Stress, Grief and Mental Health

May 13, 2015

Someone once told me, depression doesn’t mean you’re weak. It means you’ve tried for too long to be strong. Months after my daughter came home from the hospital, those words resonated with me so much.

My pregnancy had been plagued with stress. At 12 weeks, we had our nuchal translucency screening and were told our child was high-risk for Down syndrome. I was told I was a carrier for cystic fibrosis, and my husband would need to be tested. I was told that the baby might have a congenital heart defect. For months the anxiety was nearly unbearable. I researched like a maniac; I cried and I worried. After genetic testing and a fetal echocardiogram, I was finally in the clear at around 22 weeks. For a blissful month, my pregnancy didn’t have a dark cloud looming over it.

Then at 26 weeks along, I was at work and sitting at my desk when I started to hemorrhage.

My OBGYN’s office was located right across the street, but by the time I made it to the exam room and changed into the paper gown, blood was streaming down my legs and forming a pool at my feet. I left there on a stretcher.

I spent the next two weeks in the hospital confined to a bed, sorely in need of a shower, arms black and blue from IVs and daily blood testing. Every couple of days I would bleed again and go into labor. Each time, I would be wheeled to the Labor & Delivery unit and be given a 12-hour IV dose of magnesium sulfate that made me deliriously ill, but it helped to calm the contractions. I had an ultrasound three times a week, but nobody could locate the precise source of the bleeding or discern the reason, other than to tell me it was “probably” a placental abruption.

NICU bonding, two weeks after birth

NICU bonding, two weeks after birth

One morning, at 28 weeks pregnant, I began to have especially strong contractions at around 4 a.m. This time, my water broke. Within the hour, my daughter was born via C-section. I remember the moment they pulled Evelyn out and held her up for me to see. So tiny and fragile. She weighed 2 pounds, 7 ounces and was 14 inches long. She had a black eye from the delivery. She let out a little cry that sounded more like the “mew” of a kitten, and then, because she was intubated, it would be a month until I heard her cry again, and a week before I could hold her.

The doctors praised me: I had held onto the baby for an extra two weeks and given her that beneficial extra time to grow. I just couldn’t get my mind around that concept. I was supposed to give her 40 weeks to grow, not 28. My body had failed her. She was encased in plexiglas with wires attached to her and a tube down her throat, being touched, poked and prodded. I had failed to do something every other woman seemed capable of doing. I wept and punched the pillow of my hospital bed, desperate to find an outlet for my anger and grief. I remember the hospital asking me to fill out the standard post-partum depression checklist. I don’t know why they bother giving them to preemie moms.

My daughter spent 68 relatively uneventful days in the NICU. At nearly 5 pounds (we thought that was so big!) she came home with an oxygen concentrator, apnea belt and pulse oximeter, and was on six medications. That was the last week of August, 2012. By December, she was off all the medication and equipment. She was doing great.


We’re off oxygen! Christmas 2012

And that’s when things started to go horribly wrong for me. It’s hard to describe exactly, but it was like someone clicked a switch in my brain and my grip on reality faltered. I remember suddenly having a full-blown panic attack – I couldn’t breathe, my vision became blurry, and I thought I would fall down. I started having horrifying intrusive thoughts that would take over my brain, and which was later diagnosed as obsessive compulsive disorder. I had a constant feeling of impending doom. I didn’t eat; in one week I dropped five pounds.

The worst part was, Evelyn triggered my panic attacks. I had this sweet, precious daughter, such a little fighter, and at times I couldn’t bear to be in the same room with her. I fell into a deep depression. I looked forward to going to sleep at night, and I dreaded waking up in the morning. If I had to run out to do errands by myself, I would just sit in my car in the parking lot, staring forward, not wanting to go home. To make things worse, I felt guilty. My daughter had gone through so much, and now I was failing her again.

Thankfully, I took myself to get help. It was the best decision I’ve ever made in my life. I began seeing a wonderful psychiatrist and a therapist, and gradually I could feel things improving. My “bad days” began to wane, until eventually I had only a couple of them per month, and then they went away altogether.

I’m not sure if my condition would fall under the category of post-traumatic stress disorder, but I’m certain it was the result of the many months of fear, sadness, and guilt that I had experienced. I was always a sensitive and anxious person, but I believe I had reached my breaking point. My tired mind had had enough, but I’m grateful it held out long enough for Evelyn to get through her medical issues.

I won’t sugar coat it: For me, getting help was embarrassing. I had to talk about my intrusive thoughts. I broke down in front of people I really didn’t know. I had to admit to myself that I wasn’t as impervious as I had always thought I was. You know what? None of that mattered. What was important was healing so that I could once again be a good mother.

Like my therapist told me: if you broke your arm, would you feel ashamed getting medical attention for it? Depression and anxiety are no different. They’re medical conditions affecting the mind, but they’re not taken as seriously as physical ailments. Why? Probably because people can’t see them.

If you’re struggling with your mental health and it’s affecting your ability to be a good parent, it’s imperative that you put aside your reservations and get help.

For most of us, becoming the parent of a preemie was beyond our control. However, the choice to get help is very much our own. No matter how much things have spiraled out of control, how low you feel, there are people out there who know how to help you.