Pregnancy and postpartum hormones make the world go round—they can create lives and sustain them, but they can also make mothers feel like monsters.
Hormones are the guardians of our sanity, and mine went barreling down the black diamond trail after I had both of my daughters. The challenge of raising a newborn is substantial for those who have normal levels of estrogen and progesterone, but it can be far worse when those hormones are out of balance.
My two girls, Elaine and Olivia, are the apples of my eye, but giving birth to them did a number on me. Within 24 hours of each delivery, I became wracked with anxiety and started losing touch with reality. Icy panic shot through my veins on an hourly basis. I felt exiled from a world of banal, peaceful rhythms.
I can’t remember ever once standing over my newborns’ crib to dote while they slept. I was completely preoccupied with my own sleep, or lack thereof. I rolled in the sheets, listening to my husband’s heavy breathing with envy. I felt completely isolated, abandoned. I tried to sleep everywhere, anywhere. Under my desk. On the floor. Far away from the crib. In my tiny sedan outside.
I eked out a few hours here and there, but each night as the sun set, my anxiety would skyrocket as that “what-if” monster straddled my brain: What if I can’t sleep and I fall apart and lash out at my loved ones and fail to care for my newborn and I disappoint everyone? I wondered, hourly, if I would ever see my girls laugh, toss their hair, and run together in the grass.
The first time around, I didn’t understand what was happening to me—I had heard of postpartum depression, but not anxiety. I had a smooth pregnancy and a natural birth resulting in a healthy pink bundle of love. My child was not colicky, my husband was present and supportive, and we had a family that was thrilled by this new little life. Why was I so consumed with dread? To make matters worse, I reflected on all these reasons that I ought to be in baby bliss and felt guilty about its absence.
Of course, I had a darker, more complicated backstory to help explain things—including a complicated relationship with my own mother, which enhanced my fears of becoming an unstable mother. But predictive as it was of my postpartum insomnia and panic attacks, that alone didn’t fully explain my circumstances. Something else was roiling beneath the psychological surface, in a collision of brain and spirit that seemed hell-bent on forcing me to choose between caring for this new life and taking my own.
I needed medical help—but there was one problem: In my mind, to make any chemical do what only the Cross was supposed to do demonstrated a lack of trust in Jesus. My faith had blossomed in a church that forbade drinking alcohol and taking mind-altering drugs. I recall sermons focused on the importance of “clean Christian living” and warnings that booze and weed were at odds with the things of God.
Ephesians 5:18 was often invoked in these moments and was always—at least in my memory—quoted from the King James Version: “Be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit.” This sat well with me since I had grown up in the shadow of alcoholism, with a grandfather whose regular stints of sobriety were possible only because of my grandma’s hawk-like surveillance.
For much of my life, the obvious answer to addiction was a fundamentalist theology. This was the lens I had when first I encountered the infamous work of Damien Hirst on a vacation to Italy. At some point in Venice, we visited a small art gallery exhibition open to the public—and there, in a city filled with religious icons, we walked into what appeared to be a holy shrine to pharmaceuticals.
Everywhere I looked, there were Christian symbols decorated with medical pills of every shape and hue. On the walls were Stations of the Cross posters covered in phrases hearkening to specific moments in the biblical narrative, with Scriptures cited along with prescription bottles imaged in various concentrations. In each piece of artwork, devotion was visually conflated with the promotion of brand-name drugs. And amidst all the displays were a variety of human skulls lacquered in brilliant colors.
But one comparatively understated piece was the most striking to me, and it remains lodged in my memory: a simple cedarwood cross with pills fixed in resin in the center of its beams.
At that point in my personal history—years before my double bout with postpartum mental illness—I could see two different but equally valid ways to interpret this artwork. The first was blatantly obvious: It was a statement about the addictive power of religion, an artistic representation of Karl Marx’s statement that religion is “the opiate of the masses.”
