I was sitting on the couch holding K. She had been home with us for about six weeks. One minute, we were just sitting there together, and all was quiet. She was sleeping in my arms. I glanced out the window of our 18th story condo, and I suddenly had this horrifying image of her falling to the street below.
Boom! Out of f*cking nowhere, I was in the throes of a massive panic attack. Sweat slicked down my brow. On shaking legs, I jumped up from the couch and began pacing. Andrew was at work. I started to cry, trembling and heaving.
I stuffed K into the Baby Bjorn and rode down 18 floors on the elevator. I had to get away from the windows, the balcony, the terror. What the f*ck was happening? I walked in the numb freezing Chicago cold, letting the icy wind cool my sweat and slow my pulse. After an indeterminate length of time, I felt ready to return to my apartment.
As soon as I stepped off the elevator and walked down the corridor to our unit, my heart began racing again. I could not go inside. My warm and cozy home, the place where I had been joyfully nesting only that morning, was now the scene of terror. This is how phobias are born.
I called my husband at work and did something I never do. I cried and asked him to come home.
I hadn’t asked him to come home a year earlier on the day that I walked three miles from my office to my apartment, leaving work without so much as a word, after running into a former colleague who saw my flat-again belly and asked how the baby was doing, and I stared at him and said, “dead” and flinched at my own bluntness and walked out without even putting on my coat.
I hadn’t asked him to come home when I learned six months later that the birthmother we had been making an adoption plan with was actually fake, that she wasn’t even pregnant. I had already put in for maternity leave and had spent hours upon hours talking with her on the phone, and then the truth came out. I cried for two weeks straight; I was furious and vulnerable and betrayed, but I was still grounded.
But this. This was more than I could bear alone. I didn’t know what to do or who to talk to. I didn’t have a clear cause or an enemy to point to; there was no reason to explain why I was suddenly unable to breathe.
It was exactly the opposite. I had everything I wanted. I finally had my baby. The foster care nightmare was over, and we had gained custody of K. She was safe. This was supposed to be the happiest time of my life. I was in the midst of my maternity leave, with hours and hours alone each day to dote on my baby.
And suddenly I felt like I was crawling out of my own skin.
Help, I whispered, choking on my sobs.
I believe in you, Andrew told me. But I can’t help you on my own. Call Susan, he said, and she can help. Susan was the grief counselor who worked with us when we lost Matthew. Week after week, we would speak with her, often on the phone via conference call, as she coaxed us through our misery. And when we found ourselves tangled up in a very messy adoption, it was Susan who spoke with me each week and reassured me that even if the adoption fell through, I would survive. I was a survivor, she helped me to see. I survived Matthew and I would survive K, if need be.
But I didn’t have to survive K, because it worked out. All the terror and uncertainty of the past 14 months was done. Why was I now brought to my knees with a gaping nameless fear?
I called Susan at home at 9 pm on a weeknight and she answered. I explained what was happening.
It makes perfect sense, she mused. Up until now, you have been going a million miles an hour, barely stopping to absorb the magnitude of your stresses and loss. Just think, she reminded me, of how you channeled your grief and anxiety into the adoption process. You barely acknowledged the one-year anniversary of losing Matthew, because you were in the middle of taking custody of K. For all these months, you have been working a heavy schedule and traveling and moving through a highly stressful adoption, and now everything has stopped.
Don’t you see? she asked me. The fear of K falling over the balcony is about your fear of attachment. This tiny fragile person is completely relying on you, and it terrifies you. You couldn’t save Matthew from his illness, and now you are afraid that something will happen that will prevent you from saving K. Without work to distract you, there is time and space for your mind to dip into the places it has been afraid to confront.
It made sense. So much f*cking sense. I told her about the nightmare that had awakened me the night before. I had dreamed that K was in the bathtub, and the water was running. The phone rang, and I stepped out of the bathroom to grab the portable phone. But the bathroom door locked behind me, and K was alone in the tub, with the water rising, and I couldn’t get to her. I banged on the door, screaming, knowing she would soon be submerged. When I jerked awake, it had taken me a long time to stop shaking.
Yes, Susan said softly. You were afraid that you couldn’t save her. You are processing the traumas of the past year. That is why you are having panic attacks.
Talking with Susan was my lifeline. I do not know if I could have survived that time without her steadiness. But I did. And I learned about the phenomenon of Post Adoption Depression, which in my case was Post Adoption Anxiety. It feels like a secret burden you have to bear, because nobody understands how you can possibly be unhappy now that you finally have what you have wanted for so long – a baby.
The good news? It gets better, oh so much better. Within a few weeks, I had clawed my way back from the edge. Within a few months, the waters receded, and I was joyfully standing in the sun, my baby strapped to my body, my arms outstretched reaching for the sun. K and I basked in the warmth and security of the spring.
Thank you to Susan and Andrew for your unwavering support when I needed you most.
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