How I Survived Postpartum Stroke And PTSD
I do not pop babies out. That’s not the way the Maker made me. The first time I met both my children was on an icy cold operating table, drowsy and dreading the ensuing weeks of recovery. Lightning struck twice in my childbearing case. I went septic with my son seven years ago, and this year, I suffered a stroke after the birth of my brand new baby daughter. In between my two traumas, I ran a marathon, did a triathlon, made my way to the top of the private chef world, made beautiful friends and memories, and nearly forgot about the first strike, until the second occurred.
June 27, 2015: Nine days after my baby girl is born, my brain bleeds. She is a swaddled sack of wriggly perfection, and I am breastfeeding in my pink robe that highlights all my new mommy features. (I loved that soft pink robe; now I cannot look at it.) Holding my baby to my breast, I am watching the summer sway from the window. We are expecting visitors. Suddenly a sensation sweeps through my body, like icy cold fingers moving one by one up my spine and then twisting my skull. I am 34, mommy glow going dim, dimmer still. I am going blind. I am suffering a stroke.
I wake in the ICU. I am blind and babyless. I can feel the hands of the love of my life wrapped around mine. I hear nurses whispering. I can hear my father. But I cannot see anyone. Squiggled shapes of faces circle my bedside, fingers and hands are waving. “How many fingers, Quenby?” “What year is it, Quenby?” “Who is the president of the United States?”
My breasts are painfully swollen.
Where is my baby?
Where the hell am I?
The gentle hands of the nurse untie my gown, exposing my bursting boobs to the onlookers. She presses a breast pump to my chest and drains me of my ability to feed my 9-day old baby who is nowhere to be found. This is the beginning of a long list of losses. This is the heart sink—the point where perfect plummets and disappears. Tears drip down my cheeks to the super-sucker metronome stealing my dream of motherhood.
The onlookers kiss me goodnight and bid farewell.
It is just the nurse and I for the night.
I am blind, babyless, bewildered, with a bleeding brain and a broken heart.
Morning shoves itself into my room with a gaggle of neurologists. They wave their fingers around my periphery and crane their necks, their faces going in and out of my line of sight. I am able to respond a little more, see a bit more clearly. Hope begins to wrap her arms around my shattered heart.
With each day in the ICU, I improve. I am moved to a step down unit rather than a rehab center, and it is then and there that I finally get to see my daughter. My husband places her upon me. I sit cross-legged on the bed with matted hair, fragile pale skin, wrapped in IV wiring, and I finally embrace the new life that blossomed nine days before I nearly lost mine.
The rest of the summer is spent in a long, slow slog of recovery. It begins with me trying to make it to the end of the driveway before fear and lack of balance get the best of me. It continues to picking up around my home on my own, driving for the first time, finding courage to be at home alone while my husband resumes work, making it through a store with my children without having a major meltdown. I was the poster mother for PPD and PTSD.
Not only was I afraid of the world, because my trust in my body was shattered, but I was also afraid for my children—that they might lose their mother at any given moment. I would be at home alone with them, and I would fall like a tree in a great forest, and no one would know. My children would lose their mother; moreover, I would lose the chance to see their beautiful lives blossom.
I sat in my situation for a few weeks. The fact that the stroke left me without any physical deficits prompted friends and family to believe that I had recovered, and that moving on back into motherhood was going to be a breeze. They could not see what was going on inside, the grinding anxiety and panic, the crushing guilt and resentment, the anger that I did not get a fair shake.
I have friends who pop babies out like nobody’s business, and I was a failure, a malfunctioning mother. The world was no longer a safe place, and in our competitive mommy wars society, I was doomed to be a post-stroke postpartum drama mama raising two children without flinching. I was headed down a deep and dark well, and I needed help. So I reached out.
I was on a wild trapeze ride of postpartum PTSD and depression, and I needed somewhere soft to land. I built a safety net by hauling my broken heart into therapy sessions. I joined two postpartum support groups. I made weekly appointments with my doctor to check in. I told my friends and neighbors of my fears and frustrations. This was not easy as I was a blubbering mess of a mother. But I was a mother, dammit, and if I was going to be a good one, I had to build myself back up.
I panicked my way through the first few weeks of recovery. Tears flooded the floor in my therapy sessions. I ran out of a few postpartum groups in a panic. When my doctor told me that it would take time for me to heal from my trauma, I would snicker in disbelief. I wanted a quick fix, a splash of healing water to take the hurt away immediately. The world was not going to wait for me to get better, and I needed to get there quickly so I could grab the old girl I used to be and step back into her shoes and “move on,” “snap out of it,” “get past it.” Sound familiar?
Birth trauma, like any trauma, does not work that way. Recovery is a long road. I told a friend in my postpartum group that it felt like sometimes I was crawling just to get through the day. She responded, “Crawling is movement, so take heart.” I built that net so long and strong through my support network. On dark days, I would dial their numbers and they would send a breeze of encouragement my way.
I felt that in our picture perfect playdate society that somehow has defined this generation, my birth trauma was a failure. I was limping along while others were stroller-striding their way through with perfect hair and scarless bodies. What I found in reaching out and in recovery is that I was not alone. There is a whole underbelly of women working so hard to come back to the light, for their babies and for themselves. And when we band together, we build one another up so strong that one day, and I did not believe it at first, we walk hand-in-hand out into the healing rays of recovery.
We are beautiful and brave because we faced down our fears with grace, resilience, and the support of others in similar circumstances. In recovery, we uncover our best selves. We make beautiful bonds and are able to reach back and help to heal others who may be walking wounded a little farther back on the road. My experience of loss helped me to recover a better version of myself—a survivor standing strong and steadfast, ready and willing to reach out, a good mother who did not let her past define her future. So perhaps in going blind, I was truly able to see.
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