On June 3, 2011 I found myself in The Rockyview Hospital being held in a locked white room with only a bed and some supper that the crisis team had kindly brought for me. I was sleep deprived and out of my mind with obsessive thoughts, hopeless, soul-crushing depression and the belief that anyone else would be a better mother to my son than I could ever be. I gently rocked myself back and forth – practically non-communicative– desperate to shut out the world.
I was moved to the psych ward. I had not slept more than an hour or two total in the past ten days and was paranoid that if I fell asleep that I wouldn’t wake up. I was hallucinating and fighting tremors in my limbs, and in so much pain that my body was in shock. Thankfully the nurse administered a sleeping pill that allowed me to quiet my brain and finally rest. When I awoke, I was somewhat surprised. Unfortunately my reality was still the same. I saw no solution to my situation and no way out other than giving up completely.
I was a shadow of my former self.
No one had wanted a baby more than I did. I had been looking forward to holding that precious baby boy in my arms for the first time and basking in the precious moments of his new life. The cuddles, the walks in the park, the reading him stories and settling into a new routine – I wanted it all. Unfortunately, no one was more naive than I was regarding the challenges that lay ahead. What I didn’t bargain for was the unpredictable way my body and brain would react in response to the chaotic chain of events leading up to and following my son’s birth.
It all started with five months of bed rest, rendering my body extremely weak due to loss of muscle mass and inactivity. When the time came to actually begin the birthing process, I felt extremely relieved that it was all almost over. I just couldn’t wait to move around again. But it would be 72 hours later that I would actually meet my baby boy.
In that time period I had contractions every 5-10 minutes for three straight days and nights and countless trips back and forth to the hospital with nurses trying to tell me I wasn’t actually in labour because I didn’t seem to be dilating well and he was two weeks early. On the third day I finally convinced them to admit me as I could barely take the pain and didn’t want to be sent home again with more morphine.
Fourteen hours later and 5 cm dilated, when the pain was too much to bear any longer, I received an epidural. I thought it would bring some much-needed relief and maybe even some rest. So, I sent my husband away to get some supper and take a break, as he hadn’t eaten yet that day. Of course, the minute he left, C’s heart rate plummeted and I was fully dilated within a few minutes. It was like my body was protecting itself from pain for so long it could finally relax and baby was ready to come out! Ready to push, with no husband in sight, and the nurses refusing to let me have my phone to call him, I was panicking. Thankfully he made it back but it was another few hours of agonizing anxiety over C’s dropping heart rate that all ended with a forceps delivery.
To say my body had undergone a traumatic experience after the weakness from the bed rest and the 72 hours of labour is a historic understatement. I remember distinctly the doctor telling me squeamishly as she was stitching me back together, “Oh honey, you’re going to be in a lot of pain. I’m trying my best but your skin just keeps ripping.”
My husband was only permitted to stay for another hour, as it was already 11pm. I somehow drifted to sleep when he left only to be woken up by blinding pain as my epidural wore off. Not only did I have extensive third and fourth degree tearing, but I had pulled all of my round ligament muscles. To move an inch left me literally screaming in pain. The nursing staff told me they had never seen anything so bad. I thought I might pass out when they tried five unsuccessful attempts at inserting a catheter because of the swelling.
After four more days and nights in the hospital with the nurses demanding that I “get up” because “what am I going to do when I have to go home and take care of the baby?” even though the thought of any movement absolutely panicked me, I was ready to get away from them and just go home. I was released with only regular strength Tylenol and Advil to control my pain. To add to my misery, my husband had started a brand new position at his job the day I went into labour. He was already behind in the transition, so instead of being able to take the week off as we had previously planned, he was forced to go into work and I was left to look after C on my own during the day.
My body went immediately into shock. I pushed through the pain and did what I needed to do, though quite honestly I cannot recall anything about those first few days at home.
I was in pure survival mode.
I just kept telling myself that God wouldn’t give me more than I could handle.
I never really mentioned how bad my pain was to anyone, my husband included, because I couldn’t even process it anymore. Instead my mind just swallowed the pain up and it started to manifest itself in different ways. Suddenly I could no longer sleep because I worried obsessively that C might stop breathing in his sleep. The longer I went without sleep, the more impossible it was to sleep at all.
My brain became so foggy that I lost the ability to make basic decisions for myself and instead would often remain frozen in place, incapable of moving and experiencing multiple panic attacks. Food was repulsive and another source of extreme stress. I couldn’t eat anything because anything I ate immediately came right back up.
I felt like I was failing as a new mother, as a wife, and as a person.
I forgot how to use my cell phone, couldn’t fill out a basic form asking for my name and address, and obsessed about small details like nightlights to distract from the mounting terror inside of me that I just wasn’t cut out for this. On the fourth day home I called my mother in law in a panic and told her she had to fly out the next day to help me because I was fading fast. Thankfully she agreed. But just two days after that I found myself sending out a text to all of the friends and family that I could remember to locate in my phone saying I could no longer take care of myself or C and that I didn’t want to live. Needless to say, that day I ended up in the psych ward.
I have decided to share my story in an effort to break the silence and shame surrounding mental health challenges. Until you have walked a mile in someone else’s shoes you have no idea what it’s like, for example, to forget how to use a toothbrush. Your mind “breaks” and it takes time to rebuild the commonsense things that had previously been second nature. It is not something you can “snap out of” or that “fresh air will fix.” I was very lucky to be surrounded by a huge support system of family and friends, and to this day I still feel completely indebted to them, as I don’t know that otherwise I would have lived to tell this tale.
It took many months, baby steps, and a profound faith in God for me to pull through this, and it was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Early intervention is the single best thing you can do for yourself or someone you love that you think may be suffering similar symptoms. Getting help fast can make all the difference. It is not your fault. It will get better. It doesn’t have to be like this.
This experience has made me a much more open and accepting mother than I would have been otherwise. I know what it’s like to feel like you have limited choices because something in your brain chemistry has changed you into someone you are not. I have learned how to cope with my anxiety and perfectionist tendencies and not let the little things weigh me down.
I have found profound joy in the time I have with my son.
I know it just as easily could have all been ripped away from me. I am not ashamed of what I’ve been through, and I am a much better mother today because of it.
Let’s break the silence and stop pretending that we are all somehow living up to the impossible expectations set before us. We are all supermoms in our own way every single day just by putting one foot in front of the other and carrying on. We must learn to celebrate ourselves and all that we have accomplished each year in the face of both the smallest and largest struggles…be kind to ourselves and forgive ourselves and each other daily…live in the moment as much as we can. It does get better. I am living proof.
This post originally appeared on The Good Enuf Mommy
Tiffany Austin is a mom, a wife and an educator living in Calgary, AB. Tired of never feeling “good enough” as a new mom, she began a blog to encourage other moms to feel confident and empowered in their own decisions. Her blog, The Good Enuf Mommy, includes everything from helpful parenting advice to product recommendations aimed at making the lives of moms just a little bit easier. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.
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