Written by Rebecca Piekanski My daughter was born in July 2014 after nearly 30 hours of labor. Despite the pain and exhaustion, I was in baby bliss. The next few weeks were magical. She was everything I had imagined and I felt blessed beyond words. But something changed. By four months, I started to feel overwhelming anxiety creep into my body.
I was familiar with anxiety. I had lost my nana a few years prior and weathered an abusive relationship. I’d been going through counseling for almost two years. Yet, this was completely different. I would find myself awake in the middle of the night obsessing about sleep. Quite ironic. I started to feel detached from my daughter. I’d look for ways to leave her with my husband so I could escape. I lost my appetite and rarely felt like showering. Nursing became extremely difficult. My body was so tense and stuck in panic mode that I couldn’t let down. I literally dreamed of escaping.
One morning I placed my daughter on the changing table and stood motionless. Panic attack after panic attack paralyzed my body. I called my mom, a nurse, and told her, “Something is wrong”. She had me call my doctor and after a lengthy discussion he prescribed medication. I won’t name medication names, because everyone is different and I don’t want to influence anyone. Anyway, I was completely unsure and confused about what the fuck was going on. I had a period and was basically finished nursing. My hormones were all over the map and I felt like I was going crazy.
The next day I broke down. I couldn’t do anything but cry. The world had smashed before my eyes and I felt trapped. My doctor had me come in and talk face to face. I cried hysterically in the exam room. I thought they would take my daughter away. I didn’t understand why I was deconstructing when I should be fucking happy. What happened to the unicorns and rainbows? My doctor explained the hormonal changes happening along with the newly added stress. I’ll never forget the sincerity in his voice when he said, “You can do this.” We started benzodiazepines until my antidepressant kicked in.
Over the next few weeks I started to slowly feel better. Bit by bit I felt pieces of myself come back together. I started to eat again. I could actually smile and laugh. I rekindled the relationship with my daughter. I felt like I had climbed out of the hole. I eventually weaned off medications after nearly a year, and my husband and I decided to try for baby two.
Fast forward to January 2016. We had relocated two hours from our hometown for my husband’s job. In June 2016 our son arrived. Merely 24 hours after birth, I felt like a switch was flipped inside of me. The anxiety came rushing in along with overwhelming sadness. I didn’t want to leave the hospital because I didn’t want to take care of my son. When the midwife came to go over my discharge instructions, she could see something was wrong. I confessed my emotions and we agreed to start medication. Sadly, she was hesitant to use my former “silver bullet” because she was concerned with its safety while nursing.
My new medication seemed to work quickly. I had energy and my mood improved, however I was still anxious. Therapy helped, but I still felt off. After a few weeks we opted to increase my dose. My body didn’t agree. My anxiety went through the roof. I literally felt wired and out of control. I had panic attack after panic attack. My doctor agreed to switch antidepressants; however, it still wasn’t my former medication.
Slowly but surely I started to feel better, or at least manageable. Part of my heart ached because we were far away from friends and family. I was always close with my parents, so this move broke me. I cried to my husband in desperation to return home. My soul felt unsettled. I wound up increasing my medication dose to help with the heartache and the increasing anxiety as hormones started to flood back into my system. While I felt decent on this antidepressant, I still didn’t feel complete.
Finally, January 2017, a prayer was answered and my husband was transferred home. I was elated to be back in our hometown. It was a huge relief to have friends and family so close. By September, I was feeling well enough to try to wean off medication. We even discussed having a third child.
This is where life throws a fucking curve ball right to my face. Within days of weaning, I started to have withdrawal affects. I didn’t realize what was happening at the time (and wouldn’t find out till later) because I never had this issue with my “silver bullet” medication. I had brain zaps, GI upset, mood swings, anger outbursts, and nonstop anxiety attacks. I just assumed it was just the return of my anxiety and depression, especially since my mother had open heart surgery scheduled. Yet, this was different than anything I ever experienced. I felt like I had lost all control of my body and my mind. I was waking up in a state of panic daily. I finally called my former doctor and we started my favorite antidepressant. But the withdrawal damage was done.
