May is Mental Health Awareness Month.
After my own struggle with postpartum depression, this month, and the work done by so many to normalize this health issue is near and dear to my heart.
There is an estimated 360,000 births per day worldwide.
According to the CDC, 1 in 9 women will be affected by postpartum depression.
That is a large number of women who are struggling.
The more we have an open mind, open conversation, and a better understanding of this topic, the closer we become to ending the stigma that isolates so many into quiet suffering.
“COMMUNICATE. EVEN WHEN IT’S UNCOMFORTABLE OR UNEASY. ONE OF THE BEST WAYS TO HEAL, IS SIMPLY GETTING EVERYTHING OUT.”
— UNKNOWN (VIA PINTEREST)
Let me start by saying this, I know not everyone’s journey is the same.
I am also not claiming to know everything there is to know about this topic.
This is simply my story, how it affected me, and one that hopefully can help another mom, or future mom out there, in some way.
If this is your struggle, I see you.
I feel you. You are not alone.
This topic is hard to write about.
And not for the reasons you may think.
How do you share your story and truly capture a journey in only a handful of words?
A multiple-year spanning, earth-shatteringly difficult, and ongoing experience deserves an entire freakin’ book.
But here it goes.
Here is my best attempt.
Because every voice sharing their story breaks the silence.
It helps end the hidden struggle.
It helps end the stigma.
They say hindsight is 20/20.
This phrase has never rung more true for me than it does now.
Looking back, it’s easy to see the risk factors that could have contributed to my postpartum depression.
Sometimes it’s easy to feel angry with the “if only.”
If only mental health hadn’t been so taboo while growing up in the 90s, maybe I could have learned that I’ve struggled with anxiety for most of my life.
If only mental health wasn’t so taboo, maybe I could have gotten the support and tools that I needed to navigate the areas that I struggled with, before they blew up in my face.
You see where I’m going here, the “if only” can drive you crazy.
According to my therapist, (Therapy is so good. I truly believe every person could benefit from going.) having a history of mental health struggles leaves you more vulnerable to developing a form of postpartum depression.
For me, my history of anxiety would have been a beneficial thing for myself and my OB to have been aware of.
In addition to the anxiety, heartbreaking trauma had also been added to the mix.
I do not say these next words lightly. (My chest literally feels tight, and I’m making myself take a deep breath to write this next sentence.)
The loss of my first two pregnancies, that occurred mere months apart, was devastating.
Looking back, the pieces were all there.
So again, “if only” I would have known how important all those risk factors were, I could have been more prepared to at least be proactive with my mental care.
Then maybe postpartum wouldn’t have felt like getting into a head-on collision with an eighteen-wheeler.
Before I get into the retelling of my story, I want to address a question that you may have.
How did I not know that I had anxiety?
In a society that cringes at the words mental health, I was raised to “brush it under the rug”.
Anxiety was called stress, and I simply needed to stop stressing.
Any time that I had what I now know is a panic attack, I was met with frustration and asked why I had that reaction.
Naturally, I sucked it up, bottled it up, and stuffed it way down inside.
Good choice, right?
Let me be clear, I do not think my parents were trying to be unsupportive with this.
They truly did not know that I struggled with anxiety.
Why would they, when they were also raised to believe that mental health was only about people in mental institutions, straight jackets, and medication that caused your mind to go into lala land?
If we are being honest, I think we can agree that is a popular belief.
Yet, mental health is so much broader than that.
I believe that we would be shocked at the number of people struggling with some form of mental health and not seeking help because of that belief.
No one wants to be labeled clinically insane - or crazy.
Okay, that was a lot of information.
Thanks for sticking with me through all of that.
Now, let’s get to the nitty-gritty part of this story.
September 2, 2015.
After a crazy quick (and all-around just crazy) labor, my little miracle rainbow baby was in my arms.
He was perfect.
We were so happy.
The world could not have been better.
My baby boy was the most handsome ball of squish that I had ever seen.
I don’t know when it happened, but I remember things began to get stressful.
I had no appetite, I wasn’t sleeping more than an hour or two AN ENTIRE DAY, and my baby Never. Stopped. Crying.
We would soon learn that he wasn’t transferring much breast milk (That means he was literally starving).
It got to the point that his soft spot sunk in like a crater because he was so dehydrated. (The night we noticed the indention, we began feeding him with a straw.)
It took several lactation consultant appointments before anyone noticed that he had a severe lip and tongue-tie.
Go figure that he couldn’t eat.
We got his lip and tongue-tie taken care of and then started months of doctors appointments.
At one point, we were working with four different professionals.
The shared goal was trying to train my son’s latch so that he could eat from a bottle.
