Milk and Mental illness: ten days as a mum

I am very, very good at being rational. The odd thing is that it’s a skill I’ve learned because of mental illness. I always work hard to sort my feelings into rational and irrational. For example, I felt afraid I’d never give birth and would be pregnant forever – which honestly had me on the edge of a panic attack at times. But I could tell it was irrational, and that kept it under control. (Usually, rationality isn’t as black and white  as that.) I habitually sort my positive feelings into rational and irrational too – for example, I feel that Louisette is the best and prettiest and most charming baby I’ve ever seen and I’m bewildered that anyone could be in the room with her and not spend all that time watching her face. But I can tell rationally that, like all newborns, she looks mostly like a potato – and that the person she most resembles  is E.T. I can also rationally say that she is way above average attractiveness for her age. The fact that I know I’m right makes that last statement all the sweeter.

Observe, and judge for yourselves:

I mentioned in that epic labour entry last Wednesday that giving birth wasn’t the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The real hardest thing I’ve ever done is to endure seven years of mental illness (which, may I say, I’ve done spectacularly well, keeping almost all of my friends and never causing harm to myself or others – plus I somehow managed to snare CJ in there, which is definitely my most impressive life achievement thus far). My anxiety disorder has made me unable to support myself financially (which unfortunately has always been my concept of adulthood, and far less than I planned to do with my life – I was going to devote myself to the poor in Indonesia, and had consciously prepared and trained to do so for twelve years). But I was right: it gave me certain skills.

All of which is to explain the full context (ie my mind and body) of the following journey:

From late Tuesday (day two) breastfeeding was very painful, and something I dreaded. With each suck I felt unpleasant faintness in my whole body, as if someone was hitting my funny bone over and over. By Wednesday it made me feel like I was about to faint and made my whole body shake – an echo of the way it shook with the pain  of childbirth.

When the midwife visited on Wednesday (day 3), we discovered that Louisette was dehydrated due to my lack of milk. Apparently it’s extremely rare for a woman to produce so little milk that her newborn is in danger. Not only did this mean we had to give her formula (which I was well aware would make the problem worse), but it felt awful. One of my peculiar foibles is that I tend to think in symbols and archetypes – so much so that I’m unable to give blood, because blood is too powerful as a literary symbol of life itself (ZOMG, the vampires are TAKING MY BLOOD!) So finding out MY BOOBS DON’T WORK AND MY BABY WILL DIE WITHOUT MEDICAL INTERVENTION was devastating. So the faintworthy pain of breastfeeding was accompanied by devastating depression.

I’d heard a great deal about the hormone crash and painful arrival of milk on day 3/4 after birth, and had carefully and repeatedly announced that I’d see absolutely no-one on those days. Thank goodness for that.

I’d been feeding Louisette on demand, and on the midwife’s advice immediately switched to feeding her (or at least trying – she is one extremely sleepy baby) every three hours – twenty minutes of breastfeeding (so my breasts were still getting the signal to produce milk, and would hopefully tune in at some point) followed by a bottle. From that instant, Louisette’s health improved – and I began to live in three-hourly bursts. I’d slept fairly well (between feeds and crying) on the first night, but had been so excited and happy since then that even when I lay down to sleep I tended to have trouble dropping off. I was vaguely aware that this was a bad thing.

On Thursday we went in to hospital for a variety of health checks. I was perfectly upbeat in the morning (still so excited between bouts of sobbing that I couldn’t get myself to sleep properly when I had the chance), and took the trouble to dress Louisette in an especially gorgeous manner (the red dress and booties). The midwives in the birthing centre nearly came to blows over who could claim her as “their” baby.

I saw a lactation consultant who said various useful-type things. Towards the end, I mentioned I’d been trying to stimulate more milk production with a breast pump and with my hand, and neither had produced a drop. I showed her the pump, and she explained it was the wrong type for early breastfeeding. When I showed her my clumsy attempt at hand expressing, I saw a look of, “Oh, how VERY stupid” flash across her face before she caught it – and explained how to do it properly. (The birthing class demo – with an attractively knitted prop breast – apparently didn’t work for me at all.) Within moments, I saw a couple of drops of milk – my milk, real milk – for the first time. This was enormously encouraging, and I went home delighted.

My midwife is aware of how much my bad pregnancy has cost in financial terms, and whenever there is something we need she does her best to get us a free one. She gave us nipple shields to reduce the pain of breastfeeding, and lent us the hospital’s clanky but effective double electric breast pump (double = takes half the time, and electric means it will help stimulate more milk production rather than simply taking what’s already there).

Artist’s impression of the breast pump:

It was a very long hospital visit because there were a variety of people we needed to see. The lactation consultant had told me to use the pump for 10-20 minutes each hour in addition to everything else. She’d emphasised it was vital for me to think loving baby thoughts when I used it, or my milk wouldn’t flow.

As soon as I’d attempted to feed Louisette I attempted the pump for the first time. It was very awkward to hold it in place and all I got for my twenty minutes’ of muscle pain (muscles still aching from giving birth) was a couple of drops of milk. Cue more desperate, helpless crying. So much for loving baby thoughts. The long hospital visit had brought back my labour-exhaustion shakiness, even when I lay down in bed to sleep. Louisette had also suddenly developed a very gross eye infection – yuck.

