With each additional story that I am blessed to be a part of sharing, I find that I am rendered more and more into being speechless. It’s hard for me to come up with the best and most adequate words as a preface to each brave woman’s journey. Let me start by saying, though, that if you’ve met Monica, you most definitely have noticed the light and joyful energy she projects. There’s just this thing about her that is so incredibly inviting, warm, and well, mothering. I found myself (literally) on the edge of my seat while reading her story. I think you will too. Monica, thank you – from the bottom of my heart, for sharing your story with us all.
Monica’s Story • Possible Trigger Warning //
Sometimes, I see flashes of a scene…like I’m watching a movie. This woman is lying in a hospital bed in a cement room that can only be compared to a prison cell. She’s crying. She’s begging for her children. She’s scared. Terrified. She wants to crawl in a hole and disappear forever…
Maybe I should start at the beginning…although it’s hard to pinpoint “the beginning.” Maybe the beginning was in April, 2017 when two lines appeared on a pregnancy test. Maybe the beginning is when I sat and cried, because…because my kids were already 7 and 10, because my husband DID NOT want another child, because we don’t have a 3rdbedroom, because money is already tight (that’s an understatement), because my cars only have room for two kids in the backseat, because I needed fertility meds to get pregnant the first two times, because as much as I longed for another baby – I was done. Maybe the beginning was when I called my husband, scared, because I knew he’d be angry; knowing that I was scared and shocked and upset, but my heart was also swelling at the thought of having a third child.
Maybe the beginning was my difficult pregnancy – cramping and spotting and vomiting 24/7 for 18 weeks; the extreme aches and pains because my crappy ligaments (thanks, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome) to which there was no relief; the extreme exhaustion; the real contractions starting at 17 weeks…
Maybe the beginning was finding out that I had cholestasis – a liver condition developed only when a woman is pregnant, totally safe for mama, but potentially fatal to baby. Maybe it was having my c-section done at 36 weeks because my son was safer outside early, than inside for another few weeks. Maybe it was not seeing my son, not touching my son, not holding my son for the first 12 hours of his life.
I guess the point is that I was not prepared to have this baby, to have these complications, and certainly not prepared for what followed his birth…
Oliver Scott Vandenberg was born on Dec. 11th, 2017. He wasn’t breathing. The nurses worked hard to get him breathing…and he did breathe, but then he kept stopping. So they took him to the NICU to force his lungs to expand and to regulate his respirations. He lived in the NICU for a week.
I was in a different room, on a different floor…sore and just desperate to hold my son. My husband had to work, my mom had to work, and my daughters were at school. My friends didn’t visit. I was alone. Unable to walk. Trying to pump because I wanted to do somethingfor my son.
As I recall the next several weeks…the memories are blurred, incomplete, and patchy…so I’ll do my best…
Once he finally got home, I felt less desperate to hold him, and more desperate to go back in time. And as quickly as those thoughts entered my brain, a voice told me, “what kind of a mother wants to go back.” I felt this sort of…extreme anxiety…this uncontrollable fear…that I had ruined our lives. That I had this “perfect” family – my husband and our two daughters, and I took it for granted – I wasted it, wishing for “just one more.” And now I had my “one more” and I was convinced I was being punished. Punished for wanting more, for not appreciating what I had. And I just knew that more punishments were coming.
I lost it every time the girls weren’t with me. I just kept crying. Begging for my husband and girls to never leave my room. I cried because I was tired. I cried because I hated myself. I cried out of longing for the past, or longing for the future when this baby would sleep and we’d find a routine – though at the time, I wasn’t able to see past the moment I was in. I couldn’t eat, I had no desire to. I could no longer decipher what was real and what was a dream or an altered reality. I didn’t feel like I was living – I felt like I was watching life through some sort of camera with a distorted lens. Something was wrong, I knew that.
On top of everything, I started running fevers and getting so achey I could hardly move. I see now that these were physical manifestations of my anxiety and depression. But the worse I felt physically, the more obsessed I became with having my girls by my side (convinceda tragedy awaited if they left my side for a second). My OB’s nurse told me to go to the ER. They wanted to make sure I wasn’t experiencing some kind of post-op infection. In the ER, with my mom by my side, I screamed and cried – hysterical, “I need my girls!” I was shaking, desperate, obsessed. I was completely disconnected from everything else except the need to have my girls with me. My mom kept reminding me about this precious baby who needed me too. But that just make me more hysterical because the logical part of me knew she was right; I felt SO DISGUSTING for every thought and delusion that ran through my mind.
I was in the middle of a psychotic break. I was discharged from the ER and sent home.
I wanted to die.
The next day, my husband took me to my OB. She looked at me, had me take some questionnaire – and I answered it truthfully: yes, I wanted to be dead. She came in and asked me if I wanted to hurt myself. “No,” I said. “I just wish I were dead.” I truly didn’t want to kill myself – I just kept praying God would take care of it for me.
