I call the Baby Blues hotline and chat half-heartedly with a kind woman named Shelly. I’m visited daily by visions of blood and death, usually involving my daughter.
When the noise startles me from sleep, I surface easily. That the cat? I hiss to my husband, a lump beside me that grunts, shifts. I’m fully awake in the blue dark of our bedroom, tensing every muscle to sharpen my hearing.
Scrape, thwack, whine. Scrape, thwack, whine.
Cold sweat breaks out on my forehead and before I can stop it, a series of image and sound floods my thoughts: a huge silhouette rushes into our room, my infant daughter screams from her crib across the hall.
None of this happens. I will my heartbeat to slow, repeating, That is not real, that is not real. Blood rushing through my head quiets down, and sounds outside my body coalesce into the familiar. It is the cat, batting his cat door back and forth on its hinge. I hear his paws thump onto the porch outside, as he leaps through the opening into the cool fall night.
“There’s an anxiety for everyone,” a chorus of writers in The Guardian announce helpfully. “Are you feeling worried yet? And if you are, can you distinguish worry from anxiety, and regular, bearable anxiety from a disorder?”
I’m pretty sure this is regular, bearable anxiety. But not everyone agrees.
I go to a new mom’s group: dozens of women in a giant activity room near the hospital where I gave birth. We sit on exercise balls and cushions under fluorescent lights.
Listening to one mom describe uncontrollable anxious thoughts within the context of clinical depression, my eyes flood. I struggle to hold back tears, pulling my two month old to my breast.
“Do you need a nursing pillow?” The facilitator turns her keen eyes on me, catches my quavering chin, smiles gently. “No? Look at you, you’re an old pro.”
When I ask her later about my thoughts—sudden images of my car nosing over the line, which never happened, or an SUV T-boning our sedan, which did happen—her voice lowers, and she urges me to get treatment. Then she begins describing another woman’s intrusive thoughts in such gory detail I burst into tears.
I drive home nauseous, and never return to the group. I call the Baby Blues hotline and chat half-heartedly with a kind woman named Shelly. I’m visited daily by visions of blood and death, usually involving my daughter.
“When I am afraid, I will trust in You. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I will not be afraid.” Psalm 56:3-4
I made my own prayer as a child. It was short and simple: Guard us and guide us through the night, Lord, and keep us safe from danger. I’d whisper it into my pillow, then twist the key in my bear’s back, let “The Teddy Bear Picnic” chime me to sleep.
But anxiety was stronger. Its bony fingers slowly unraveled those words until they no longer shielded me. So I added to the prayer. Eventually, I was saying the Lord’s Prayer five times, then the Guard us prayer six, back and forth for hours until I fell asleep.
The Psalms confused me, a mishmash journal of praise and anguish. The writer wrote poems, like I did, and clearly felt fear, like I did. But he lived a far more dangerous life, and seemed confident he could counter his fear with truth, his fearful thoughts with praise.
I couldn’t do that. No matter how many words I piled up like stones, anxiety scaled them and descended on me, hurling bigger and bigger fears.
I’m not sure when I stopped saying the prayer with compulsive thoroughness. I’m not sure when I stopped believing the right combination of words would save me.
I carried fear with me through childhood and into adolescence—sleeping inside at a slumber party while everyone else slept in the treehouse, running from car to front door when my grocery shift ended after dark.
I carried a flashlight. I didn’t carry faith with me, leaving church at fourteen and not returning until well into adulthood.
“Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my soul. I have sunk in deep mire, and there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and a flood overflows me.” Psalm 69:1-2
If there’s a silver lining to being blindsided by a speeding vehicle at three weeks post-partum, it’s the insurance-covered weekly massage. I get a break from the heavy weight of my child in my arms. For an hour, care flows into me instead of out—into the knot of sadness behind my heart, a nest of muscle spasm I don’t have time to tend.
The massage therapist is a tall woman with unplucked eyebrows and a warm smile. “Hmm,” she says when I tell her about the thoughts. “It could be anxiety and depression. And also being a mom.”
She tells me about superheroes, how there’s always a part in the story where they don’t quite have their superpowers under control. It comes out in bursts and fits and starts, and then eventually they learn to command the unexpected, unwanted gift they’ve been given.
My shoulders drop. Maybe I’ll be okay. Maybe there isn’t something so wrong with me it can’t be fixed.
There’s a tree in the park near our house that I like to walk under—a basswood or linden, its flowers used for calming teas. It has a wide, low canopy, and when you’re under it in summer it’s like a wall of green light.
I stood there a lot last summer, my baby in her carrier, and said the shortest, tiniest prayers. They were mostly tears, and the word Here.
As in: Here I am, Lord. Help me.
As in: Here is the child you’ve given me. I love her so much I can’t breathe. I know my thoughts can’t protect her.