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How my daughter saved my life

dvm360dvm360 February 2019
Volume 50
Issue 2

It wasnt just the postpartum depression. It was all the other things that piled on, all the ways my brain betrayed me as I grew more and more overwhelmed. What hurt was also the thing that brought me back.

Tatiana Morozova / stock.adobe.com

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Editor's note: This article includes discussion of suicide, depression and mental health issues. If you're experiencing feelings of depression or suicidal ideation, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-TALK; 800-273-8255; suicidepreventionlifeline.org). It's 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. No matter what problems you are dealing with, people on the other end of the line will help you find a reason to keep living.

Like being swallowed by a warm, cozy wave sweeping you up and weightlessly carrying you away. That's how it would feel.

That's how my brain told me to kill myself.

But I digress.

I've always been fortunate in my life. I had a fantastic childhood and have a wonderful family. I excelled in school and was accepted to the veterinary school of my choice (on the second try). I completed an internship in a field that I love, and then got a job at a top-notch small animal hospital where I learned to practice great medicine and had clients who liked and respected me.

When I started my own relief vet business, I was as busy as I wanted to be nearly from the start. I'm well-respected in an area of veterinary medicine that I'm passionate about. I have wonderful colleagues, mentors and friends. I married my best friend and have two extraordinary daughters. We have a fledgling, moderately successful art studio.

Life is good.

Except when it's not.

Except when that life, that good fortune, those wonderful people, those little victories, and those good days start to feel … precarious. Lucky. Undeserved. Like dodging a bullet. A streak that must be maintained. It comes with the overwhelming feeling of being overdue for something awful.

Because what no one tells you, after they've finished telling bright-eyed Young You, “You can be anything you want to be if you set your mind to it” is that sometimes things don't work out. Sometimes horrible things happen to good people. Sometimes the bad guys win. Sometimes everything that someone has worked their whole life for evaporates in an instant.

And because we've been raised on the algorithm “Hard Work + Good Behavior = Success,” when awful things happen to us, we assume that it's our fault.

And because we've been raised on the algorithm “Hard Work + Good Behavior = Success,” when awful things happen to us, we assume that it's our fault. We assume that along the way, we didn't follow the advice, “Be Good” well enough. We didn't work hard enough. We didn't want it bad enough. Maybe we didn't count our blessings thoroughly enough or knock on wood often enough. Maybe we spoke too loudly about how great our life was and now The Reckoning is here for us and it's all our fault.

With that as our mental framework, how can we possibly grow into anything but perfectionists?

*   *   *

After the birth of Piper, my first daughter, I dallied with postpartum depression (PPD). For three weeks, like clockwork, I would panic at 6 p.m. There's a baby in there, my brain would say, as I looked towards her bassinet. It's time to panic. I wasn't afraid of my daily responsibilities, or the potentially sleepless night ahead, or even the greater responsibility of raising a little human. No, for about three hours every day, I was completely, inexplicably terrified of the baby herself.

The best way to explain PPD to someone who has not experienced it is that it's like someone placing an augmented reality (AR) headset over your whole life. Even though your world looks mostly the same, every bit of sensory data that enters your brain is twisted and distorted into something terrifying and malicious. I saw hazard looming everywhere. Coats that were too puffy. Car seats that were not 12-point-checked by two separate fire stations. Baths that were too hot. Cribs that were too smushy. Whooping cough. Daycare molesters and kidnappers. Elementary school bullies. Eating disorders, climate change, nuclear war … did I mention the puffy coats?

While most of my PPD faded within a few weeks, it left in its place a lingering, persistent anxiety about nearly everything, and a frantic feeling-no, a certainty-that unless I did everything just perfectly, I would be ambushed by tragedy. That's when border collie brain showed up.

*   *   *

My daughter came home from kindergarten recently and told me about the concept of owl brain and lizard brain. “Lizard brain is your brain's stem,” she explained solemnly. “It's what keeps you alive and tells you to run away. And owl brain is your frontal cortex. Owl brain is what helps calm you down and think things through.” I began to realize that while lizard brain was certainly in control when my PPD was at its worst, what it had left behind was a strange hybrid creature that I've since dubbed border collie brain (BCB).