That’s when things got chaotic. I wish I had the courage to talk to my husband about these moments…but I’m not ready yet. Here’s what I remember: my OB saying the words “postpartum psychosis,” security showed up. The nurses took Oliver and my daughter. I screamed, hysterical, to give me my babies back. I sobbed and begged my husband and the doctor not to make me go. I’d be good, I promised. I’d get over this, I promised. Suddenly I was struck with this immense guilt that this precious baby who’d been put in MY CARE…this tiny little life…just needed me and I was not strong enough or good enough to keep it together for him. Instead, I’m being escorted by security to a “holding room” in the hospital’s ER. I’m being told that I’m getting sent to the psych ward. They let my husband, mom, the girls, and Oliver in there with me. They made me pee in cups. They treated me like a criminal, like a dangerous person. Oddly, I was furious and terrified– I did NOT want to get admitted to psych! But, at the same time…for the first time in at least a week, I was able to smile, and even laugh a little bit.
It seemed like I was stuck in there, waiting, for hours. Finally, they had found a bed for me. An ambulance was going to take me to another hospital where a bed was available. The nurse told me when I got to the other hospital, a mental health triage person would talk to me and see if admitting me was the best thing, or if they could set up outpatient care for me. Suddenly I was so excited – maybe they wouldn’t “lock me up” afterall. But once I arrived via ambulance at the other ER and my husband arrived, I was told that the order was for me to be admitted to psych. That’s it. No triage. No chance to go home to my kids. That’s when I broke down. They took everything from me– my phone, my clothes, etc; and they put me in scrubs of a specific color so that staff, patients, and visitors would know I was a dangerous psych patient. My husband left as they wheeled me away. I sobbed and begged. It took forever for them to get me to the locked ward, where I was able to talk to a psychiatric nurse practitioner. I told her I didn’t want to hurt myself but that I just wanted “this” to be over – meaning this postpartum psychosis; the desperation, anxiety, exhaustion, fear, etc. She examined me and we chatted and she saw how this ward, this room, all of it, was just making it all so much worse for me. She asked me to trust her– to let her give me something to sleep, to tweak my anxiety meds (yeah, I’ve been on meds for 15 years – depression and anxiety are old friends of mine), and to regroup in the morning when she would talk to me again and call my husband to come pick me up.
So I did. I trusted her. I lied in that bed, in that prison cell, and cried myself until the meds they gave me finally lulled me into a deep sleep.
They let me go home the next day. I wasn’t well, but I didn’t want to be dead anymore. My meds were doubled, and I was put in touch with a therapist who specializes in women with postpartum mood disorders. I ended up being home for Christmas. I found out that my family (parents, step-parents, siblings) and one good friend were so scared and worried. We celebrated Christmas. As hard as it is to admit, I don’t remember many specifics…but I remember feeling grateful that I was there, with my family, and I remember smiling.
Oliver is a year old now. I’ve put off writing this because, well it’s very triggering. Don’t let anyone tell you that one has to see war or combat to experience PTSD. What I experienced was traumatic and putting it into words takes me back to those moments of desperation and I know I’m not “over it.” My heart is racing, I’ve cried so many times writing this. I mourn the fact that there is so much of my son’s first few months of life that I just don’t remember. My last baby. So many precious moments lost to (stolen by) postpartum psychosis.
I’m a postpartum doula…I know the risk factors for Postpartum Mood Disorders (PPMD). Isolation, traumatic birth, a history of mental illness. The research is very clear – a woman who has support during the weeks and months following the birth/adoption of a new baby is far less likely to experience PPMD. In centuries past, a woman was doted over after having a baby – she wasn’t left alone, she was left only to sleep; other women were always there, caring for the new mom, caring for the new baby, letting mama sleep, bringing her the baby to nurse. She had a Tribe.
I didn’t have a tribe. I had my incredible mom and husband who did as much as they could for me. They did the laundry, the cared for the big girls, they brought me the baby to nurse…but I was lonely. What happened to me, it couldn’t have been prevented. Don’t blame yourself or your circumstances for experiencing this kind of postpartum trauma. Understand it’s physical, biological, hormonal.
But also – I’m not lonely anymore. I have a Tribe. My dear friend reached out to me when she saw on social media that I was struggling (though, no one really knew the extent to which I was struggling – we don’t put those things on social media, do we?). She invited me to this small group at our church. Everything in my body, heart, and mind told me not to go. But I went. And – literally by the Grace of God – I have a tribe. This group of women who embrace me and encircle me with love and friendship and compassion. I don’t call them my tribe because it’s trendy – I call them my tribe because, like female elephants in the wild, when one of us has “fallen,” we create a circle around her…we face outward, facing the outside world so she doesn’t have to…we trumpet and rumble…and then we don’t leave her side until she’s back up.
Maybe none of this would have happened to me if I’d had them before Oliver was born. Maybe it still would have. I don’t know why this happened to me…I feel like there’s a greater reason. Maybe it was simply so I could look back and see all that I have gainedbecause of what I went through. Maybe it was simply so I could look back.