Leanna Monteith measures her life in Before and After. There is the Old Leanna and the New Leanna, and something in between that is the culmination of both–an amalgamation that she works towards every day. She tells me a story about becoming a mother, losing herself completely, then having to become a mother to her daughter all over again. Leanna has deep knowledge about what it means to rebuild a sense of self.
Old Leanna lived in Trail and worked as an Electrical Designer. She was twenty-eight years old and physically fit, married and happy, and planning to have a baby. On August 15, 2014 Leanna gave birth to her daughter, Harlee. She had a difficult adjustment, as Harlee was really the first baby she had ever had much contact with, but she overcame struggles with postpartum anxiety and depression and was living her life fully. In May of the following year she climbed Old Glory, the highest peak in the area and felt indestructible.
On May 30, 2015, Leanna was at a wedding when her life ground to a halt. “My heart just stopped,” Leanna says. It was a completely inexplicable glitch. Her heart stopped beating for no discernible reason and Leanna collapsed. Wedding guests with medical training rushed to her side and performed CPR until the paramedics arrived. They used a defibrillator to start Leanna’s heart again, but she had been without oxygen for long enough that she suffered an anoxic brain injury (brain cells that are lacking oxygen will begin to die after about four minutes). For Leanna this means a long list of persistent issues related to her injury including limited short term memory, slow visual and perceptive processing and, initially, damaged long term memory.
Leanna was whisked away to a hospital in Kelowna where she was put in an induced coma. It turns out cardiac arrest is relatively common in young people–surviving it is not. She had to learn to walk and talk again but has no memory of this part of her recovery. She also lost two weeks of memory prior to the injury. It was over a month after the injury before she began to form memories again. She “woke up” in a Victoria hospital and couldn’t remember her husband or daughter. When she finally did remember them she wanted nothing more than to be reunited with her family. Her daughter was 10 months old and Leanna couldn’t remember what it meant to be a mother.
She wasn’t reunited with her daughter until July 22, nearly two months after her initial injury. “I didn’t want her to see me in the hospital,” Leanna tells me, so she waited until she was strong enough to be moved to a rehabilitation facility before seeing Harlee for the first time. Leanna hoped that her daughter hadn’t learned to walk yet. She wanted to feel as if she hadn’t missed too much, that her daughter was still the little girl she remembered. In her journal on July 22 Leanna writes in shaky script: “I got my baby back.” That statement lived at the very center of her recovery. It was a turning point. Leanna would have to learn to be Harlee’s mother again.
The first meeting was challenging. Leanna’s injury left her unable to form and process emotions. While she knew that she should be overjoyed to see her daughter again she was unable to express that emotion, or even feel it, in a normal way.
She knew that she should feel happy, but couldn’t remember how to experience happiness.
On August 10 Leanna was moved from an in-patient to an out-patient rehabilitation facility in Burnaby. She was able to spend weekends with her family for the first time. Her first day out of the hospital was on Harlee’s first birthday. It was the day that Leanna became a mother for the second time, walking back into the role that was temporarily erased by broken memories and the processing effects of her brain injury. A first birthday is a landmark occasion for any woman, marking not only the birth of her child, but the birth of herself as a mother. For Leanna, Harlee’s first birthday was also a first step towards reclaiming her role as a mother and moving back into her child’s life. But it wasn’t an easy transition.
Time spent in the hospital had left Leanna physically weak. She couldn’t lift her daughter, and while she desperately wanted to reintegrate into Harlee’s daily routines, Harlee wasn’t ready to trust her mother and showed preference for her father. Leanna knew that she should feel sad about Harlee’s attachment to her dad, but her injury kept her from being able to truly explore that emotion. Leanna was aware that she was expected to feel particular things, but she remained numb. There was a long road ahead, but Leanna was determined to win her daughter over. The family stayed in a trailer in Burnaby while Leanna finished her outpatient rehab. Harlee learned to walk there–a bright point in an otherwise dark and challenging time.
On September 25 Leanna and her family finally got to go home to Trail. Once home it was a tough balancing act between taking care of herself and resuming her roles as wife and mother. Harlee began daycare so Leanna could get more rest. She was unable to function on less than ten hours sleep–a huge challenge to achieve for any mother of a one year old. Leanna went to the gym so she could begin to regain muscle tone and continued to attend rehab sessions. She made progress but she says, “I always felt guilty that I couldn’t take care of my child like the other moms. I wanted to be a mom, but I had to take care of myself first.” Leanna continued to struggle to process complex situations. She often couldn’t figure out why Harlee was crying and she had no ability to multi-task. Basic functions escaped her. Leanna recalls trying to play cards with her brother and being unable to get her body to remember how to fan the cards out in front of her.
Harlee is now two and Leanna is working hard to reconnect with her daughter. She tries to plan fun outings, though they often exhaust her and she has to take naps to recuperate. “It’s hard knowing that I used to do it all, and now I can’t,” Leanna says. “I used to take care of Harlee, take care of my husband, keep the house in order, walk the dog, do the laundry and make a healthy meal. I’m better, but not where I want to be.”
Leanna struggles to see where she fits in her own life and her daughter’s life. She tells me about the time that she spends with Harlee: “We have our own game that she only does with me–we play horse and she rides on my back. It’s just our thing and it’s enough to make me feel like I’m still her mom.”
Leanna checks in with herself daily to see how much she is like Old Leanna, how much she is New Leanna, and how much she is something else altogether. Things are better now. Harlee comes to her mom now when she needs help or comforting, but Leanna still struggles with her vision and processing speed. She knows that she’ll never be Old Leanna again, but she’s okay with that. In rehab she got to know many people whose lives changed in an instant. She became less quick to judge and her experience has influenced her parenting. Leanna wants her daughter to learn compassion and empathy. She wants Harlee to know that sometimes people have stories that lurk underneath the surface.
When I met Leanna in a Kerrisdale coffee shop I would never have known that she had suffered a brain injury. The effects are subtle, but persistent. “While I was recovering I was not an adult,” Leanna explains. “I needed to be helped.” Leanna isn’t looking for praise or accolades. She just wants other people, and moms especially, to know that sometimes we all need help. There are times in our lives when things become so confused and overwhelming that there is no choice but to lean on others and allow them to pull you through the chaos. “You can gain strength from your children,” Leanna says. “They help you focus on your priorities.”
Throughout her recovery Leanna focused on one thing only–how to be a mom to Harlee again. She knew that she had to do whatever it took, endure whatever was necessary, to claw her way back to her daughter. All in all she has succeeded. While there are still gains to be made Leanna now holds herself with a sense of earned confidence. She came through a storm unimaginable to most of us, and with a lot of support from her husband she is living her life fully again. She has defined a new normal that she can accept and she hopes that all of us can live through her story and be courageous enough to ask for the help we need when the time inevitably comes that we can’t go it alone. Leanna became a mother, then re-learned to be a mother when that memory was stripped from her body. Now she sees that being a mother is the thing that saved her. “Harlee was the reason I worked so hard to get better,” Leanna tells me. Motherhood is the thing that brought Leanna back to herself.
Harlee is her saving grace.
Andrea is a mom to an energetic and hilarious three year old boy. In addition to the work of homemaking and motherhood Andrea freelances as a photographer and writer, and volunteers as blog editor for Pacific Post Partum Support Society. If there are free seconds she also likes to cram in about a million small craft projects that will eventually overwhelm her home. Her happy place is curled up in bed with tea and a book. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.