Rachelle Hruska MacPherson
Honest Motherhood

Rachelle Hruska MacPherson

The Lignua Franca and Guest of a Guest founder shares her journey through postpartum anxiety, and how she came out the other side...

When we started The Glow back in 2011, our hope was to reveal a raw, honest side of motherhood we felt was missing from the narrative. At the time, we set out to begin a dialogue about the beautiful, messy, transformative path that we as women go through as we navigate our journeys as mothers. Through intimate photography and interviews, we’ve covered some of the most profound motherhood challenges and triumphs, while creating a supportive community along the way. Six years later, we want to deepen the conversation by sharing intimate stories written by some of the most inspiring mamas we know. Honest Motherhood is our chance to share their personal essays about issues many of us have either faced in our own lives, or can relate to on a meaningful level, while shining a light on women who have not only come out the other side, but are stronger because of their unique journeys. In the words of Maya Angelou:

“Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.”

We first met Rachelle seven months after she became a mama to her sweet little boy, Maxwell. Her lit-from-within-smile and outsize warmth won us over immediately, and she has continued to inspire us every day since. Over the years, we’ve watched her grow both personally and professionally—in the span of just a few short years, she welcomed her second son, Dash, into the world, and launched her second self-started business. Lingua Franca, a line of cashmere sweaters hand-embroidered using the same technique her grandmother taught her, started as a side project and has now grown into a full-fledged brand with a powerful political message. Perhaps what is most inspiring of all about this passionate mama is her ability to be open, honest, and vulnerable in the hopes that sharing her story will help other women will feel less alone. As someone who dealt with varying degrees of anxiety throughout her adult life, Rachelle found herself with two children under two and overtaken by the insidious disease with little hope of feeling whole again. Here, she shares her profoundly-moving, years-long journey through postpartum anxiety, and how she bravely found her way out.

My New Normal

You would have thought an alarm might have gone off in my head the afternoon when, while my four month old was soundly sleeping, I decided I must quickly gather up all of our kitchen knives and hide them away, safe and sound in our garage (read: out of my reach). It didn’t. The days where I couldn’t hold my baby next to windows or walk down the stairs with him just became my new “normal.”

No alarms went off in my head ringing “Wooowoooowoooo! YOU ARE ACTING LIKE A CRAZY PERSON!” These instances, and dozens others to follow, were all easily rationalized in my head. They had been slowly building up over the years.

I had been making excuses for my anxiety-produced behaviors almost my entire adult life and I was pretty good at it. Things that probably seem a little crazy (walking up 14 flights of stairs for a meeting in midtown instead of taking the elevator), were just my norm. I knew my trigger points, (elevators: BAD, stairs: GOOD, subway cars: BAD, cabs: GOOD, planes: very BAD), and life was good, life was manageable. I had adapted to my anxiety.

But over time, my anxiety was quietly, and stealthily morphing – from small muted voices telling me that the elevator I was standing inside of, or the airplane I was sitting inside of, were really giant metal death traps waiting to engulf me into well, how can I put this? Do you remember Mel Gibson’s crazy character “Jerry” in the movie “Conspiracy Theory?” I can totally relate.

 

Rachelle Hruska MacPherson
Things that probably seem a little crazy (walking up 14 flights of stairs for a meeting in midtown instead of taking the elevator), were just my norm. I knew my trigger points, (elevators: BAD, stairs: GOOD, subway cars: BAD, cabs: GOOD, planes: very BAD), and life was good, life was manageable. I had adapted to my anxiety.
I Couldn’t Breathe Anymore

I was paranoid about everything. Tortured by the thought of death, by thoughts of hurting my children, by the unknown, by the cracks in our basement walls, by bunched up rugs in my living room. At night I lay awake for hours, ruminating on both the petty and the momentous.

How were “normal” people getting through their days? At some point, walking down Jane Street alone, I had a legit interior mental breakdown. Our friend Maria had died months earlier. And I couldn’t get over the fact that she had just disappeared into the ethers. I couldn’t wrap it around my mind – Where did she go? Where was she now? Why does any of this matter? I was desperately seeking the divine. It felt like the Tasmanian devil was spiraling around my head and my brain was going to explode all over the cobblestoned streets.

Here’s the thing, it’s like that rule about love: you never find it when you’re looking for it. And, when you’re desperate to find the answers to the hardest questions that exist, you just find yourself further away from what you are looking for. At least I did.

Looking back at my Instagram from this time, I looked like a happy new mother. But, oh you guys, I was basically a jumbled mess of slush on the inside.

