Here I sit, looking at my ten-week-old baby boy. He is healthy, he is strong, and he is beautiful. He is growing the way he should, he is developing at the right pace, and he is happy. As I sit here, ten weeks postpartum, looking at my baby boy, I am suffering.
I had an unexpected pregnancy. My boyfriend and I had been dating for about six months and were on the verge of breaking up when we saw those two solid lines. I spent a very miserable few weeks with DJ (my boyfriend), my family, DJ’s family, and my therapist trying to decide what I was going to do. And by that, I mean I was considering terminating the pregnancy. Ultimately I came to the conclusion that I knew with some confidence that if I were to have a baby, I would be okay in the end, but I didn’t have that same confidence about an abortion. Needless to say, my pregnancy was emotional, stressful and incredibly scary. I went through periods of desperately wishing I could go back in time to change my mind, to moments of feeling such indescribable and overwhelming love and connection to the baby growing inside of me. DJ and I were up and down, fighting more than we weren’t, both certain that we wouldn’t make it through this. I was often angry, constantly terrified, and all the while feeling so much guilt for feeling anything but excited and happy about having a gift that so many women want but are unable to have. Towards the end of my pregnancy, things finally started to fall into place. DJ and I were getting stronger as a couple and I was feeling more positive about our ability to raise a baby together. Our living situation was coming together, DJ had a very stable job, and things really had turned out to be “okay”.
At 39 weeks and 5 days, I had the peaceful and natural homebirth that I had always hoped for. I gave birth to Oliver in our bed, held by my incredible partner and surrounded by our powerhouse support team. Though the next few days were a blur of way too many visitors, poopy diapers, and not nearly enough sleep, I could tell that I was different. Sure, I was sleep deprived. And yes, trying to breastfeed a tiny baby with a less than perfect latch was frustrating and painful as hell. But the way I was feeling mentally seemed to stem from something deeper than all of that.
The reason I am writing this blog is to be honest and forthcoming with EXACTLY what I felt and am still feeling during postpartum recovery. I know that this experience varies greatly from woman to woman, so I may not cover it all. But all the stories that I have been told share one common theme, that postpartum is, for lack of better words, fucking hard.
I’ll start by sharing the more physical side of my postpartum experience. I thought that I knew going into this experience what I was in for. My sister had a baby two years ago and I have been surrounded by moms and babies my whole life. But in retrospect, I knew only a small fraction of what my body would feel and look like after pushing a baby out of it. In the first four (ish) days, I felt like I had been run over by an 18-wheel semi truck. I’m talking about the kind of sore you feel after your hardest workout, times about a billion. Every muscle and fiber of my being was exhausted, weak, and getting increasingly sorer as the first days went by. On top of the all over body aches, my vagina (and butthole) felt as though they were going to literally fall out of my body. It’s a hard feeling to describe, but imagine you just pushed a bowling ball out of you and now it feels like there’s just a gaping hallway in its wake. Every time I had to get up from my bed and make the seemingly 3 mile walk to the bathroom to take my 300th pee of the day, I would walk so slowly and carefully as to make sure my insides didn’t spill to the floor. That’s another thing, after you have a baby you lose a lot of fluid. You are peeing several times a day and night, and sweating buckets around the clock. If you aren’t already soaked in your baby’s bodily fluids, you’re definitely soaked in your own. Speaking of fluids…nobody really likes to talk about the ones that are constantly coming out of your vagina after birth. Once that baby comes out followed by your placenta, you really don’t stop bleeding for weeks. The blood then turns into a dark colored discharge, which can go on for a few more weeks or months, and finally you return back to your normal daily discharge or lack thereof for those lucky women out there. Now on to breastfeeding, if that’s the route you choose to take. For such a natural, innate and beautiful thing…it can hurt like a son of a bitch. My nipples hurt upon latch until about six weeks postpartum, and that’s once Ollie had established a good latch. For the first three weeks, Ollie struggled to establish and maintain a sufficient latch so as a result, I had blistered, cracked and bleeding nipples. Without a good latch, he struggled to drain my breasts, which then led to plugged ducts (fever, body aches, breasts incredibly hot and painful to the touch). Finally I resorted to a nipple shield, which allowed for my blisters and cracks to heal while correcting Ollie’s poor latch. The nipple shield was a godsend. When in doubt, get a nipple shield. I am one of the truly lucky mamas when it comes to nursing, in that I was able to push through my struggles and form a happy, successful and incredibly wonderful breastfeeding relationship with my baby. I produce an abundance of milk, and now that the pain has subsided, breastfeeding has become one of my favorite parts of each day with my boy. I am so grateful, as I know so many moms are not so lucky. Now, onto the more serious stuff.
