[Editor’s Note: Parts of this post may be triggering as this Warrior Mom and survivor mentions suicide and names some moms who did not survive postpartum mood and anxiety disorders. Please read only if you are in a safe place. You are not alone. You can be a survivor, too. -Jenna]
I balked the first time my therapist used the term “survivor” when referring to me.
Yes, I had been through a horrible illness. I had lost weight and sleep and the basic enjoyment of life. I had been tormented by recurrent and horrible images of my son being injured or killed in random acts of violence.
I had barely left my home in six months, had not trusted anyone else to care for my boy, and yet, paradoxically, had also been unable to take him into the wide, cruel world. I had postpartum anxiety disorder and postpartum OCD.
Indeed, I had endured plenty—but was I a “survivor”?
No, the label didn’t seem right. Survivors walk away from plane crashes or flash floods. Survivors beat cancer. Survivors escape from domestic abuse. “Survivor” didn’t seem like the proper way to describe what I had been through.
Time passed and, as I slowly recovered, I became an outspoken advocate for maternal mental health. I attended trainings and conferences, read books and journals, changed careers, and even started a support group. I became a state coordinator for Postpartum Support International (PSI), and I joined the board of a local nonprofit called Postpartum Education and Support.
Even with all of that professional exposure, I still had a hard time identifying as a survivor. A mother, wife, daughter, advocate, doula, yes. But survivor? It still didn’t feel right.
The turning point for me came in June, at our local Climb Out of the Darkness event. I self-consciously wore the “SURVIVOR” sticker that was passed to me. At the time, the country was reeling from the Orlando shooting, and I felt especially uneasy identifying myself as a survivor.
As a group, we listened to a message from Katherine Stone read tearfully by the organizers and then had a moving invocation. Emotions ran high as we waited for the walk to begin. I found myself standing next to an older couple named Anne and Mark. Most of the attendees were young families so they stood out. I introduced myself and we began chatting. I asked what brought them to The Climb and Anne responded,
“Oh, I work with Leslie (one of the organizers) and, well, I knew Jackie. She didn’t survive.”
For a split second, I didn’t understand what she was telling me. Then it hit me. Anne knew someone who had taken her own life while struggling with a postpartum mood disorder.
Jackie was a woman just like me. She wanted to be a mother more than anything, but then felt like she had totally lost herself after the birth of her son. Jackie developed the most severe and rarest form of postpartum mood disorder: postpartum psychosis. We both sought treatment and both fought to get better. We both had very strong support from our family and friends. Yet, I survived and Jackie did not.
I felt like I had been punched in the gut and all the unease I had felt about being a survivor dissipated in a moment. Why hadn’t this hit me before? I knew that suicide was a real risk of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. In fact, suicide is the number one cause of death for women in the first year postpartum.
Of course I am a survivor. I survived a terrible illness that sucks the joy and will to live from your very soul. I survived night after night of staying awake to watch my son sleep because I was afraid he would die if I closed my eyes. I survived the images that played through my mind on a gruesome loop.
I did survive, yet so many others do not.
Sarah Walker Judson,
Jennifer Lynne Knarr,
Emily Cook Dyches,
Sasha Lewis Hettich,
Casandra Ashley Vaughan Perkins, and
These women didn’t survive, and I did. Calling myself anything other than a survivor would be an insult to their memory.
If you are struggling, please reach out for help.
Join the other Warrior Moms at Postpartum Progress. You are not alone. Connecting with others is a powerful tool in your recovery.
Find your local PSI coordinator. They will help you find support groups, therapists, and doctors in your area. You can also access Postpartum Progress’ lists of specialists and support groups, or reach out to them via Facebook.
You will be a survivor, too.