It is meant to be one of the happiest times of your life, when you create a life within you. You feel more love than you ever thought humanly possible for this tiny human who rests so delicately in your care. It certainly started that way for me, although it was also very overwhelming at times. I of course had no idea that six months into this new dreamlike reality I would completely lose myself, my mind and any hope for the future.
My son, Jack, was born in June 2008. I remember that night so very well. My mum had flown in a few days before as I was already 8 days overdue. She was getting as impatient as I was! It was a Thursday night, the night my husband, Dan, went off to play soccer with his mates and I would settle down for my weekly dose of Greys Anatomy and a massive bowl of ice cream (the nightly ritual of a bowl of gooey goodness). As my mum and I sat on the sofa fully engaged in the on screen drama I started to feel rather ill. The next thing I knew I was being sick into a bowl in the living room and feeling strong contractions across my lower abdomen. Between bouts of vomiting I rang and left a voice mail for Dan to hurry home as something was happening. He listened to the voice mail and was cheered off the field by his friends as he ran to his car.
We had a midwife and as you do with this option, you stay at home as long as possible before you go to the hospital. Those were excruciating hours of coming in and out of lucidity as the pain gripped my body. Luckily we had a doula as well who was there to support my husband and I. My poor mum kept popping her head in the room saying “shouldn’t she go to the hospital now?”. Finally around 1 am off we went to the Women’s hospital. That car ride was horrific. I could not for the life of me figure out how to get comfortable and we seemed to hit every red light possible! I remember checking in at the front desk and they told me that their computer system was down so I’d need to hold tight while they tried to get it running. I thought, you’ve got to be kidding me? I wanted to deck the lady, the only thing stopping me was the adrenaline coursing through my veins that made me shake with such ferocity that I could barely sit still.
Once we got into the room things progressed but not without Dan needing to leave the room a couple times to avoid fainting. This was due to the fact that he was needing to support my body in the most awkward of positions in a tiny little airless room while I yelled and screamed at him in top volume and various forms of liquid and other items I will not mention leaked out of me. Nice right?
It was all worth it as Jack made his grand entry at 6 am and was placed on my tummy. We both cried with joy, exhaustion and hope as this little soul entered our lives that fateful morning. The first six weeks were insanity as Jack would not breastfeed yet I was so desperate and adamant that he would. I did everything in my power to make it so including seeing nursing experts, renting about eight different types of breast pumps, seeing other specialists and speaking to anyone I knew who had advice. One particular memory is ingrained in my mind from this time. I sat out in the living room on the floor at about 2 am, breast pump running full tilt (it was electric, large and loud). Jack sat in his little chair next to me screaming and Dan sat next to him in his underpants crying his eyes out as he felt my sons crying so intensely he just wanted to help him but could not. Out my mums head popped from the guest room “Honey, is everything ok? Do you need any help?”. We must have looked like a right mess!?
Time went on, Jack was getting older and I was feeling more capable as a mother until that fateful December came. We call it the “winter of discontent”, when things completely fell apart. It was 2008, the financial crisis was starting to heat up and we were concerned that Dan’s job may be at risk. We were already financially strapped with me on maternity leave pay. We had a massive snow fall in Vancouver that year and literally were buried in snow. Something snapped within me a few days before Christmas.
The first inkling of this was during breastfeeding at a local pool while swimming with another girl friend and our babies. I tried to feed Jack before we went in the pool. He sat at my breast and did his thing but no milk would let down after minutes of trying. He got frustrated and I had a wave of intense anxiety wash over me. What’s going on? I tried again after the swim and the same thing happened. Then again at home that night and the same thing again. I gave him a bottle and my brain began to spin.
What is happening to me? Am I broken?
Over the next week I stopped sleeping. This was around the time that Jack finally started sleeping through the night after weeks of doing sleep training with him that nearly broke us. I also stopped being able to eat. Food was like cardboard in my mouth and trying to swallow was like forcing saw dust down my throat. I continued to not be able to breast feed as my milk would not let down. I kept trying. I didn’t realize this made my body continue to produce milk as Jack was on my breast suckling. My breasts became completely engorged and so painful, like knives being stabbed into my chest at regular intervals. I started to literally crumble as my brain spun into fight or flight mode trying to survive.
When Christmas ended I had to ask my mum not to go home but to stay with me and help as I thought that Jack may be in danger if she did not. How could I possibly take care of him when I was collapsing from something I did not understand or recognize and Dan was working full time. Was I going insane, was my body failing, was I having some sort of mental breakdown?
I made an appointment to see my family Dr after this had been going on for about 2 weeks with no resolve. I loved my family Dr at the time and spilled my heart out to her. She was aware that I had suffered from depression and anxiety in the past so we quite quickly agreed that I would go back on my anti-depressant that I had gone off while pregnant. She also ran a battery of tests on me. I learned soon after that my thyroid was not working as it should be, a condition which runs in my family and is quite common after pregnancy. I was also put on meds for that. For the next 2 weeks we waited for the symptoms to lesson and for these miracle working drugs to take effect.
However, that is not what occurred. After 3 weeks of waiting I was feeling worse. I continued trying to breast feed whilst also bottle feeding Jack. I was in such agony I remember standing in the shower crying my eyes out trying to self express the milk for some sort of relief. Nothing helped. It was around this time I had to make the decision to stop trying to breastfeed. This decision came with so much guilt, shame and disappointment. I had worked so very hard for this and now it was being taken away from me. I was never given a scientific answer as to why my milk would not let down but I’m pretty positive it was due to the cortisol rushing through my body like poison.
