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Lauren’s Story: Panic Attacks are Never Normal

Mom and Dad with new baby

“Oh my God, I know how women hurt their babies!” I cried as this thought replayed in my head over and over, while I held my screaming baby at arm’s length. My husband took my daughter, and I collapsed into my bed. “I need help. There is something seriously wrong with me,” I said through the tears.

A Perfect Labor & Delivery

Six months earlier I gave birth to my second daughter. It was a perfect labor and delivery. I’m a L&D nurse so in addition to my husband, I was supported by my fabulous work family.  I caught the baby myself and brought her up to my chest. After a pregnancy complicated by hyperemesis, injections to prevent preterm labor, and chasing around my toddler, I didn’t feel bonded to this baby before her birth at all.

I worried about how I would feel when she was here. As I looked down at the screaming pink newborn, my heart swelled so big I felt it could lift me off the bed. I cried tears of joy; everyone in the room did.  I thought, “We’re going to be okay.”

Colic, Sleep Deprivation & Total Overwhelm

Our first month was not easy.  We battled colic, which was ultimately diagnosed as a dairy intolerance. I wondered during this time if I might have postpartum depression. I knew I didn’t feel like myself, but I didn’t mention it at my postpartum check-up. I told myself I was adjusting. Everyone said that life with two kids would be hard. Once the colic subsided and she started sleeping through the night, I started to feel like myself again.  I thought I was out of the woods.

At four months postpartum, I went back to work and the baby stopped sleeping. Suddenly I was sleep deprived and waking every two hours all over again. It felt like my life was falling apart. I was so overwhelmed by the thought of food shopping or deciding what to cook that I couldn’t put together a meal; I lost all the baby weight plus 20 lbs without trying.

The chores fell behind, and the messy house triggered anxiety. Every night was hell because I couldn’t fall asleep even when the baby slept. Inevitably, as soon as I fell asleep she would jolt me awake with her cries. I felt like I couldn’t think straight; either my thoughts were racing or I was in a fog.

Sometimes when I tried to speak I would trip over my words or say something that didn’t make sense. I wasn’t happy or calm no matter where I was; I felt like a caged animal in my own home and vulnerable, hunted one outside. At this point, I started having panic attacks a few times a week.  Unbeknownst to me, I was having constant intrusive thoughts.

Related: Intrusive Thoughts Are Scary But They Don’t Make You a Bad Mom

Finding Help for My Postpartum Depression & Anxiety

By the time I found help, I truly felt that I was losing my mind. The negative tape played in my head all day and all night, telling me I was a terrible mom and everyone would be better off without me. Loud or hectic environments would trigger panic and anger.  The guilt and shame continued to grow. Finally, I realized I needed help.

I summoned all my courage and called the only center for maternal mental health in my state. When the nursing director got on the phone, I blurted out apologetically, “I’m not sure if this is normal adjustment because I don’t feel depressed, but my baby is six months old and I still feel really overwhelmed all the time, and I’ve been having panic attacks.”

I’ll never forget the sound of her voice as she said to me, “Well, honey, panic attacks are never normal.” It sounds crazy that I hadn’t realized that myself, but that small bit of validation rocked my world. She reassured me that what I was feeling was common and treatable.

Recovery is Not Straightforward

My PMAD journey was not straightforward. There were many highs and lows over the months to come. Through medication, therapy, support groups, the unending love and support of my family, and a new community of warrior moms that I had found through the center, I began to heal.

I dealt with a lot of grief about the time I lost to this illness. So much of both my kids’ short lives is colored with anxiety, depression, and fear. Often, I was angry.  How could this happen to me, a L&D nurse who has administered PPD screening more times than I can count?!

I work around OB/GYNs and expert nurses every day.  None of these professionals noticed any of my red flags, from drastic weight loss and shaking to verbalizing anxiety symptoms.  How did I work in this field and not know these symptoms existed?

Related: Grieving the Postpartum Experience You Didn’t Have

Using My Story to Help Others

Two years later I’m using my experience to help other mothers. Recently, I formed a new committee at my hospital dedicated to maternal mental health. We are creating education for patients and employees, evaluating our screening practices, and cultivating resources for our patients who have PMADs.

After sharing my story, I had the honor of connecting friends with treatment.  They knew they could reach out to me for help and that I would understand.  This is just the beginning of my story. I have a lifetime to pay it forward.

On my worst day, I was terrified that I was going to hurt my baby. Today she is a beautiful, vibrant cuddle-bug who is full of personality.  Despite those horrific thoughts, I am a good mom. I love her with all my heart and soul, and she loves me unconditionally.

Whoever this story reaches, you are a good mom too. PMADs are temporary and treatable. The journey will not be easy, but you will see the other side. PMADs are a thief, and can steal so much from you. But if you fight, I promise you that motherhood is sweeter than you ever dared to dream.

We’re honored to share Lauren’s story as part of the Maternal Mental Health Research Collaborative’s Marathon of Moms campaign. Stories of lived experience are one of the most powerful tools we have to combat stigma and the shame surrounding mental illness. They’re also vitally important as we look to develop tools, resources and treatments that work for moms and meet their needs. Thank you, Lauren!