Rachelle Hruska MacPherson
Rachelle Hruska MacPherson
Two Under Two

I didn’t get postpartum the way most people told me I would. The birth of my first son, Maxwell, was pretty ideal. I had an epidural, a swift but not aggressively fast labor, and he was an incredible baby—he breastfed easily, and slept through the night at four weeks. Life was good.  After the birth of my second son, Dash, whose labor was three weeks early and totally intense—so fast I didn’t have time for an epidural—I really didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. I didn’t realize the anxiety was ratcheting up slowly, slowly, slowly, until it was too late. But also? Having a one year old on the side? This was a whole new experience. I started feeling incapable of doing basic things, things that I reasoned every capable and competent mother should be able to do. Things like taking my kids on a walk to the farmer’s market, or to the playground, or to gymnastics class alone. Alone being the operative word.

After awhile, (in hindsight I realized it was right after I stopped breast feeding), I didn’t trust myself to leave the house alone with my boys ever. My mind would race: “You will have a panic attack again, you always are having them, why wouldn’t you have one now? You will have one and you will pass out and you will leave your two year old and infant in the middle of a street in New York City with no one there.” it said.

Fact: I couldn’t leave the house with my children alone. Fact: I was spending my mornings in bed crying and almost every shower on the floor.

“They” say it’s harder for one to see themselves than it is for others to see them. For me, there were only a couple of people who truly knew what was going on. I think the rest of the world didn’t have a clue what was going on in my illness-ridden head, myself included; partially because everyone is just trying to get through their own days, and partially because I was so good at hiding it, even from myself.

Rachelle Hruska MacPherson
Rachelle Hruska MacPherson
Black Days

I can’t tell you where the anxiety began, (nature, nurture, hormones? who cares?), but I can tell you this, by baby #2, I wasn’t able to negotiate my way back to safety. I was having panic attacks almost daily. The walls were closing in on me, and not just sporadically, not just on airplanes or enclosed spaces. They were closing in on me everywhere I went. And so, I mostly just stayed home, the only place I felt safe.

My internal voices almost became poetic in their dire warnings.  And, it didn’t help that life was imitating art.

I DID start having panic attacks while out with my boys. I DID have to rush out of gymnastics class with my two year old son and scream for a cab and then slip the driver a note with my husband’s cell phone number on it and tell him to call him if I was passed out, (or dead if you want to know where my mind really was), when we got back to the house.

Each panic attack set me back days into depression.

Black days.

Days in bed.

Days in a ball on the floor of our shower.

People sometimes ask me what a panic attack feels like. The first one, before I knew what they were, felt like what I imagine a heart attack does. You may have chest pains, confusion, lack of control, hot flashes, and terrifying thoughts. Imagine you are in a box and the walls are caving in on you. The funny thing is, you don’t get “better” at handling panic attacks the more of them you have, at least I didn’t. For me, every single one felt like death was the absolute ending. Like there was no question I was going to be dead by the end of it, and they felt never ending.

And, when you constantly feel like you’re dying, everything around you becomes surreal and exhilarating. You adapt to this constant heightened state and it’s totally unsustainable…and so you crash.

I was still working almost full time. Answering emails and calls as if nothing was out of the ordinary. The irony wasn’t lost on me that I was running a website with the tagline: “People, Places, Parties,” and I was terrified of all three.

Rachelle Hruska MacPherson
The irony wasn’t lost on me that I was running a website with the tagline: “People, Places, Parties,” and I was terrified of all three.
The Day it All Came Crashing Down

I was in my car driving my two year old and six month old from my husband’s latest “about to be hip” downtown hotel, which was still in construction. It was a test. I hadn’t driven in months and took half of a Xanax to help with the anxiety. I told myself that I could do it. I willed myself to do it. I told myself it would prove I didn’t need help, I was getting over it. Whatever “it” was. I was STRONG. I was not weak. I was STRONG. I was CAPABLE.

I had less than a mile to go.

I could do it!!! I could do it!!!

I couldn’t do it and I didn’t. I ended up at the Bowery Hotel in a fetal position, in the shower of a room, with cold water pouring over me.  My babies, one in his stroller, one on the bed, were left watching cartoons in the room with the bellhop, who, to this day has a blurred face in my memory.

I had sped through three red lights and raced down the Bowery to get there; it was the closest place I could find to stop at that would take me in. Sean, my (amazing, loving, understanding) husband arrived and got in the shower with me, fully clothed. He held me and, without saying a word I knew it was time to get real help. I was lost.

