I was standing at the elevator in the building where the Western Mass Recovery Learning Community’s Holyoke Center is located on February 11th, 2010 having a casual chat with a young woman who was interning for us when I felt the blood rush that signaled the start of my first miscarriage.
I was in Best Buy on July 1st, 2010 buying my seven-year-old son a video game for his half birthday (yes, I said ‘half birthday’) when I felt that familiar feeling for a second time.
On January 24th, 2011 I tested positive for my third pregnancy in about a year’s time. I was happy. And I was completely and utterly terrified.
Even though I’d had surgery to remove a uterine septum following my two miscarriages, I could not trust that my baby was okay. My body was not ‘safe.’ It had killed my babies. During the day, I couldn’t stop focusing on every little twitch and twinge, obsessing over what it meant. When I slept, I had nightmares. When I accidentally caught something on television that referred to babies or children hurt or dying, I would burst into tears. I kept clinging to the idea that if I could just get through the first 12 weeks – when risk of miscarriage is at its highest – I would be okay. Everything would be okay.
As the pregnancy progressed, the first 12 weeks passed and the baby started to kick, I’d love to say that things got easier; that the baby’s movements were reassurance that all was well. However, it only seemed to get worse. I rented a heart monitor and would sometimes feel compelled to race home and check for the baby’s heartbeat. The urge would come out of nowhere and nothing would silence it until I could get the monitor in my hands, and hear my little girl’s heartbeat. I wouldn’t event stop to say hello to my family on my way upstairs. At other times, I would happily recognize the baby’s kicks and then only moments later feel completely unsure that I’d really felt them and become convinced that the baby was gone. I was scaring my husband.
Although I managed to keep working and getting a reasonable amount done, this was my experience day after day after day for the bulk of 2011. It was exhausting.
I’d like to say that the medical profession helped reassure me. I’d like to say that they validated some of my experience as normal. They did not.
As I sat sobbing on the edge of the examination table on the day they confirmed my second miscarriage, I remember the doctor staring perplexedly at me as if she couldn’t understand what it was exactly that I was so upset over. When she recommended that I go sit in the waiting room among all the other patients – many of them pregnant mothers – I had to actually request (between sobs) that I be allowed to wait in a private room for the scheduler to come in and make my appointment for the D&C procedure. She seemed to think it was an unusual request.
After several days of being haunted by repetitive words (“There’s a dead baby in your stomach!” “Dead baby!” “DEAD BABY!”) rolling in waves through my head, I went in for my second D&C only to have to fight with the hospital staff to get them to allow my husband – the only one I trusted – to be able to stay with me during the initial preparation for the surgery.
When I went in for my post-D&C follow up visit with the gynecologist, apparently they didn’t bother to look at my chart because they expressed that they thought I was there for a postnatal (post childbirth) visit.
When I found myself pregnant a third time, I fled from the existing practice that had treated me so coldly and signed up with a new one. However, when panic about my current pregnancy set in and I started calling and begging for them to see me sooner and explaining how badly I needed reassurance that the baby was still there, they discharged me for complaining and being difficult. (Oh, and also because I refused to fill out the requisite paperwork disclosing my psychiatric background.)
When I finally found a new practice that was able to see me soon AND willing to do an early ultrasound to reassure me of the baby’s ongoing presence, I expected that the doctor who had been kind enough to take me in so quickly would surely tell me that what I was going through emotionally made sense based on what I had experienced in 2010. She did not. Instead, she asked me what medication I was on ‘for that.’
When some test results came back abnormal and I had to start having weekly non-stress tests, the lack of compassion and understanding from the medical field continued. For example, sometimes they would tell me the test had failed because my baby was “Non Reactive.” To me, that sounded an awful lot like it could mean, “dead.” The actual translation? My baby was probably asleep. Only thing is they never offered the translation.
I grew to hate them all. It stopped mattering if some of them were nice to me. I hated the sight of the hospital. My mood immediately sunk every time I entered a medical building, and I was angry and unpleasant toward everyone who crossed my path there. I saw them all as complicit in my pain. The only thing that kept me going was that I knew there was an end in sight; it would all be better when my baby was finally born and I could hold her in my arms and see her and feel her and know she was okay.
My baby was born at 6:29 AM on Tuesday, October 11th, 2011. But it wasn’t automatically all better. And here’s what I’ve never told anyone before. Not my friends. Not my husband. And certainly not any professionals. No one.
