Home Home About Zen Mama Contact

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Death Journal - My Struggle with Anxiety

When I had my C-section, it was on an emergency basis and I was given literally zero information about what was going on. Nobody even told me when our son was out. My first clue as to his arrival was his cry. They also failed to fill me in on the meds they pushed through my IV as they were finishing up the operation. This is how it all went down:

You’ve read the story of my son’s birth, so I’ll skip all that. Someone (I have no idea who, because, again, no one was communicating with me) whisked away our son and my husband went with him (as well he should have). I was on that table all alone when all of a sudden I felt myself slipping away. I believed myself to be dying. I could not speak. I felt as if I were being pulled down by some unknown force. I felt like I was being sucked into a vortex and I just knew that was the end. I felt like everything was closing in on me – I was shutting down. I just kept thinking, “I can’t leave my son. I can’t leave my husband.” I fought and fought to stay awake, to stay alive. I fought the forces that were holding me, pulling me, urging me, and after a long, hard battle, I won. I was exhausted and I had never been more terrified. I could not believe the bullet I had just dodged. I had been given a second chance at life.

Thus, my anxiety began. The first week of my son’s life was full of recovery from major surgery, infection and popped staples, two of the most helpful IBCLC visits I could’ve asked for, the most wonderful postpartum visit during which our midwife cried at the sight of our beautiful son (one of the many, many reasons I love midwives instead of OBs, but that is for another post), and all the standard adjustments, swooning, and awe. The second week is when my sister-in-law, a labor and delivery nurse and mom of three, came to visit and help. One night, I confided in her that I had almost died. She was appalled that they had pushed meds to help me sleep without telling me! I had no idea! I didn’t almost die after all. And what the heck were they doing trying to get me to sleep, when I wanted to breastfeed my son immediately? The whole thing was one colossal something-or-other-that-I-won’t-say-because-I’m-trying-to-be-Zen!

Strangely, this revelation did little to assuage my new-found anxiety. It should have, but it didn’t. I became obsessed with the fear that I could die and leave my little family without a mom and wife. It started with just frantic crying at the very thought of leaving them, escalated to drilling my husband regularly about what to do if this or that happens and what he should do in case of x, y, or z, and finally came to a head when I started writing The Death Journal.

I actually went out and bought a beautiful leather-covered journal for the sole purpose of writing down every detail my husband would need to know in order to raise my son without me. Every night I breastfed my son to sleep and then sat up to write pages and pages by nightlight all the while crying at the thought of leaving them alone. The journal contains snippets about what size clothes my son was wearing at the time, how often to change his diaper, where to get donor milk, which Facebook pages my husband should consult, how to care for and what to expect from my son’s intact penis (since my husband was cut, so has no first-hand knowledge of such things), what books I want covered in which grades during homeschooling, how to help my son through the transition should my husband decide to ever start dating and eventually marry again, and oh so very much more. I wanted to leave nothing to chance. I was consumed. I had one ‘brush with death’ and I just knew with my next I wouldn’t be so lucky.

Here is an excerpt from crazy-town:
• Please live with my parents as long as they’ll allow or until he is in 1st grade, whichever comes last…you’ll need help
• Teach him about God and heaven so he knows I’m still around and always with him, watching over him
• Never make him feel bad or uncomfortable about his body or bodily functions
• Don’t let him pull the cats’ tails
• Nails need clipping every 7-10 days
• Go to counseling right away and for as long as you need – take him, too, if you think it would help
• Have him always write ‘thank you’ cards for not only gifts, but deeds, too
• It is OK, good even, to show emotion after I am gone, but you can’t allow yourself to be mired with depression – you have to be there, really there, for your son
• He’s a red-head, so he’s less susceptible to pain meds – don’t let anyone tell you any different. Fight for him!
• You might want to keep a little journal for yourself of ways he likes you to play with him
It goes on like this for scads of pages. Not all are this crazy, but some are more so.

It didn’t stop with the journal. When I wasn’t writing, I was quizzing my husband on what was in said volume. I knew there was a chance he wouldn’t read every vital detail, so I made sure to drill it into his brain. And I did the same to my mom, who is to be my son’s guardian in case of both my husband’s and my untimely demise. There was no amount of pestering that I felt was enough, as it was all in order to ensure my son’s best interests were being met. If I had to go, and I was sure I was going to, I had to make sure I could take care of him as best as possible given that I wouldn’t actually be there to do so.

When I finally attempted to settle down for the night, I didn’t. I laid in bed going over visions of all the things that were going to happen to me to take me away from my family, leaving my son without a mother, or, worse yet, what was going to happen to my son and husband. I just knew they were going to be hit by a car when crossing the street to go to the playground and I’d be within earshot, but out of reach. I was convinced that my husband was going to trip and fall with my son in arms, dropping him on his head and rendering him in a vegetative state at the ripe age of 6 months old. It went on endlessly. I was powerless to stop the constant movie running in my brain.
My jaw was clenched at all times. My shoulders were hunched always. Every muscle in my body was tense and ready to move should the need arise. And I had no idea this was abnormal.

Thanks to therapy, I have learned to redirect my thoughts, cope with my feelings, and let go of some of that useless anxiety. The journal has been put away, neglected for months now. I’m still a work in progress, though. The anxiety still lingers, however, it lessens day by day. The journal, though stashed, has not been trashed. The fears are there, just not as pressing.

