Not a Happy Camper

This past July, my husband Stewart and I went camping with our three-year old daughter Beatrix and then four-month old son Milo. We had planned the trip before Milo was born, figuring four months was just old enough to be out of the delicate newborn stage and just young enough that he wouldn’t be crawling and getting into anything. When Milo was born, I experienced postpartum depression and anxiety (commonly referred to as PPD). I had PPD with Beatrix, so I was looking for the symptoms when my son was born. Before I even left the hospital with him the nurse had me answer a questionnaire which put me at high risk for a perinatal mood disorder.

Very shortly after giving birth I began feeling anxious, depressed and angry. I had trouble bonding with my son and questioned why I ever became a mother, let alone for a second time! I gathered hope from the fact that I had gone through this before and had come out the other side stronger and better educated about PPD. Four months later, though I did have some frustrating days, I felt like I was handling things well enough to take the trip.

I was nervous about camping, but still excited. We were going to Wilderness State Park, a campground in the northern tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula – the same place where I camped when I was younger. I had great plans for us. We would roast marshmallows, swim in Lake Michigan and ride our bikes to the donut shop down the road. We would walk down to the creek to find crayfish and try to catch minnows swimming by in the lake’s clear water. We would visit Mackinaw City and eat at Mama Mia’s, a pizza place with a fun little Mackinac Bridge museum. We would relax and read and talk in whispers around the campfire. Yes, great family fun was in store. I was sure of it!

We met my brother, his wife and their three children at the campground. I was glad to have my 13-year old niece and 10- and 7-year old nephews with us. My nephews could keep Beatrix busy and my niece just loved taking care of Milo. Beatrix would sleep with her cousins in their camper. Stewart and I would sleep in the tent with Milo.

When we arrived we set up camp, made a fire, roasted hot dogs and marshmallows, and went to sleep, tired from the long drive. The next morning, we did ride our bikes to the donut shop. In the afternoon Stewart explored with the boys and Beatrix, while I sat with my sister-in-law on the beach, reading a book while Milo slept on a blanket under a large umbrella. It was a beautiful day, but I couldn’t stop thinking there was something horrible about to happen. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I decided it was just the fact that this was our first big trip with Milo. Everything was going well, so I suppressed my nervousness.

That night we sat around the campfire and watched the stars appear, but they were soon covered by clouds. We could hear faint rumblings of thunder and saw the soft glow of lightning behind the clouds. A storm was just north of us.

“It should pass us by,” my husband said.

It grew late and the wind picked up. A few drops of rain fell and everyone headed to bed. I tried to fall asleep, but noticed the thunder getting louder and the lightning getting brighter. Soon, a full-fledged thunderstorm ripped through the campground. The loud thunder and thwap-thwap-thwapping of the rain-fly kept me wide awake. Clicking on the flashlight, I checked on Milo sleeping in the portable crib next to us. He slept through it all, through the flashes of lightning and booming thunder. I thought about my daughter in the camper with my brother’s family. I started to panic. She’ll be so scared. I wanted to run to my brother’s camper so I could comfort her, but the rain was torrential. The next lightning strike shook the ground and my heart raced. I cried in my husband’s arms. He held me tight while I chanted “I hate this, I hate this, I hate this.” He stayed awake and talked to me until the storm passed. When it did, I crept out of our tent and walked close to the camper. There wasn’t a sound. Everyone was asleep. The campground was silent. I felt embarrassed and silly. Was the storm not as bad as I thought? Was no one else afraid for their lives?

The next morning I learned that my daughter had slept through the entire storm. My three-year old slept through it all, and I, a grown woman, had been so scared I had wept like a baby.

It was a sunny day, but the storm the night before had brought with it strong winds. After doing some window shopping in town with my brother’s family, Stewart and I drove our kids out to a secluded spot on Lake Michigan and the wind whipped us as we took pictures of the Mackinac Bridge. My brother’s family stayed in town, but we were beat, feeling windblown and sleep-deprived. We went back to the campground, but there was too much wind to go swimming or to even sit on the beach. Stewart and I were tired and cranky from the night before, and it was past nap time, so he took Milo into the tent, and I took Beatrix into the camper. As much as my husband and I wanted to sleep, and as much as the kids needed it, they had a different idea. Stewart and Milo joined us in the camper and, since we weren’t able to make a fire in the wind, we made peanut butter sandwiches for dinner. I looked at Stewart, his face a reflection of my exhaustion. We were grumpy, and all I wanted to do was pack the kids up and leave.

My brother’s family came back from town and my sister-in-law suggested that she watch the kids while my husband and I went for a bike ride. I breathed a sigh of relief. We would get some much-needed alone time.

