I Am a Survivor?

[Editor’s Note: Parts of this post may be triggering as this Warrior Mom and survivor mentions suicide and names some moms who did not survive postpartum mood and anxiety disorders. Please read only if you are in a safe place. You are not alone. You can be a survivor, too. -Jenna]

I Am a Survivor?

I balked the first time my therapist used the term “survivor” when referring to me.

Yes, I had been through a horrible illness. I had lost weight and sleep and the basic enjoyment of life. I had been tormented by recurrent and horrible images of my son being injured or killed in random acts of violence.

I had barely left my home in six months, had not trusted anyone else to care for my boy, and yet, paradoxically, had also been unable to take him into the wide, cruel world. I had postpartum anxiety disorder and postpartum OCD.

Indeed, I had endured plenty—but was I a “survivor”? 

No, the label didn’t seem right. Survivors walk away from plane crashes or flash floods. Survivors beat cancer. Survivors escape from domestic abuse. “Survivor” didn’t seem like the proper way to describe what I had been through.

Time passed and, as I slowly recovered, I became an outspoken advocate for maternal mental health. I attended trainings and conferences, read books and journals, changed careers, and even started a support group. I became a state coordinator for Postpartum Support International (PSI), and I joined the board of a local nonprofit called Postpartum Education and Support.

Even with all of that professional exposure, I still had a hard time identifying as a survivor. A mother, wife, daughter, advocate, doula, yes. But survivor?  It still didn’t feel right.

The turning point for me came in June, at our local Climb Out of the Darkness event. I self-consciously wore the “SURVIVOR” sticker that was passed to me. At the time, the country was reeling from the Orlando shooting, and I felt especially uneasy identifying myself as a survivor. 

As a group, we listened to a message from Katherine Stone read tearfully by the organizers and then had a moving invocation. Emotions ran high as we waited for the walk to begin. I found myself standing next to an older couple named Anne and Mark. Most of the attendees were young families so they stood out. I introduced myself and we began chatting. I asked what brought them to The Climb and Anne responded,

“Oh, I work with Leslie (one of the organizers) and, well, I knew Jackie. She didn’t survive.”  

For a split second, I didn’t understand what she was telling me. Then it hit me. Anne knew someone who had taken her own life while struggling with a postpartum mood disorder.

Jackie was a woman just like me. She wanted to be a mother more than anything, but then felt like she had totally lost herself after the birth of her son. Jackie developed the most severe and rarest form of postpartum mood disorder: postpartum psychosis. We both sought treatment and both fought to get better. We both had very strong support from our family and friends. Yet, I survived and Jackie did not.    

I felt like I had been punched in the gut and all the unease I had felt about being a survivor dissipated in a moment. Why hadn’t this hit me before? I knew that suicide was a real risk of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. In fact, suicide is the number one cause of death for women in the first year postpartum.  

Of course I am a survivor. I survived a terrible illness that sucks the joy and will to live from your very soul. I survived night after night of staying awake to watch my son sleep because I was afraid he would die if I closed my eyes. I survived the images that played through my mind on a gruesome loop.

I did survive, yet so many others do not.

Annie Imlay-Spangler,
Sarah Walker Judson,
Jennifer Lynne Knarr,
Cynthia Wachenheim,
Aimee Ziegler,
Emily Cook Dyches,
Sasha Lewis Hettich,
Allison Goldstein,
Melanie Blocker-Stokes,
Casandra Ashley Vaughan Perkins, and
Jackie

These women didn’t survive, and I did. Calling myself anything other than a survivor would be an insult to their memory. 

If you are struggling, please reach out for help.

Join the other Warrior Moms at Postpartum Progress. You are not alone. Connecting with others is a powerful tool in your recovery.

Find your local PSI coordinator. They will help you find support groups, therapists, and doctors in your area. You can also access Postpartum Progress’ lists of specialists and support groups, or reach out to them via Facebook.

You will be a survivor, too.  

