Why I’m Open About My Mental Health Challenges After the NICU

April 29, 2019
kelli and jackson, mental health, PPD, postpartum mental health, NICU

As I rapidly approach my 50s, I find I don’t care quite as much as I once did about what other people think of me. It is one of the few things about getting older that I appreciate. It is a refreshing change to be comfortable in my own skin. Once I would have been ashamed to admit I saw a counselor and took medication to help me cope with anxiety and PTSD. Today I am an open book. But it took me awhile to feel comfortable talking about my mental health challenges following my son’s traumatic birth and NICU stay.  

In the beginning, I think it was because I did not clearly recognize the signs of my perinatal mood disorder. I was so focused on being a good mom, caring for my medically fragile baby and working part-time to retain my insurance coverage, I did not stop to think about or process the trauma I had experienced both physically and emotionally. And no one asked. No one from the NICU staff, social work team, friends or family broached the subject.  I was never screened for postpartum depression (prevalent in NICU parents), and I was not encouraged to seek counseling, attend a support group or even connect with a peer mentor. 

And then there was the guilt. I felt guilty that I was not happy. Guilty that I found being a new mom so stressful. Guilty that my son survived, yet I felt a tremendous sense of loss. I did not think I had the time, energy or financial capacity to spend hours talking through my feelings with a therapist. And I truly did not want to relive the trauma. As a strong Texas woman, I found it easier (and more respectful) to just pull up my boot straps and keep going.

Years after my son’s NICU stay the physical symptoms of my anxiety disorder became debilitating. Plagued by anxiety attacks, unexplained bouts of rage and emotional breakdowns, I was forced to admit that I needed help. I saw multiple counselors before finding the right fit. Although Although medication did not “fix” my complications, it brought almost instant relief and clarity I had not had in years. The experience reminds me of the analogy of a frog in a pot of water. When the temperature is gradually increased, the frog will not jump out. My anxiety disorder did not come on over night. It had built gradually starting with my son’s traumatic birth, and began to simmer through the long NICU stay, multiple surgeries, feeding issues doctor’s appointments, therapy sessions, insurance battles and financial challenges and finally began to boil when my second child required a NICU stay. 

Talk therapy was a salve for my blistered nerves. But it was not easy. Therapy is work. It is hard work. And unfortunately, it was not cheap. Luckily my husband was supportive and knew how important it was that I take care of myself not only for my physical and mental health, but for the well-being of our kids and our marriage. 

I made slow progress and eventually was open to my therapist’s suggestion for rapid eye movement therapy. Rapid eye movement therapy mimics the brain activity that occurs during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. REM sleep is the time of rest when an individual processes thoughts, memories and emotions from the day. EMDR therapy allows the patient to process painful memories that cause PTSD in a safe, controlled environment. It was an intense experience that eventually led to significant breakthroughs. But again, it was work. Really hard work. I had to be willing to go deep. I quit more than once. It was just too hard to relive the trauma and allow myself to be completely vulnerable to reliving that pain. I am so grateful for an amazing therapist who let me set my own pace and gradually led me down the long road to recovery. 

I am a huge proponent for therapy – not only for NICU parents, but for NICU graduates as well.  My son started seeing a psychologist at a very early age to help process the struggles caused by his early birth. Caring for his own mental health is by far one of the best gifts my husband and I have given him. He has a deep appreciation for the need to talk about his feelings and process his emotions in a safe environment. It has built his self-confidence and given him an emotional maturity beyond his years. 

If you are struggling with depression, anxiety or PTSD, or you just need someone to help you through a difficult season in your life, I strongly encourage you to connect with a counselor or peer mentor. Don’t let guilt, shame, a busy schedule or financial concerns delay your healing one more day. It is the best investment you will ever make.