Thursday was similar. Plenty of sobbing and almost no sleep. Finally around midnight, after another pathetic feed (as Louisette grew noticeably less interested in my breasts – a very bad sign for the future) I lay down to sleep. Addled by sleeplessness, hormones, and depression, I had an episode that reminded me strongly of a schizophrenic woman’s description of a psychotic attack (in an Andrew Denton doco). I fell into a kind of dream of mother and baby, but I wasn’t asleep. In my dreams I’m often a different person (every so often I’m Buffy, for example – or a man) but I always have a sense of self.

I had no idea who I was. I was fairly sure I was a one-week old baby, helpless and confused by the world. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know where or who I was. All I knew was that something was wrong and I couldn’t fix it myself. Rather intelligently, I said, “Help, help” until CJ woke up. Even more intelligently, I explained what had happened as well as I could (and later reported it faithfully to the midwife, despite how stupid it all sounded in daylight). Even more more intelligently, I decided to skip the 4am feed and let CJ just give Louisette a bottle.

That night, my body remembered how to sleep again. I was still very depressed the next day, but the worst was over. I’ve had a couple of times when I woke up and didn’t know where I was for just a second (as if I was on holiday), but I’ve been more careful about my sleep (within the realm of the possible – last night I had four hours in a row, which is very rare; a mix of luck and planning) and all the depression is gone.

From Saturday, I began to see genuine improvement in my milk flow, thanks to that breast pump (it’s nice to have measurable progress, and we’re getting along fine now). Since then, Louisette has been taking a little less of the formula. This means she’s getting more milk.

She also has a blister on her lip from her inability to attach properly, but that should go away soon (her eye infection is long gone). Yesterday she had her tongue tie cut (an operation about as complex as cutting one’s fingernails), and she seems to be much more patient with my breasts (now she’s getting a better flow), although the different shape of her mouth is confusing her a little.

Things are good mentally. I believe I’m being rational when I say that the last week – including labour, and including the lack of sleep and my first ever true break with reality – has singlehandedly made up for the last seven years of seemingly meaningless pain. I also think it’ll help me feel better about my novel writing attempts (there’s an epic tale there, but it’s long, boring, and depressing) for at least the next two years (by which time hopefully I’ll have a major publisher signed for at least one of my books).

I’m also cautiously hopeful about how my mental illness will react to my being a mum. It was noticeably dampened during pregnancy (weird but true: I was less anxious while pregnant than I am usually), and I began to wonder how nine months of intense chemical goings-on would affect what is, after all, a chemical imbalance in my brain. Perhaps pregnancy would hit a kind of “reset” code. Many women become mentally ill because of chemical goings-on and major lifestyle change. I may just head in the opposite direction.

Maybe. We’ll see. Either way, I have plenty of rational reasons to be happy. I have a beautiful, extremely pleasant little girl, and my life has a sense of purpose I lost seven years ago, and have badly missed ever since.

10 thoughts on “Milk and Mental illness: ten days as a mum

  1. I’m *very* happy that you’re enjoying a measure of sanity. It’s frickin’ awesome.

    Pain and difficulty, not so much, but you can totally handle it, so I’m not even worried.

  2. Crap. Can you delete my email from that, or the whole comment? It probably shouldn’t be sitting out like that.

    I’m an idiot.

    • Thanks W. It is weird how I’ve had barely any baby-related anxiety. I guess I’m used to seeing irrational thoughts and putting them aside. (PS I deleted your email. You’re not an idiot.)

  3. It’s interesting that you say you felt better when pregnant (I remember you telling me that) and it occurs to me that people with CFS and MS also are noticeably better when pregnant (if you discount the horrible bits of a bad pregnancy). And I’m wondering if there is perhaps a physical reason for the anxiety… I know you’ve probably gone into it ad nauseum but it just seems to me that a condition that is only ‘mental’ is unlikely to get randomly better during a difficult pregnancy.

    And well done on the continued writing and the lovely baby. Who, btw, looks absolutely nothing like a potato.

    • tabs: It’s also a facotr that my anxiety disorder is predominantly social. So the practice in sorting rational from irrational comes in handy without Louisette being a major trigger in her own right.

      • You mean that you suffer from it when you are outside the house or with other people? I don’t think that affects my point unless you mean that you might have been less anxious while pregnant because you stayed home a lot rather than it was something chemical/physical.

        I think we all have ways of dealing with whatever it is we have to deal with. And I think your practice of sorting the rational from the irrational is both a useful and not uncommon coping strategy.

      • To the anonymous tabs: I’ve had a few tests for physical things, including a lack of vitamin D and a thyroid imbalance. It would be nice to be able to say, “my thyroid is low/high, which causes anxiety” rather than, “I am mentally ill” but so far there’s no clear physical cause. Since I’m able to treat it successfully with zoloft, however, it doesn’t really matter what the cause is.

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