Have you ever had a day, a month, or, heck, maybe even a whole year or YEARS that really tested your resolve? A time that really pushed you mentally, physically, socially, spiritually to the edge? Maybe your sleep was troubled and you ate what you could when you could. Perhaps you forgot to call and text your family and friends back despite thinking of it a few times a day. Or you re-scheduled that dentist appointment for the fourth time because there just aren’t enough hours in the day. You were just going, going, going until BOOM – you crashed.
That was my year this past year. It started when my father-in-law passed away after a decades-long battle with multiple sclerosis. Soon after, I got pregnant with my first child, then quickly realized that my “morning” sickness would be all-day, everyday sickness, making basic daily life tasks and work nearly unmanageable. When my water broke at 26 weeks and 1 day, I was hospitalized with the intention of delivering at 34 weeks. That changed as my baby girl decided on New Years’ Eve that she was ready to party and I delivered her at 29 weeks and 6 days. She was in the NICU for nine weeks, the first six of which I spent desperately willing my body to comply with my diligent attempts at pumping and breastfeeding.
Now, some of these challenges were of the “life’s tough, get a helmet” variety, and some of them were the “life’s tough, a helmet won’t help because you’re getting thrown in a life-sized dryer that’s set on 400 degrees while you’re constantly poked and ‘it’s a small world’ is being played on a loop for an unknown period of time.” We’ve all been there, I’m sure.
I quickly started to recognize how all of my systems were tested. I was physically drained; unable to eat when pregnant, then unable to eat enough while breastfeeding, weak from lack of movement for months of sickness and hospitalization, and exhausted from lack of sleep. I was emotionally depleted, a true roller coaster of emotions– going up high as I stared at my beautiful girl in her incubator and then plummeting into the darkness, enraged that she had to be in an incubator and blaming my body for not nurturing her longer in utero or producing enough breast milk to nurture her after delivery. Socially, I was a robot, reaching out to my support system when I could with updates and knowing I needed help but often not knowing where to begin. My faith oscillated between being upset with God and wondering why this was happening and pouring my faith out, asking for our baby to grow and thrive. Everything was at its breaking point.
In integrated care, we talk about having a whole-person, biopsychosocial-spiritual approach where we must assess and care for each of these systems and their intersection. And we see stories like mine often, in which all of the issues within our systems are exacerbated by one another. For instance, an older woman caring for her two grandchildren while dealing with depression and diabetes is unable to take the time to manage her diabetes because she is pulled in so many directions, leading to her struggling emotionally as her blood sugar irregularities impairs her mood and her depressed mood contributing to a lack of care for her diabetes. Or a farmer who is working sixteen hours a day at the cusp of a new season, terrified to see how much damage his crops experienced from the most recent freeze while also experiencing high blood pressure, ulcers, chronic back pain, and significant anxiety and depression. This, of course, all goes unmanaged because he must focus on ensuring that he feeds not only his family this year, but many others, and his social circle consists of those whose livelihoods depend on him. At times, it is a change-making conversation with a provider that can really turn things around, as was the case with me.
My lactation consultant, therapist, and my OB all let me know that I could stop pumping and trying to breastfeed, and to put my own health first. My daughter’s providers consistently asked about my well-being during rounds each day. And then there were the (frequently unanswered) texts and emails I received from friends, family, and colleagues, letting me know that they were there if I needed anything. So, slowly, I started looking at the different parts of my life that were suffering at my own hands. The internal and societal pressure I felt to breastfeed that was no longer serving me. The lack of sleep that was clouding my emotions and decision-making abilities. The very real postpartum anxiety I faced that rendered me a shell of the person I recognized, just going through the motions to survive each day. And with the support of others and some real action steps that tested me in new ways, I have made significant progress.
I have a healthy and beautiful four-and-a-half-month-old daughter and a partner who supports us in every way. I’m spending time with my family and friends, finally introducing them to our little JoJoBean. I’m able to move my body again when I want and where I want (and not just in the confines of WakeMed hospitals!) despite losing so much of my muscle mass. I am able to eat more than cereal and bananas and my appetite has returned in full force. My family and friends have finally gotten to meet and love on my daughter like I imagined they would one day during those months in the hospital. I utilize my faith to express my gratitude for the positive outcomes of this past year as well as for comfort when I have flashbacks to the darkness of that time. And I’m in therapy to work through the trauma of the past year and to ensure that I continue to nurture all of these parts of my being. I have a renewed drive to make sure that all of me, especially the parts of my life that I am in control of, are cared for. When we’re able to apply this same nurturing approach to all parts of ourselves, we can start to feel some peace and joy again within ourselves and our relationships– and we can wear our “life’s tough” helmet and feel safe to avoid a crash.