This is Part 2 in a 3 part series about postpartum mental health. Part 1 can be found here.
“My husband and son would be better off if I weren’t here.” That was the message I heard shortly after arriving home from the hospital with my baby boy.
I was recovering from a complicated pregnancy and delivery as well as dealing with an overwhelming fear of caring for a tiny, premature infant.
I knew my thoughts were irrational. While my head told me the lie, “they’d be better off without you,” my heart knew the truth – “I needed help.” So I asked for it.
My sister had experienced postpartum depression a few years earlier, and I knew if I called her, she would help me. So I did.
She took me to the doctor who had cared for me for the last nine months and delivered my baby.
He was compassionate and reminded me that anyone who’d been in the hospital as long as I had been would be exhausted. Then he wrote me a prescription for a benzodiazepine and suggested my husband and family take care of the baby for a few days while I slept and gave my body a chance to recover.
So I slept.
And I attempted to let my body heal. Unfortunately, I continued to experience more complications. I started rapidly losing weight and experiencing severe gastrointestinal symptoms. After weeks of being sick and losing over twenty pounds, I was diagnosed with C. diff.
This required me to take more antibiotics. It was also extremely taxing on my body that had already experienced significant physical and emotional trauma.
Meanwhile, the voice in my head grew. “They would be better off without you…”
A lie. That I believed.
Maybe in part because I was exhausted. But also in part, because I had deep-seated beliefs that I was broken. I’d long believed there was something inherently wrong with me, and this season of my life was reinforcing that belief.
I wanted to run away. Every day.
I also wanted to stay. I was determined to overcome the voice in my head and be the healthy mom my kid needed.
Voice, “They will be better off without you.”
I was afraid that I would hurt myself, despite my heart’s desire to live.
And so when I couldn’t hang on any longer, I checked myself into the psychiatric hospital. Not once but three separate times.
Why? I didn’t know what else to do. So even though I didn’t get any help there, I kept hoping and praying for a miracle.
“God, if you will help me overcome this, I will spend the rest of my life helping others.”
This was my sincere prayer and heart’s desire.
“Please, God, don’t leave my baby without his mom.”
In the hospital, I was given a new medication, Cymbalta. I had taken antidepressants throughout my life, but within 24 hours of the first pill, I knew I was in trouble.
Before taking Cymbalta, I wanted to run away. But with that first pill, I experienced something entirely different – an immediate and overwhelming desire to end my life. It was as if something had taken over my mind in a way I’d never experienced and couldn’t believe was possible.
With one dose of medicine, I went from thinking my family would be better off without me to highly suicidal. I feared I was going to kill myself against my own will.
The next day I told my doctor. I was certain he would stop the medication. Instead, he assured me Cymbalta was a good choice for me and doubled the dose.
For the next week, I sat in the hospital, taking the medication and hoping he was right. He was not right. I went home in a crisis. My mind had become my enemy.
Side Note: Cymbalta, along with many psychiatric medications, carries a black box warning for suicidal thoughts and behaviors. This is the most serious warning the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gives.
When I tried to stop the medication, I discovered I could not. After even such a short time, the withdrawal was debilitating.
I was referred to a psychiatrist who specialized in “difficult cases.” I told her I needed help getting off the Cymbalta, that it was making me suicidal. She said I was “attention-seeking” and needed “intensive therapy”.
She also added more medication.
When that didn’t work, she added another medication.
In the twenty years I’d spent seeking help from doctors and therapists, most of the treatment I received was compassionate and kind. But during this period of my life, things were different. When the treatments I was offered didn’t help, the consensus was that I was either “abusing drugs” or “attention-seeking.”
Neither was true. I just needed help. The problem was, the only treatments I knew of – medication and therapy – were not helping.
This entire time I don’t recall a single provider asking about my medical history, what happened during my pregnancy, or even considering the possibility that I might have something going on besides “severe mental illness.”
I went to a treatment center that specialized in trauma. But I was on such high doses of medication I couldn’t participate in the program.
So I left.
I went to another.
No one knew how to help me. My life consisted of taking different combinations of medications and being referred to therapy that I was too sick and overmedicated to participate in.
Eventually, it was suggested to me by my psychiatrist that I accept I would always be “severely mentally ill.”