~Carrie Banks

How EMDR Therapy Helped Postpartum Me

[Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post comes from a Warrior Mom who employed EMDR Therapy in order to process her postpartum depression and anxiety. EMDR is one of eight types of psychotherapy for postpartum depression treatment. We’re thankful she shared her experience for others considering this option. -Jenna]

How EMDR Therapy Helped Postpartum Me

I thought I had digested it, processed it, was done with it.

I wasn’t.

Here I was, sitting in my EMDR therapist‘s office, discussing my postpartum depression and anxiety days almost ten years later. With each question asked, I delved deeper into my past, isolating that one biggest moment I knew something was wrong.

I was currently analyzing the ER at my hospital.

Buzzers gently vibrated my right hand, then my left. I was being trained to reprocess this memory. A memory I thought I had processed many years ago.

The ER was bleak, bare, suffocating. It was a small room with beige walls filled with grey fabric chairs with black plastic arms and legs. The carpet was grey too. There was no natural light except for the front doors. I was seated facing forward with the doors on my left.

The chaos around me was shut out by my mind. Random worries played Pong in my head as I tried hard to keep up with all of them. If I wasn’t pacing the floor, I was rocking back and forth in the chair next to my mother.

I hated this woman, this woman I had become. I spent years trying to remove myself from her. I was a failure, a disgrace. Mothering should not have been an occupation given to me as I was clearly failing with that too. I was ashamed.

I couldn’t care for my daughter; I couldn’t even stand to be around her. I hated her and because of that, I deeply despised myself.

How quickly I went from admiring this beautiful baby of mine to cringing at any sound she made. Looking at her adorable face just deepened the hate I had for myself. I removed myself, becoming robotic, between vomiting and crying fits, when taking care of her.

Here I was, in the ER, exactly one month after she was born.

My therapist had thought it a good idea to reprocess this moment. He believed that my postpartum depression and anxiety were connected to the recent events of fostering a special needs toddler and ultimately succumbing to the evil grips of Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety again after having to give him back.

I failed once again at motherhood. I couldn’t balance his needs, my daughter’s needs, and taking care of myself.

Once again, like all those years ago, it seemed as if Postpartum Me was returning. I was dry-heaving every morning and most afternoons and evenings. I wasn’t sleeping. I wasn’t eating. I was obsessively worrying about his care and overlooking my daughter’s.

I broke and wound up in the ER once again. I had come full circle.

As I sat with the buzzers going off in my hands that day in therapy, I truly began to think about that day, all those years ago, in the ER. Staring at my Postpartum self as I was now, I deeply looked at her.

She was a mess but she would get better. My therapist told me to go with tha,t which was him basically saying to continue with that thought. Present Day Me knelt down beside Postpartum Me. I took her hands in mine and looked into her eyes. She, still rocking back and forth, was focused on a floral print picture on the wall directly in front of her.

“It’s okay,” I told her, “I know because I have been there. You will get better. I did.”

With that, Postpartum Me stopped rocking back and forth and focused her eyes on mine. Present Day Me was crying. Ten years and I finally had compassion for myself. It was freeing in so many ways. Not only was I able to fully reprocess my Postpartum years, but in turn, because of that, I had processed my Post-Foster years.

EMDR therapy saved me. It gave me the compassion I needed for myself. The compassion I give to so many others, I was now able to give to me.

~Stephanie Trzyna

How My Totally Wrecked Birth Plan Nearly Wrecked Me

[Editor’s Note: Some parts of this guest post by a brave Warrior Mom may feel triggering for those with difficult birth or intrusive thoughts. It’s important to share stories like this one because they show you CAN get better. -Jenna]

How a Wrecked Birth Plan Nearly Wrecked Me

I had a uneventful pregnancy and birth experience with my first child—born at home in a birth pool after approximately 3 hours of active labor. My recovery went quickly and we had a lot of supportive friends and family to help. I never considered my second would be any different.

Around 37 weeks I started to feel sick, tired and stuffy-achey. My son had a cold, and I chalked it up to that. I let my midwife know and she encouraged me to rest, use a neti pot, drink plenty of water.

