“So, what brings you in today?” the doctor asked.
“Well, there are some people in my life who say I’m not myself. That I sound negative and angry, so I thought I’d come in and get checked.” I replied, feeling silly but holding back tears, while bouncing my nearly 8 month old baby on my lap.
“Are you getting enough sleep?” she asked.
I laughed. “No, my baby is not a good sleeper. She wakes every hour or so. And I’m a light sleeper to begin with.”
She went through a few more questions: was I anxious about going back to work, was I bonding alright with baby, was I feeling overly emotional?
Yes, yes and yes.
“Well it sounds like a classic case of postpartum depression,” she said. She wrote me up a prescription for antidepressants, went through all the potential side effects and gave me a very clinical “if you feel suicidal, call someone”.
She told me to start taking the medication immediately and come back to see her in two weeks.
I left feeling very overwhelmed. I didn’t want to take pills. Was I seriously suffering from depression? Should I call a therapist? I had so many questions, and my doctor (a new one I’d only seen a couple of times before) didn’t seem to want to explore any other options.
That prescription sat on my desk at home for 2 weeks. When I went back to see her, I told the doctor I hadn’t taken the pills.
“Why?” she asked.
I couldn’t explain it. I just didn’t want to take them. How long would I be on them? Would there be any adjustment period that would make it difficult to do my job as a mother to two kids? How long before the side effects would be felt? What if I experienced really serious side effects? What about my kids?
There were too many questions she couldn’t answer. So she sent me home, again with the simple advice to take the pills and see her in two weeks.
I haven’t been back.
When you know it’s not right…
I definitely felt off. There was something very wrong. I could feel it in the very fibers of my soul. I had this beautiful baby… a baby we had longed for for years. A baby we were finally blessed with. Our sweet surprise. And yet I felt like I was struggling. Struggling to keep my head above water.
I wasn’t sleeping. Baby wasn’t the best sleeper, but even when she slept, I found I couldn’t sleep. So I’d stay up and read, or write, or draw. Or mindlessly play Angry Bird Pop on my phone.
I didn’t want to talk to people, and when I did I was either overly friendly, or there was a definite negativity. A cynicism and a tang that I had worked long and hard years ago to get rid of. There was no middle of the road. I felt like my emotions were on a pendulum that was swinging faster and faster every day.
I felt angry. I felt angry and I didn’t know why. What on EARTH did I have to feel angry about? And I felt sad. There was an overwhelming sadness that I was fighting back every day. It would stick in my throat. I would swallow it down every morning, and again in the afternoon, and again before bed.
Overnight the tears would fall, unbidden, when no one was looking. Silent tears and sobs that wracked my body, falling on my baby as she slept in my lap. I would apologize to her over and over again as she slept, as she nursed, as she looked up at me with innocent curiosity, not understanding why mama was so sad.
And I didn’t know why either.
Maybe I was depressed. Maybe I needed the pills. But was it PPD? And pills were a commitment I wasn’t ready to make.
My husband was incredibly supportive, saying I should do whatever I felt comfortable doing. But he, too, was worried. I could see it. And he took the brunt of my anger because, well, he’s my husband. So did my kids. I was short tempered. I was angry and irritable. I complained about everything.
I hated everything. Everything was wrong. No one else saw it. Just me. And those close to me. Everyone else got “happy Sarah”…and it was exhausting.
When it finally falls apart…
Then, one morning about 3 weeks ago, I woke up with excruciating pain in my back. It felt like I’d pulled a muscle, but worse. I have no idea how I did it. Maybe picking up and putting down the baby carelessly? Maybe the way I was sleeping? (Still semi-upright because it makes nursing easier.)
All I knew was I could barely move. But I had stuff to be getting on with, so I sucked it up, and sucked down Advil and Naproxen.
As the week progressed, it got worse. It got so bad I could barely take deep breaths for the pain in my back and side. It felt like my ribs were poking my lungs. I couldn’t stand it anymore. So I finally decided to call the massage therapist I saw during my pregnancy. She managed to help me then, maybe she could help me now.
As I lay on the table, we talked about the delivery, because it had been 10 months. The last time she saw me was the week before I went into labour. I’d been too busy to see her since.
She started working on my hip and back, and it was AGONY. UTTER AGONY.
I was in so much pain she barely used any pressure at all, even though each touch felt like being stabbed with a knife.
After working on my hip, she took one look at my back and said, “Oh wow! Yeah, you’re definitely out of alignment. I can see it.”
We only got through 35 mins of a 60 minute massage. I couldn’t handle the pain. Me. Someone who has an incredibly high pain threshold.
The truth, as they say, will out…
As she finished up, she asked me what I had been doing for myself.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You’ve been looking after everyone else. How are you looking after yourself?”
I honestly had to think about it.
“Your body hasn’t healed. Your pregnancy was difficult. Your delivery was traumatic. A c-section does a lot more damage than people care to admit. And often 6 weeks isn’t enough to fully heal and go back to business as usual.” she said sagely.
It’s true. My c-section was difficult. But then, most are. My incision took nearly 7 months to fully heal and stop bleeding. I still couldn’t feel my ab / core muscles 10 months on. The skin around it was still numb.