My mom underwent open heart surgery and had major complications. She is lucky to be alive. The experience of seeing my mother on a ventilator clinging to life iced the cake. I had a complete breakdown. I felt suicidal. Every inch of me wanted to escape this world or at least the current state my body was trapped in. I looked at my husband after a sleepless night and said, “I need to be hospitalized.” He didn’t understand. And I couldn’t find the words to explain the mayhem flooding my body and mind.
I had my aunt and cousin take me to the hospital that morning. They wanted me to visit my mom in ICU (she was heavily sedated) hoping it would bring me peace. But I knew I needed to be in a safe place and work on myself. I told them I didn’t tell my dad about my crisis. After all, he needed to worry about my mom. And so I headed to the ER with my cousin.
I was going through the intake questions with a nurse when I saw my father enter the room. Reluctantly, I let him stay and listen. How do you say out loud that you wanted to die in front of your parent? Especially when he was steam rolled by the intensity and seriousness of my mom’s surgery. Even though it was gut wrenching, I told the truth. I cried hysterically and apologized to my dad. In the sweetest, most nonjudgmental tone, he simply said, “There is no need to be sorry” as he held my hand. I had a crisis counselor evaluate my situation and suggest inpatient care.
I was in the hospital five days. I’ll spare the details of the inpatient psychiatric unit because I understand the value of them. And I believe each person’s needs are different. My stay provided me with a medication adjustment and the addition of an atypical antipsychotic. I learned a few coping skills, but more importantly the psychiatrist there showed compassion and understanding. She was even sweet enough to research postpartum resources. She recommended seeing a psychiatrist instead of my primary care doctor for medication, and also suggested visiting Penn Center for Women’s Behavioral Health as they specialize in postpartum mood disorders.
Coming home was difficult. I was in a better place but still scared shitless. I wasn’t entirely sure of what the fuck happened with my mind and body. However, my husband was amazing. He was ready to divulge into whatever was necessary for my recovery. For the first time, I felt like he understood. My dad was incredible too. He gave me strength and encouragement. I started cognitive behavioral therapy with a new counselor, had a visit with the nurse practitioner at the psychiatrist’s office, and eventually went for a consultation at Penn. It was at Penn after a lengthy discussion with the doctor over my symptoms and weaning timeline, that we discovered I had endured serious withdrawal symptoms from the former SSRI. I was thrilled we had an answer for the pandemonium my mind and body had endured. I even had Gene Sight testing done to see which medications work best for my genetics.
Shockingly enough, both medications I had trouble on were contraindicated with my genetics. My “silver bullet” SSRI and atypical antipsychotic: both complementary with my genes. It’s been three months since hospitalization. But to tell the truth, the wound is still fresh. I’ve come leaps and bounds, yet the trauma still resonates in my bones. Each day it slowly dissipates, and it requires tons of work on my part. I’m repeatedly reframing negative thoughts and learning to accept emotions without thinking the worst. I’ve dedicated time to meditation and increased my physical activity. Yes, I have many good days. Some are even fabulous. I’ll willingly admit that the bad days are fucking terrifying because I don’t want to fall back into that darkness even though I now know what triggered it. And frankly, thinking four months ago I was ready to try for another baby and now I’m tip toeing my way to progress feels like another punch in the throat. But my journey isn’t linear. And I’m trying to see the silver lining in the fucked up shit storm that happened.
So, my dear mamas and anyone reading this, let me be the first to say: Take care of yourself. If you need medication, don’t be ashamed. I take thyroid meds and I don’t think twice about it. Yes, I had trouble with two medications, however everyone is different and without my current medication I’d be screwed. After two babies, my hormones and my brain have been through the wringer. I’m perfectly fine with taking my medications because it’s what my body and mind need at the moment.
Medication + Counseling + support system = Happy mama