How A Thorough Postpartum Checkup Saved My Life
I was in the bathroom, enjoying a few moments of much needed silence and solitude, when my phone rang. I didn’t hear it. My cell is always set to silent. But I saw the number pop up on my FitBit.
It was my son’s pediatrician.
I should have answered. I knew why they were calling — I had been in the office earlier that day and, while there, I completed a survey: the Edinburgh Postpartum Depression Scale screening — but I panicked. In it, I admitted I was anxious and frustrated. I checked off boxes which showed how sad I was. Which revealed my “struggle.” And I disclosed motherhood had taken a toll on my mental health.
I had had fleeting thoughts of “escaping,” suicide and self-harm. But writing these things and saying them were two different things. I wasn’t ready to speak to her or anyone. So I stayed put and let it go to voicemail. I took a breath and leaned back on the toilet, hoping the cool porcelain would help calm my nerves, and then I broke down. I shook. I screamed. I cried. Because while I knew my son’s two-month checkup would involve a lot of things — there would be a weight check, height check and several shots — I didn’t consider his pediatrician would see me, and want to talk to me. I never thought she would ask how I was doing, and what I was feeling, and I was overwhelmed by the moment.
The small, fill-in-the-blank style survey caught me off guard.
Ironically, the mental health “quiz” was not discussed in the office. The nurse handed me the survey on a clipboard, I answered 10 multiple-choice questions simply (each option was a variation of “often,” “sometimes,” “rarely” or “never”) and then I passed the paper back to the receptionist. I probably said “thank you” and smiled. I’m sure I pocketed the pen, and then I sat down.
I fussed over my newborn, making coos and baby talk.
This was good, I thought. Everything will be okay.
Why? Because the proverbial cat was out of the bag. This stupid survey gave me a chance to open up. I was finally okay admitting I was not okay… until the phone rang. I was confident up until the minute she called me back.
Ironically, things began uneventfully. My son was born on February 15, 2019, after two “false” starts, 28 hours of labor and three pushes. He crowned (and came out) in five minutes flat, and while the hours and days that followed were rather wonderful — I felt good, ate well and was managing to get some sleep — anxiety snuck up on me, with a whisper of indecision here and a touch of irritability there. I was nauseous and fatigued. My thoughts raced but I couldn’t focus.
It was like reading a book in another language: I could see the words but not understand them. They were letters on a page or — in this case — notions in my brain.
I became restless and listless. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep and — when I did — my dreams were horrifying. I saw my baby boy, limp and lifeless in his crib. And yet, in spite of it all, I pushed on. I had a job, husband, 6-year-old daughter and a newborn. I didn’t have time to think about it. Self-care seemed selfish.
Fast forward eight weeks (or 56 days) later and I was a wreck. On the surface I was cool and collected. My hair was brushed, my face was “made up” and I made small talk with the staff, but beneath I was flailing. I was frantically trying to smile. To nod. To simply stay afloat. And panic attacks were common.
For weeks, I endured them while running, napping and riding the bus.
So when the nurse handed me that paper — an 8 by 11 sheet covered in 10 multiple choice questions — I lost my footing. A wave washed over me and knocked me to my ass. Here it was, in black and white: I was a failure. I believed I was a bad mom.
My phone vibrated again, as did my FitBit. I had a voicemail: A 30-second message which I was afraid to listen to. What if my thoughts made me crazy? Did my admission make me and my children vulnerable? Would I be committed? Would they be taken away? But nothing in her message seemed alarming.
Her voice was calm but firm. She sounded sympathetic, empathetic and concerned.
I listened to the message again… and again. I picked each word apart, searching for hidden messages and meanings. Did she want me to call her back because she cared or because she was scared? Was she worried I would do something to myself, something which would then sit on her consciousness? And, to be honest, it may have been both. It doesn’t really matter, what matters is that (eventually) I returned her call. She asked me how I was, and then she listened. I stuttered and rambled but she offered an ear, and then she reminded me that having a postpartum mood disorder (or any mood disorder) was not my fault.
She offered to help me find help.
By the end of the day, I had a referral. By the end of the week, I had appointment, and that weekend, I went back on my meds. I had a prescription for “as needed” anxiety pills and an antidepressant.
Would I have sought out help without that screening? Probably. But I would have clamped down and white-knuckled through more. I would have continued to cry in the bathroom, and I would have pushed on, because I was embarrassed, ashamed and afraid.
So if you find yourself hurting — if you are anxious, sad, moody or short-tempered — reach out. Ask for an ear, a hand or help, and if you are given this questionnaire, try to answer each prompt openly and honestly. Looking at my answers, I knew I didn’t do “well” because I wasn’t well, but I kept going. I kept on, and with a few with a few pen strokes, I was able to convey what my mouth could not. “I’m hurting. I’m struggling. I am not okay.”
And this? This was everything. It was the hand up I needed. It was hope in the dark.