Nursing, at this point, wasn’t even an option.
But because I’m stubborn, and when I set out toward a goal it’s hard to stop me, I began pumping like a crazy person.
I was determined to keep my supply up so that I could eventually nurse.
Oh man, in that endeavor did I succeed!
I could fill up four bottles of breast milk in twenty minutes and only stop because I’d been attached to a pump for so long.
While we were working to fix our son’s latch, another struggle began pushing its way to the forefront.
What I had thought was just the typical baby blues would prove to actually be postpartum depression.
If it weren’t for all the appointments, I don’t know if I would have ever left the house.
See, for me, postpartum manifests in anxiety and OCD that revolves around germs.
I had an intense fear that my baby was going to get contaminated and then ultimately harmed from this contamination.
With my first pregnancy, it was limited to baby items.
The baby’s things could never be clean enough: his bottles, clothes, and anything that he could come in contact with.
I washed baby bottles, pump supplies, and pacifiers, so, so much.
The problem was that the more I cleaned, the more I had to.
Before I knew it, I was washing things compulsively.
My arms developed rashes, my skin became raw from all the water and soap, and there were times my husband had to literally remove me from the sink.
If the baby’s clothes fell on the floor (i.e. from being transferred to the dryer from the washer), I would get so worried about my child getting sick from some germ, that I just knew was on that piece of clothing, that I would end up rewashing the entire load.
I was experiencing panic attacks.
The kicker… I had no idea.
That’s the tricky part with postpartum depression.
Nothing “feels” different.
It’s not like its easy to step back and say, “Oh hey, this isn’t how I normally think or feel.”
It’s simply what you know to be true in that moment.
And in that moment, I was worried about the safety of my child to the extreme.
I thought it was just a mom thing.
What about my husband you say?
Didn’t he notice that his wife was losing her mind?
A part of him did, but his suggestions to maybe call my OB were not received well.
The reality of it was that we were new parents, we were sleep deprived, we were learning as we went, and this all kind of snowballed on us.
It’s so easy to tell yourself that you just need more sleep, or to rationalize whatever it is that doesn’t feel good in that moment when you are in the uncharted territory of new parenthood.
We also isolated ourselves from anyone that could have noticed something was off, thanks to my growing anxiety.
It wasn’t until Thanksgiving when a family member found me sobbing in a bedroom with my infant son, that anyone else really knew there was an issue.
It all came to a head that day.
As painful and uncomfortable as that day was, my husband was finally able to let out a breath he didn’t even know that he was holding.
For the first time, he felt like he could talk to someone about what was going on.
The decision was made that I would both call my OB and seek out a therapist.
I know that sounds like an easy thing to decide, but it wasn’t.
At this point, my husband had tried for weeks to get me to call my OB.
I just couldn’t do it.
I couldn’t admit to myself that I needed help.
That there was something not right with me.
That this wasn’t just how life was as a new mom.
Admitting that made me feel like the WORST POSSIBLE FAILURE of a mother.
After Thanksgiving, I couldn’t lie to myself anymore.
As hard as it was, I called my OB the next business day.
They wrote me a prescription.
I didn’t take it.
I was still telling myself that I could pull myself out of the funk I was in if I just tried a little harder.
I eventually ran out of steam.
The stress and anxiety I felt were debilitating.
I cried every ounce of fluid out of my body, and then I finally (truly) admitted to myself that I needed help.
I can remember the day I took my first Zoloft pill like it was yesterday.
I was so tired of being overwhelmed, and I knew I needed the support that the medication could give me.
So while my baby was napping, I closed my eyes, popped the pill in my mouth, and then sat on our beige couch that we had bought, straight off the floor, right after we got married.
Then I stared at a wall and sobbed.
When I say sobbed, I mean it was the ugly version of the ugly cry.
It hurt so much that I couldn’t be the mother I wanted to be without help.
My heart ached.
I was sad, and frustrated, and well - sad.
I remember calling my husband and barely being able to speak.
I was so disappointed in myself.
He, in his ever-loving nature, encouraged me the best way that he knew how.
I also finally found that therapist.
A couple of weeks went by, and I started feeling hopeful.
More time passed, and I started sleeping the same amount as other parents with newborns.
A few months passed, and I was finally feeling like myself again.
I can’t tell you exactly when, but I know it was before my son was eight months old that life was back on track.
At that point, I had found an AMAZING tribe of mom friends that I had plugged into, and we had moved into a new house.
I even planned a house warming party.
Yep, I invited people to my house without the fear that they would contaminate my baby in some way.
Life was good.
We had survived postpartum anxiety and OCD.
We were trained and ready with a bag of tricks for the next baby.