I wish I could tell you that things got better after that, that I saw some genius, high end doctor, that I got on some meds and went on my hunky dory way. But they didn’t and I didn’t. After the Bowery incident it would be six more agonizing months of spiritual advisors and meditation specialists, and acupuncture, and yoga, and finally, therapists prescribing me Zoloft, and Lexapro, and me convincing myself I would be weak and a loser to go on them. There would be many canceled dinner plans, and definitely no parks on my own with my kids. There would sadly also be many more days on the floor of our shower. We had such a beautiful shower, and, in between heaving fits of bawling, I would remind myself of the beauty I was surrounded by (a great husband, beautiful children, prosperous careers, a lovely shower with white marble and even a skylight to let the light pour in!), and then I would get even more depressed, feeling so idiotic that I was lying there, incapable of handling all of the beauty bestowed upon me. I was not only lost, I was spoiled and ungrateful. How lame.

Rachelle Hruska MacPherson
Sean, my (amazing, loving, understanding) husband arrived and got in the shower with me, fully clothed. He held me and, without saying a word I knew it was time to get real help. I was lost.
My Story Ends (Begins?) With a Woman

I won’t name her in case she doesn’t want the entire world knowing her story, but know that her sharing her story with me was the light-going-off-in-my-brain moment that saved me. This not-to-be-named woman is a very powerful CEO. Ninety-nine percent of you reading this know who she is. This very powerful woman I looked up to. This very powerful woman and I met totally randomly in an atypical place one sunny Sunday morning in Malibu. This very powerful woman took me to get coffee. I told her everything. I had nothing to lose. I told her I felt like a cloud of darkness was following me everywhere I went and that I felt everyone could feel it when they met me. I told her I felt like a phony, a fraud. I told her I was lost.

This very powerful woman took my hands in hers and told me she was on Lexapro. She started taking it after the birth of her daughter two years ago and it had saved her life. She told me she still had passion, drive, ideas. She told me it saved her marriage and her life and that I might want to actually give it a try. This super smart, successful and powerful woman told me that anxiety was an illness, it was like diabetes, and I shouldn’t be ashamed by it. Taking Lexapro didn’t mean I was weak.

She told me all of this so matter of factly.

Rachelle Hruska MacPherson
This super smart, successful and powerful woman told me that anxiety was an illness, it was like diabetes, and I shouldn’t be ashamed by it.
She Told Me all of This and I Finally Listened

I went on Lexapro and started to feel less lost. I continued seeing my therapist, and also introduced some new exercise routines. Funnily enough, when your body is 100% engaged, your mind is quick to take a much-needed back seat. Plus, physical exhaustion did wonders for my sleeping issues. One of the more outside-of-the-box therapies I made routine: seeing my spiritual advisor, which oddly felt like attending a rigorous college Theology course. As part of my “homework,” I poured over ancient Sanskrit texts and dated Christian documents, as well as modern airport self-help best sellers, which I would normally cast off as “junk,” and everything in between.

I sought wisdom from Graham Greene, Karl Marx, Thomas Aquinas, Christopher Hitchens, Rainer Maria Rilke, Sylvia Plath, Nora Ephron, Joan Didion, to name a few. Just knowing that, not only was I NOT the only one looking for answers, but literally every human since the dawn of their existence has been, was comforting in ways I could never have imagined.

Slowly I was able to start leaving the house again. Months later I would be able to drive my children around town in Montauk without having to stop somewhere in a panic. A year later I would be able to speak out at a women’s support group without fear. Today I’m able to write this.

Rachelle Hruska MacPherson
Rachelle Hruska MacPherson
Rachelle Hruska MacPherson
Rachelle Hruska MacPherson
Rachelle Hruska MacPherson
It is real. It is real. It is real.

I know there are other women out there like me. I know they are struggling because they don’t know what to do and feel like losers balled up on their shower floors. Here is what I want to say to that woman (me) lying there with water dripping in her eyes:

Please know you are not alone. You are not weak. You are the most powerful and capable thing alive. You are a woman. You are a mother.

Taking drugs to help you with this illness does NOT mean you have given up. Do not be ashamed. You are not to blame. Just because the world can’t see your struggle, it is real. It is not something you are making up in your head.

It is real. It is real. It is real.

There are extremely smart, powerful, capable, creative women out there who have been right where you are. You are lost now but you are not alone.

 

 

Rachelle Hruska MacPherson
Please know you are not alone. You are not weak. You are the most powerful and capable thing alive. You are a woman. You are a mother.
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