I was playing trains with my two-year-old son the moment I realized my life-long struggle with anxiety was no longer within my control, and I needed help.
I’d been having panic attacks that felt like heart attacks all month, ever since my OB-GYN had cleared me to try to have a second baby after a serious health scare earlier that year.
Earlier that day, the trains day, I’d had some pretty profound chest pains, but I brushed them aside, like I always did, as “probably not” a heart attack.
That evening, as my son and I peacefully built bridges and connected tracks in his bedroom, he suddenly looked at me and started crying. In all likelihood, he was having a toddler moment, probably pissed that I hadn’t built the train station to his exact but un-communicated specifications.
But his crying startled me so much, this is the thought that popped into my head: “What if that really was a heart attack earlier today, and I actually died, and he’s scared of me because I’m a ghost?”
Now, I’ve always been a fairly pragmatic person, so the fact my mind went there scared me as much as the thought that it could be true. I called my husband to come upstairs and play with my son, walked to my room in a fog, lay on the bed trying to breathe, felt my hands and feet go numb as they often did those days, and tried to take comfort in the fact that the cat was looking me right in the eyes, so I probably wasn’t dead.
Until, I thought: “Don’t cats see ghosts, though?”
I called my doctor the next day and started taking Zoloft, an anti-anxiety medication, by the end of the week. A little more than a year later, I’m eight months pregnant and still take my little yellow pills daily, with no plans to stop any time soon.
I’m a medicated mom, and I’m grateful every day, because I am a better mom because of it.
Postpartum depression and anxiety is a problem for so many moms
To be clear, I am not a health professional and this is not advice. I’m just a mom who’s been through some shit and a writer with the ability to share it. Medication is certainly not a magical cure for postpartum mood disorders, and not the right fit for everyone. Luckily, there are lots of treatment options, including therapy, which is also part of a multi-pronged support plan I now have in place.
Because I resisted professional help for so long, it took until my son was three for me to be officially diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (made worse by the trauma of my miscarriages), and likely postpartum anxiety and depression after his birth. I’m also considered high risk for a recurrence when my new baby is born.
I am one of the approximately one in four Canadian women who experienced either postpartum depression or an anxiety disorder in the months following birth. And according to Statistics Canada, of the only one third who actually receive treatment for their symptoms, I’m among the 38 per cent who take medication.
I’m also part of an even smaller cohort: those who continue to take anxiety and depression medications while they are pregnant, a complicated and sometimes controversial decision based on a risk-benefit analysis for both me and the baby. My family doctor, OB-GYN, and psychiatrist all agree that it is riskier for me (and thus the baby) to be unmedicated and suffer the effects of anxiety than to continue to take a low dose of Zoloft (sertraline), which is considered by many as the safest SSRI to take during pregnancy.
So I do, every day, knowing that there is a small chance my baby will experience withdrawal after he’s born, but comforted by studies that show the negative effects of untreated mental illness on both mom and baby (including low birth weight and risk of premature birth).
“It doesn’t have to be so hard this time,” my family doctor assured me as we debated the risks of continuing to take Zoloft at my first prenatal appointment.
“There are ways to make pregnancy and the postpartum period easier on you, and medication is one of those ways.”
Not normal, and not manageable
I’ve always been the anxious type, but it took me years, a psychiatrist and medication to realize what I thought was normal and manageable were neither.
As a kid, I would lie in bed at night for hours and imagine my entire family dying in a car crash. I was so afraid of choking, I’d hide pieces of chewed-up meat in my napkin at most meals. As a teen, I was too afraid of crashing to learn how to drive.
When my now-husband proposed, I was so worried he would leave me that I pushed the wedding date up to a time that made no sense (when I was living in another province from him), but those were just jitters, right? After we were married, I needed him to text me every day when he arrived at work so I knew he hadn’t been hit by a car and killed. But, that’s just typical wife stuff, isn’t it?
After our first complicated miscarriage in 2015, I was so worried I might die in my sleep that I would make my husband stay awake to listen to my breathing. Who would expect anything less after such a trauma? Ditto with my obsession that my husband had secret, undiagnosed cancer and my insistence he get one mole checked by three different doctors. And those chest pains — well, I’d been through a lot, hadn’t I?