One afternoon my head hurt so badly I felt nauseated. I vaguely remembered something about headaches being related to blood pressure. I took my blood pressure with a home cuff and it was 154 over 92; I remember the numbers exactly. That scared me, especially since mine tends to be low (100’s/60’s) in pregnancy.

I lay in bed for a bit and waited, then took my BP again. It was normal. I took a nap and when I woke up I felt slightly better.

The Friday I was 37 weeks, 5 days, I took my son in for a Well Child visit and the nurse took one look at me and insisted on taking my blood pressure. It was high again. She asked permission to take a urine sample to check for protein and I agreed.

I was spilling protein. She wouldn’t let me leave until I called my midwife and set up bloodwork. Luckily my husband was with me. He drove me straight to the lab, and I went home and laid in bed per my midwife’s instructions while we waited on results.

I had preeclampsia. After four days of repeated labs, one trip to the hospital for monitoring, hours of lying on the couch and countless tears, I agreed to be induced. I picked the “crunchiest” hospital in the state and had cervidil placed at 10:00 AM when I was 38 weeks, 3 days. My baby was born around 8:30 PM after one hour of active labor.

The actual labor and delivery was easy. But the placenta wouldn’t come out.

Things suddenly got hectic.

I could feel blood pooling around my lower body and a team rushed in with some machines. My midwife leaned down next to my face and very seriously said to me, “You are retaining the placenta. You are hemorrhaging. We have an ultrasound machine here and we can do the ultrasound and try to remove the remaining pieces manually, or you can go directly to the ER and have a D&C, but you will have to consent to a potential hysterectomy before we can do that.”

I wanted to stay with my baby, and get started breastfeeding. I chose the manual extraction, which in retrospect was a poor decision. It was excruciatingly painful. I wasn’t able to breastfeed because I couldn’t sit up without passing out, and my baby not only had a tongue tie, but was unable to coordinate her suck/swallow reflex, which is common in preterm infants.

They also didn’t get all of the placenta, so I had to have a D&C when she was six weeks old anyway.

I remember the moment I felt a dark cloud settle over me. After they got me stabilized, it was just me, my husband, baby, and my nurse. It was about midnight and they had turned the lights down. I was freezing and shaking despite the pile of warm blankets. My IV was starting to really sting. I could feel cold sticky blood covering the entire backside of my body, from my calves up to my shoulders.

I felt like I was going to pass out at any moment. I was too weak to hold my baby, and I didn’t recognize her. She didn’t look anything like my son did when he was born, nothing like what I expected. I didn’t feel a sense of awe or amazement when I looked at her. I felt nothing. She was so tiny and bald.

I couldn’t even feed her; she was getting donor milk.

My room had gorgeous wall to wall windows with views of the mountains and I could see stars twinkling outside, but all I could think about was how cold, harsh and snowy the world was out there. And how cold it was in my room, both physically and emotionally.

I felt robbed of my beautiful birth plan. I felt more alone than I ever had in my life. I couldn’t even hold my own baby, and no one, not even my husband, understood what had just happened or how I was feeling. No one asked.

I was in the hospital for three days. I had lost two liters of blood. Nursing did not go well. I was feeding, pumping, then feeding donor milk every three hours. I was exhausted and still unable to sit upright. I was haunted with the repeating refrain, “You almost died. Your baby could have died.”

We learned later she had IUGR and my placenta had started failing weeks earlier. I felt guilty for not knowing my baby was struggling in there, for not going in to the hospital as soon as I had that first excruciating headache. My husband, as kind and supportive and loving as he is, seemed clueless as to the seriousness of the situation.

Still no one talked to me about the birth or how scared I felt. I so wish hospitals sent mental health professionals to speak with new moms, especially after a birth like that.

We went home and had very little support. The scary birth story made people uncomfortable when I told it. I could tell in their eyes and by the way they awkwardly said “I’m sorry” and changed the subject. My father-in-law reminded me as I was lying on the couch the day I got home from the hospital that “back in the day, women just squatted down and had babies in fields and went right back to work.” I reminded him that back in the day, both baby and I would have died.

