It's no secret here on this blog that I've struggled with anxiety and anxiety-induced depression for the last few years. In fact, I was in the throes of the most anxious season of my life when I found out I was pregnant. During my pregnancy, I often worried about my risk for postpartum depression (PPD) and, more specifically, postpartum anxiety (PPA). There are some medical professionals who believe PPD and PPA are just different manifestations of the same illness but, for now, I'm going to refer to my condition as PPA since any depression I experience results only from my anxiety.
I was surprised to find that, although I faced a number of typical new mom worries while pregnant with Lucy, my anxiety was greatly reduced by the excitement of going through such an incredible experience. I was terrified of becoming a mother but, at the same time, I was overjoyed by the idea that God had chosen me to be this little girl's mama. What a gift, you know? What a blessing to be able to carry her inside of me! But I avoided really thinking about what life would be like post-baby. I didn't want to go there in my head because, for me, pregnancy was the easy part. I was good at being pregnant. But would I be a good mother? How would I thrive in this new role if anxiety was still a part of my existence?
It's a question I still face every single day.
Every moment, in fact.
Right this very second.
The truth is that PPA, while not healthy, is common, especially for those of us who already struggle with OCD and anxiety. I often find it hard not to correct people who use such phrases casually, like those who say "I'm so OCD! I just can't stand for my house to be messy!" Wanting your home to be clean is not OCD. Even having difficulty being able to sit and rest until things are clean is not OCD. Having the need to clean something repeatedly until it "feels right" - otherwise you won't be able to rest from the sheer panic of being afraid that it will throw off the teetering balance of your life - is OCD. That's not how OCD manifests itself for me; it's just one example. In short, OCD is frequent, irrational fear (obsessions) and the ways in which we try to cope with them (compulsions).
And now that I've gotten that out, I'm going to get this out, too. It's hard to admit, but I'm going to do it anyway:
I am terrified of being alone with my daughter.
I've spent my whole life being afraid of making mistakes. I am an expert guilt-feeler. As a child, I believed any negative feeling, thought, or emotion was sinful or bad. I never really learned to accept my humanity. I grew up with an incredibly strong faith...but I also had an incredibly strong fear of becoming a "bad" person. I think the two go hand-in-hand for many of us who love Jesus. We want to desperately to please Him, but since we're only human we're bound to mess up. Grace bridges the gap between our humanity and God, but we find ourselves still fighting the battle Jesus has already won. We are already good. We've already been made perfect in Christ. The question is: how to we walk in that Truth every day? What does living a grace-filled life look like in the mundane, the restless, and the anxious moments?
So, as a person who loves deeply, my greatest fears have always centered around the thought of hurting someone I love or being the cause of anyone's pain. I don't stress too much about work or money. I stress about people and relationships. I long for harmony and peace. Conversation and affection are my love languages. If you buy me a cup of coffee, sit and talk with me, or give me a hug, it's pretty much guaranteed that we'll be friends.
As a result, my anxiety stems from an irrational fear of hurting or losing the people I love the most. The very things that bring me so much joy also bring me great pain. To be more specific, loving my daughter makes me feel - at once - filled to bursting with happiness AND filled to my depths with despair because I wonder how God could have ever deemed me worthy to be her mom when I struggle with such paralyzing anxiety.
A few years ago, I faced this monster - this panic-inducing anxiety - for the very first time. It started with an intrusive thought that disturbed me so much I barely ate for weeks. I didn't know then that unwanted, intrusive thoughts are incredibly common. The distinction is that people who suffer from OCD have severe difficulty casting these thoughts aside. We ask, "Why would I think that? Oh my gosh! Does that mean it's going to come true? Am I a terrible person?" and a vicious cycle of self-doubt and self-loathing begins. What we know in our hearts to be true becomes overshadowed by the lies our anxiety shouts at us. We don't want to think these things so we chew on them, over and over, trying to figure out why they happened in the first place. Of course, this only causes us to focus on them more, thereby increasing our anxiety and pushing us to seek some sort of coping mechanism. My coping mechanism is avoidance. I follow my husband around the house when I've got Lucy in my arms. I leave the house with her when he leaves. I went back to work in part because I didn't want to be left alone with her for more than a few minutes. I think back to simple, everyday moments and question them over and over. I try to remember every detail so when my anxiety visits again I can shut the door in its face by saying, "See this? This is exactly what happened and you can't tell me otherwise. So there!" The problem with this coping mechanism is that - in my effort to get control over it - I actually lose control because it becomes a necessity for me to perform this little dance all day, every day. And who can possibly do that? Who wants to? We weren't designed to be caged by anxiety and fear. We were designed to be loved into freedom.
I believe in a holistic approach to these issues. We are not simply physical beings. We have souls. We were created by God. And so while I wholeheartedly agree that God works through medication and science to bring healing (and celebrate that fact), I also believe in the awesome power of prayer and His Word. And I am not afraid to admit that I believe Satan knows what makes me vulnerable and tries to pounce on those things whenever he gets the chance.
I took a long walk around the neighborhood the other day and talked aloud to God. I do this a lot, in fact, usually while I'm driving and Lucy is asleep in the backseat. I kept asking Him why He chose me to be Lucy's mom when I feel so inadequate. Why would He give me a heart so big if it just keeps getting filled with fear? I knew He could bring beauty from ashes...but I didn't want to give Him ashes! And, somewhere, in the middle of my monologue, I started to understand something crucial.
My fears are not true. And while it's tough to rejoice in my suffering, I can be encouraged by the fact that I must be pretty darn amazing if the enemy is trying so hard to destroy me. He is terrorized by the thought of my love for people, by the thought of my succeeding as a mother, and, most importantly, by the thought of my raising another believer. This is the real truth: if I don't believe him and, instead, choose to believe what my heavenly Father says about me, then he has lost again.
My biggest mistake has been approaching this anxiety in only one way at a time. I've prayed and prayed and prayed some more. I've written Bible verses on my hand to keep them close by in times of distress. I've taken medications (thus far in only short-term increments, like a few weeks or months at a time). I've spent hours upon hours seeking guidance from my husband, my parents, and like-minded peers. I have not, however, done all of these things at once while also seeking professional counseling.
I write all of this today because I've decided it's time to get the help I need. It's time to go down deep and dig out the root of these fears. It's time to gain the practical tools I need to walk in the faith I have. I hope you'll seek help, too, if you've been struggling with any sort of anxiety or depression. And I ask that you pray for me and my family right now, if you're the praying type (and, perhaps, even if you're not).
For the first time since Lucy was born, I feel like maybe, just maybe, this story will have a happy ending.