August 30, 2013 was the best day of my life. It was the day I became a mom. Despite the fact that an induction and 10 hours of hard labour were followed by an emergency c-section, I was over-the moon in love with my beautiful daughter. She didn’t necessarily arrive in the way I expected, but I didn’t care. She was healthy, and she made it into the world safely. She was the most beautiful baby I’ve ever seen, and the best thing that ever happened to me.
As the next 48 hours after my daughter’s birth unfolded, I met the extreme polarities of first-time motherhood. I was experiencing an all-consuming, profound love for someone that I didn’t even think I was capable of, while simultaneously trying to recover from an incredibly difficult childbirth. After labouring hard and fast, my daughter’s heart rate plummeted, and a team of about 15 doctors and nurses rushed me to the OR to get her out of me as quickly as possible. The first night at the hospital, I was in so much pain, that I couldn’t couldn’t even reach my arm far enough from my bed to push the nurse assistant button. I needed help with putting my daughter in her bassinet to sleep, but I had no way of asking for help. So, I slept with one eye open, with her on top of me, overjoyed at the beautiful new life in my arms. Three hours later, I was met with a disgruntled nurse, telling me I should never sleep with my baby on top of me. I started to cry. Less than 12 hours after she was born, I already wasn’t doing things right.
Over the next few weeks, as we tried to settle into a routine as parents, I quickly realized that there was no such thing as a routine with a newborn. I could barely walk, and was still adapting to the challenging reality of breastfeeding and sleepless nights, but that didn’t stop me from wanting the laundry done. Yet between the baby vomiting and pooping, and the postpartum night-sweats, the laundry pile was spiralling out of control. Here I was, a Type-A, borderline obsessive personality, trying to navigate the reality that my structured world as I knew it would completely lack control for the foreseeable future.
As the days progressed, my daughter’s demands grew stronger. She screamed, sometimes for hours on end, and every day it was a struggle to get her down for the night before 1 a.m. By definition, she met the criteria for colic (the term applies to any healthy, well-fed infant who cries more than 3 hours a day, more than 3 days a week, for more than 3 weeks), and as her colic started to peak, my husband had to start travelling for work again. I had help during the day, but at night, I was all alone. I cried for hours on end, every single day. I thought it was normal to feel like this as a new mom, and to some degree it probably is normal, but the extent of my emotion was anything but normal. I vacillated between intense love for my daughter, intense frustration with not being able to get her to sleep, intense resentment that my husband had to travel, and, most frighteningly, intense anger that I could not control. I thought this was normal. I should have read the signs. Little did I know, things were about to get a whole lot worse.
When my daughter was about six weeks old, I started to feel a cold coming on. As a new mother who was still recovering from a c-section, the last thing on my mind was to take myself to the doctor. My husband was out of town, and the thought of visiting a doctor with a newborn felt overwhelming. 24 hours later, my ear started to hurt. Like, REALLY hurt. I got out of bed, and I could barely hear out of my left ear. The sounds I could hear were distorted. I went to the doctor, who prescribed an antibiotic for a middle-ear infection. What the doctor couldn’t see, however, was that the infection had progressed to my inner ear. Within 48 hours of feeling a cold coming on, I completely lost the hearing in my left ear, and I started to experience debilitating vertigo. I vomited repeatedly. I called my mom to come over and help me, because I was afraid I would drop the baby. My husband rushed home from his business trip, and my mom drove me to an urgent care centre. They too, did not know what the problem was, but the doctor felt that the antibiotic I had already been given would help.
Weeks later, my hearing had not returned, and my vertigo had not fully subsided. I couldn’t walk into a crowded place without extreme anxiety and confusion. My left ear started to ring, loudly, a condition known as tinnitus. Because the inner ear is responsible for both hearing and balance, any damage to the organ can cause a pathological signal being sent to the brain – i.e.: telling your brain that your head is tilted, when it is actually straight. As a result of this erroneous signal, the only thing your body knows how to do is to be in constant Fight-Or-Flight mode to keep you from falling over. The result of this, for me, was debilitating anxiety.
