These are the scissors, and this is the baby. Scissors. Baby. Scissors. Baby.
The blades gleamed on the kitchen island a full ten feet from where she slept in her bouncer on the floor. I didn’t want to hurt my baby. Of course. But what if I did?
My brain hovered between danger and peace. A bewildering place for a mother.
“It’s not all the time,” I explained to CNP Samantha Blood at my next postpartum appointment, packing the danger down into an invisible box inside me. “Just once in a while. My brain gets stuck. Like a sweater on a snag. It’s normal, right?”
CNP Blood eyed me seriously. “It may be common. But it’s not normal. You may be able to live with it. But you don’t have to.”
I knew where she was going. My family doc tried to pawn off a Zoloft script on me years ago during my college burnout, citing the unfortunate fact that “kids are having a hard time growing up and accepting the responsibilities of life these days.” Back then, I resisted. Partly because I didn't appreciate the indictment. Partly because anxiety was for weaker people with bigger problems.
Postpartum anxiety gets less press and formal study than postpartum depression, yet according to the Cleveland Clinic, it affects between 11 and 21 percent of women. Practitioners like CNP Blood know it when they see it: obsessive thoughts, fear of leaving your baby with another trustworthy adult, and in some cases fear of leaving her with yourself.
I carried into that office past paranoias from Christian subcultures I’ve been involved with: Like Educated author Tara Westover who trembled with terror to take ibuprofen, I was gun-shy about medication. Particularly psychotropics. But I would do anything to keep my baby safe—even take care of myself, if someone would show me how. CNP Blood didn’t pry or judge. I accepted her script for twenty-five milligrams and her referral to Psychiatrist Mary.
I took the tiny pod of blue Zoloft each night and washed it down with a prayer. What was I asking for? Absolution for possible idolatry?
But it worked. The prayer and the medicine. Maybe the prayer through the medicine. It worked so well that by the time I saw Mary, my dangerous thoughts could fly right out of my head without getting stuck. Of course, psychiatrists prefer no dangerous thoughts to many dangerous thoughts that fly away fast. These professionals, having nothing to do with your silly martyrdom, believe the thoughts can and should be done away with completely.
“Were you an anxious kid?”
“I don't know. I mean, I was scared at night. I was afraid ticking clocks were bombs.”
Mary gave me a full ninety minutes. I wasn’t new to therapy and I didn’t mind being laid bare: I had a harrowing delivery with my first baby and did EMDR just a few months before in preparation for this second baby’s birth.
“This anxiety was waiting for you,” Mary said, her grainy voice straightforward but gentle. “You have a history of trauma. You have a history of anxiety. Combined, they almost guaranteed you would go through this.”
I carried these new designations out of the office of Mary, now my friend, along with a prescription upped to fifty.
All this happened in 2019, the year Christian philosopher and writer J.P. Moreland’s book Finding Quiet came out. I had read Moreland’s Love Your God with All Your Mind in my undergrad logic class at Patrick Henry College, the school journalist Hanna Rosin had fittingly nicknamed God’s Harvard. Now I flew to this name I trusted and knew, this Moreland, propping his little white book on the windowsill when I got up to lay the nursed baby in her crib. Through his personal story of debilitating anxiety and then his careful imparting of what helped, Moreland was giving me a gift I took with both hands and now share with as many Christians as I can: God is the healer of every facet of the person, including the brain that needs medicine.
At God’s Harvard, the nurse, Mrs. Schrieber—a standout and new addition to a campus where students had had next to no psychological and medical support before—told me most Patrick Henry students under-medicate. When migraines hit, she helped me inch up from two ibuprofen to three. That was the beginning of me making peace with medicine, which can be really hard if you’re religious and ambitious and intense and are used to buying tinctures out of a church lady’s kitchen cabinet.
Long since graduated and now staring down the gauntlet of motherhood, I retook the book from the sill and listened to Moreland:
“Some hold the idea, ‘I can be strong and spiritually mature enough to rely on the Lord alone to solve my anxiety issues without turning to medications.’ . . . Do any of us “rely on the Lord alone’ for headaches, skin cancer, diarrhea, a broken leg, or a severely abscessed tooth? No, we pray and take medicine and go to the doctor.”
Christians can take anti-anxiety meds without guilt because “biblical anthropology is functionally holistic.” It “teaches that the various aspects of a human person—the mind, emotions, body, soul, spirit, will, and so forth—all affect each other in complicated ways. Among other things, this implies there will be a bodily component to spiritual or psychological problems, and to tackle those problems, a person will need to address all the affected aspects of himself or herself, including the brain . . .”
During my time at God’s Harvard, people left for a variety of reasons. They couldn’t hack it academically. Their amply-populated homeschool families ran out of money to sustain them there. They decided to go study piano at Bob Jones or return home to Oregon to become a nurse.
Or they got so depressed they had to leave.
We regarded this last group with hushed curiosity and compassion, meanwhile having no idea how hard school was on our mental health. We knew a lot about Plato and Edmund Burke and John Milton, but we didn’t know our own brains yet. Our brains weren’t even fully formed.
I had my babies in another religious context that asked a lot of my brain: leading a church small group of middle-aged ladies as a mere twenty-something. Way over my head and way beyond my volunteer pay grade, I walked with one of them through a situation of domestic abuse. During my second pregnancy, progesterone roaring, I dreamed in horrible vividness about this woman’s violent husband lurking in my kitchen at night, chasing me across our rural Pennsylvania route then shooting himself in front of me.
I measure my mental health with a marker on the living room wall, so to speak: My nightmares have vanished. I never get scared in my house alone.
This summer, my baby turned three years old. With each of her birthdays, I silently mark my Zoloft-iversary too. I measure my mental health with a marker on the living room wall, so to speak: My nightmares have vanished. I never get scared in my house alone. Before, even a drive into our tiny Pennsylvania borough made my heart race, and I avoided navigating neighboring towns if I could. But in August we moved to a new city where I cruise through four lanes of traffic without a twinge. So many fears I thought were me were anxiety, and so many are now gone.
Some what-ifs: Anxiety can trigger migraines too, and Zoloft works as a preventative. What if I had known I had anxiety twenty years ago? Would I have had five hundred fewer migraines by now? Fewer religious obsessions? (I kept a list as a young teenager of things I feared I loved more than God, including orange Trident gum and the TV show 24.) As a desperately private kid, I spent my life counting the harrowing transitions I would have to go through: Bras. Deodorant. Leg shaving. Driving. BIRTH. How many moments would I have spent not dreading what came next? Would I not have passed out in driver’s ed? Would I have coped better in college and gotten a higher GPA? Would my first childbirth have been less traumatic if anxiety about displeasing the medical staff with my never-ending labor hadn’t consumed me? Would fewer imaginary assailants have lurked in my house at night and fewer clocks have almost exploded?
Without the deep fear I felt for my baby and myself, and without Moreland’s help, I may never have acknowledged I was born anxious. My little girl stands before me now on her long legs in a new purple dress, her pert ponytail peeking out, her blue eyes sparkling. She loves peekaboo, putting things away, closing cupboard doors, ring around the rosy. She may not know it, but she also loves having a mother who is well.
Cover image by Amjd Rdwan.