I had my first anxiety attack on the night I brought my first baby home from the hospital.
I didn't know what it was at the time, but I most certainly knew something was wrong. We'd waited so long for that moment. I wish I could write that all I felt at that time was pure, unadulterated joy and relief. And oh, I did feel that! I couldn't believe all that had transpired in the days just prior. After losing six babies to miscarriage, we'd seen the face of our seventh baby. She'd been born plump and healthy and beautiful, and we'd actually brought her home. She was ours to keep! It was unbelievable and it was wonderful.
The circumstances surrounding the release from the hospital weren't perfectly smooth. We had a few hiccups as we were getting ready to head home that late September day in 2010. After a three-day stay following my c-section delivery, we were ready to head home but Lily had jaundice. Even after I was released, we were waiting on one more bilirubin test that wouldn't happen until 5 PM. The doctor came in the room a few hours later to tell me her numbers were still high, but they would let us take her home if we took her in to the clinic over the weekend (it was a Friday evening) to have the test repeated. Of course we would do whatever we needed to do, including making sure she got some sunlight and was getting plenty to eat.
All that is to say, we made it home that Friday night with our baby girl, pulling into the driveway as a family of three after the sun had set. My mom and my sister were both there, so I knew we had lots of help. I remember things feeling a bit chaotic as it was so late in the day and I was nervous about keeping Lily's jaundice in check. If someone had asked if I felt absolutely frantic or anxious, I would have answered no.
It wasn't until later that night that I became aware of a problem. My chest felt tight and heavy. I had a hard time taking deep breaths. My heart was pounding. I knew I was exhausted and needed sleep. Those three nights in a busy hospital after major surgery, with nurses coming in to give medicine and check my vitals, plus breastfeeding a newborn baby every 2-3 hours had not left me feeling well-rested. But the more I tried to rest at home in my own bed, the more sleeping became impossible. I called my doctor's office and the on-call doctor called me back, but I didn't feel like she understood what I was saying or experiencing. It was one of the longest nights of my life. I don't mean to sound dramatic here, but I honestly thought I was dying.
Somehow I made it through the weekend. Lily's bilirubin count had gotten up to 16, but by Sunday we had some relief when the number started dropping. She was doing great. I was still struggling, but still I had no idea why. I had no appetite. Every evening that chest pain would return. I was getting only enough sleep to get by. I'd already quit taking my pain medicine for fear that it was contributing to the way I was feeling. My mom, sister, and husband were helping me take care of the baby, thankfully. By Monday morning I decided to go see my doctor. As soon as she looked at me, she told me to go over to the ER to get checked out. She said she'd call ahead and tell them I was coming. The chest pains had her concerned about a blood clot in my lungs. At the ER I had a CT scan and lots of blood work, and they had me see a cardiologist for an echocardiogram. It was a crazy few days, and what I remember most is how badly I hated being away from my sweet baby. But I knew that I had to rule out some of these things and try to feel better.
All of the tests I had came back clear, which was great news. I still had no idea what happened. It took about two weeks for me to feel remotely normal again. As time went on I began to wonder if it had been anxiety. I talked to a couple of friends who had struggled with anxiety/panic attacks before and things started making more sense to me. It's so hard to know, because it feels so scary. It most certainly does NOT feel like it's "all in your head." Once things settled down, I thought that feeling had gone away for good. I thought it was just a very strange thing that happened but was eventually overcome and eclipsed by the joy we felt in bringing our baby home. Life went on.
Fast forward a couple of years.
We found out we were expecting for the eighth time when Lily was only 18 months old. The fact that it happened again so quickly (relatively speaking -- it had taken us three years, and a grand total of nearly nine years all things considered, to get pregnant with Lily) was a surprise and a blessing. As is true with each and every pregnancy we've had, the early weeks and months were nerve-racking. On top of the endless worry and waiting and ultrasounds, there was also the melanoma that my dermatologist had discovered at the very beginning of the pregnancy. At 13 weeks I had surgery to remove the cancer from my arm. Strangely, I made it through all of that chaos, while also keeping up with a busy toddler, with no anxiety attacks. Truly, I still wasn't quite sure it was what I'd had back when Lily was born.
But as the time drew near for our second daughter to arrive, I began to feel some of the same things again. It wasn't as intense as I remembered, but it was starting to happen again intermittently. I talked to my OB/GYN at length about it, and told her I was worried that it was going to escalate after Anna was born like it had with Lily. I was trying to stay positive and hope that, with it being my second time, I could keep the anxious feelings at bay and just get through it.
