Reprinted from "Having a Baby" issue of Visions Journal, 2012, 7 (3), pp. 10-11
I have a family history of mental illness, so I've seen what bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and a "nervous breakdown" can look like close up. I was wondering if something like this was happening to me. I was completely panicked.
This was a planned pregnancy with my husband, and we were both ecstatic to be having our first baby. So why was I having terrible thoughts of hitting my stomach? Why was I having the urge to hurt my baby that was growing inside me?
It became my horrible secret. I thought that I was a terrible person and that I was going to be a bad mom. These thoughts kept getting bigger and bigger and occurred more and more often.
One day, it got so intense that I was actually gripping the couch to keep myself from following through on the thought. I knew then that I had to tell my husband. When I did tell him, it definitely took some of the power of the thought away—it wasn't such a dirty secret anymore; someone else now knew the truth.
My husband listened and didn't show any judgment towards me whatsoever. I'm not sure how things would have turned out if my husband hadn't been so understanding. He encouraged me to speak to the midwife, which was the second best decision I made about this ordeal—the first being that I told my husband.
The midwife referred me to the BC Reproductive Mental Health Program at BC Women's Hospital. The wait was three months—which goes to show how many women need such services—but it was such a huge relief to hear from various medical professionals that this can be common and that I wasn't alone.
I was given quite a bit of information and teamed up with a great psychiatrist and a student counsellor who was specializing in intrusive thoughts. Most of my sessions took place with the student, doing cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), which helped immensely.
Working also helped most of the time. It kept my mind busy, so I had less time to dwell on the terrible thoughts. (Work was not a refuge when I returned after maternity leave, but more on this later.)
My healthy baby boy finally arrived. I was in awe and so looking forward to my year at home with him. But I hadn't realized how much I was hoping the intrusive thoughts would go away after the birth. I had the irrational belief that because I had suffered so much in my pregnancy, I wouldn't continue to suffer in the postpartum, even though I was told it was a possibility. I sure was wrong. I was devastated.
I got hit with significant "baby blues," as well as other symptoms that included racing thoughts, distress and panic—in other words, with postpartum depression and anxiety. My intrusive thoughts just changed into different ones, all centring around the safety of my baby, particularly with me. I could be quietly rocking my son and suddenly get struck with the thought of throwing my son against the wall or crushing the soft spot on his head.
I just tried to suffer through it alone; I was too busy with the new baby to continue with the CBT and the psychiatrist. This all took a huge toll on my husband—I still have a lot of guilt about that. But I'd call him at work in distress, and he'd drop everything and come home to help me out. He also did a lot of the household work. He was a marvellous support.
But, eventually, I started getting better—after discovering the Pacific Post Partum Support Society (PPPSS) during an infant-parent group at Pacific Spirit Community Health Centre when my son was about five months old. There was another two months to wait, but then I started attending a weekly group meeting for moms suffering from postpartum depression and/or anxiety—my third-best decision! I met a lot of amazing moms who I connected with in a way that I couldn't with moms outside the group. It was a safe place to hear other experiences that so related to mine and to voice my own experiences without being judged. I can't thank PPPSS enough for providing a weekly refuge for me.
I regained contact with my psychiatrist and connected with another student counsellor. My mother also came to stay for three weeks when I needed her. I realized that the more help I got, the better.
I did end up taking some sick leave at the end of my maternity leave. I wasn't well enough to go back to work and my psychiatrist wanted me to try medication to help with my anxiety and depression—fourth-best decision!
The return to work
I was off work for about 16 and a half months and then completed a gradual return-to-work schedule. Unfortunately, when I started a full-time schedule, my support diminished rapidly. The employer had me classified as "medically cleared" and expected me to be performing at the same level as prior to my maternity leave, with very few exceptions. At the same time, the level of scrutiny and judgment, both formal and informal, stepped up to beyond normal levels. What was intended to be a supportive daily check-in with my supervisor for a month after starting full-time quickly came to feel like policing and mistrust. Though I worked with a team of people, I was directed to not raise questions or issues with my co-workers, but to go directly to the supervisor. The way I was talked to and handled increased my anxiety, big time! I was in serious threat of relapsing.
Work has slowly gotten better, and I love being a working mom for the most part. Thankfully, I had a great medical professional team. In addition to my psychiatrist and counsellor, I saw a psychologist through my employer's benefits program, who supported me and had my back. Also, calling in the union representative resulted in an improvement in how I was treated.
I still meet up with some of the absolutely amazing moms from the PPPSS meetings, which I attended for about a year, until I was comfortably back into full-time work. We have our weekly "tea chats."
I feel more balanced now. An intrusive thought still occurs now and again, but I now believe it is "just a thought" and has no other meaning. I just watch it—like watching a sailboat pass by.
About the author
Jolene lives with her husband and son in the Lower Mainland. She has been with her husband for 11 years, three as a married couple. Her son is now 20 months old