For Rachel McKibben, first-time motherhood was blissful.
“I had a perfect delivery. I had a perfect postpartum period. My son and I had great bonding, great experience,” she said. “So I feel like I had those memories when we were starting to plan for Paige.”
The beginning of her second pregnancy was smooth, but things started to “deteriorate” about halfway through. Rachel was gaining a lot of weight – the baby was very heavy – and then a month before she delivered, she contracted shingles and Bell’s palsy.
“That was my first time I ever had a panic attack because I thought I was having a stroke. I was driving in the car with my husband and … I had numbing and we thought that I was having a stroke,” she said.
Adding to the stress, the family was living with Rachel’s mother-in-law and moved to their own home seven days before her daughter was born.
Rachel was told that she could not be placed with the newborns in the hospital because shingles is caused by the chicken pox virus and newborns have not been exposed to the virus or vaccinated. She worked with infectious disease specialists to prepare to give birth and was told she would be placed in isolation when she delivered.
“It kind of stirred up a lot of anxiety for me, thinking here I’m going to be in isolation, this is not the way I delivered my son,” she said. “I think it would be anxiety-provoking to anyone, let alone being told you’re going to have to be in an isolation area. You’re not going to be able to be with your daughter. And then my daughter was born, and then I had to worry about her being exposed to the chicken pox.”
Rachel loves snow and was delighted to discover a dusting on the ground on the December day her daughter was scheduled to be delivered via C-section.
“I thought, OK, maybe this is my small bright spot. Maybe this is going to be the thing that’s going to make things a little bit different and today’s going to be a new day. I tend to be very optimistic,” she said.
She checked into the hospital and waited to be taken to the operating room.
“As soon as they took me into the OR … I felt like something had changed. During the whole procedure of them taking her out, I can’t explain it but something totally changed. And I almost felt like I wasn’t really there. I could hear the echoes and the sounds of what was going on and it was really kind of daunting to me. And I just shut down,” she said.
Paige was healthy but Rachel wasn’t interested in her and had her husband, Chris, care for the baby. During her hospital stay, Rachel started having panic attacks more frequently. She would walk around the halls, pushing Paige in her bassinet, and leave the baby when the panic attacks hit. At night, she was angry with Paige because the baby was causing extreme anxiety for her.
“It was so different from my first experience with my son, it was just a wonderful experience. And here I had this daughter that I wanted and I pined for and it was so not what I expected,” she said.
A nurse told Rachel she was showing signs of postpartum depression and suggested she start medication. When Rachel refused, another nurse came to her room and urged her to reconsider. Rachel discussed her situation with her OB/GYN, who said she was just nervous because she was in the hospital.
When she went home, she had panic attacks every night, which led to more anxiety as she worried she’d have another panic attack. Her days were spent trying to find someone to help, making phone calls to crisis hotlines.
“So it was just a cycle after a cycle that every night, every day was the same thing,” she said. “I think what ended up happening was that I was collapsing inside, looking on the exterior like things were OK, and everything was not OK.”
Two weeks after Paige’s birth, Rachel’s OB/GYN told her she was experiencing baby blues, but when Rachel was not better a week later, he prescribed an antidepressant. Rachel panicked about the list of side effects and decided not to take the medication. She went to a local counseling center where she was connected with a psychiatrist who diagnosed her with postpartum panic and anxiety disorder. She started therapy and was given a different medication, which she also decided not to take.
“So when I finally got to the point where I started to have delusional thinking and just repetitive, negative thoughts, not being able to feel comfortable by myself because I was afraid I might do something - I was really not taking care of Paige the way I should have been - I made the decision that I was not safe to be alone and I tried to start the medication,” she said.
A few days later, she was worse and her husband called the counseling center. He was told to bring Rachel to Riverview Hospital for evaluation. That led to a five-day hospitalization in a psychiatric hospital.
The psychiatric hospital was not prepared to care for a new mother – no one checked her incision or provided a breast pump to help her engorged breasts. Her father, a licensed social worker in Maine, took over, creating a discharge plan that involved medication, therapy, psychiatric treatment, a support group and a doula to help at home.
“I don’t know necessarily if coming home was a good thing. Chris and I have talked about that. Maybe I should have stayed there a little longer. Because when I got home, it wasn’t better,” she said. “I was catatonic, totally catatonic. I mean, I was 100 percent in bed, staring at a wall for weeks.”
Her husband worked from home so he could take care of his family. The doula came each night to help care for Paige while Chris focused on Trevor and Rachel was able to sleep.
The delusional thoughts subsided within three weeks, but it took a long time for the medication to alleviate the panic attacks. Six months after Paige was born, Rachel felt good. But it wasn’t until Paige was 15 months old – and Rachel had been weaned off medication – that she finally felt like herself.
“I started to feel really connected with her. I had a good time with her. I enjoyed being home with her. I enjoyed our time. But I would say, really up until that point, I don’t think I was me,” she said.
Rachel’s postpartum experience has led her to be more supportive of others, especially her friends who have children.
“I like being an advocate for postpartum. I tell anyone about it because I think that people suffer in silence all the time. And it’s unnecessary,” she said. “You can’t be held up in a stereotype that being a new mom is always going to be blissful and wonderful.”
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