For the first year of my baby’s life, as much as I love her, I had frequent intrusive images of me hurting her. When I was near stairways, balconies or other high up places, the images seemed to be telling me that I should drop her over them. That’s what the images ‘wanted.’ I could feel it. I was terrified and felt dizzy and overwhelmed whenever they would come. I had nightmares and very much awake moments of terror when I thought about the cruise we were planning to go on shortly after she turned one because of all the high up balconies I’d have to be near.
It would have been nice to talk to someone about it. And it would have been terribly, terribly dangerous. Would they have asked, “Do you think you’re actually going to hurt your baby?” (No. I love her very much.) Would they have asked, “Do you feel you have to act on what these images seem to be telling you to do?” (No. Even though they scare me and I can’t make them stop, they just make me cling to her all the more tightly.) Would they have asked, “Why do you think they are happening?” (Because I went through a year of deep emotional pain and loss and am absolutely terrified of losing my baby still.)
So, why am I telling you now? Well, first of all, the images seem to have dissipated. Anyone who has their finger on the panic button after reading this can relax. All mandated reporters can stand down. I haven’t experienced these images in several months. I’ve also stopped panicking that my daughter has ceased breathing in the middle of the night or been in a car accident whenever she’s out of the house without me. My head is much quieter all around, these days. At least where my baby is concerned.
What lingers for me still, though, is why I had to suffer in such silence? The fear I had of telling anyone about my experiences was not just ‘paranoia.’ It was re-enforced by every interaction I’d had with medical professionals, by everything I see in the media, and by the human rights violations I hear about every day in the name of ‘safety’ and ‘risk assessment.’
Although there’s much more complexity to be found in my earlier experiences of distress and intersections with the mental health system, this particular set of experiences seems very straight forward to me. I did not have ‘Postpartum Depression,’ or, even better, ‘Postpartum Psychosis.’ I had no need for a shiny new diagnosis. What I ‘had’ was a really traumatic year. I lost two babies. It had a profound impact on me. That impact continued to play out over much of the last two years – during my pregnancy, child birth and my daughter’s infancy. No one seemed interested in trying to understand that from a human place. Perhaps I could have found some support and solace at one of our local ‘Hearing Voices’ groups. My experiences might have been listenable for people there, and the whole point of that approach is to create non-judgmental space to talk about what is taboo or commonly pathologized. But I couldn’t quite bring myself to give it a try. In the end, talking out loud about me as a mother having thoughts about hurting my baby just felt too risky. The consequence of that fear and the overall lack of empathy and interest I’d experienced drove me into isolation with my pain, and that is something we as a culture need to think about.
This is not just about pregnancy loss and motherhood. This is reflective of how we treat many people who have experienced pain and are expressing it in ways not immediately relatable to those around them. It is about how we as a society may contribute to some of the truly awful things that happen not by failing to properly screen and assess, but by quite successfully fostering fear and alienation. If I had ever acted on anything I was experiencing in those moments, it no doubt would have fed all the ‘How can we catch and diagnose and intervene’ better and faster conversations. But would it truly have been about professionals not finding out so they could stop me from continuing down some inevitable crash course? Or would it have had more to do with me getting so desperate and lost in the dark because I had no one to whom I felt I could safely turn and who could be ‘in it’ with me? (Please note: I never once came close to acting on any of this. Not once. Hands OFF the panic buttons!)
Yesterday, I was sitting in day one of a two-day training that asked me to “Get in touch with a time in my life when I made new meaning out of crisis.” It inspired me to write about these experiences and the sense I have made out of them. Today, as I was driving away from day two of the same training and contemplating whether or not I actually wanted to take the risk of sending this post out to the world, I heard someone on a radio program say, “Don’t let that bipolar woman drive with your child in the car near a lake!” Now, ‘bipolar’ isn’t a label I can claim to have been given. (They didn’t catch me in the right moment admitting to the right checklist of symptoms!) But it sealed my decision to send this out.
I am not a danger to my children. I am a good mother; probably better than many who can’t admit these sorts of truths and struggles. I was not ‘sick’ or ‘mentally ill.’ My experiences – however frightening and difficult for some to understand – made sense. I don’t need anyone else to confirm that for me anymore. Life, our world, and sometimes, our own bodies, can be beyond our control and that is scary. But the only way beyond that is to go through it. Hopefully, not alone.