When God becomes an idea or belief system rather than a loving and active being, we end up using that god to protect us from reality. In that sense, I felt indicted by the artwork. I had been guilty of this in my younger years of faith, when religion gave me distance from my family’s pain.
The other interpretation was to point out how pharmaceuticals, both legal prescriptions and medically necessary mind-altering drugs, had become a replacement for God in contemporary society. After all, who needs prayer, community, and trusting surrender when Valium can take your hurting and loneliness away? Who needs Christ’s atonement when you have anxiety pills?
And even though at that point in my life I cognitively understood there were legitimate medical reasons to take painkillers, sedatives, and antidepressants, I couldn’t separate that from the alcohol abuse I’d witnessed as a child. How is someone who opens a bottle of booze in times of anxiety any different than someone who turns to a bottle of pills?
But today, I look at Damien Hirst’s crucifix quite differently. More than an indictment or warning, it has become a symbol of hope. And yet that was only after immense suffering, transformed by the Holy Spirit, altered my vision. It was only after I experienced the kind of self-implosion that drives people to drink and anesthetize.
I remember one night, deep in postpartum anxiety, when I tried to keep my thoughts of self-harm at bay by focusing on a mental image. The best I could come up with was a picture of my own hand cutting mini crosses in my flesh. Over and over, I made the sign of the cross and was finally able to fall asleep—a rare win.
All I wanted was some blessed rest—because with it, I thought, I could be a capable mother and not fail my new little one. But like grace itself, sleep slips away the more we strive to grasp it. And the pursuit is simply maddening.
I didn’t know how to help myself. What I knew, what I had been taught in my childhood, was to cope through self-shame. But shame is to anxiety what gasoline is to fire. And when I look back, I see a sad irony that the very thing I feared—failing as a mother—was what would have happened if I had listened to the voice of despair and ended my life.
I spent whole days in prayer—prayers that were as heartfelt as they had ever been and at times loud enough to disturb the neighbors. I was surrounded by community and leaned into my family like I have never done before. I also discovered a wonderful Christian therapist and started faithfully employing cognitive behavioral therapy techniques. I even found a Christian naturopath who helped me with supplements to revitalize my exhausted body.
After weeks on end of insomnia and panic attacks, I had won some significant battles. But overall, I was losing the war. I still needed pharmaceutical help.
Ultimately, my battle with the physiological illness of postpartum anxiety became an invitation to a deeper spiritual life. I had to confront my deep fear of a material world where chemicals can destroy us. But what I had not considered was that the material, the chemical, and the physical might save us.
I’d grown up reading Scriptures affirming Jesus’ incarnation and its importance for our salvation, but I hadn’t yet integrated it with my own lived experience until I was an adult.
The church has always wrestled with God’s embrace of the material world through the Incarnate Christ. This is evident in the Christological controversies in the fourth century. For instance, Arius and Apollinaris struggled to accept the fact that Jesus was “fully human in every way” (Heb.2:14-17, emphasis mine).
In response to this and other heresies of his time, Gregory of Nazianzus explained that only Christ’s holistic humanity can atone for our sin and all its effects—for “that which is not assumed is not healed.” In other words, Jesus had to become fully human to fully heal our broken humanity.
I didn’t need Jesus to just strengthen my spirit in these moments of crisis—I needed him to heal my body as well. And whether that healing comes through supernatural or natural means, we know that every good and perfect thing comes from him (James 1:17).
Slowly, with the Holy Spirit’s illumination, I began to see my shiny anti-anxiety pills as part of God’s good provision for the good body he created, not signs of a weak faith. For just as Jesus embraced his physical body, so should we.
Today I brush my daughters’ hair and supervise as they brush their teeth. They can hardly stand still for the ritual, and soon they’re bounding off to play chase. From my bathroom, I hear them giggle as I fill a glass of water and take my Prozac.
I swallow, and it does feel like a kind of blessed sacrament—an affirmation of the body Jesus created, which will one day be fully healed like his resurrected body.