The first few months of my first son’s life, I spent a lot of time in the bathtub. I told myself that soaking for a few hours every day soothed my muscles and provided some much-needed me-time during a major life transition. But the real reason I hung out in the bathroom so much was to escape my anxiety. The hot water and the smell of lavender Epsom salts not only calmed my body, but they also anchored my senses on something other than the feeling of impending doom that had defined new motherhood for me.
As any new parent knows, anxiety is par for the course when you become primary caretaker to a helpless newborn. You worry about whether your baby is healthy, and why their poop is a different color today than yesterday. You double check the car seat when you’re driving to make sure the baby is strapped in, and at night, when the baby’s asleep, you worry about whether they’re still breathing. Over time, as your hormones balance out and your sleep returns to normal and you grow more confident in your new role, you still worry, but, for most people, anxiety isn’t the main character for long.
My fears and anxieties, however, seemed to get worse with time. I’d been diagnosed with generalized anxiety and panic disorder when I was in elementary school, but my medication, a low dose of the antidepressant Lexapro, had mostly kept my symptoms in check until early adulthood. When I was in college, my mom battled with addiction to prescription painkillers, then she suddenly died after I graduated. (She also struggled with mental illness, though she was never formally diagnosed.)
I want my sons to look back on their childhood and remember a mom who did everything she could to be present with them, even when things felt hard or scary."
My anxiety, naturally, got worse as I grappled with the effects of my mom’s addiction on my life and her sudden death at the same time. I felt guilty that I didn’t know how much she was struggling, angry that her disease destroyed our relationship and she never sought help, and worried that I’d die young just like she did. Instead of talking to my doctor or a therapist about my panic attacks and anxiety about death, or increasing my dose of medication, I tried to control it myself by staying busy with work, exercising more, and confiding in close friends and my husband. It sort of worked, to a point.
Then, I had a baby. While meeting my sweet, red-headed son for the first time brought unspeakable joy into my life, parenting also brought unspeakable stress into my routines. And at the same time, my typical coping mechanisms disappeared. I wasn’t working, which normally distracted me from anxious thoughts, and I was too tired to exercise or go on coffee dates with friends to process my feelings.
By the time my son was a month or two old, I realized my anxiety had flared beyond the point of “par for the course.” Instead of wondering about his sleep patterns, I fixated on them, spending hours obsessing over sleep training protocols I’d read about and questioning whether my decisions would somehow traumatize my son. When my brain felt foggy after staying up all night with a fussy baby, I worried I had a life-threatening health condition that would inevitably cause my early demise, leaving my son without a mother—definitely a result of my own mom’s death. I was so worried about car accidents and influenza and having a panic attack at the grocery store that I rarely left home. Anxiety, at that point, defined my life—and, as a result, it was starting to define my son’s.
Instead of joining friends on playdates to the park, I stayed home. Instead of playing with him or enjoying milestones, I locked myself in the bathroom and soaked in my lavender Epsom salts, trying not to Google worst-case-scenario health conditions. In trying to escape anxiety, I also isolated myself from my husband, my son, and my experience with motherhood. I began to worry that my mental health condition would affect my son like my mom’s had affected me, and feeling like a failure made me feel even more panicky. It was a vicious cycle.
With my husband’s support, I decided it was time to ask for much-needed help. I told my midwife at a routine postpartum checkup that I had been struggling with anxiety, and we talked through my symptoms. That day, she diagnosed me with postpartum anxiety and prescribed a higher dose of the antidepressant I’d been taking since childhood—including through pregnancy. (Note: Not all midwives are licensed to diagnose mental illnesses and prescribe medication. You also can see your OB-GYN, baby’s pediatrician, or the psychiatry providers at Minded if you are struggling.) It took a few weeks to really notice a difference, but I remember over time, the experiences that once felt so debilitating—my kid being sick, leaving the house, figuring out a sleep routine—started to feel less scary.
Before increasing my medication dosage, the slightest worry could cause me to spiral into panic. The extra 10 mgs I started taking felt like a life preserver. The scary things were still scary, but I could see above the water enough to take a few deep breaths and talk myself through them. Once I boosted my medication, I also felt confident enough to leave the baby with a sitter and drive myself to therapy, where I was able to process my fears and learn new, more realistic ways of thinking.
By the time my son turned one, I felt like a new person. I could engage with him in ways I never could when he was younger because I wasn’t using all my energy to fend off anxious thoughts or avoid panic attacks. My newfound mental capacity became fuel for afternoon walks in the wagon and trips to the zoo with friends. We even took a few (relatively) anxiety-free family vacations, which I’ll always treasure.
It’s been eight years since my older son was born—I also have a five-year-old—and in some ways, the stakes still feel high. I want my sons to look back on their childhood and remember a mom who did everything she could to be present with them, even when things felt hard or scary. I also want them to feel like it’s OK to share when they’re struggling, and to ask for help if anxiety, depression, or anything else affects them. That’s why I still take medication, and why I’m totally OK with taking it for the rest of my life. When my kids get old enough, I’ll probably explain it to them.
I used to feel ashamed that I even needed it, like my mental health condition made me a bad mom, or that my sons would remember me the way I remember my mom during her depression episodes. But through years of growth—growth I couldn’t have achieved without my Lexapro life jacket—I’ve realized something important: I can’t control my story or my mental health diagnosis, and I can’t control my sons’ experience of me. What I can control is how I take care of myself—and for the foreseeable future, that means taking a little white pill that helps me be the mom, and person, I want to be.