows away.