Because this would not sneak upon us again.
We would be one step ahead of postpartum, if it reared its ugly head again, after our next pregnancy.
We were confident.
We had a plan.
We. Were. Wrong.
It is recommended that you not be on anti-anxiety medication before you get pregnant.
So I weaned off.
We got pregnant.
Cue morning sickness, an ear infection, and a couple of sinus infections.
And that was all just for me.
That’s not including my child’s illnesses.
Then, we decided to redo our kitchen cabinets, have cabinets built upstairs, and repaint a portion of our house.
Oh, and we also replaced a door and some windows.
It was a lot.
We were so busy.
We didn’t stop long enough to see that I was beginning to teeter on the edge of a mental break down.
Again, it was all too easy to rationalize that I was just stressed out with everything that was going on.
Especially coupled with all the morning sickness and illness that kept plaguing me.
Plus, why would we be worried?
Nothing happens while you were pregnant.
Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018.
That day is significant because it is the last day that I remember being “Okay.” I couldn’t give you an exact day if I tried.
Between that Easter and early June, I was essentially quarantined to my house.
Remember when I said that we were prepared for postpartum this time around?
Well, we were so-not-prepared for gestational or prenatal anxiety.
It was crippling, it rocked me to my core, and challenged my mental strength.
With my first child, baby things couldn’t get clean of contamination.
This time around, THE WORLD was contaminated.
Can you imagine how difficult it would be if everything around you possessed a life-threatening contagion?
I couldn’t even sit inside my own house without feeling contaminated.
That word, contaminated, my husband has heard so many times that he has grown to hate it.
The word itself makes him visibly angry.
I cleaned my house from top to bottom in an obsessive way.
I cleaned so much, that a few days later, the entire household got sick.
I somehow managed to kill all the good bacteria right along with everything else.
That irony did not escape me, and yet it also didn’t help.
The arm rashes came back and my skin began to peel like a reptile shedding its skin.
I am the type of person that loves people.
I love adventures.
I love shopping (Target and Nordstrom are my happy places).
I love to organize.
Like, organizing actually makes me feel excited with an adrenaline rush.
Yes I know, I’m such a nerd.
I was my son’s room mom.
Hence, people and organizing.
Suddenly, I couldn’t be my son’s room mom anymore.
One of the most humiliating points of my life was texting a group of moms asking if one of them could fill in for my end of year responsibility.
See, I could no longer be around people.
Getting too close to anyone, heaven forbid they touch, cough, or worse - sneeze by my person, would send me into a complete downward spiral of panic.
A debilitating, tear-filled, couldn’t breathe kind of panic.
Everything made me feel…contaminated.
It was terrible and isolating.
Getting to the doctor to address this was extremely difficult.
I not only had to be around people, but I had to go inside of a hospital to get to my OB’s office.
Holy contaminating nightmare.
I think I cried the entire time.
I thought what I experienced my first pregnancy was hard.
This experience made the first one seem like child’s play.
I felt so lost.
I truly thought that I would never feel one hundred percent better.
I was sure that the damage that had been done, was to some extent, permanent.
Thankfully, I was wrong.
It took lots and lots of baby steps, medication, and therapy to begin to recover.
Holy cow, the amount of hard work and pushing through uncomfortable things it took is insane.
Those early days were so dark.
I remember feeling hopeless and defeated.
Remember when I said I was stubborn?
I refused to let this beat me.
I pushed forward, even when it was the tiniest little centimeter at a time.
I fought my way back, and I will continue to keep fighting.
I’m still not one hundred percent.
There are times I have to stop, take a deep breath, and use my strategies.
But my life is no longer impaired.
I can go shopping, take my son to school, use a public bathroom (gasp), and essentially live how I used to.
Every time I can make myself do something that feels uncomfortable or hard, a little piece of me gets put back into place.
So that’s my plan moving forward.
I’m going to keep living, keep fighting, keep pushing.
My goal, in the end, is to be better than I was before.
I like to think that this is part of a bigger plan.
A bigger purpose.
That the God of the universe knew this would rattle me, but not break me.
He knew I would come up swinging, and not stop until I have not only helped myself but found a way to help other women.
I believe that He can use this struggle in my life to make me a stronger and better version of myself.
I believe that He can use this to His glory.
Even if I have no idea what that end game may be.
That’s where faith comes in.
If you are in a dark place.
A place so horrible that you think you are lost forever.
Maybe you feel hopeless.
Hear me when I say, all of those feelings are a LIE.
It’s going to be hard.
It’s not going to be pretty.
But guess what?
You are stronger than the struggle.
It will rattle you, but not break you.
You will come up swinging.
YOU will be better - stronger - than you were before.
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