It was also suggested that I apply for permanent disability. I was so defeated, we applied for a service dog. The psychologist who assessed me for the service dog was kind. On her second visit, she looked at me and said, “you are overmedicated.” I thought it was an odd thing for her to say, and while I hated how I felt, I didn’t see any other options.
Fighting for my life had become my new normal.
I was still on the Cymbalta, despite a revolving door of other psychiatric drugs that were useless in offsetting its debilitating effects.
Because I knew the Cymbalta was harming me, my husband and I started doing our own research. We found I was not the only person who found the drug impossible to quit. And since my doctor would not help me, we started slowly tapering my dose. Even the smallest reductions were hell and increased my risk for self-harm.
Because no treatment center had improved my mental health, we developed our own method for keeping me safe. While he monitored my medications, slowly tapered my dose of Cymbalta, and cared for our son, he also did what he could to help me pass the time.
Nothing helped, but I found if I could distract myself, then I could make it from one day to the next.
It was the darkest time of my life, and it felt like an eternity. I was suicidal for months on end without a break. The medications I was on felt like a chemical straight jacket.
The longer this went on, the worse my physical symptoms became. I was encouraged to “get some exercise” and “be more social,” but my whole body hurt from the medications, and in a short period, I gained almost 50lbs.
My depression was more severe than ever before, and I couldn’t see a way out.
The voice raged on. “They’d be better off without you.”
I needed help, and I feared I was running out of time.
I had done everything that my mental health providers suggested. They said take the meds, I did. They said, try this therapy, I did. And I kept getting worse.
“God, please help me.”
The last time I saw the doctor who said my suicidal thoughts were, “attention-seeking,” she prescribed an amphetamine. These drugs are typically prescribed for ADHD, so why she prescribed it for me remains a mystery. I remember her saying something about my genetic test, and how stimulants were the only intervention we hadn’t tried.
The following day after I took it, I experienced symptoms I believed were a heart attack. My husband called an ambulance, and I was admitted to the hospital for testing.
Laying in the hospital bed, I was fearful I would die. Even though I had been experiencing suicidal thoughts for nearly 18 months, my will was always to live.
I never stopped fighting. My son meant everything to me. And even in my darkest moments, my love for him allowed me to hold on.
In the middle of the night, an ER doctor came in to speak with me. He said they were concerned and wanted to keep me for testing. Then he looked at me and kindly asked the question that would change my entire life. “Why are you on so many medications?”
Unlike many of the medical professionals I’d seen, He wasn’t judging me. He was concerned. And even though I couldn’t give him an answer, I started to ask myself the same question.
As I laid there, I realized I’d been trying the same interventions in one form or another since I was 14 years old and only gotten worse.
“What if there’s another way…” my heart whispered.
I was released from the hospital with one determined purpose: Find out if there is another way.
So I started researching – and to this day I haven’t stopped.
When you google “alternative mental health treatments,” you open yourself up to a whole new world (some of it good and some not).
I had no idea if any of it could help me, but I knew conventional treatments hadn’t. Even if they could help me, they had written me off as “severely mentally ill,” as had most of the people in my life.
I’ve come to realize that those of us who struggle most severely with mental health are at risk for experiencing the worst abuses of the system. This is unfortunate because we are the ones who need compassionate care the most.
I found a treatment center that specialized in holistic mental health care. When I asked them if they could get me off the Cymbalta, they said yes.
It seemed risky, but I knew it was my only hope.
My husband agreed. We had used all our available resources on previous treatments that hadn’t worked, so we took out a second mortgage and risked everything in hope they could help me.
Before getting pregnant, I worked as a Social Worker. All the years I’d spent working in the mental health field had led me to believe in conventional methods of treatment.
None of my training had mentioned alternative mental health care, and I had no reason to believe a holistic approach would help me.
But I was starting to think outside the box of all my formal training and experience. Despite what the textbooks and “experts” said, all the “evidence-based” interventions had failed me.
So while my head said “no,” my heart and soul said, “yes.”
I decided to follow the “yes.”
I had a sliver of hope and the will to do whatever it took for a chance at a better life.
The good news? This would prove to be enough. My prayers had been answered and healing was coming…I just couldn’t see it yet.
If you can relate to my story and would like to connect, please leave a comment below or message me here. I look forward to connecting with you!