By Tech. Sgt. Erica Picariello | 21 Space Wing Public Affairs
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — I remember sitting in a government-style room inside of the mental health office on Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. I was still on maternity leave with my now three-year-old, Luciano. It was a miracle, because that day he was sleeping in a bucket seat on the floor next to the chair I was sitting in, while I was able to have an adult conversation with a psychiatrist. This psychiatrist felt, based on my psychologist’s notes and treatment history, that I would benefit from taking an anti-anxiety medication. Those words hit me like an ocean wave; they tumbled over me and engulfed me with guilt.
I was stone-cold adamant that I wouldn’t take any psychotropic medications while breastfeeding. I had done limited research and I knew that the research within the medical community was limited on what transfers through breastmilk and how much. I was struggling through what would eventually become a post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis, but I felt that taking medication would put my son in too much risk. I felt that my mental illness shouldn’t negatively affect his development. Thus, I declined and told the psychiatrist I’d be fine.
The next year was an emotional blur. Luciano had colic and would scream at me for hours at a time, almost all day long, unless he was breastfeeding. I remember texting my husband at some point and telling him to, “Come get this child before I launch him like a football.” A few minutes later, my husband came home and held the baby so that I could nap. Shortly after that, my best friend detected the urgency and sadness in my voice. She is active duty too, but she pulled-chalks on her boss and family for a week to help me manage my new baby. I knew that I was frazzled and worn thin because the baby was upset all the time; it couldn’t have been anything else.
There were nights that I felt so alone that I would cry into my pillow while nursing my son as my husband slept soundly next to me. I didn’t want anyone to see my tears because I thought they were silly. I just knew I was so sad because I was extremely sleep deprived.
I remember feeling so empty when I said goodbye to a boss and family that I loved in Alabama after making the decision to move to Colorado. The move was necessary to further my husband’s career and my own, but I felt like an anvil was being dropped on my chest, and it stayed that way for weeks. I would think too hard for too long about moving, and I would have to fight back ugly, sobbing tears. I told myself this was just how people felt sacrificing for their family. It was a loss and this was normal, I told myself.
We moved to Colorado in the midst of my one-year breastfeeding goal with Luciano. In December 2017, soon after getting settled, we weaned from breastfeeding and I started taking anti-anxiety medication and medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. I was amazed at the clarity I felt while performing my duties! I was able to complete my tasks with ease, juggling being a mom to three boys and a wife to my amazing husband. I was flying high! Life was good.
Five short months later, we found out we were expecting our fourth child. I was terrified. I had been taking so much medication, and I was worried that the baby would be affected. I remember having a very candid conversation with a midwife at the Evans Army Community Hospital on Fort Carson, Colorado, about the stress I felt. I’d been off all of my medications for a month or so, and I was experiencing severe anxiety, nightmares and insomnia. This wonderful nurse explained to me that, based on research from the National Center for Biotechnology Information, there were medications out there that I could take while pregnant and breastfeeding. Based on this research, the amount that would transfer through breastmilk was undetectable in the newborn’s body. She explained that it was like “a drop of medication in a gallon bucket.” I took this advice to heart and started a medication regimen that was appropriate for my body and pregnancy timeline.
During and after the pregnancy with our fourth son, Franco, I reflected on the differences between that pregnancy and newborn phase and compared it to my experience with Luciano. Because I continued treatment through this last pregnancy, I was able to see that I had allowed myself to suffer, and that affected almost every relationship in my life. I wasn’t the best version of myself for my kids, my teammates or my husband. Not only that, but I did not enjoy being a new mother. I felt distant from my son and extremely stressed out.
I know how intuitive babies are, and I’m sure this affected his disposition and development. I had been so worried that my “selfish decision” to take medication while pregnant or breastfeeding would negatively affect my baby’s development that I didn’t see that the medication was the thing that would allow us both to flourish. Through that reflection I realized that continuing treatment was the best choice, not only for myself and immediate family, but for my Air Force family as well. I wasn’t able to give 100 percent of my attention or effort to my job in the mental state I was in before, which put my mission at risk.
I’m not here to tell you that four kids is easier than three (it most certainly is not) or that there is a magic pill out there that will fix everything (it won’t), but I hope to lift the stigma that exists on prenatal and postnatal mental health care and taking medications while breastfeeding.
I wanted to share this story on the heels of National Breastfeeding Week, which runs from August 1 through August 7, but also in light of Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright’s viral social media video on Air Force suicides and resiliency. Wright stated that this year alone, we’ve already lost 78 Airmen, that’s 28 more than all of last year.
Even though I’ve never experienced suicidal ideations, I was falling apart at the seams and barely able to function. I know there are other mothers out there who may be struggling with the same dilemma I was facing, and I’m here to tell you that it’s not the breast feeding or bottle feeding that best takes care of your baby, taking proper care of your own mental health as a mother.