The most difficult behaviours to look back on now are how I acted after my son was born a year later. I was too afraid to let him sleep unless someone was watching his breathing. I asked family members not to carry him on the stairs in case they tripped. I put off feeding him solids as long as I could, so he would never be able to choke. I barely left the house that entire year I was off work.
By the time I had my second miscarriage when my son was 18 months old, this time a molar pregnancy that carried a risk of malignancy and required two surgeries and six months of bloodwork, my nerves were — and I believe this is the medical term — shot to fucking shit.
But I was so focused on my physical recovery, it wasn’t until the day my doctor called me to say I was officially cleared and could have a second baby, that I started having “heart attacks,” numb hands and feet, foggy brain, and was afraid to be alone with my son in case I dropped dead in front of him. I even asked my husband to stop letting my child wake me up in the morning, in case I’d died of a heart attack in my sleep. I was terrified of scarring him and ruining his life.
After decades of insisting I could manage anxiety on my own, not being able to take care of my son was my line in the sand. I was done.
Medication made me a better mother
I’ve always been a good mother (Omg thank you, therapy, for helping me to say this aloud). I’m caring, careful, creative, and nurturing. I make sure my son hears me say “I love you” every single day. And he’s turned out wonderfully so far: silly, sweet, polite, and with a fairly inspiring imagination (We’ve “gone camping” indoors every evening for the last two weeks, complete with a construction paper campfire).
If anything, my untreated anxiety kept him safe and protected, but at what cost? It breaks my heart when he promises me, “Don’t worry, Mama, I will be careful,” before he tries something new, or worse, nervously warns me, “Mama, be careful!” before I do.
He didn’t learn these behaviours from his father.
When I first started taking medication a year ago, the physical symptoms of my anxiety (like chest pains, numbness, and panic attacks) were the first to go. But I was surprised to see some other positive effects as the weeks went on: confidence, focus, less anger, more patience. (It’s amazing how much mental space worrying about dying 24/7 takes up).
All of these qualities make me a better mother to my son. Today, when I take him to his swimming lessons and watch him confidently jump in the water in his “PJ Masks” goggles, my heart swells (and not with worry that he might drown).
I hope this time will be different
I’m curious, and even a little excited, to see if and how the postpartum period will be different for me with “baby brother” now that I have armed myself with supports: not just medication, but also the help of a therapist, and a PPD/PPA outpatient program I’m currently enrolled in at a nearby hospital.
Will it really be easier this time, like my doctor said? Will I be able to put my baby down to sleep on his own? Will I venture outside more? I’m tentatively confident.
I have more mom friends this time, too, and guess what? Many of them also started taking Zoloft during the postpartum period. Maybe the proportion of new moms who need medication isn’t so small, after all. Maybe we just don’t talk about it enough. Maybe because many, like me, are afraid of being judged.
Watch: Anxiety is so, so common. Story continues below.
Despite all the mental health awareness campaigns, there’s still a stigma about being a medicated mother, and that needs to change. It’s not a sign of weakness. If anything, knowing you need help and doing something about it is a sign of strength. And if you’re reading this and thinking “Yep, that’s me,” I hope you’ll consider reaching out to a health professional to discuss your options, which may or may not include medication.
Oh, and by the way, we still have a ghost in the house a year later, but it’s not me. It’s my husband, who chases me and our son up the stairs every night before bed while groaning, “OOOOOooooo! OOOOOOO!” We clamber up to my son’s room, shrieking and giggling, then hide in the closet together, going, “Oh no! A ghost!” while my husband “looks” for us.
Eventually, my husband opens the closet door, and my son and I tumble out laughing, not afraid or nervous, confident that ghosts aren’t real.
Are you in a crisis? If you need help, contact Crisis Services Canada at their website or by calling 1-833-456-4566. If you know someone who may be having thoughts of suicide, read this guide from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) to learn how to talk about suicide with the person you’re worried about.