Maternal Mental Health Research Collaborative
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Alison’s Story: When You’re in a Fog…You Don’t Know You Need Help

Mom with baby in NICU

My name is Alison, I’m 37 years old and a first-time mom. My baby was born two months early. I think to people who haven’t had kids born early (like me at the time) you just think the experience must be a bit surprising. Maybe you didn’t have the hospital bag packed yet, or you hadn’t arranged for childcare, or you were relieved you didn’t have to waddle it out for another two months. What a blessing! (I did joke about that, actually, in the aftermath, trying desperately to cling to a silver lining.)

The Reality of Having a Preemie

The reality of having a preemie was quite different and spun me into postpartum depression and anxiety, which went undiagnosed for six months. The thing is when you’re in a fog that dense, and plunged into a deep chilling numbness that almost disconnects you from reality, you don’t know you need help.  

I was hoping to settle in for a quiet New Year’s Eve at home, but I started having contractions. I drove myself to the hospital because I was in denial, but by midnight, instead of ringing in 2018, I was lying in the dark enduring back labour and staring down the clock. My husband and I were waiting for a helicopter to fly us to a hospital that could better manage us.

By noon on New Year’s Day my baby boy was born by caesarean section. He wasn’t breathing at first, so I heard no cries. At that point though I had completely shut off from reality, and I was not scared for him. He didn’t seem real. Nothing seemed real. I know now it was my way of coping with the trauma.

Trauma, Numbness and Detachment

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are the five parts of grief. Oh did I ever hang on to denial for a long time! I remember when I was wheeled in to see my baby in the incubator, I was more upset by the fact that my hands still had IVs attached and that I would not be able to open my packet of cookies. Numb. Very numb.

I remember having a picture of me and my son taken in the intensive care unit, and I was thinking I should smile and look all maternal and loving, so I did. It’s a great picture of me and it’s 100% fake. I felt nothing and things got worse at home.

At one point I remember asking if he was still breathing, alone in his bassinet, and for a fleeting moment thinking it wouldn’t be so bad if he’d died, because at least then my life would go back to normal. Then I would swallow the thought with guilt and horror, and roll over in bed.  I’ve never told anyone that before.

Postpartum Depression, Anxiety and PTSD

Around six months postpartum, things got really bad.  Not only were there scary thoughts and no real bonding to speak of, but I started getting anxiety. I had lived with it before but never knew it wasn’t normal. I guess every mental health issue is a spectrum of experiences.

Every time I went to put him down in the crib I would feel like throwing up. My hands sometimes were so weak I was afraid of dropping him, and my heart would race. After I put him down I would close the door and run away as quietly as I could. Finally, when I skipped lunch a few days in a row thinking that the noise of opening the fridge would wake up my baby, I knew I had to get help.

Help, Hope and Recovery

I started to crawl my way out of the dark after I started on an anti-depressant. My doctor was gentle and encouraging, and showed me that I could hope for better.  I started searching for a really good psychologist. and went back to pelvic floor physiotherapy.  I joined a support group for mothers of preemies and I’m considering starting a support group of my own in the small town where I live.  There are surely more than enough of us, unfortunately.

I mourn the fact that there are huge gaps in my memory. There are pictures of me looking happy but all I remember is hurt, and there is so much regret. I grieve every day for the birth I didn’t have, and for the months of bonding I lost with my son because I was too afraid to stare down my thoughts and feelings. But now I cry happy tears. Now I hug my baby so fiercely and I truly feel his warmth, and I know we have so many years ahead to enjoy wholeheartedly together.

We’re honored to share Alison’s story as part of the Maternal Mental Health Research Collaborative’s Marathon of Moms campaign. Stories of lived experience are one of the most powerful tools we have to combat stigma and the shame surrounding mental illness. They’re also vitally important as we look to develop tools, resources and treatments that work for moms and meet their needs. Thank you, Alison!