Three years ago, #BellLetsTalk day fell on February 12th. I spent the day making posts to social media and sending my friends text messages one word at a time in order to help raise money for mental health programs.
Little did I know that at 5pm that day my life, as I knew it, would cease to exist. My baby died. My body killed her. And my life fell apart. That day I lost my baby and I lost myself. I started the day wanting to help people with mental illness, and by the end of that day I was in the throes of despair, unsure if I would ever find my way out the darkness again.
I often reference my struggles with mental illness, but I rarely divulge exactly what that means. I say that I cope, but I rarely say how. So on this #BellLetsTalk day, let’s work together and end the stigma. Let me tell you about what mental illness means to me.
People usually talk about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as it relates to service people – those who have fought the front lines and seen and experiences some of the most traumatic events the world has offered. It’s rarely talked about in ‘everyday people’. But as I lay in that hospital bed that night, knowing that the vessel that was meant to keep my daughter alive was the very thing that killed her, as I lay there waiting for my body to push out death when it should have been bearing life, I became a PTSD statistic. I gave birth to death. I may never have seen war, but since that day there is a war that rages in my mind every day.
The flashbacks are real, the sudden onset panic and paranoia lurk around every corner. I never know when it will lurch at me and swallow me whole. I don’t know what will set it off, or when. Sometimes it’s a smell, or finding a random object that reminds me of her. I don’t have many solid memories of that night waiting for her to be born – but every now and then something will jog a memory and I find myself in the midst of a realistic flashback that I just can’t control and can’t escape. I have to try to find reality again, quickly, before I lose complete control. In general, flashbacks last a few seconds or minutes and vary in their intensity and frequency. These can be so realistic that it feels as though I’m living through the experience all over again. I see it in my mind, but also feel the emotions and physical sensations of what happened – fear, sweating, smells, sounds, pain.
I don’t remember what it’s like to have a full nights sleep (regardless of the 1 and a half year old that often steals some from me as well). When I do sleep, I am haunted by nightmares that remind me of what I have lost and what I have endured. Just being in the same room with someone that is pregnant makes my chest feel tight and makes me sweat and stammer. The reminders give me intense physical reactions – my heart races, I can’t breath and it feels like my chest is being crushed in a vice. It can come out of no where. Without warning a good day can become a very bad one. Knowing this, I’m always in a state of hyper vigilance – constantly looking out for triggers. It leads to avoidance, social anxiety, and can leave me feeling emotionally numb and physically exhausted. Sometimes I deal with the pain by trying to feel nothing at all. I communicate less with other people who then find it hard to live and work with me. For me, especially I have found since returning to work that I am much more withdrawn with my co-workers. I spend a lot of time doing my work with my head down and socializing very little around the office. I still fear that I am looked at as the girl with the dead baby – as outlandish as they may be. My employer has been nothing short of amazing and supportive.
But of course, because people expect you to “get better” and “move on”, the stigma leads me to work very hard to remain calm on the surface and struggle below just to keep my head above water.
Support from other people is vital to recovery from PTSD. Social interaction with someone who cares about you is the most effective way to calm your nervous system, so it’s been so important to me to find someone I can connect with —someone I can talk to for an uninterrupted period of time, someone who will listen to me without judging. I have a select few people who I call on from time to time hen I need to grasp reality again, whether on on the verge of, or in the middle of a flashback or panic attack. I know that I can reach out to these people and they will pull me through it. They have been my saving grace.
I’be been through years of therapy, I’ve been on meds and still every single day for me is a constant effort to manage my own mental health. And yes, from time to time I am ashamed, and I do feel the weight of the stigma. But thanks to good friends, love, support and campaigns like #BellLetsTalk, I know that my health isn’t something to be ashamed of, and it’s important to talk about it and be open and honest about how I feel so that others know it’s ok to reach out and get help just like I have.
So Let’s talk.