What We Don't Talk About: Mental Health
I think we all can agree that our mental health is just as important as our physical. So let me pose the question, why don’t we talk about it? “But you know just how it go in our community, keep that shit inside it don’t matter how hard it be” (J. Cole, KOD, Friends).
If you listened to my podcast interview on Child Life on Call, you heard me talk briefly about my mental health. I suffered from Postpartum Depression (PPD), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D.) and anxiety. Me? Of all people? Yes. I’ve always been a very happy and upbeat person but things took a turn for the worse when I had an emergency C-section at 25 weeks to save my life and McKenzie’s.
I was diagnosed with severe preeclampsia and hospitalized immediately. Five days later I developed HELLP syndrome and was rushed into surgery. When I woke up from delivering McKenzie, my dad, Walter Hughes, showed me a picture he had taken of my baby. She was so tiny and underdeveloped with her eyes wide open. She looked like a little alien. I was able to see her the next day and boy was I nervous, excited and scared. I cried the whole way to her room because I had no clue what to expect. After scrubbing in from the elbows down, accompanied by the nurse, my father wheeled me to her room. There she was…in an incubator with tubes and lines everywhere and a team of doctors and nurses working to keep her alive.
Most people don’t know this but I had constant nightmares during her NICU stay and even slept with my shoes on most nights. I have to be ready if I get the call I kept telling myself. Shit happens fast and I needed to be ready. I was on edge all the time and if I couldn’t sleep I would go right back up to the hospital to be by her side.
Five months later, she was able to come home. She was on oxygen, pulse oximeter, unable to breastfeed (aspiration) and tons of medical equipment. McKenzie had numerous GI scopes, appointments with numerous doctors, therapy sessions, Nasogastric tube (NG) and eventually a feeding tube (MiniONE button) for failure to thrive. I felt like a failure. Why couldn’t I carry her to term? What did I do? I felt like I had truly failed her. I felt useless and abandoned. Depressed and traumatized, I never stopped learning about what was going on with her, asking questions, reading books and doing tons of research.
It was close to McKenzie’s 1st birthday before I was diagnosed. I knew something was wrong with me but I couldn’t come out and say it. How do you ask for help when you don’t know what the problem is? I knew the “right” answers to questions to keep people from worrying or being concerned about my health. Was I wrong for doing that? Absolutely. I couldn’t help myself so how was someone else going to help me? I started hearing hospital and machine beeps in my sleep. I brushed it off to nightmares until I started to hear them during the day. My friend Ebonee told me to make an appointment ASAP because “you need help.”
I knew I was depressed but I was definitely shocked on the P.T.S.D. diagnosis because I thought it was just for war veterans. I know I'm not alone in my lack of education on mental health. My therapist told me the NICU is a different kind of traumatic experience because it’s a continuous cycle of stressful events: coding, her health, prognosis, oxygen saturation dropping and whether she would live or die. She told me it is a war zone with all kinds of noises and alarms while surrounded by sickness and death. I experienced many unexpected traumas and they continue to this day.
It took me two years to come off all of my medicine. My preeclampsia was so bad that I should have died. McKenzie still has a feeding tube, speech delay and continues to have the team of 11 (doctors, therapists and specialists). We’ve recently added an Ear, Nose & Throat (ENT) and hearing specialist (possible hearing aid).
I still have nightmares…not as often as I did but every now and then I will have one. I’m not ashamed to say that McKenzie still sleeps with me. The occasional nightmares coupled with all of her health issues, I prefer her to be close. I can hear even the slightest change in her breathing at night and can help her by administering a breathing treatment right away. In a way...I'm still "on" all of the time.
My therapist always encouraged me to write. Writing has helped me cope with the continuous health concerns and issues McKenzie has. It’s hard and feels impossible to deal with long-term trauma and constantly navigating health concerns. Now that I’ve put this in writing, I’m still dealing, coping and hanging in there. I pray daily and all throughout the day because well...He is my source.
Why share this?
It needs to be talked about
You're not alone
See a therapist and find ways to cope
If you need medicine to help temporarily, there’s nothing wrong with that and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise
It’s okay to NOT be okay
Be gentle with yourself because you are doing the best you can