A(nother) bump in the road

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Before the birth of my son, I knew that having a child would be hard. I understood that I’d have some sleepless nights and that I’d be wiping up poop and barf. I understood that my days of meeting up with friends for brunch, or going out for 9PM dinners with my husband would be over for awhile. Although I was nervous for the huge life change, none of it scared me. I’d always had a knack with babies and children and loved being around them, and nothing excited me more than having my very own. I was ready, and I felt prepared. I knew what to expect.

And then I was punched in the stomach with an awful mental illness called postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety. And nothing and no one could have prepared me for that.

The research says that around 1 in 9 mothers will experience postpartum depression. But a lot of women don’t recognize it when it’s happening. Many will shrug it off as the “baby blues” a term used to describe the common emotional state most new moms find themselves in for the first several days after giving birth, due to hormonal changes and whatnot. But what happens when the baby blues don’t go away “after 10 days” like Google says it should? What happens when every day feels increasingly worse and you feel as though you are being swallowed whole by this new thing in your life called motherhood? What then?

In my case, I knew something was wrong fairly early on. I’d had anxiety all my life, but never like this. From night one in the hospital, I couldn’t sleep. And I don’t mean I was having interrupted sleep when the baby woke, or only getting a quick nap in here and there. I was not sleeping. At all. Do you know what happens when you stop sleeping completely? You lose your freakin mind. I couldn’t concentrate, my brain frantically racing every minute of every day. Is my baby warm enough? Is he too cold? Is he comfortable sleeping like that? Why isn’t he moving? Why is he moving so much? What’s that sound he’s making? Are his airways clear? How much milk should I be giving him? Is he eating enough? Pooping enough? Sleeping enough? I was overcome with panic and dread.

As the days went on, I continued to sink further into a hole of misery. I felt completely detached from my reality, unable to feel joy, unable to smile, unable to fake it. Everyone was so excited about the baby, wanting to see photos of him constantly, wanting to know what he was doing. It was such a happy time, for everyone around me. And I knew how lucky I was to have this beautiful little healthy baby. I knew that I loved him and cared about him more than anything in the world. So then why couldn’t I stop crying?

I began to feel and act like a zombie, going through the motions, doing the laundry, washing the bottles, getting the groceries, doing what I needed to survive. I was on autopilot. I stopped eating except to satisfy my basic needs for survival. “Wow, you look so great, you can’t even tell you were pregnant two weeks ago.” “Ha, yah, thanks,” I’d reply, not divulging that my secret to post-pregnancy weight loss was a combo of starvation and depression.

My baby, although cute as heck, was not an easy newborn. He fought sleep like it was the enemy, cried a ton, and would scream in pain while feeding due to reflux. I’d bounce him up and down trying to soothe him to sleep while he wailed for an hour, him sobbing, me sobbing, both of us miserable and angry at the world. We were quite the pair.

As the weeks went on, I felt incapable of taking care of my baby. I dreaded having to change his diaper. I didn’t want to take him out. I watched him like a hawk all night long, monitoring every movement and sound, my heart racing out of my chest at the slightest squirm or sigh. One night I heard my husband changing the baby’s diaper, while he screamed hysterically. I wanted to go to him and see what was wrong. I wanted to comfort him. Instead I sat on my bed in the dark, paralyzed, unable to move.

“Are you loving being a mommy?” people would ask. “Remember to enjoy every minute,” they’d say. “It goes by so fast.”

I sent an email to my doctor to tell her how I was feeling and to see if she was concerned. She was. She called me and I broke into tears, telling her how awful the past month had been. She asked me the questions that doctors ask when they screen for PPD/PPA and I passed the test with flying colours. I knew I had it, but hearing it validated by a doctor felt good. To know that this was an actual disease, I wasn’t just making it all up, and that I could get better.

She immediately referred me to see a psychiatrist in the postpartum program. She also prescribed me pills to help me sleep and told me that getting rest, even a little bit, would be critical to my recovery. My parents generously ordered a night nurse to come to our house to watch the baby at night, giving me and my husband the beautiful gift of sleep. As ordered by my doctor, I handed the nurse my baby, closed my door, put in earplugs and took a pill. I cried, feeling like a complete failure. And then, lights out. I slept.

As I began to repay my sleep debt, things slowly started getting better. But it was an uphill battle. I started seeing a psychiatrist regularly who prescribed me medication and monitored my mood. My parents came over for shifts during the day to help out so I could get a break. I began to have some good moments, and then some good days. My little guy saved his first smile for me, and it filled me with joy. Finally, I felt some happiness.

The change did not happen overnight. It was a slow process. I still had multiple meltdowns and full on panic attacks and needed to take drugs to force myself to sleep. This went on for a few months. And then things really got better. I started to feel like I was getting a grip on the motherhood thing and like I was actually really good at it. The things that used to send me into a frantic spiral no longer phased me. The tears stopped completely and I woke up happy to spend the day with my little guy. The dark cloud had been lifted and I felt like myself again. Myself, with an extra 15 pounds constantly attached to me.

