By Dr. Kaila Bennett
I have struggled with anxiety and a myriad of other mental illnesses for most of my life. Unsurprisingly, ever since I can remember I have been a perfectionist, craving control in all aspects of my life. This ranged from wanting to be the best at everything do, to being constantly concerned about the well-being of my family.
My struggle with mental illness really began at the age of 13, when I was first diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa. Looking back, I believe my eating disorder was a way to find control when everything felt out of my control: a way to silence my anxious, overwhelming, and racing thoughts. Interestingly though, I wasn’t actually formally diagnosed with an anxiety disorder until my mid 20s. Around this time my anxiety developed into panic attacks and I was quite frankly crippled by fear, making it hard to complete even the most mundane tasks.
The beginnings of motherhood are full of mundane tasks; your newborn is reliant on you for everything. As such, Motherhood is an adjustment for most women; add in a mental illness and it’s ten times harder. I knew that becoming a mother would likely result in an uptick in my anxiety. So one might ask why chance it? It’s hard to explain, but I really wanted to be a mother, and I’m so happy I took the chance because my twin girls are the light(s) of my life. I actually say I was lucky to have mental illness prior to the postpartum period because I already had a team (therapist, psychiatrist, and nutritionist) who helped me with this adjustment. I truly think it is such a shame that most new mothers don’t have this safety net, and moreover that once the baby is born there is shift in focus to the baby and away from the mother. This is something at which I think our society needs to do a better job.
All that said, the postpartum period was anything but smooth. Not only did I still have that need to protect my husband and my family, but now it was my job to protect these two beautiful twins. My beautiful premature frail babies, how would I be able to keep them safe? During this time I had a love hate relationship with social media – it was here that I met so many other mommas who helped me navigate motherhood. At the same time, I would see these tragic stories of infant loss. There was one influencer whose son passed unexpectedly from SIDS and I was a mess. I was terrified that this would happen to one of the girls, so much so that even though I was following all the safe sleep practices, I would obsessively check on them throughout the night. Just prior to the COVID lockdown, I wouldn’t let people in and out of the house for fear the girls would catch the coronavirus. Further, I ruminated about how it would kill me if one of the girls got an incurable cancer. I just brought these beautiful girls into this world and was sure they were going to be ripped away from me. I would spend hours obsessively thinking what precautions I could put into place to further protect the girls. As soon as I added a new precaution, the others would no longer be good enough.
As you can probably imagine, my fears and anxiety surrounding my children was a never-ending cycle. During those times and even now, my therapist would/will pose the question: are your fears possible or probable? My answer to this is always sure of course these things can happen. But are they probable? To that my answer is always, statistically speaking, no. Even though rationally I know this, for some reason when those intrusive thoughts creep in and build and build, it no longer just seems possible, it seems 100% probable.
At times early on in the postpartum period, I would find myself trying to disconnect from the girls, because the fear of losing them was more than I could bare and I would rather feel numb then have my heart break into a million pieces. Eventually, I realized that this was not possible. Now every time I get to that place, I find ways to stop it.
How I stop it:
First and foremost, therapy helps me so much. Having a good therapist that I connect with has been instrumental in helping me navigate these scary, new, and unfamiliar waters. Along the same lines, verbalizing my fears helps me to stop the racing thoughts, and I lean on my husband or therapist to provide a rational voice when I can’t provide that for myself. Secondly, staying present helps me get out of my head. For instance, focusing on when one of the girls laughs or how the light captures their smiles. In line with this, going for a run or doing yoga helps as well. Finally, medication has been so instrumental in my recovery, and I want to make it abundantly clear that it doesn’t make you weak for having to take medication. Let me say that again – having to take medication to help with anxiety or other mental illnesses does not make you weak. For me, the aforementioned techniques would not have worked as much without medication.
I want to end by saying that you aren’t alone in your struggle, there are so many moms who struggle with mental illness in the postpartum phase whether that be anxiety or depression. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t, and it doesn’t make you weak for needing and seeking help.