Today is day 1 of the very first Neonatal Mental Health Awareness Week. As some of you will know I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Anxiety Disorder following Arlo’s discharge from NICU. I’ve touched on it frequently in my posts but I’ve never really talked about my PTSD in much detail before. I want to change that this week, so I’ve promised myself I’ll write a post a day for the next 7 days, and if it helps even 1 person that’s suffering, then that’ll be good enough for me.
I’ve always wanted to talk more openly about PTSD but it’s hard. I don’t think I really appreciated the stigma surrounding mental health issues until I had a breakdown and found that I couldn’t actually bring myself to tell people what was happening, I didn’t know how to explain it and I quite quickly had some negative responses too and that had a pretty awful affect on me and made it hard to open up again (talking of stigma, I’ve actually been hovering over the post button on this since 7am, its now 10am, because I’m genuinely quite frightened of the response it might get). It’s not like having most physical injuries where something significant happens, you’re hurt, and then the acute bit is over and you’re recovering. I didn’t wake up one day having a mental breakdown. It was more of a snowball of symptoms that built up and up and up, until it eventually just overwhelmed and consumed me.
Then when the fog finally start to lift a little I felt awkward, ashamed, embarrassed and detached. So many people would say things like ‘but he’s fine now’ or ‘everyone has problems, lots of people have it much worse’ and while I think they were well meaning, all it did was compound the sense of guilt and shame that I already carried and left me feeling like being broken by my own trauma was selfish and self indulgent. Plus at times my behaviour WAS embarrassing and abnormal. So I didn’t tell people. I couldn’t. I’m certain there will be friends, and even family, reading this who had or have no idea the extent of my mental health collapse, and my ongoing mental health issues. Its hardly surprising though, I didn’t realise myself at first…
I think looking back I can see early signs of a problem when Arlo was still in nicu. I became a bit obsessed with cleaning the breast pump, convinced a stray germ would eventually kill him. I threw over 100 bottles of expressed milk away because I was certain they were contaminated.
The day he came home I had a complete freak out when his outreach nurse left and we were on our own. I felt so overwhelmed by being alone with him and his various medical needs/equipment. All I could see was danger. I didn’t want people anywhere near him because I thought he’d catch a virus and die. I hated making up bottles and would throw gallons of formula away because in the second between pouring the water in and putting the lid on I’d be convinced it’d become ‘contaminated’ with germs. I think this played a huge part in my drive to get him breastfeeding, and even then I used to thoroughly wash my boobs before every feed! Ridiculous 😐
Dummies were another huge source of anxiety. One would only have to fall out of his mouth for a second and we’d take it to sterilise. I’m surprised they didn’t all melt! The number of emotional outbursts I had because I was sure he’d been given a ‘dirty’ dummy, it was ridiculous.
Around 2 months after he came home I accidentally drank from someone elses glass. A complete non event, but not in my head. I was absolutely terrified that I’d picked up a cold sore, so much so that I was too scared to kiss my own baby. I’d cuddle him but I just couldn’t kiss him. This lasted for weeks. A few times I absent-mindedly kissed his soft little head and had to put him straight in the bath. Added to that the guilt of not kissing him was horrific, it went against every instinct as his mother. He’d spent 7.5 months in a hospital cot with minimal human contact, and the vast majority of contact he had had was something painful or uncomfortable. I knew he needed as much loving physical contact as possible. I felt desperately conflicted, but I was so terrified, so overcome with fear that if I got too close to him he’d die.
These are just a few examples of my early symptoms. At this point I really didn’t realise how disordered my thinking was becoming, or how deep my anxiety ran. We’d been living in such unusual circumstances for so many months that I think I’d completely lost track of what normal was anyway. It wasn’t until things got much worse that I finally realised and started to seek out help. I’ll talk more about that tomorrow though.