Today, I walked with another friend from my old job, Janice. Janice was one of the first people who reached out to me after I gave birth to offer me emotional support and a space to talk about the realities of what I was going through, before I began traveling through a different reality entirely.
“I firmly believe births need processing,” she said, in a message to me three days after Bailey was born. The day that we left the hospital to bring her home.
Janice has always been wise.
In fact, Janice was the first person that clued me in to the fact that I might have bipolar.
Our workplace was big on providing feedback. Once a year, our entire team sat down with each of our coworkers 1:1 to talk through any constructive feedback that we had for each other. We were instructed to use the prompts: “I really enjoy working with you when…” and “It’s more difficult to work with you when…”
When it was Janice’s turn, she essentially told me that it was fantastic to work with me when I was feeling good because I brought everyone’s enthusiasm and motivation up. But that when I was having a bad day or was upset about something, I had a tendency to bring those around me down with me.
I found this extremely insightful and extremely helpful. I hadn’t really thought about how all-encompassing my moods were before, much less how my moods impacted others.
Mood swings are the stereotypical symptom that everyone thinks about when they hear the word bipolar.
Extreme mood swings were one of the first symptoms that I had when we brought Bailey home.
I forget, sometimes, how scary they were in those early days.
On the first night we were home from the hospital, Matt fell asleep almost instantly, exhausted by the excitement of the day.
Although I knew I should sleep while Bailey did, I found myself tossing and turning. I couldn’t help but think of the last time I had been in that bed, so eager and excited to give birth.
Although things turned out fine, they ended up looking a lot different than I had expected. Having a C-section meant grieving the loss of the birth experience I always thought I’d have. As much as I didn’t necessarily want to experience the pain of pushing, or the recovery that came along with it, that’s what I had set my expectations for. What I had anticipated.
I had bought the cooling witch hazel pads, designed to help with vaginal soreness.
I had bought the adult diapers I had been instructed to use for excessive bleeding.
I wore them anyway, even though the amount of blood I shed would have been easily absorbed by a regular menstrual pad.
Lying in bed that first night home, thinking back about my early excitement for the birth I had envisioned made me ache with empathy for the naïve version of myself who had last laid in that bed.
So instead of sleeping, I cried. Big, heaving sobs that shook my whole body. It took me by surprise at the time, though I would become very accustomed to that intensity of crying in the coming days.
I had heard about the wild mood swings that women experienced immediately after birth. I assumed this was just part of that. Plus, as Janice had said, births need processing.
When I heard Matt stirring next to me, I woke him up to tell him about it.
“I just had a really intense cry about my disappointment at having a C-section,” I told him.
He seemed unfazed. He was certainly no stranger to me crying, and hadn’t been awake to see how intense it had been.
“It sounds like you’re doing some healthy processing that will be helpful,” he said, “I’m proud of you.” I felt proud of myself. My mood improved greatly, and I eventually fell asleep feeling extremely content. I was sure I was really nailing this postpartum recovery period.
The next day, Matt took the dog for a walk and left me alone with Bailey.
I went to check on her, and, just for a moment, I thought she wasn’t breathing. This is obviously a common concern for new mothers. I still check Bailey’s breathing any time she’s asleep.
But in that moment, the intensity of my emotions completely overtook me. I found myself nearly collapsing in sobs of relief when I realized that she was, in fact, breathing. I clutched her to my chest as I sank into the couch, where Matt found me.
He was on the phone with his mother, and as I said hello I tried to describe my feelings to her, explaining that I thought Bailey had died. “Oh, yes, I remember that fear well,” she said, when I described what had happened.
But it wasn’t the fear that stood out to me. It was as though a deep chasm of instant, all-encompassing grief opened up at the thought of something tragic happening to Bailey. And when I realized that she was fine, that chasm was instantly flooded to capacity with the purest form of love I could imagine. Feeling, even for a fleeting moment, what it would be like to lose her made me aware of just how deeply I cared for her, what she had become to me in such a short period of time. And that was so preciously beautiful to me.
But I couldn’t explain it properly to my mother-in-law.
When I found that others couldn’t relate to my verbal explanations of my feelings, I tried to explain my new groundswell of emotion through writing.
When one of my aunts commented on one of my Facebook posts lamenting that my mom wasn’t able to be with me or meet Bailey because of COVID, I typed out a treatise of a response to her, saying:
“I know she would be here immediately if she could/I asked! When they took Bailey from me after the C-section I felt so alone and so helpless not being able to hold her. But they were doing the medical things they needed to make sure she was ok and I was ok. It made us so strong- I’m healing so much faster than anyone expected, and Bailey is thriving so much. It’s almost embarrassing how well we’re doing sometimes. So I like to think of my mom in that same way. She can’t be with me right now. It’s not safe for us or for her. That must be so hard for her. It literally breaks my heart thinking about it too. But she’s doing it because she loves me and she loves Bailey and that’s so beautiful and I don’t think I would have understood that as much if she was here in normal circumstances. I’m so so thankful it’s happening this way. And I’m thankful for you being able to bring out these emotions for me.”
I cried hysterically while I wrote that. I truly thought it was some of the most profound writing of all time, and took screenshots of it to post in my Instagram story- an example of the type of self-absorbed, nested media that I posted obsessively in those days.
One night before bed, the mood swings got scary. I was no longer flooded with pure love or even beautiful grief, but raw, unfiltered fear. I was so anxious and afraid that I felt like I was going to crawl out of my skin, but I couldn’t articulate any reason for feeling that way. I got into my bed but I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t feel like there was anywhere to go or anything to do to make the feeling stop.
So I did the only thing I could think to do: I called my mom.
I asked her to walk me through these baby blues/postpartum mood swings, because they were so much more intense than I had anticipated. I asked her if she remembered her days of feeling like that, and she paused.
“No,” she said, “No, I don’t remember anything like that.”
I was sure she had just forgotten what it had been like after so many years, but a small voice in the back of my head (and the front of Matt’s) was starting to sense that what I was experiencing wasn’t normal or routine. That we’d sailed right past the choppy baby blues and into deeper waters.
But for that night, my mom was able to do exactly what I knew she would do.
She supported me from afar. She reminded me that everything was fine. That I was safe. She told me that in all likelihood I was just getting in my head about the parenting thing, and overthinking it, and that I needed to just stay calm and remember what a good job I was doing.
I could feel her, as though she was reaching through the phone. Stroking my head. Rubbing my hand.
My Facebook post, manic though it was, was right. There was a tragic beauty in her staying away when she needed to. In her showing enough restraint to sit in her own home and rock me to sleep in mine, so that all of us could be safe.
Soon, my safety would become a lot more complicated. And not even my mom, who did make the journey to be with me, would be able to rock me to sleep or quiet my brain.
But soon, my mother would also be able to hold her granddaughter as a newborn: something we had never imagined her being able to do. Something she never would have been allowed to do if I hadn’t gotten so sick.
Which is to say that having bipolar has taught me that mood swings are not always the Jekyll and Hyde experience that people expect. Instead, they’re often the intense realization that grief and beauty exist within the same body of emotion, and there’s no clean incision to separate them.
Thanks for reading,