The wind was still strong, but dying down a bit. We pedaled down the road that winds along Lake Michigan. It meets up with a gravel road that leads to a small peninsula. I remembered driving on the gravel road with my parents when I was younger. We would park at the end and walk out to the point.

“Let’s try it,” said my husband.

“Sure,” I said, “but it’s starting to get dark and I’m not sure how long it will take us on our bikes.” In my head, I was calculating how long until sunset, and how long it had been since I had last nursed the baby. I didn’t think there was enough daylight or time to reach the end or the road, let alone ride back. Once on the gravel road, with thick woods surrounding us on both sides, it got darker still. I started to worry, and voiced my concern to my husband. In reality, I could still see the sun and knew it would be quite a while yet till sunset, but it felt dark. I hadn’t told my sister-in-law where the bottle and formula was. I panicked a little, but remembered she’s a mother of three and could soothe a hungry infant for a short time till we returned. I knew this, but I felt that if I didn’t get back soon, my baby would go hungry.

My chest tightened, and I began having a hard time breathing. My fears took over and I couldn’t control the thoughts in my head. I was sure that a bear, or a serial killer, or, worse yet, some supernatural creature was going to attack us. I was going to die. It would get dark and I wouldn’t be able to see whatever it was that was going to kill me.

“I think we should turn around,” I told my husband as calmly as possible.

“Let’s just go a little bit more and see if we get to the end,” he said.

“Okay,” I replied, not wanting him to know how scared I was. My hands gripped the handlebars and I tried to breathe, but the thoughts kept flooding my mind. Panicky, I looked to the woods and saw a large dark shape. Just a fallen tree, Mandy. Calm down. But I couldn’t. My mind was split in two between reality and raw emotion. The fear was as real as if I had seen a bear. I shuddered, feeling as if someone was watching me, following me.

“It’s getting dark. We need to turn around,” I said.

“There’s enough light.” Stewart continued riding.

“Stewart, I feel like something is going to attack us,” I told him, embarrassed.

He replied with a laugh, thinking I was joking.

“No, really, we have to turn around.” I stopped my bike and planted my feet.

Stewart saw me stop, sensed the fear in my voice, and he agreed to turn around. Heading back, I was relieved; I knew we would be out of the woods soon. Still, scenes straight from a horror movie flooded my mind. I distracted myself by telling Stewart a story about when I was younger and exploring that same peninsula with my brothers and sister. My brother had excitedly called me over to show me something he had in his hand (which I later learned was a booger he had picked from his own nose – lovely). I thought this story would lighten the mood a little.

“My brother found something and wanted to show it to me – ”

“What? A dead body?” Stewart interjected. In retrospect I think he was trying to be funny, trying to lighten the mood also, but since I was already thinking about serial killers, the thought of a dead body only escalated my fears.

“Never mind,” I said, gritting my teeth. Not only was I having a panic attack, but I was angry now too. A wave of emotion came over me and I began to cry. I was a pathetic mess, sobbing and trying to pedal my bike.

“I’m having a really f***ing hard time right now! And you’re talking about dead bodies?” I yelled.

Stewart was silent for a moment, then he put his hand on my shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I want to hear the rest of the story.”

I took some deep breaths, and, while sniffling, finished my booger story. We both laughed.

The sky lightened once we left the dirt road and started on the wider, paved road. The fear was still there, but its physical effect was gone. I could breathe again, and the invisible hand squeezing my chest loosened its grip.

We returned to the campground. A fire was going, and a bottle of wine had been opened. The kids were in the camper and Milo was sitting in his aunt’s lap, smiling. I sat down, accepted a glass of wine and tried to forget the panic I had felt. We talked and laughed, watching the firelight grow dimmer and dimmer.

The next day was warm and sunny. I felt calm and was able to enjoy myself. We spent the day on the beach, then packed our things up and headed home.

I hoped that the bike ride from hell was just a one-time experience, but when we returned home, my fears surfaced again, this time taking the form of imaginary burglars and serial killers breaking into my home. Every time I heard the floor creak, I was sure someone had gotten in the house. A movie reel played over and over in my head of a man walking up the stairs, holding a knife, entering my bedroom without making a sound. I could see the bloodied bodies of my family. I couldn’t stop the visions no matter how hard I tried. I would place my hand on my husband’s chest, just to feel him still breathing. My heart would race, keeping pace with my mind.

A few days after returning home we visited my in-laws, who have access to a beach. Stewart and I went swimming while my mother-in-law watched the kids. I couldn’t enjoy myself. I was sure that at any moment I would feel something bump into me, and I would look down to see a dead, bloated body floating in the murky water.