“It’s not simple to say, that most days I don’t recognize me…”, Sara Bareilles says it quite perfectly. I feel as though I went into labor with Oliver, had a “smooth” labor and delivery, and came out with a different brain. It’s as if my mind has been taken over by someone new. The Hannah of old was a really joyful person. I was full of life and passion. I was funny, outgoing, social (almost to a fault), and built my life and happiness on being with the ones I loved. There had been times in my life where I suffered with the grief and trauma of the sudden loss of loved ones, but I spent years in therapy working my ass off to find a “new normal” that allowed me to be my happy, life-filled self again, and I was.
It didn’t take me very long to realize that I was changed, and that something wasn’t right. When the dust had settled from the birth, the visitors had all left and everything was quiet, I was able to see that I was in a fog. I felt like I wasn’t seeing life through the same eyes anymore, almost like I had tunnel vision. Everything looked darker, and my vision felt incredibly distorted. I felt disconnected from reality, sometimes like I wasn’t even in my body. I would be sitting in a room of people and feel as though I was floating above them, unable to communicate properly with those around me. For the first few hours, or days really, I tried to brush it off as a side effect of sleep deprivation. I had a 35-hour labor that I never caught up from and knew that I needed to sleep, I thought for sure that would fix it. That first night I tried to go to sleep when Oliver did, I kept hearing “sleep when the baby sleeps” on repeat in my head. I quickly became worked up because I couldn’t sleep at all. I didn’t feel remotely tired. Days and nights and countless opportunities for sleep came and went, and I was unable to feel tired. I felt alert, paranoid and panicky. I then felt anxious about all the sleep I had missed and was beating myself up for not taking advantage of those moments. I was trying tirelessly to find a blog, forum or anything online that I could relate to. I wanted to read of someone describing what I was feeling, but failed. My mind was racing to irrational places without my control and I couldn’t quiet it. I was certain that Ollie wouldn’t make it through the night, convinced that he had stopped breathing countless times and sure that I could actually see his lips turning blue. I had fears that DJ wouldn’t wake up from his sleep, and that I would be left to find him dead if I didn’t stay awake to watch him breathe. My mind was made up that something was seriously wrong with me or Oliver that I was missing, and if I didn’t catch it one of us would die. I was obsessively checking my pad in my underwear to track how much blood I was losing, certain that I wasn’t contracting and would bleed out. I was panicking that this foggy/altered state feeling and distorted vision was actually a tumor in my brain that no one had recognized. I am normally a really rational and logical person, but there was no reasoning with me at this point. Days went by, and the fog and panic remained. Each day I battled my thoughts, telling myself that everyone and everything was fine…that no, my family or DJ’s family wasn’t going to try to kidnap or kill Oliver, that I wasn’t going to accidently fall down with my son in my arms, that there was no underlying sickness that I was missing. I was scared to tell anyone, including DJ, about the thoughts I was having because I knew how crazy I would sound and I didn’t want them to not trust my abilities with Oliver. But to be honest now, I don’t know that I even trusted myself with him. I never wanted to be alone with him and would arrange for my mom to come over when DJ needed to leave the house even for 15 minutes. I felt like I needed to be babysat at all hours because if I was alone with my thoughts for even a few minutes, something horrible would happen that I wasn’t equipped to deal with.
I started to feel incredibly confused and depressed. I was anxious, scared, angry, down, but I was also feeling the extreme and overwhelming love for my new child that almost every new mom talks about. That blissful and all-encompassing “high on love” feeling that you hear of? Yeah, I was feeling that, too. I loved him so much it hurt, and it scared the absolute shit out of me. I was confused by it all. How could I love someone so much, and be hurting so deeply at the same time? My life was exactly what I had hoped for, why was I feeling so unhappy? I had an incredibly supportive, selfless, and loving partner, why did I feel so alone? I had my health, my family, my support, all of the “happiness” in the world, but inside I was struggling immensely.
I knew what I was feeling wasn’t normal, but still I waited for it to just go away. There’s a certain level of shame you feel as a mother, when you aren’t able to do it “the way everyone else does”. I was embarrassed that I was struggling so much to do something that everyone around me seemed to do so easily. But I also learned that if you don’t share that you are suffering, you won’t ever get the help and understanding that you need. So, I talked to my midwife about the “fog” and anxiety and we both decided that it was a result of the hormones, sleep deprivation and the oh-so-normal and dramatically underestimated “baby blues”. It is said that every new mom has a few weeks post-birth where they are unbalanced, weepy, anxious, etc. These few weeks have been given the romanticized title of “baby blues” in the English language. Everyone convinced me that what I was feeling was common, normal even, and would resolve with time. My midwife gave me an herbal tincture called “motherwort” that is supposed to ease the anxiety until you are back to feeling like yourself again.
