I was in my first trimester of my first pregnancy when antenatal anxiety washed over me like the tide, insidious and unstoppable. We were living on our own in the midwest at the time, and the loneliness was crushing. I compensated for my irrational worries by donning a brave face and making light of my anxiety, to both friends and my doctors, and I assumed all newly pregnant women felt the same trepidation and slight panic I was suppressing.
I was 8 weeks pregnant when my OB called me into her office. My fears and worries were suddenly compounded by a previously-undiagnosed kidney disease. A giant mass in my abdomen. And they had no idea what it was. I taciturnly absorbed all the doctor said and then politely asked for a few moments alone. When the door shut behind her, something in me broke. I walked out of there a shadow of myself. The next 6 months brought a multitude of diagnoses. I was ultrasounded and MRIed (twice). I met with several surgeons and had a cathertized void test done. There were very few cases of pregnant women with my eventual diagnosis of severe hydronephrosis with 1% kidney function, and so few doctors could tell me exactly what to expect or how it would impact my pregnancy. And that scared me to death.
Six months into my pregnancy, we moved to the North East. My need for my family (who had moved up to the Boston area a few years before) outweighed my terror at the prospect of moving, but leading up to moving day, I had increased symptoms of panic attack. I refused to drive while house hunting, irrationally fearful of the alien traffic patterns of our new-home-to-be. I fought back waves of nausea at each apartment-hunting appointment, instead playing the part of the happy, expectant couple. The night before our final flight out of the midwest, I became convinced I had a blood clot in my right leg – and the resulting (unnecessary) hospital trip ended in a 2am leg ultrasound for me and a busted blood vessel in my husband’s eye from the stress. My husband tells me that when I fainted from panic on the 4 hour flight to Boston the next day, he took special notice of the halfway mark in the flight. “At least there was no turning back,” he says, only half-jokingly.
Unfortunately, arriving in Boston alleviated the anxiety only temporarily. As I neared the end of my pregnancy, I began having irrational, intrusive thoughts about my husband leaving me. “He’s only staying until the baby is born,” the lies whispered, “he never wanted a baby anyway.” I became increasingly irritable and emotional, and finally suffered enough to mention it to my OB, a high-risk, high-profile doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital. With my mother in the room, I explained my heart palpitations and my trouble breathing. I outlined my mood swings and my panic attacks. It took every ounce of courage in my body to admit that I was struggling.
In return, she told me to “stop worrying. Pregnancy is an emotional time.”
That was it. We moved on to belly measurements and discussions of pain management during labor.
With only two sentences, she had me doubting my need for help. I suddenly “just wasn’t trying hard enough.” And I believed her.
Throughout the course of my first pregnancy, I saw 5 different OBs, 3 surgeons, 2 primary care physicians, and a myriad of nurses and techs. None of them EVER asked about my emotional well-being, and when I did speak up for myself? I was ignored. Dismissed. And the thing that angers me the most is that MGH has a world-renouned Center for Women’s Health, run in part by the incomparable Dr. Marlene Freeman, an expert in the field of pre and post-natal mood and anxiety disorders. Sitting in my OB’s office, I was one elevator ride away from help.
Instead, it took me 5 months after my daughter was born – five months of intrusive thoughts about shaking my baby or letting her slip in the bath tub (I would like to emphasize here that intrusive thoughts are distinguished from psychosis by a mother’s ability to recognize the thoughts as scary) – five months of obsessively folding and lining up burp rags and matching bottle tops to bottle bottoms by shape and color – five months of rage and of falling apart behind the scenes before I recognized I needed help.
It’s hard for me to think back through that time because I find myself so ANGRY. My struggle was preventable. Avoidable. Not once during or after my pregnancy was I asked about my emotional well-being. A few simple questions and an honest conversation with a trusted doctor was all it would have taken.
It’s all it will take… because I am committed to getting new moms the help I didn’t receive. We need mothers to be screened for antenatal and postpartum mood and anxiety disorders. Every mother. Every time.
Please. For me. For my daughters. Go sign this petition. Then share this post, share the petition and help us make this go viral.
From the petition website:
Suicide is a leading cause of death for women during the first year after childbirth. 1 in 7 women will experience a mood or anxiety disorder during pregnancy or postpartum, yet nearly 50% remain untreated. In pregnancy, maternal mental illness negatively effects fetal development, and leads to adverse birth outcomes such as low birth weight and premature delivery. Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs) can impair infant and early childhood cognitive and emotional development. Despite overwhelming empirical evidence, there is no universal mandate for care providers to screen pregnant and postpartum women for depression, anxiety, or family history of mental illness–a well established risk factor. Screen every mother, every time to prevent and treat perinatal mental illness.
If you can’t sign the petition, you can still help! Spread the word! Donate to Postpartum Progress! Ask a new mom how she is REALLY doing. We can each do something.