This is my maternal mental health story so far – I know everyone is different and the spectrum of opinions on the topic is wide but this is just my story and my perception of events….
My name is Tracey, I am 34 and had my daughter Lainey last year in June of 2020. The short version of my birth story is that I was induced at 40 weeks, and after 16 hours of labor with 4 hours of non-progressive pushing, she was delivered vaginally with forceps. I was told at the time I sustained a third degree tear. I lost a lot of blood, was exhausted and disoriented from medications, vomiting flat on my back as my OB stitched me up but thankfully, Lainey was just fine. On the post partum/recovery floor, the nurses and staff were wonderful – they took excellent care of me, my husband and Lainey. Many of them said things to me like “oh my” and “poor thing” as they would change shifts and report my tear and status to the next nurse.
Fast forward to coming home…we came home three days later. Lainey was jaundice from bruising at delivery and needed a bilirubin blanket 24/7.
Breastfeeding was a joke and despite being obviously sore, exhausted and constipated from pain medication I attempted pumping when I could…truthfully, at that time, I didn’t realize how injured I was – I thought this is just how recovery from vaginal births go. Because of COVID, we really limited family members coming over so it was really just me and my husband with no reinforcements. After two weeks (that I’m very thankful for), he went back to work and it was just me and Lainey. I continued to attempt pumping which I ultimately gave up on after 6 weeks due to supply issues. I was still sore – it was still painful to poop, sit, stand and walk. At about 4 weeks post partum I gathered the courage to look at myself and saw an obvious hole in my perineum that drained what I now know was fecal discharge. I saw my OB for my check up early who was still adamant that I sustained a third, not a fourth degree tear and attempted silver nitrate treatments for weeks to close it until ultimately, I ended up at a CRS (colorectal surgeon). She confirmed it was a rectoperineal fistula and commented that it very well could have actually been a fourth degree tear. Her exact words were “honestly it’s hard to tell, it looks like a bomb has gone off down there when it initially happens”. It was around this time (6 or 7 weeks post partum) that I realized I was not doing well mentally. Of course I kept it to myself initially – chugging along, trying to be super mom until what was a lot of crying and feeling overwhelmed turned into the ugliest thoughts I’ve ever had about myself – I’m a horrible mom, my poor daughter and husband would be better off without me, if I could just go away for a week or so, I’m not the same person I was and never will be again, I’m worthless, I’m useless and a continual burden to my husband when I do share what is going on inside my head.
For whatever reason (I’m still not sure how I found the courage in those dark moments), I told my husband one day as I sobbed uncontrollably, “I think I need to talk to someone (a therapist)”. He supported the idea as he was worried and I’m sure he could see me getting worse and worse, despite his constant reassurance that I was a good mom, I was still attractive, they absolutely did need me around, etc. I clearly remember thinking how weak minded and ashamed I was to be seeking therapy and possibly be becoming depressed….that wasn’t supposed to happen to me. I was supposed to be stronger than that…
Thankfully, the first therapist I talked to helped greatly! I saw her by myself and would share with my husband what we talked about. Around 3 months post partum, I scheduled surgery to repair the fistula a month later. Despite this, I continued to work with therapy but less often, applied coping techniques and felt like I was doing pretty well.
I woke up from that surgery only to be told they could not perform it, because upon the exam while under anesthesia, my CRS found the issue was more extensive-I had a rectovaginal fistula as well (which would require a more extensive surgery to repair). I experienced a mental “set back” of course. Over the course of the next 6 weeks, while I waited for the next surgery, I lived with drains placed through my vagina/perineum/anus and fought my way back to a decent place mentally and was ready for the “big” surgery to fix it all.
Just shy of 6 months post partum I had the big surgery – which involved cutting me open again from vagina to anus. Long story short – my incision completely opened – and it could not be re-stitched. Needless to say, I lost it. I broke down. I remember shaking and screaming to my husband when I used a mirror and saw the horrific mess “how can they leave me like this?!” It was really an awful time initially…I felt hopeless, useless, botched, deformed, scared, worried, angry and started sinking into a very dark place pretty quickly. I could not sit, get out of the house or care for my daughter without help for several weeks. As I type this at 10 months post partum and 5 months post-op, I am still trying to heal the open wound it left. I am forever deformed, I have no perineum anymore, my bowels rule my life at the moment…I cannot work and am having worsening back pain due to avoiding putting pressure at the wound site, changing dressings, etc. I am still not able to be as active as I’d like to be with my very mobile 10 month old daughter…
About a month after the surgery I reached out again to the same therapist to get help, I had totally “relapsed” when the surgery went so wrong. I was traumatized, totally defeated and hopeless. We talked weekly and she recommended support groups. We talked about what can be done in moments of crisis to survive them and move through them. I unfortunately had to do a lot of advocating for myself and find my own resources, specialist and tips and tricks for dealing with what happened to me. I still have plenty of bad moments and absolutely get triggered but I’m learning how to cope and I try my best to apply the strategies therapy has taught me to work through a trigger.
I have not completely healed physically and probably cannot heal mentally until I do. This is a continual journey. But I’m grateful I had enough courage and support of loved ones to reach out for help. And while I’m waiting to heal physically, I continue to be active in support groups, continue with counseling and even screening myself for depression symptoms that may require medication if need be. I find myself in a really hard place sometimes because my physical restrictions prevent me from doing my normal activities that would most definitely make me feel better mentally and my mental state most definitely has an effect on my physical recovery-how about that for a predicament? I love my daughter and husband more than I can express and even though it angers me almost daily that this mental battle has been thrust upon me without my consent (and honestly due to some poor medical judgment outside of my control), I will continue to fight this fight – that is how I process my mental struggle – a “battle to fight”. Ironically though, part of my “fight” is trying to accept that it is okay to struggle and have mental hurdles. I am not meant to be made up of only “good thoughts”. My therapist told me once that we are like a whole garlic, composed of all different sorts of cloves that make up the entire thing-some good, some bad but all coexisting at the same time. My eyes have been opened so wide to the world of mental health (specifically maternal of course). The stigma surrounding post partum depression and anxiety is unfortunately so so very real-I even judged myself! If I were an outsider looking in on someone in my same situation I’d think to myself “My god, no wonder she’s struggling, she needs all the support she can get!” yet somehow, I should be different. I should be able to “handle” all of this. Despite me logically knowing different, guilt and shame for needing mental health support still sometimes creep into my thoughts – I continue to work on this. My hope is that if more women share their stories that transparency and TRUTH about motherhood and it’s challenges will become more widely displayed and we as society might prepare women better, educate medical providers about increased mental health risks when physical injury is severe and overall, change the standard.
To all the moms out there – reach out, call on your support system, be honest if you’re struggling and believe me, therapy HELPS!
Tracey ~ Las Vegas, Nevada