I was still very weak and got winded and lightheaded just going up the six stairs in our tri-level to the bathroom or our bedroom. I was still triple feeding every three hours. Almost no one brought us food or offered to help with anything.

The mother of a school friend of my toddler son came and took him for a few hours to the park one day to play. I barely knew her and she was one of the three people that reached out. A friend brought us Chinese takeout one night. A guy I knew through our homeowners’ association brought us a home-cooked meal. I am forever grateful to those people, and I will be forever bitter at the “friends” who did nothing for us during that time, despite knowing how awful the birth had been. It changed my perspective on friendship for sure.

Breastfeeding was so painful. My son had also had a tongue-lip tie that we didn’t catch until he was 18 months old, and I had hated breastfeeding with him. Not wanting to go through that again, we had my daughter’s revised with laser at four weeks. I felt guilty for doing it. I had my husband stay and hold her while I sat in the waiting room and cried.

She developed reflux and “colic” and lost weight. She screamed all day and all night. I was working from home at the time and carried her in a wrap most of the day. I couldn’t take client phone calls, and when I did, more than once they got an earful of screaming as she suddenly woke, strapped to my chest.

She was up every hour or two all night long, and because I was still breastfeeding, so was I. I did an elimination diet and ate chicken, rice, and apples for a month. I had extensive allergy and food intolerance testing done, hoping I could figure out what, in my breastmilk, was making her so miserable.

We tried numerous reflux medications with marginal improvement. I finally gave up and put her on hypoallergenic formula at nine months. She was instantly happier.

Then I fell apart.

I became angry. The guilt I was carrying about so many things came out as rage. At her, at everyone. I was mad at the universe. I was mad at my husband. I was mad at our unsupportive friends.

None of this was what I had planned or envisioned. None of this was like my first birth and child.

I couldn’t sleep. The tiniest noise would make me jolt awake, heart racing, hoping I could make it to her in time to just pat her back and get her back to sleep before the full blown screaming fit forced me to stay up walking and patting her around the house for hours.

Despite the formula, she was still a terrible sleeper. We had to carry her around in an Ergo for an hour or more every night until she was deeply asleep. One night when she had been screaming at bedtime for several hours, I thought about throwing her across the room.

I told my therapist, one I fortunately had lined up for regular appointments when I started having nightmares and flashbacks soon after the birth. She encouraged me to call my psychiatrist, who I hadn’t seen since early in my pregnancy (to make a plan to prevent PPA/PPD this time, since I also had it with my first).

Luckily, I already had one. I had so many risk factors: a history of postpartum psychosis and alcoholism on one side of the family, a likely history of (undiagnosed, unknown) mental illness on the other side. My Fitbit says I was averaging between 2-3 hours of sleep at that point.

Because I already had a relationship with a psychiatrist, I was able to get in and get on meds (three of them!) very quickly. The first thing he said was, “you can’t get up at night with the baby anymore.”

Luckily my husband is amazing and took over the night times. I sort of felt it was only fair, after my doing it alone for nine months. She’s 18 months old now and her reflux went away completely around a year. She’s a hilarious and feisty toddler. She’s still extremely loud and vocal.

Thanks to medication and earplugs, I started sleeping again. My anxiety went away. The fog of depression lifted. I started seeing beauty around me again, in the mountains and trees and in my kids. I’m off all but one of the medications and am slowly tapering off of it as well.

Recovery is possible even in the worst cases. I thought about hurting my baby, and that memory is still painful and sickening. I felt like no one understood. I felt like my baby was a stranger.

I felt so, so alone. You’re not alone. There are thousands, millions of women out here who have gone through what you have. Speak up. Needing help doesn’t make you weak or a bad parent. It makes you strong enough to ask for what’s best for your family.

We are’t just strong, we are warriors. And we are here for you.

~Kara M

All Mothers Deserve Access to Affordable Postpartum Depression Treatment

[Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post comes from a Warrior Mom who struggled to find access to affordable postpartum depression treatment. This is not okay, and it needs to change. -Jenna]

All Mothers Deserve Access to Affordable Postpartum Depression Treatment

The doctor noticed I was depressed immediately.