“No no, I’m not just talking about the physical healing. You haven’t emotionally healed from what amounts to major surgery. And in a lot of cases, something very emotionally traumatic. We’ve normalized c-sections because they’re so common, but they still take a great deal out of you…physically, yes, but emotionally and mentally as well. We expect women to go back to normal after only a few weeks. Any other major surgery like that, people can take months to fully heal and we allow it.”
Then she said something that changed everything.
“I’m going to empower you right now to mourn. To feel sad. To be okay with not being okay. Even when you’re as prepared as you can be for child birth, when the delivery brings the unexpected you mourn for the loss of something…your dream, your expectation.”
And although I have always known that it’s okay not to be okay, her giving me permission to actually feel it was like flipping a switch.
The tears came. Not the tears I’d been crying for months. But tears that felt like they came from very, very deep down. Tears that felt like they were expunging something dark and sad.
She left me alone to cry for nearly 20 minutes. And when I emerged from the room, I felt completely different. Not healed. Not whole. But different. A good different.
She recommended I see a chiropractor. And I did. After a full evaluation it turns out that my pregnancy and c-section caused Diastasis Recti, or abdominal wall separation. My case was particularly bad, and hadn’t healed in the 10 months postpartum. Most doctors will tell you it will heal itself in 6-8 weeks so most women do nothing about it.
With no strength in my core, my back muscles had been overcompensating to keep me upright. This resulted in a knock-on effect, resulting in back, leg, shoulder and neck pain. Pain I’d been ignoring and self-medicating away because I thought it was just par for the course of my new normal as a new mom that was a little older.
We decided the best course of action was to address everything. Acupunture to help calm down my nervous system, which was in overdrive; massage to address the overtaxed muscles; chiropractic to take care of the misalignment that resulted from months of a system not being able to work properly.
After just one acupuncture treatment, I was able to endure a full 60 min massage. It was still painful, but she got some serious work done. After one week of chiropractic treatments, I am able to walk and bend and lift and sit and stand with almost no pain. I still have to be careful because I can easily re-injure myself, but I’ve made very quick progress. Another couple of weeks and we should be on the road to full recovery.
But the biggest change, the biggest difference, is my emotional state.
The things I knew but had forgotten
I’m by no means 100%…but I’d say I’m back to about 80% of “old Sarah”. The day after my first acupuncture and second chiro treatment (I had them the same day), I found that I was literally laughing at everything. I couldn’t stop laughing. I felt like I hadn’t laughed in a long time.
And the anger is almost gone. Anger at nothing. So is the sadness.
And I realized with startling remembrance just how connected our physical and emotional well being is. Our health is not compartmental.
I realized that we expect too much of moms. Childbirth itself, even when it’s textbook perfect, is the hardest thing many of us will ever endure. Add trauma to that and it’s ridiculous to expect women to follow a timetable for healing. There IS no normal recovery. There IS no average.
My labour was ridiculous. Over 18 hours I endured agonizing pain due to contractions, multiple tests, trauma to the baby, trauma to me, an emergency c-section where the doctors scared me that my baby wasn’t okay, and more drugs than I’ve taken in my collective lifetime.
Then we had 4 days in the NICU because baby wasn’t okay. Having to watch her get her heel pricked for blood tests every 1-2 hours was heartbreaking. Listening to the women around me screaming and crying was soul destroying. Lying awake, alone, in a quiet hospital day after day with only your thoughts was lonely.
And I didn’t even have it that bad. I have friends who’ve had worse experiences.
It’s hard. And there’s no shame in admitting it.
Pregnancy and labour and delivery is incredibly hard. There are no words to describe it. Yes, you end up with something that makes ALL of it worth it, but too many women aren’t allowed or given the opportunity or even told it’s okay to / they need to process those hours, those days. Too many women have lifelong issues resulting from labour and delivery and we are all told to suck it up because it’s part of the childbirth process.
It may be, but that doesn’t make the emotional, physical, and mental fallout any less real.
And it took all of this to realize that sometimes when you feel bad, it’s because you simply feel bad. It’s not imagined. It’s not because you’re failing. It’s not because you’re weak. It’s because you feel bad.
I realized that when you ignore your emotional health, your body will let you know. And when you ignore your body, often your emotions suffer as a result.
So it is critically important to be aware of your state of mind. It is critically important to listen to the people close to you to see whether things are a little off. I honestly thought I was just tired, and hadn’t realized the negativity and anger was obvious even in text messages. Because that’s how I was made aware of it. Through the tone in my every day texts to the people who know me best.
And maybe it was PPD. Goodness knows the trauma the system endures during pregnancy and childbirth can throw the hormonal balance terribly off. The overwhelm. The newness of it all. It could very well be PPD.
All I know is that once I allowed myself to acknowledge how hard it was…
Once I allowed myself to mourn for the hardness of it all, and what I had to go through…
It cracked the shell I felt building up over the last 10 months. And now the light is starting to seep in again.
So I will continue down this road and see where it takes me. And I will continue asking for help to get through it. And I will be okay.
And so will you.
Let me know if this story speaks to you. I know I’m not the only one who has had this or a similar experience. If you need to talk about it, I’m here.
I want to clarify something: I know many people with depression, anxiety, and other forms of mental illness that benefit a great deal from the appropriate medication. I know and believe very strongly in the power of medication used in conjunction with other treatments to help combat the crippling symptoms of mental illness. What I’ve shared here is my own personal experience and should not be taken as anything other than that.