I had my second c-section in late November of 2012. Again, we had a big, beautiful baby girl whom we were elated to meet. While the baby was fine, the delivery hadn't been completely problem-free. After countless (painful) attempts, the anesthesiologist never could get the spinal block to work. He finally left, frustrated, and with me in a puddle of tears, and called in a colleague to come give me an epidural. The experience was horrible, but I kept my eye on the prize. Soon the surgery was underway and in no time I heard those precious first cries. We enjoyed our first moments with baby Anna in the OR before she was taken to the nursery. Afterward, while I was in recovery and time went on and on, we finally begged the nurse to find out why they hadn't brought the baby back to us. She was doing okay, they said, but she had fluid in her lungs -- common for babies who aren't squeezed through the birth canal. Well, we knew she would be fine, but that's not to say we weren't worried. And of course we wanted to see her as soon as possible. But that didn't happen for seven more hours. Her breathing was still too rapid and her lungs were still full. They wanted to check her one last time and if she didn't "pass" she would spend the night in the NICU. Suddenly and rather abruptly, the nurse was wheeling her into my room and handing me my baby, telling me she had turned around quickly and was doing great. It was a huge answer to prayer and a big relief to finally hold her after such a long, long day.
The anesthesiologist (who by that time was not my favorite person) came to see me the next day to warn me that in some cases after a failed spinal block, the spinal fluid will leak and cause a severe headache. He said to let a nurse know if that happened to me and turned and walked out. It wasn't until the day after that when I began to feel like I had a sore neck. It felt like a pulled muscle, but as time went on the pain crept up into the back of my head. I spoke to some doctors about my options and decided that, rather than have another spinal procedure (the last thing in the world I wanted to do at that point) to fix the headache, I would just endure it. It wasn't great, but it at least felt manageable right then and there in the hospital. I went home and tolerated that horrible headache for a solid week. Fortunately, Anna was doing great. She had no jaundice and breastfeeding was going so well.
During those first few nights home, the anxiety attacks returned. I think they were tempered in a way by what I was experiencing with the spinal headache. I was in so much pain from that, that it kept me distracted from dwelling on the anxiety. I lost my appetite again and quit the pain meds early again, just like before. But every evening for the first week or so I was visited by that heaviness in my chest, inability to sleep, shortness of breath, and rapid heartbeat.
I know this is turning into a long story, but I wanted to revisit where it all started. It's hard -- as a person, as a woman, as a Christian, and as a mom -- to admit sometimes that we don't have it all together. I can only speculate why the births of both of my miracle babies brought so many different emotions. I expected the joy and the awe, but I never saw the panic and anxiety coming. I think part of it was the realization that we were finally seeing this dream come to fruition, and my fear that somehow we were going to mess it up or lose it. Maybe that doesn't make much sense but after being pregnant six times and losing all of those precious ones, I think there was a deep sense of fear lurking underneath all of that joy. I didn't want to come so close and watch it all slip away again.
I decided to write about all of this now because, over the past weekend, I was struck by two anxiety attacks. No, I'm not pregnant. I obviously didn't just bring home a new baby. I don't know exactly what caused it, but at least I know now what to call it. I know that, for me, I've come to recognize that there is a "perfect storm" of exhaustion, usually sickness, stress, and insomnia that will bring on the attack. After the double whammy last weekend, I talked to my family doctor about the whole thing. It felt good to finally have a doctor listen and understand what I was experiencing. She prescribed some medication that I can take when I feel the attacks coming on. Strangely enough, I think just knowing it's there in the medicine cabinet gives me some reassurance and makes me feel a bit calmer, which the doctor said actually happens more often than you'd think.
This whole thing is not something I've shared with many people. I guess I wanted to write about it here just to tell somebody, anybody: Hey, I don't have it all together!
Life gets complicated, times get hard, infertility is horrible, we fail, we suffer loss, we survive, our faith is tested, we overcome, sometimes our dreams come true, miracles happen, parenthood is tough, sometimes we feel out of control, and life remains challenging, and we don't have it all together. And it's okay. It's okay to admit it and ask for help. That has been difficult for me to realize. I've already been surprised by the number of friends and family members, out of the very few I've talked to about this, who have struggled with some similar issues. It always helps to know we aren't alone in our struggles. As always, thanks for letting me share and thank you for continuing to read.