After the initial intake, she looked in my eyes and declared, “You’re depressed.”
“Yes,” I responded.

This wasn’t news to me. My daughter was five months old and I knew what I was experiencing. The doctor began to list a number of suggestions for things that might help. I had a response for every one.

“Can someone help you with the baby?”
“No, everyone works and no one has time.”

“Could you take her to daycare?”
“No, I am breastfeeding her on demand, don’t like pumping/she won’t take a bottle, and we can’t afford it.”

Finally the doctor concluded the meeting with, “Well, there has to be something you can do,” without offering any more suggestions.

I guess that’s not fair. She did offer suggestions: a weekly massage and acupuncture routine that could be done in her office. The total cost of said treatment would be more than I could afford. I thanked her and left the office. A couple of months later I got a $400 bill for my visit.

Then there was the therapist I saw who was referred to me by another Warrior Mom. This therapist was supposed to be one of the best in the city for helping moms through postpartum depression. I saw her two or three times, but each visit cost around 275 dollars. She did not take insurance, which is something I kept coming up against when I identified the best therapists for women with postpartum depression.

“It’s worth the money,” someone told me.

Sure, I thought, but only if the money is actually there. I can’t fabricate money. I believe this therapist may have been able to help me, but I really needed to see her at least once a week and we simply did not have the resources for that.

By the time I saw the specialist who worked specifically with women who had postpartum depression, I had identified that that quality was one of the most important in my recovery. After seeing a therapist through my husband’s job who told me to “stop doing that” when I told her how my daughter’s crying triggered my anxiety and forced me to immediately drop what I was doing for her every whine and cry while simultaneously trembling, I knew that I needed to work with someone who understood and was sensitive to what I was experiencing.

My problem, which I suspect is a problem felt by many in my position, was getting access to the care that I needed. Every single specialist who worked with women who had postpartum depression did not take insurance except for one. I ended up seeing the one who accepted insurance and even then she didn’t accept my insurance. She told me that she had tried to work with my insurance company, but they claimed that there were already plenty of therapists in their network. Even though she did not take my insurance, she agreed to charge me what a normal copay would be. I was relieved to finally find an affordable option.

The whole process was extremely troubling to me. One of the things I was able to do during that time, which is not easy for someone suffering from depression, is advocate for myself. After almost a year of not feeling well, I realized that I had to take matters in to my own hands. That’s when I became more proactive. This was nearly impossible when my daughter was first born, and I wonder if I had had someone truly advocating for me who knew the proper information to help me find appropriate care, I might have suffered less.

The US Preventive Services Task Force recently recommended that all pregnant women and new mothers get screened for depression, but that is not where the work ends. It’s actually where it begins. How a doctor goes about laying out the resources available to a mother can make a world of difference in whether or not she follows through with seeking help.

I have heard other mothers in postpartum support groups say that the way their doctor dismissed them or just threw medication at them without listening to how they were feeling really turned them off from seeking help. It’s important that mothers who are suffering from a postpartum mood disorder work with understanding and sensitive practitioners. It’s crucial in those early months when a new mother may be feeling misunderstood, isolated, or like nobody cares or understands what she is going through.

The issue of insurance and cost of care were both a really huge barrier. I identified so many resources that could have helped me that I simply could not afford. My inability to access the best care made me feel that my recovery was not valued as much as the people who could afford the best resources.

There is room for much improvement. I hope that by talking about the barriers I encountered, it will encourage people to create programs that are accessible to all mothers, regardless of their ability to pay.

I hope that more resources like the free postpartum depression support groups I found will be made available. I hope that insurance companies will work with more specialists in postpartum depression who, in turn, want to work with the insurance companies. I hope that the specialists who do not accept insurance will find more ways to make their care accessible to more women. I hope doctors who screen their patients for postpartum depression will do more than hand the mother a prescription or piece of paper and send them on their way.

I hope more people will see the value in taking care of mothers so that we can take care of our families. We need to talk about how we can do better.

~Kristina Newman