Stephanie Lucianovic and I first met a long, long time ago. I was working on a food magazine called CHOW. She was a recipe tester and writer, new to San Francisco. I loved how she mixed sardonic humor with insight about food and pop culture (hers is a familiar voice to fans of Television Without Pity).
Stephanie wrote about her experiences with postpartum anxiety back in 2013 when she was still in the midst of it (and before the depression set in). I wanted to ask her some questions about the experience. It's more widespread than you might realize...
MA: Did you know anything about postpartum anxiety before you were diagnosed with it?
SL: No. I knew about postpartum depression, but being told by a therapist that my racing thoughts and constant catastrophizing about my new baby was because of anxiety amplified by the postpartum stew I was in was completely new to me.
I was really (am still) annoyed that people talk so much about postpartum depression but not about postpartum anxiety. Because of this dearth of discussion, people going through it do not necessarily realize they are dealing with something real and treatable.
MA: What was the most confusing part of your experience? The most surprising?
SL: The most confusing part was trying to see a therapist. I tried to go through my health insurance company but they — of course — are a complete mess with most things but mental health services in particular. I couldn’t even call the regular access line to learn about which professionals near me took my insurance. I had to be given some completely other phone number to call and start that entire call, jab numbers, wait, jab more numbers, get a real person, explain wait, etc. process all over again. It’s not like it’s news that the health insurance industry treats mental health like some backdoor enterprise but it was demoralizing to have it confirmed in such a ridiculous way.
The most surprising part was that postpartum anxiety existed. And also that breastfeeding doesn’t ward it off or prevent it from happening, which seems to be a thing breastfeeding advocates like to trumpet.
MA: All told, how long did your postpartum anxiety last?
SL: About nine months, which is when I weaned. With my first son, I assume that’s when my postpartum depression set in but I didn’t realize it because I was making sure to get out, go for walks, go to postpartum yoga, be around other new mothers, etc. With my second son, I was managing two kids’ very different schedules, so I couldn’t just do whatever I wanted and therefore felt my postpartum depression much more keenly and disastrously. So for that second time, my postpartum anxiety went nine months but then the postpartum depression was with me for longer. It was almost a year before I felt that it had lifted.
MA: This question comes from a discussion we had about the topic. One of the first things I had to learn about worrying is that it wasn't helping me get things done. In other words, I wasn't better at my job, etc, for worrying. In what ways do you agree or disagree? What (if anything) do you think anxiety has brought to your life?
SL: I have always been a worrier. This has just been who I am. My parents called me the family “worrywart,” and I’ve grown up accepting that it’s part of me. I used to think that worrying was my way of preparing myself for how I would deal with the catastrophic. Like, that I had to think through the horrible events since I knew I was the only one who would then be prepared to deal with them while everyone else fell apart.
To some respect, worrying does/did help me get things done. I was never late with a paper in college because the impending deadline gave me so much anxiety and the same goes for every freelance writing or editing assignment I’ve ever had. Ditto when I worked in publishing and treated our various deadlines as, you know, REAL deadlines. I’ll never forget when I was twisting over whether Editorial was going to get the catalog copy finished on time and my managing editor said, “Bless her, she thinks deadlines actually matter around here!”
The best thing that happened to me was when my agent (for my book) once said to me, “Deadlines slip, print dates are moved” when I was stressing out whether or not I’d finish the manuscript on time. I did finish it on time — even a week early — but I put myself and my family through such hell during that writing time because I was so anxious that I wouldn’t make the deadline.
So, yes, anxiety has made me “productive” but all that worrying is a horrible way to live.
And yet: I know that being a picky eater is connect to being an anxious person and if I hadn’t been a picky eater for 27 years, I wouldn’t have turned into someone who adores food as much as I do now. I wouldn’t have written my first book about it.
Also, if I hadn’t been so anxious, I wouldn’t have consistently pursued the things that relieved my anxiety (running, hiking, yoga, and meditation) which now do more for me than just relieve my anxiety. For instance, if I’m blocked on a work-in-progress, I’ve gotten better (but not perfect) at backing away from it. Instead of banging my head on the keyboard, trying to beat it out of myself I go on a run or I meditate. Quite frequently, the block I was experiencing releases during one of those times. Other times meditation, hikes, or runs actually inspire new projects.
To some respects, I could say that having anxiety that needs to be managed has a direct line to being more creative and a better writer. It’s a bit like how my asthma makes me healthier because I run.
I have asthma—> Asthma is helped by lung strengthening —> Running (exercise) strengthens your lungs —> I run —> I am overall healthier because I run
MA: What do you wish people most knew about postpartum anxiety?
SL: That it’s real. That it happens. And it needs to be acknowledged, brought out into the open and talked about as much as we talk about retightening our freaking kegel muscles after giving birth.
People do not need to suffer in silence or think that what they are going through is an inability to handle being a parent.
Thank you so much for taking the time to share this info, Stephanie! I definitely want to revisit some of these topics with you again in the future.