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Meghan McCain has made a career out of saying exactly how she feels — about everything — but now there's something even she is "really nervous" to share:
In the six months after giving birth to daughter Liberty in September 2020, a joy unlike any other in her life, McCain became plagued by severe postpartum anxiety.
"It's the second hardest thing I've ever done, other than my dad [Sen. John McCain] dying," Meghan, 36, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue, in her first interview about her private pain.
Fearful even to leave home, at times she was so strongly gripped by an irrational certainty that someone might kidnap her baby that "I wanted [my husband] Ben to hire armed guards outside our house," she says.
It took a pediatrician's intuition and a treatment plan to bring the former View co-host back to "feeling steady," as she calls it. Now with a new audio memoir, Bad Republican, being released (Thursday on Audible), Meghan has a different kind of truth to tell.
"I felt like people need to share stories about struggles with new motherhood — not just it being picture-perfect," she says. "But I feel really raw and vulnerable sharing it. I just wanted to offer something that would hopefully make women, in particular, feel less alone."
* For more on Meghan McCain's first year as a mom and her post-View plans, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week's issue, on newsstands Friday.
Charles Sykes/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty From left: Ben Domenech and Meghan McCain
"Really paranoid, like barely showering and functioning" was how Meghan felt when she and husband Ben Domenech, a commentator and conservative publisher, took their daughter in for her second pediatrician's visit in early October 2020.
Meghan had avoided birthing prep classes during the pandemic ("I hate Zooms, I hate YouTube videos, I was like I'll figure it out") and then she had endured a prolonged labor and hospitalization for postpartum preeclampsia, which raised her blood pressure so high she sometimes couldn't breathe.
But having Liberty was so, so perfect. Still, that bliss competed with other emotions. "It's hard to explain because [motherhood] is incredible, but it's scary," Meghan says now. "And I found it overwhelming at the same time."
At Liberty's pediatrician's appointment last October, Meghan didn't realize the warning signs she was giving off until the doctor, "very kindly and with a ton of empathy," urged her to get help.
"She pulled me aside and was like, 'You need to talk to someone,' " Meghan says. She had been asked to fill out a simple postpartum questionnaire — from one to five, are you feeling this… are you feeling that… — and gave alarming answers.
Meghan McCain/instagram Meghan McCain and daughter Liberty Sage in 2020
"Clearly I'm not the first woman to come in that had that happen," Meghan says. In fact, postpartum anxiety and related symptoms affect one in five moms, according to some estimates.
Domenech, too, had noticed something awry. "Before Meghan gave birth, given all the isolation of the pandemic, I kept calling up a group of close friends, fathers in my age range, to ask for advice," he says now. "I will never forget what one of them told me at the end of a lengthy conversation, almost as an aside: 'Watch out for postpartum.' "
He remembers being told, "You won't want to bring it up, she won't want to talk about it, and that's absolutely why you have to, because it can get serious fast."
Last Halloween was the bad kind of breakthrough: The thought of taking Liberty around the neighborhood in her pumpkin onesie left Meghan in tears. "I was just having a really hard time doing something as simple as leaving the house with a baby in a stroller," she says.
She went back to her doctor, who gave her struggles a name. "I was shocked when they told me," she says.
Says Domenech: "It was such a series of subtle breaks with her normal self. I'm just grateful that she got the help she needed and that our doctor made it clear she needed it."
Theo Wargo/Getty Meghan McCain
An immediate course of antidepressants got Meghan back to "fine, steady," and she resumed therapy for the first time since her dad's death. "Having a professional tell you you're not crazy and be able to work through things, for me, has been amazing," she says.
But back on The View in mid-January, Meghan found she was worn out by a live-debate format she once relished. Worse, she was increasingly alienated by the remote tapings that frayed co-host bonds and fueled the production's toxic culture, she says.
The isolation and worry of COVID had changed her, as had becoming a mom. "The question I have is: Can you be really successful in television and be happy at the same time? For me, I don't know," she says.
For now, she is happy at home with Liberty and grateful for the privilege that lets her take side projects as she desires.
Meghan McCain/instagram Meghan McCain's daughter Liberty Sage
— Meghan McCain (@MeghanMcCain) October 14, 2021
Bad Republican, her audio memoir, traces not just her marriage and life as a mom but her View career and beyond. And, after some revisions, Meghan decided it should also lay bare how she endured a postpartum period she never expected — and got through it.
That's another focus: Advocating for the needs of all new moms.
"There's no shame in any of it," Meghan says. "Everyone has a story."