Border collie brain has all the analytical power of owl brain, but none of the boundaries. BCB has all the skittishness and vigilance of lizard brain, but enough intellectual language to convince me that it's to be trusted. BCB will analyze a situation, use lizard brain to find or create hazards, and then hijack owl brain into providing supporting evidence for why the hazard is imminent.

Border collie brain's favorite game is superstition, and it has a veritable playground inside the walls of an animal hospital. Every veterinary professional knows never to utter the phrase, “It's quiet today.” We're terrified that the second these words leave our lips, a 12-car pileup of vans filled with champion bloodline bulldogs will occur in our parking lot, just as we sent two people to lunch.

So we knock on wood. We whisper. We ignore our good days, our uncomplicated surgeries and our small victories, lest we be accused of hubris and have it all taken away from us. We craft elaborate rituals to ward off bad things ever happening to us, and when bad things do eventually happen-not because we've somehow fallen down in our vigilance but because that's the way the world works-we blame ourselves. We add even more steps into the ritual to prevent disaster from striking again.

So it was with my border collie brain. When my husband left to take our daughter to daycare, I had to make sure that the scripted goodbye ritual was perfectly executed; otherwise, when they were inevitably killed in a car crash, I would have to mournfully confess at their funerals that the last words I spoke to them were, “Your shoes are on the wrong feet.”

When admitting patients, my anxiety nearly reached a point of rage when it became obvious that a pet parent was strongly bonded to their pet. Don't show me how much you love them, I would think angrily. Don't you know that means something awful will happen and I will let you down? How can you do this to me?

When admitting surgical patients, my anxiety nearly reached a point of rage when it became obvious that a pet parent was strongly bonded to their pet. Don't show me how much you love them, I would think angrily. Don't you know that means something awful will happen and I will let you down? How can you do this to me?

BCB made me question everything I did, from buckling my daughter into her car seat, to locking the front door, to counting throws on my knots during surgery. I firmly believed if I just worked hard enough to keep all the plates of superstition spinning, I could keep bad things from happening.

And yet, the bad things did happen.

Ember, our second daughter, struggled with sleep and colic issues for months after she was born. She slept all day and was awake most of the night. When she was awake, she grunted and writhed and scowled at us. My husband and I parented her in shifts: I stayed awake with her until 3 a.m., at which point he would wake up and bounce her on the yoga ball while playing the video game Skyrim. “Sleep when the baby sleeps” wasn't an option, as we still had an energetic, demanding 2-year-old to parent during the day.

The day my husband returned to work after two weeks of paternity leave, he was laid off.

Minor setback, we said. We knew the industry was going downhill. We've got maternity savings left. I'll go back to work. You'll find something. We'll get through this. We just have to keep going.

The following night, Ember woke with a high fever. She was hospitalized for nearly a week while doctors worked to determine the cause. In the middle of the night, alone with her in the hospital, I tearfully asked a resident, “Am I going to leave this hospital with my baby?”

You can't think that way, I scolded myself. You have to keep faith. One more hour. One more night. The fever will break. Hang onto her. Just keep her going.

She finally recovered and was sent home. The employer-sponsored healthcare ran out the following day. Even with coverage, the medical bills were staggering.

We'll be fine. We'll set up a payment plan. One of these interviews is going to pan out. We just have to buckle down. Keep going.

A week later, I was diagnosed with a venous thrombosis, five days after I received the all-clear to discontinue the medication to prevent it.

Another month of medication will cost $800. Did you drop off that résumé? Any word? It's fine. Keep going.

My husband couldn't talk to me about how emotionally crushing it was to be a man robbed of his professional identity, because it would make me anxious.

We'll be fine. Keep going.

I couldn't talk to him about my anxiety because it would cause him to stop talking to me about his professional struggles.