Now I can say with full sincerity that I am loving being a mother. There are still hard days/nights/moments, and I imagine there always will be. But as I’ve said to my doctor, I feel like the lows I feel now are more run-of-the-mill new mom temporary struggles as opposed to crippling mental illness. It’s completely different, and now that I’ve been through it, I know they’re not the same thing.

So that’s what happened a few short months ago. In a nutshell. I once again feared for my life, but in a completely different way than I had before. It was horrible. But with amazing support, medical help, and time, I got better. If you’re reading this and are suffering from postpartum depression or anxiety, know that it can and will get better. There is hope. You’re not alone. And you’re not a bad mother.

I know it sounds so cliche, but my baby boy brings me more joy than I ever could have imagined. I stare at him in disbelief, that something so beautiful and special and amazing could have come from me. His laughter makes me forget that anything bad could ever happen in this world. I love watching him grow and change. I love seeing how he opens his mouth in awe over every tiny new thing he discovers, like a light fixture on the ceiling, or a car driving past our house. I love him in a way that I can’t put into words. He is everything. And as I sit here, covered in barf and mushed carrots, I thank my lucky stars for everything being exactly as it is. It may not be perfect. But it’s pretty darn close.

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Why is this night different from all other nights

Tonight marks the first night of Passover, which is typically one of my favourite holidays. But right now, I am not in the festive mood. Unfortunately, the holiday decided to fall this year during my darkest of chemo days, so I do not get to celebrate. Thanks a bunch, lunar calendar. I am lying on a couch, alone, cursing the world, missing out on my family’s seder. I am not eating brisket or the many other delicious Jewish delicacies that soothe my soul. I would not even be able to taste the flavours if I tried. Instead of the happy, warm feelings I usually feel this time of year, I am filled with anger, sadness, loneliness. I am a Bitter Betty. Lately I feel as though holidays only exist as a painful reminder of what I am missing out on. What normal life was once like. I am watching life go by around me, and I want to jump in, but I can’t. And yes, I know one day, I will get back to living life and doing fun things and blah blah blah. I haven’t completely given up. But for today, I am having a big fat bad cancer day and I just want to wallow and feel sorry for myself. I want my damn brisket and I want to be able to taste it.

I want these so badly right now.
I want these so badly right now.

There was so much excitement over my last chemo round and ringing the bell and I thank all of you who rallied around me. It definitely makes everything easier, having nice friends like you. I wish I could be your happy cancer patient all the time. I wish I could be your shining beacon of positivity and let you know that you can make every day a great one if you just think happy thoughts, no matter how dire your situation. But the truth is, on days like this, when my drugs are making me completely looney and I can’t think straight and I haven’t slept more than a few hours in four days, positive thinking isn’t really going to get me anywhere.

I know for some people who are walking the cancer line, it is fundamental to their process to always keep on the sunny side. Always on the sunny side. And that is fine. Whatever gets you through. But for me, I have learned that sometimes I just need to be comfortable in my misery and sink into it. I don’t think this makes me weak, although all the images of super peppy cancer patients that saturate the media sometimes make me feel different. But I guess no one wants to see images of people crying all the time and looking like they’re a few inches away from death. Fair enough. If I were healthy and living my life, mostly oblivious of my own mortality, I wouldn’t want to think about those things either. But I don’t have that luxury. I have to stare at my reflection as I stumble past the mirror in my room in the middle of the night, and wonder who that shell of a person is and why she is standing in my place. No fuzzy, happy thoughts. Just reality. For the time being, at least.

Yesterday, I forced myself to go for a short walk with my husband, since the sun was actually out. I hid under my hood with my big sunglasses, as I often do these days. I started crying. I hate all these stupid bitches with their stupid hair. I actually said that out loud. I never in my life thought I would be so jealous of people, just for having hair. It’s not like it is their fault. You don’t have cancer, and I do. Bad luck for me, but no one’s fault. Yet still, it’s a challenge not to feel envious sometimes, of all you beautiful non-cancer types with your full heads of hair. Walking, laughing. Eating brisket. I want those things. I want them now.

I am pretty sure I will completely regret writing this post in a week when my chemo is wearing off and the steroids have left my system, but I do feel the need to document my worst days, for some reason. Maybe for the book I might write. Although I’m not sure if depressing cancer stuff is a hot topic for a bestsellers list. Maybe I just want to make other cancer folks who are reading this and having a crap day feel a bit less alone, or feel a bit less pressured to be something they are not. Or maybe when I do experience sweet moments again, I will want to look back at days and weeks like these, to make those moments that much sweeter and remind myself to savor every second. Like when I am one of those annoying bitches, walking around with my hair, without a care in the world. Oh what a day that will be.

Happy Passover to all.

Love, The Passover Grinch