I was just too stressed to support another human. I remember being in public places having to give Jack a bottle and literally feeling the stares of others, believing they were judging me and thinking what a failed mother I was. I had to grieve this failure.
I went back to my Dr with the news that I was no better. It was decided that I should be referred to the psychiatric office at Women’s hospital to see a specialist. Whilst I waited for that appointment we would up my dose of anti-depressant. This was a dose that I had never had before. Within a week I completely lost my sense of self. It was as if I entered a psychosis of despair. I became consumed with wanting the pain in my mind to end and for that, I soon realized, would also mean that my life would need to end. I would wake very early every morning, after maybe only a few hours of unrestful sleep, and tell Dan that I did not feel well. I didn’t know how else to tell him what I felt just that it was not good and I needed help.
The mornings were the worst. I could not get out of bed without being cajoled and encouraged by Dan and my mother. I was completely unable to care for my son. I could only drink liquids — my diet consisted of smoothies and soups. The weight was falling off, I had deep black circles under my blood shot eyes and I was numb to all but mental pain. I could not laugh, smile or even cry at that point. I would hear Dan and mum plotting how they could just get me through one more day. I began to feel like such a burden on them and my family as a whole. I truly began to believe how much better off they would be without me dragging them down every day. What a better life my husband and son would lead without me.
I was the one who had no hope left, no joy, and only empty love to give.
Within the next month I began to see a Psychiatrist at BC Women’s. It was deemed after about six weeks that these meds were not working for me and we must try others. Here came the onslaught of drugs. Ativan/Clonazepam (the downers to bring my anxiety down), a different SSRI anti-depressant and an anti-psychotic to help me sleep at night. The more drugs that seemed to be added the worse I felt. I had hit rock bottom. It was like being stuck on a bad drug induced trip for months on end with no solace. There was nowhere left to go. No meds were helping me and there was no end in sight. One night Dan and I lay on our bed and I told him that he and Jack would be better off with out me. I was very serious. He wept and wept and told me it wasn’t true and to please not think that. My mum looked on at us with such sadness and fear.
I remember walking on the beach on a wintery afternoon with my family and trying to imagine getting Jack into a day care or school one day. That thought was so overwhelming and dark I started to cry mid walk. There was no future. The thoughts of ending my life consumed me. I could jump off a bridge, I could get in the bath with my hairdryer plugged in, I could toss myself into the freezing cold ocean. I thought seriously about these things but I also didn’t think I would have the courage to proceed when the time came. So I chose the what I thought was the easy route — an overdose.
I took a handful of sleeping pills mixed with a handful of my downers. I woke in the middle of the night when all were asleep, my mother was still living with us two+ months in. I went into the bathroom which was right across from Jack’s room. I took the handful of pills. They burned my throat as they went down and left a metallic taste in my mouth. I started to shake with fear and adrenaline. I was doing this and it was for the better for all. I went back to bed and lay there for about 10 minutes until I started to weep with overwhelming fear. I couldn’t go through with this on my own.
I woke Dan up and told him what I did. He immediately jumped out of bed and called an ambulance. The rest of the night is very foggy as I drifted in and out of consciousness. I remember being asked questions in the hospital and being given charcoal to clear the drugs.
I also remember feeling that it was the most peaceful that I had felt for months. I was resting peacefully and it was amazing. Please don’t bother me. Please don’t wake me up. Please leave me be, I begged in my mind.
The next morning after a visit with the emergency psych on call I was released. The next couple of days were a blur as I believe I was still high. Over the next month the visits to the Dr continued as did the experiments with my meds. I went to the hospital two more times after that first visit. Not for trying to take my life but for being so fearful that I would try again and also just wanting them to put me out of my misery. I wanted so badly for them to put me to sleep.
Upon entering the four month mark I began to see that I needed more than just pills and somehow the recommendation to talk to a counsellor started to sink in. I began sessions with a private counsellor, Mary. She was compassionate, understanding and listened to me as I wept and wept to her about my grieve of losing myself and my deep shame of what I had done and had become. It was around that time that I was also introduced to the Pacific Postpartum Society, the group that ultimately saved my life. I started to attend group sessions with a small gathering of women who were dealing with the exact same issues I was dealing with. At last a light shone upon me, I was not alone! There were others like me. I wasn’t defective or different, I was just broken. For the next few months I attended on a weekly basis. This group of women became my refuge and I theirs. We shared our deepest, darkest secrets.
With the counselling, the group sessions and finally getting on the right medication my despair started to lift slowly but surely. When Jack’s first birthday came around I was not quite back to my old self but I knew that I was on my way. I became so very aware of the present moment. The joy of seeing my son smile or laugh. Watching his first steps or babbles starting to form into real words. I felt so thankful to those who had helped me. Deep, deep gratitude to my husband, my family (my mother in particular), my friends, the Dr’s and the PPS group. For a time I was overflowing with love and appreciation for those who saved me.
It took some time for things to recover fully. Just as my cloud was lifting the trauma of this experience dawned on my husband which apparently is quite normal. After pulling someone else from the depths of hell the other may fall. His fall was nowhere near as violent as mine but I could see what a toll this had taken on him. He never let me feel guilty for any of it and still does not to this day. He has stood by my side always. For this he will always be my most trusted partner, my best friend and my lover.
Note: Any form of depression or anxiety is excruciating and real. If you are experiencing it or know someone who does please get help fast. This is not something to be messed around with or taken lightly. Just because you cannot see it doesn’t make it any less serious to any other disease (like cancer or organ failure). It is NOT taboo to talk about this! I guarantee you that as you open up about your mental health others around you will as well. You are not alone.