Well, weeks went by and there I sat. Agonizing through each painfully long day, barely making it by until the second DJ walked through the door for me to hand off the baby and fall apart. Suffering awake through each night, crying hysterically through each feeding, panicking through every step of my life until I finally hit my breaking point. I woke up each day feeling hopeless, dark, irritable and anxious and I went to sleep each night feeling the same. Things WEREN’T getting better, they were getting worse. Time WASN’T helping heal me, and I was hitting a point of desperation and hopelessness. My “breaking point” manifested in a panic attack one Monday evening right as DJ was getting home from work. The panic attack of all panic attacks, and the one that made me, and all of the doctors realize that I needed real help. The following three days I spent on the phone with my midwife, and my doctor figuring out the right treatment plan that was safest for me and for Oliver. I then started, and am still taking, Zoloft, St. John’s Wort, tryptophan and SAM-e. Zoloft is an antidepressant or SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor), and the other three are herbal/dietary supplements that aid in balancing the chemical cycle of serotonin production in your brain. I felt a pretty instant sense of relief knowing that I was on the path to feeling “normal” again, but knew that it could take up to three months to fully feel the effects of the medications.
As I mentioned earlier, I have a history with loss and trauma. Five years ago, I lost one of my best friends on February 5th in a horrible, unexpected way at the Oregon coast. On March 5th, I then lost my Grandma to dementia. On April 21st, I lost my Papa Joe. He was living in pain, suffering from his worsening ankylosing spondilitis, which took an immense toll on his quality of life. He chose to end his life, just as he lived it, on his terms. He no longer wanted to feel like a burden or remain in the agonizing pain any more, and although I respect his choice profoundly, the way in which I lost him was traumatic and scarring. On June 18th, I lost another of my closest friends in a jet-ski accident, and it truly rocked me to my core. Needless to say, my world had been turned completely upside down. As a result of these losses, I suffered from depression, anxiety and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). I was forced to find myself again, in this unfamiliar world that I could hardly recognize. I was facing a life that was suddenly missing hugely important forces that loved me and understood me, and without them, I was lost. As I also said earlier, I worked my ass off to not only “deal” with these losses but to get through them and be a stronger and better me when I reached the other side. Unfortunately, even when you heal from wounds this great, you will always walk through life with scars. The pain reaches a point where it’s manageable, livable and much less sharp, but it is always there. The same goes with PTSD. The trauma passes with time and work, but there will always be that monster deep within, waiting to be awoken someday when you least expect it (or need it, for that matter).
After hearing about my symptoms (the fog), my therapist came to a conclusion that I had something called derealization/depersonalization disorder. I told her EXACTLY what I was feeling and for the first time, someone had a satisfying response. Finally, someone had gotten to the bottom of this incredibly frustrating and distracting feeling that I just couldn’t get rid of. It wasn’t just “mommy brain”, it was something with a name and something that other people have, too. I was relieved to hear that my visual disturbances and changed view of the world wasn’t a brain tumor, and wasn’t permanent. Hallelujah! Derealization/depersonalization disorder is caused by extreme anxiety, depression, trauma, etc. The disassociation and separation from reality is your nervous system’s way of protecting you from getting overwhelmed by these sensations, but what typically happens is the opposite. The derealization freaks you the fuck out, and causes even more anxiety. It seems to create a pretty vicious cycle…welcome to my last 10 weeks.
Over several hours of “digging”, we discovered that there were many things leading to my post-partum disorder. The obvious things, like sleep-deprivation, hormonal imbalance, the HUGE adjustment of having a new baby to care for, and my less than ideal pregnancy situation. She also opened my eyes to realize that somewhere amidst all of this change and stress, I had awoken the monster. I had triggered the big “T” word, and I was again feeling the awful and crippling symptoms of PTSD. She reminded me that years ago, when I lost those loved ones, the reason it hurt so much was because I loved them so deeply and was forced to learn how quickly those you love can be ripped from your grasp. Five years later, I have been given a gift that I cherish and love more than anything or anyone. I feel a love so profound and deep, and I am petrified that he will be suddenly taken from me. That fear has sent me into a tailspin of grief, resurfaced loss, and crippling trauma and anxiety.
The last few weeks have been a true roller coaster. I’ve had horrible days where I fantasized my own death, days where I just couldn’t imagine facing another day feeling as bad as I did. Those days were followed by better days, where part of me felt hopeful about the future and confident that someday I would see the other side of this dark place I was in. It all felt so chemical and out of my control, but the one constant through each day, was the love I felt for my beautiful son. I was exhausted, distracted, completely consumed in depression and panic, but I loved and wanted him and for that I am so thankful. He was my light in the darkness, my reason for it all.
Here I sit, ten weeks postpartum, staring at my beautiful, sleeping baby boy. I am still hurting, but I would like to think that I am healing. I am in therapy weekly, I’m in the process of finding my “sweet spot” on these medications, and some days I am feeling hopeful and capable. I wake up some mornings feeling like I have some purpose in this world, and at the end of some days I go to bed knowing with a sliver of confidence that I WILL get better. But still, there are many days that I wake up in the morning wishing I could already to go to bed and start over, hoping for a better tomorrow. I still love my son more and more with each passing day. I love my incredible rock and partner, DJ, more than words can express. I know that the road to recovery is a long and tumultuous one. I know that I have many more bad days ahead, and probably months of ups and downs to face before I will finally feel like myself again. But in this moment, I know that I can do it.