There is a significant difference between being prepared for possibilities and being terrified of those possibilities becoming immediate emergencies. Is it possible that I could die in a car accident next week? Sure. Is it probable? No. That being the case, I have done what I advise all responsible parents to do and created a living trust so that the immediate care of my son will be taken care of should that possibility arise. Guardians have been appointed, as I said, monies have been allotted, arrangements have been made and I feel better knowing that is the case, but that it will likely not be necessary.

As with everything, I continue to try my best to be my best. Everything gets better, it just takes time, effort, and thought. I think I can give those…


  1. Wow. Your hospital experience is the exact reason I refuse to birth another baby in one. My heart started racing as I was reading it, I thought I might cry and it's not even my story. I am so sorry for the anxiety you experienced, but thank you for sharing with us. I LOVE your Death Journal, not the fact that you were so anxious you had to keep one, but because it shows what a beautiful person and mother you are. I say it all of the time, I wish I knew so many of you in real life. I'm glad you are healing, and thank you SO MUCH for sharing with us.

  2. I love how honest you are. So refreshing.

  3. So much love to you. I'm so sorry you experienced this violence towards you and your babe, and in fact, your whole family. Women matter. We matter a lot. Mothers matter. We matter a lot. I was suicidal after my caesarean and hospital experience but luckily found, after many false starts, the person and then people who could help me come back from the edge. Your sharing has made you one of the women who holds a lifeline out to others, and I cannot thank you enough for that. Holding you in my heart. <3

  4. thank you thank you for sharing! something SO similar happened to me after my csection with my daughter. i was PSYCHO about protecting her. for probably a year. and honestly. i didnt stop compulsively checking her breathing multiple times a night until I had #2 and then the compulsion just stopped. but i literally thought she might day every single night FOR FOUR YEARS. drove my husband insane because many times i would wake her in my effort to make sure she was alive and giver he one last kiss in case something happened between now and morning. Geez. looking back, I realize how nuts I was. ;)

  5. Wow... I had a very similar experience and hadn't thought to connect the c-section drugs and panic to all my crazy anxious feelings and death-obsessing that went on for over the first year (my daughter is 18 months old now and I'm much better.) I also planned a home birth and had to be transferred to the hospital, midwive and friends in tow, and after a night of progressing backwards had an unplanned, non-emergency c-section in the morning. Nobody told me they were going to make me sleep, I just heard beeping and heart rate out of control and I fell into a silent panic on the table after my husband went with our daughter and they were sewing me up. I'd told the anesthesiologist that I wanted to stay awake and be with my daughter, and it was as if a big "I told you so" moment approached when the machines and my body made me feel as if I was dying. He didn't tell me it was normal, or that he had already started the meds, but the next thing I knew I was waking up in my recovery room. I thought I would die on the table while everyone was attending to my brand new baby. My obsession with death and anxiety over being unnecessary for my daughter (since hey, I didn't even give birth to her, she was surgically removed from my body, and she didn't have this amazing connection with me since she didn't get to BF until 2 hours after birth - yeah, crazy logic) led me to go on anti-anxiety meds for about 6 months, and pursue a lot of counseling to deal with my ever-present thoughts of death. Thank you SO MUCH for sharing this and being open about The Crazy that followed your c-section, as I've been there and know it well.

    1. I'm so sorry you went through that. I had hoped mine was a fluke experience. :/

  6. Zen, I wonder if you were experiencing PTSD. One of the symptoms of PTSD can be a sense of a fore-shortened life, an impending doom, being convinced you won't live to see your child grow up/you won't live to see 40, etc.

    Anxiety is a possible cause too, of course, but PTSD and anxiety often go hand-in-hand. One comes from the other until they flow together so closely it's hard to tell one from the other. So just because you had anxiety doesn't mean you didn't have PTSD. Perhaps you had both?

    Of course, being a new parent often has many emotional implications, including a new awareness of your own mortality and the fragility of life. It's normal to have many of these thoughts. Having some doesn't necessarily mean you have PTSD.

    But for those who experience PTSD, it goes beyond the normal musings and impedes in so much of life. A pre-occupation with death and mortality can be a strong part of it. We understand this is soldiers and crime victims; we don't understand it can happen to birthing women too.

    Yet for some birthing women, birth IS a brush with death, or feels that way. It certainly can bring PTSD to the fore, especially for women who were treated poorly, experienced trauma during the birth, or who have a history of trauma when they were younger.

    Speaking as one who has been there, you CAN get through this. In time, it often recedes, and time is balm enough for healing. For some, it comes and goes, and may return to some degree when there is another pregnancy (or considering another one). Pay attention to this, because it tells you there is healing work to be done. It may feel like an illness, a sickness, but it is actually a move towards health, your body and your psyche telling you that something needs healing, needs attention.

    If you find yourself descending into obsession, you might consider EMDR, which can help process trauma enough that you can deal with the emotional processing more easily. A good therapist who "gets" that trauma can happen in birth too is important. And developing a plan for dealing with symptoms and for changing the future so trauma does not recur is particularly helpful.

    Many women who experienced PTSD from birth find that they are particularly anxious or concerned about their next birth. Remember, your next birth doesn't have to be the same; every birth is different. And of course, whether or not you ever birth again, you can heal from this. You can deal with anxiety and PTSD proactively so they don't take over your life. You are strong, you are capable, you can grow and incorporate this experience and still get beyond it.

    Just something to consider. Blessings upon your journey, whatever that is, upon your healing, and upon your family.