Transitions – An excerpt from “Pangs: Surviving Motherhood and Mental Illness”

By Michelle Bradley

For three days after my daughter’s birth, I didn’t sleep. Not. One. Wink. I don’t know why I didn’t sleep, I think I was still in a state of shock. I would lie in bed in the darkness of those winter nights and replay her birth over and over and over again in my head. Why did they do this? Why didn’t I say that? Why didn’t it go differently? Why am I still thinking about this!?

Every time I looked at my daughter it was in complete wonderment that she was here and that I had made her. She seemed so amazing to me but I didn’t feel that pang of love in my chest. I remember the day after she was born saying to my husband “I’d die for her but I just don’t think I love her enough.” In my head I thought I didn’t love her at all. The statement seems so silly to me now when I look into her big, brown eyes and my love for her hits me right in the gut. But it was so true to me then that I wondered what was wrong with me.

I also spent those first few days obsessing over the state of my body. Was this bleeding normal? Was this pain normal? How will I know if I need to seek help? This was the beginning of the most severe health anxiety I had ever experienced and it would grip me for the next several years. Every time the midwife called to the house I got her to check my stitches for signs of infection, an indignity in itself, lying on the sofa naked from the waist down and with one leg up in the air! I would wait nervously as she took my blood pressure to see if it was within normal range. I didn’t understand why no-one had explained how I would feel after birth and wondered if every little twinge was normal. I felt like I had been hit by a bus! Why did nobody prepare me for that? The pain and bleeding lasted for almost two months, during which time I couldn’t walk for long stretches before feeling like my vagina was going to fall off! I couldn’t drive my car so I spent most days on the sofa, trapped in my house. But that wasn’t even the worst part.

Three days after the baby was born (we named her Alexis but for almost a year I almost always just called her “the baby”), I went into total meltdown. It began in the early evening as we lay watching TV. The baby was asleep in her Moses basket and I was curled up in the fetal position on the sofa, the only position that didn’t result in nauseating pain. I was suddenly overcome with a wave of heat and dizziness and in my already heightened state of alert, my brain completely overreacted and sent me into a massive panic.

I jumped up off the sofa and started pacing the floor struggling to breathe. I grabbed my discharge notes and started furiously flicking through the pages of advice for what to do if you can’t breathe and your heart feels like it’s about to explode. I began to cry and begged my husband to call an ambulance. I’m quite lucky that my husband has witnessed me in a state of panic before and recognised it for what it was. He tried to hold me but I couldn’t sit still and didn’t want to be confined. I walked out the front door in my pyjamas and began pacing up and down the street trying to settle myself.

Wave after wave of panic crashed down on me for the next four hours as I switched from feeling keyed up and unable to stop moving, to feeling like I was about to pass out with exhaustion. I called my mum in a total state, babbling on about feeling like I was dying and frantic for her to help. She came over right away and set about trying to distract me from the panic. She made me get out my breast pump which was still in the box and got me to sit and read the instructions so I could express some milk. This would allow for Eoin to feed the baby while I got some rest. She blamed this feeling on breastfeeding and thought I was putting too much pressure on myself. I tried to explain that the baby and the breastfeeding weren’t the problem. I wasn’t panicking about the baby, she was fine. I was afraid that I was going to die. Either way, the process of sorting out the breast pump gave me a focus and helped to reduce the terror as I slowly began to calm down.

I was suddenly overcome with a wave of heat and dizziness and in my already heightened state of alert, my brain completely overreacted and sent me into a massive panic.

Finally I crashed on the sofa and closed my eyes but even then I couldn’t sleep, worried that my mum would leave or that I would die in my sleep. I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep and just listened to the TV and my mum and husband talking. I was also consumed by the thought of walking up the stairs to go bed. This was a strange thing to be worried about but it consumed me over the coming months. Every evening after dinner I would think about the process of walking upstairs to go bed and the thought of lying awake in the dark and the silence petrified me. I didn’t understand why. Maybe the silence meant my thoughts could run riot. Maybe the dark allowed images of my daughter’s birth to burst forth in full technicolour. Maybe it was my mistrust in my own body, constantly afraid that the minute I let my guard down my heart would stop or my brain would just cease to function. On many occasions as I began to fall asleep, I would be sharply awoken by a buzzing sensation in my head that felt like my brain was vibrating. Every time it would jolt me awake and I would be hit with a panic attack, worried that I had a tumour or an aneurysm.

Often-times I would also be just on the cusp of sleep and would feel as though I had no air in my lungs and couldn’t breathe. I would jump up gasping for air, taking big deep breaths and trying to prove to myself that my lungs were actually working.

This disruption to my nights only led to more difficult and dark days. I would usually wake in the morning with a feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach as though I were about to attend a job interview I hadn’t prepared for. And that’s what parenthood is right? The world’s toughest job interview where you spend every day winging it and hoping you’re doing a good job? When the day starts with this fear and your sleep has been disturbed by both your own body and your baby waking to be fed, needless to say trying to do all the things that could potentially make you feel better seems impossible.

I knew that eating better would help but I could barely make myself toast never mind a healthy balanced breakfast. When I say I couldn’t make toast, at this point in my life this was literally true. In those early weeks of terror the thought of doing anything other than lying on the sofa filled me with complete terror. To try and combat this I set myself three small goals every day, knowing that if I could accomplish those I would feel more confident. The aim was to gradually increase the difficulty of these goals until I felt I could cope. The first day that I set these goals, number one on the list was to make myself tea and toast. Up until that point I had been paralysed either in bed or on the sofa, petrified to stand up because I felt so shaky and dizzy, and with the completely irrational thought running round my head that if I stood up I would either die or completely lose my shit. By sitting still I felt safe.

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