We're fine. Things are just hard right now. They'll get better when they get better. We just have to keep going.

A mistake was made at work-missed by a number of staff members and, ultimately, me. Although no patients were harmed by it, I had to make the phone calls to the affected clients. “If I had done this in my line of work,” one person spat at me, “I'd be fired.”

Keep your head down. Let them vent. Keep going.

“They said they'd keep me posted if anything opened up.”

Keep going.

“She's awake and crying again.”

“I'll get her.”

Keep going.

“Are you okay?”

“I'm fine.”



*   *   *

And that's how I found myself sitting at a stop sign outside my neighborhood, watching the early morning traffic rush past before me.

And for one dizzy, delirious moment, lizard brain was in full control. What would it feel like if you pushed the gas pedal to the floor right now?

From owl brain, a deafening, defeated silence: I got nothing.

Many of the words I'd always associated with those contemplating suicide had to do with the impact on others: “I'm a burden. This world would be better off without me. No one would care if I was gone.”

In that moment, I gave no thought to any of the other humans in my life. All I knew is that what Lizard Brain was proposing sounded like freedom.

In that moment, I gave no thought to any of the other humans in my life. All I knew is that what Lizard Brain was proposing sounded like freedom.

Like rest.

And I was so, so tired.

People ask me what changed my mind. How long I was in that dark place. About half a mile, I tell them. And what brought me out of the dark place was Ember. Frowning, grunting, scowling Ember, who at the time resembled a cranky, newborn-pattern-balding toad.

Someone has to stay for Ember.

Make no mistake-this was not because I felt I had anything worthwhile to offer her as a parent. Instead, it was because her older sister was (and is) smart, charming, beautiful and talented, and I was convinced that no one would ever love my fat, bald, grumpy baby the way they adored her sister.

Someone has to stay here to love Ember best.

So I kept going.

I went on medication. I borrowed money from my parents to go to therapy. It was there I finally processed the multiple layers of suffering that we had endured, peeled them off from the spots on my heart where they had stuck and hardened like armor.

I came to understand that resiliency and courage are not attributes; rather, they are actions. They are skills that must be practiced. I learned that most bravery is unintentional, rising in us when we are thrown into the unknown with no choice other than to continue moving forward, one inch at a time. Everyday perseverance-the willingness to get back up and keep trying despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles-is something to be celebrated, in whatever small form it may take.

As for those obstacles, I see now they are as much a part of our story as our triumphs. Any life-no matter how carefully and superstitiously orchestrated-will experience struggle, grief and failure. We will all have times where life hands us a burden that we did not ask for and feel certain we cannot endure. Life may hand us one, or ten, or a thousand. These burdens will be carried around on our backs until we name them, share them, overcome them and put them away-or until they break us.

They almost broke me.

To those who may be sitting where I sat that February day, I only say to you:


Keep going.

I have no timeline for when things will get better. I have no magic solutions for how to make it better. I don't even have a promise that it will. But I can tell you this now.

There is nothing on the other side of that stop sign.

And somewhere out there, there is a fat, grumpy, balding baby who needs you-whoever your own personal fat grumpy balding baby happens to be.

And somewhere out there, there is a fat, grumpy, balding baby who needs you-whoever your own personal Fat Grumpy Balding Baby happens to be.

As for mine, she is now a boisterous, brilliant and loving three-year-old who dazzles everyone she meets with her light. She still loves slaying dragons alongside her daddy while he plays Skyrim.

That I nearly forfeited my chance to witness what she and her sister will become is an unbearable thought. I didn't know it at the time, but it was her kindling light that brought me out of the darkness and turned me back home again. I will never be able to thank her enough for simply being who she is.

Perhaps I just have.

And I could keep going.

Dr. Meghann Berglund is a proud Colorado State University Ram and the owner of Red Dog Veterinary Relief Services in Colorado. Her hobbies include camping, labeling things and catastrophizing. She is the co-founder of Collective Geekery, the handcrafted art business that steals her free time but returns her inner peace.

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