It was January 10th, 2012 in the early morning hours when my wife Mary, my sister and I welcomed our second son, Jacob, into the world. Compared to the labor experience we had with our first son, a grueling 36 hour ordeal, this one went as smooth and perfect as anyone could hope for. Given the struggles we had been going through it felt like things were finally starting to go our way. Little did we know that things would get a lot harder for us over the next year and a half.
After taking 6 weeks off of my job working with foster youth, I returned to work while my wife stayed at home with our two boys, our oldest having just turned 3. After a few weeks back it became apparent to me and my wife that something was happening to her. She became extremely anxious and tense, often having trouble completing such mundane tasks as driving with the boys to pick me up after work or taking our oldest son to school. One evening while having a meal with my extended family I looked over at my wife and I knew something was wrong. She excused herself from the table and told me that she had to go home, asking me to please hurry home with the boys as soon as I could. Upon my return I found her curled up in the fetal position on our bed, shaking uncontrollably and crying into the bed. She told me that she felt like she was dying, which I reassured her that she was not, and in an attempt to cheer her up I offered her the baby. She jumped up off the bed and told me that she couldn’t hold him, rushing out of the room and leaving me wondering just what was happening to my wife.
These panic attacks continued to occur and become more frequent in the following weeks, so much so that my wife was begging me to stay home with her. I ended up spending more time at home and having to call out of work on a more frequent basis. It was so frustrating to me that she just couldn’t snap out of it and it made me feel so helpless when I couldn’t help her through the panic attacks and couldn’t provide for my family by going to work. Eventually we made an appointment with her midwife to see if she had any insight as to what might be happening to her. It took all her courage to walk out the front door of our house and to the car, further outside of our home than she had been in the last month. Upon our arrival she began to panic again at the thought of talking to her midwife about what was going on, and it didn’t help that we had to wait nearly 45 minutes before she was actually seen. Upon describing her symptoms to the midwife, she determined that my wife was in an immediate crisis but ruled out the possibility of it being postpartum depression because she was more than 4 months out of having our baby. She prescribed Zoloft and Ativan to her and sent us on our way, but it wasn’t long before we were seeking help again, this time in the emergency room of the local hospital.
The ER Doctor diagnosed my wife with having Postpartum Anxiety (PPA), something that neither my wife or I had ever heard of. She encouraged my wife to take the medication that was prescribed to her so that she could get to feeling better as soon as possible, but my wife was absolutely terrified of what side effects could crop up if she took the medication. It took a long conversation with the worker at the mental health hotline to convince her to take her medication, and after a few days my wife told me that she was beginning to feel better. We both felt confident that we were on our way to beating this and moving on with our lives, but our troubles were only just beginning.
Less than two weeks after starting her Zoloft my wife came to me and confessed to me that, while taking a bath with the boys she had felt the urge to hurt them and the thought had crossed her mind to go through with it. Knowing that this was a warning sign we raced back to the emergency room to talk to them about it. We ended up waiting nearly the entire night in the ER for a mental health worker to come and evaluate my wife, who at this point was begging the worker to take her to a mental institution so that she could be monitored. Instead her meds were changed to Celexa and the dosage lowered so she could be evaluated in the coming weeks.
I began to feel helpless, lost and alone; I had no idea what happened to my wife and began to wonder if she would ever come back to me. It was easily the hardest and most trying time of my life and I began to feel depressed. I found no joy in my usual interests of playing with my children and playing music and I felt like things could not get any worse. Heated arguments with my wife would erupt multiple times daily, often with out kids within earshot which made me feel like she was more distant than ever. I even found myself shouting at our oldest son for no reason and going off the deep end over little things that, in retrospect, were extremely trivial. It wasn’t long after that that I too was seeking help from my physician.
Meanwhile my wife’s panic attacks continued, sending us in a frenzy to the emergency room where she was absolutely convinced that she was dying. It got to the point that the people at the emergency room told us that we should no longer come in for her panic attacks, as there was nothing more they could do for her. It was during our last visit to the ER that a mental health worker was again called to evaluate my wife. Seeing that she was desperate for help he agreed to meet with her once a week for an hour over the span of a month. Seeing someone who knew what she was going through and experience with how to work through the disease helped my wife and I immensely, and I even attended a few sessions with her to help gain a better understanding of what my wife was going through. It was during one of these sessions that, when asked by the mental health worker to describe to me what she felt like during a panic attack, she turned to me with tears welling in her eyes and said “it feels like I’m dying.” Hearing this and seeing the despair and fear in her eyes struck a nerve in me. I knew that I had to make changes in how I was reacting to her panic attacks in order to have a more effective impact on her recovery.
That night I did some research on my own about PPA and learned a lot of things about how to be a better support system for my wife. This, along with our conversations with the mental health worker, was the most important moment for me in helping her with her recovery. Couples therapy began soon after that which was helpful with building a better means of communication between each other.
My wife was discouraged that there were not many effective resources for her to turn to during her recovery; she didn’t want other mothers to have to go through what she did. In July of last year my wife started an online support group on Facebook for women who are struggling with PPA, Postpartum Anxiety Support Group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/256133134496557). Starting off with just herself and a handful of members, the member count at the time I am writing this is at 209. My wife has told me that being able to talk to others, telling them her story, and supporting them in their recovery, has had a lasting effect on her and has aided in her own recovery as well. Inspired by my wife and her success, I too started a Facebook group for husbands, boyfriends, and significant others of those struggling with PPA, Postpartum Anxiety Survivor Supporters (https://www.facebook.com/groups/156314657856522/). It is through these support groups that we wish to help those who have lost hope and feel that there is no end to their struggles.
Today my wife has made a nearly full recovery with only the occasional moments of anxiety or panic. With the tools we have been given and the knowledge we have attained we have been able to live productive and happy lives where we can spend our time enjoying our children and out lives together instead of constantly struggling with anxiety and fear. If I have any advise to give it would be to educate yourself on the subject and to be as supportive as possible in helping your partner through this ordeal. It is frustrating at times, and I still have my moments where I’m not as understanding and compassionate as I could or should be, but there is absolutely a light at the end of the tunnel as long as you are willing to fight for every step together.