So, on top of postpartum depression (that I wasn’t even aware I had), I experienced months of terrifying anxiety and panic attacks. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t hear. My ears were ringing. I couldn’t drive. About 4 weeks after my hearing hadn’t returned, I finally called my doctor in a panic. He finally understood what had happened to my ear, a condition called labyrinthitis, and he prescribed me with an anti-anxiety medication to calm me down and help me sleep. The medication helped me to sleep for a couple of hours at a time, but overall, it didn’t make things much better.
It felt like my brain, which was previously capable of falling asleep anywhere, anytime, was physically incapable of letting me sleep. It wasn’t the type of insomnia that comes with having a stressful day, or a lot on your mind – it literally felt like my brain was no longer capable of a sleep cycle. It also felt like my brain, which was previously blessed with a plethora of serotonin throughout my life, chemically did not have the capacity to allow me to experience joy anymore. On top of intense depression, I also felt extreme guilt. It was the most helpless I’ve ever been in my life; I felt like the universe was stripping me of the joy I was supposed to be experiencing as a new mother. I felt guilty for the ocean of tears that would not stop flowing from my eyes, because I wanted to be a happy mother for my daughter. I was so desperately in love with her, but I didn’t feel like I could be the mother she deserved.
The sleepless nights got worse, and I went back to the doctor for more help. By this point, my old doctor had retired, and the newer, younger doctor saw everything going on with me and said: “I will give you a prescription for an anti-depressant, because it sounds like you have postpartum depression, but I won’t give you something to help you sleep. Benzodiazepines (anti-anxiety meds) are among the most addictive class of medications we can prescribe as doctors. I know you’re going to hate me, but with everything you have going on, I’m not quite ready to treat the symptom yet without treating the cause. And there are many causes affecting you right now.” I looked her in the eye and said “You’re right. I hate you. I think you’re a great doctor who is making smart decisions, but I still hate you.” I left the doctor’s office that day, and I made the decision not to fill the anti-depressant prescription. I didn’t feel shame, or any other hesitation in filling the prescription, but the doctor was right – there was so much going on with me, and deep down, I felt like I could get past it. To this day, I still question whether I made the right decision.
I shared my decision with a close friend, who wisely told me “It’s OK to try to work through this, but if you start to feel worse, or suicidal, you need treatment.” My response to her was “I don’t feel suicidal. Yet.” But the truth was, there was a reason that I said the word “yet.” In my new reality, I didn’t feel any quality of life. Every second of every minute of every day felt like torture. All I could do was cry, all the time. For the first time in my life, I understood why someone suffering from mental illness might not want to go on. And if I didn’t have my beautiful daughter giving me purpose, I’m not sure that I would have been able to keep going. This is the most painful thing I’ve ever shared, but it needs to be shared because mental illness and invisible illnesses are still so criminally misunderstood.
Throughout this ordeal, I was fortunate that my oldest sister referred me to someone who could help me rehabilitate from the damage done to my inner ear. My sister had been diagnosed with Ménière’s Disease, and this therapist had worked wonders for her. We went to therapy together, and I finally understood firsthand some the horrible challenges she had been dealing with for years. On top of rehabilitating from the inner ear virus, I also sought out other forms of treatment, like meditation, myofascial release therapy, and counselling. Slowly, my neurological symptoms started to improve. Slowly, my hormones must have come into balance, because I gradually experienced fewer days crying, and more days existing peacefully. Slowly, I learned to smile again. Slowly, I was able to become closer to the mother that I felt my daughter deserved.
To this day, I’m left with partial hearing-loss in my left ear, and constant tinnitus (ringing) in that ear. I haven’t heard silence for 5 years now, but I’ve adapted. I still have extreme anxiety on occasion, but I can now sleep again, when my kids let me. The truth is, that even though I’m left with some of the symptoms from that horrible time, I’m still grateful – because I’ve been given the gift of empathy for those that suffer from what many cannot understand. I’m also incredibly grateful, because my brain was able to experience happiness again. For many who suffer from mental illness, this is not the case.
If you are reading this, and if any of it resonates, please don’t be afraid to ask for help. The biggest mistake I made when I was at my worst, was not asking for enough help. And believe me, when I reached the lowest of lows and finally asked for support, my Village came running. To anyone suffering, please know you are not alone. You are brave. There will be better days. You are enough. And most importantly, you are loved.