My postpartum anxiety had resurfaced with a vengeance. I felt scared for my life, my nerves were raw, and I was exhausted. I returned to a postpartum support group I had attended several times when Milo was first born. I made an appointment with a therapist, and began taking an antidepressant. I learned that the visions I kept seeing in my head were called intrusive thoughts, and they were a normal part of PPD. Others in my support group shared their stories, and it helped to know that I was not alone. I learned ways to cope with my anxiety, and soon the medication began to work. I felt a little closer to normal.

One sunny day this fall, Stewart and Beatrix were raking the leaves in our backyard. It was early November, but the sky was blue and it was an exceptionally warm 70 degrees. Behind some overgrown weeds Beatrix saw our seldom-used fire pit.

“Dad, can we please make a fire today?” she asked. She had been collecting sticks as she was raking.

“Sure,” he replied. “Why not?”

I brought a large blanket outside and placed Milo on it with some toys. Stewart started building the fire and I took out the camp chairs.

“Stewart, do you mind if I leave you three alone for a bit?” I asked. “I’ll be back in fifteen minutes. See if you can find some campfire roasters.”

I grabbed the keys to the car and drove down the street to the grocery store. I found hot dogs, buns, a package of cookies and a few other fixings. When I returned, Stewart had already fashioned a stick into a roaster. Beatrix was admiring the fire and Milo was playing with dirt and grass. I laid out the food and we roasted our hot dogs. As we ate dinner outside I looked at my family and smiled. It felt like we were camping again, but this time my heart was light and I was happy. For a brief moment I was able to find a sense of peace in the midst of my difficult journey through PPD.

“We may not really be camping, but this,” I said to Stewart “is just perfect.”

Have you ever had an anxiety attack or intrusive thoughts? What was your experience like? What helped you cope with those thoughts and feelings? Learn more about anxiety during pregnancy and postpartum at Postpartum Support International’s website.

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8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: The New Normal | The Lorix Chronicles
  2. Trackback: My Experience with PPD: Intrusive Thoughts « The Lorix Chronicles
  3. Trackback: The Cloud is Lifting « The Lorix Chronicles
  4. Larissa
    Jan 12, 2011 @ 16:22:57

    Mandy this is fantastic!!! There were plenty of things that you said that I could completely relate to! I really look forward to continuing to read your posts! I think you’re doing a great job and I know that there are lots of us who will be able to relate and take solace in knowing we’re not alone!! Thank you!!

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  5. Aunt Judy
    Jan 09, 2011 @ 14:16:46

    Mandy, I am so sorry to learn that you’ve had such scary experiences. Also glad you have a support group, medication and therapy to help. I had PPD after my third child but I don’t remember your kinds of experiences. I was just overwhelmed with 3 kids in 4 1/2 years. No one ever talked to me about it then to identify it. I think I did that quite some time later. There is so much more information available, especially with the internet that I didn’t have. We are glad you are part of our family and you are being a great mom.

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    • lorixmom
      Jan 09, 2011 @ 20:56:51

      I do think there is a lot more information out there now, and I’m so grateful for that and for the support I have (especially my amazing husband). There are a lot of women who do not mention it to anyone, for many reasons – guilt, embarrassment, and the simple fact that a lot of people don’t understand or don’t believe that there is such a thing as PPD. I haven’t mentioned it much, not because I am ashamed, but because I just don’t know what people’s reactions will be. But I am trying to reveal my experience of PPD through my writing, and I hope that it can help others. Thanks for sharing too, Aunt Judy. I’m glad I’m part of the family – it’s a great family.

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  6. Alfreda Brodbeck
    Jan 07, 2011 @ 05:47:07

    Wow, Mandy, what a revelation. Even at my age, I still have those “intrusive thoughts” that spoil so many adventures in my life. I can’t even watch a scary movie without having nightmares for months. I never really associated them with my depression. Always just thought they were part of my quirky nature and try to pretend I am brave when I am freaking out inside. My husband and children know how I am but I hide it from others. I am labeled shy but in reality I, like you described, am having thoughts of all the horrible monsters lurking behind the sofa or around the corner in the dining room.

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    • lorixmom
      Jan 07, 2011 @ 10:19:46

      While I normally don’t like labels, it is sometimes nice to have a label for the scary things in life. Labeling it an intrusive thought helps me realize that the thought is not mine and I don’t have to give it any attention. I try to visualize something else (something happy – like me laying on a warm sunny beach) so that I don’t focus on the intrusive thought.

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