Michelle Anastasio-Festi is a wife and doting mom to her son Ethan. She is also an entrepreneur that founded CT Virtual Assistance and PUSH Publicity. She is also an activist for Postpartum Depression, serving on two committees for Postpartum Support International’s CT Chapter helping moms navigate the challenges of perinatal and postpartum mood disorders.
by Michelle Anastasio-Festi
Despite the heartbreak my husband and I experienced trying to conceive, when the egg donor was successful it was a surprisingly stress-free pregnancy. The ultrasound revealed a healthy little boy and we fell in love immediately. I prepared for the birth; bought supplies, aromatherapy, even a delivery gown for those first precious photos. I wanted to do it naturally. I knew it would be painful, but I didn’t want to miss such a powerful and positive experience.
That’s not how it went though.
When my labor started, we rushed excitedly to the hospital. I refused the epidural initially but after ten hours when the pain worsened, I finally relented.
It didn’t work.
They tried twice but I was still in agony. And when the anesthesiologist ignored me to inform my husband that I just couldn’t tolerate pain well, everything changed.
This wasn’t a joyful or positive moment anymore. Nobody was listening or speaking to me. I was ignored, deemed an inconvenience.
It was 22 hours before anyone noticed my labor wasn’t progressing. Then I was induced. The pain ripped me apart and still there was no progression.
It took another 30 hours until eventually I was noticed (after begging for a c-section) and when they finally took me to surgery. I was cut open, tugged and pulled from every direction and when they discovered my beautiful tiny son, the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck and arm.
Feelings of helplessness turned to fury and then numbness. I started to disassociate from myself, from this body that was left to suffer for 52 hours. I felt more like I was watching than living.
And I felt cheated.
Not cheated of a natural birth, I know issues happen, but robbed of being treated like a person when I needed help the most.
My anxiety became unbearable and my blood pressure soared. I had to return back to the hospital on multiple occasions for other health reasons due to complications from my labor. In this desperate state of psychological and physical trauma, my body stopped producing milk; my sons hungry screams increasing my already unbearable anxiety. I spent the next weeks afraid, angry, overwhelmed, depressed, judged; terrified of being alone, especially with my son. The pressure was overwhelming. After endless arguments with my husband, I realized I needed actual outside help.
My OB gyn referred me to a psychiatrist, who gave me two prescriptions and promised results after a month.
And it worked.
I found peace and energy. I became supermom; productive and positive, fulfilling my roles as mother, wife and businesswoman and I was killing it. Then the darkness would roll back in with all the impact of a tornado.
It got worse and worse.
I began to feel my depression affecting those around me and started wondering if they’d be happier without me.
This is what led to my stay in a psychiatric hospital.
I’ll never forget the distress echoing through those empty hallways. A woman talking to herself. A man screaming ‘Get me the fuck out of here!’ over and over. This was a million miles away from the nursery I’d so lovingly decorated. Instead I was surrounded by fear, desperation and distress.
They gave me a third prescription and every day I paced the corridor crying. The only window at the end of the corridor overlooked a cemetery, a bleak view for the patients who were suicidal. I was diagnosed finally with PPD and PTSD.
With PPD some days you feel fine, and then the wave hits and you’re drowning again. The hospital caught me on my good days and then discharged me stating I wasn’t that bad. I begged them not to. Once again, I was ignored and pleading for my life.
I was in and out of four hospitals over 6 months. Begging for help didn’t work and after each superficial evaluation, the PPD and PTSD came back worse.
This was my darkest hour. I wanted to end it. I felt like a burden. I slept all day. I cried all day. I had no self-care. I didn’t eat. I lost 30lbs and feared being around my son, feeling unable to fully care for him.
I was fighting though. I kept reaching out, calling the National Suicide Prevention Hotline for reassurance that my family wouldn’t be better off without me. I kept a mood journal, documenting my medication and moods every day hoping for improvement. I became obsessed with it and it was my last tiny effort of control in a world that was spinning out of control. I left no detail undocumented and discovered that my mood fluctuated with my monthly hormonal cycle. This led me to an OB near Greenwich Connecticut, who worked with hormonal treatments.
To this day I’ve no idea how I got there; driving in a torrid sea of disassociation, barely functioning but refusing to sink. He tested my hormone levels and prescribed supplements to readdress my imbalance. It was expensive but worth it.
My psychiatrist wasn’t interested though. He disbelieved hormones could affect a woman’s emotions; treating it like a joke and instead referred me expensive Ketamine treatments and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Scared to death, I declined.
Meanwhile, hormone supplements were making headlines in terms of treatments for PMADs.
The supplements took time to work and during my final hospital stay, my husband and I realized it months for me to break down, it could realistically take me months (or more) to get well. I needed a longer treatment program.
This is when things improved.
I checked into a treatment program for people struggling with mental health issues. I lived in residence off campus from the clinic in a residence with other women struggling with similar issues. The clinic was nearby, and my husband and son visited on weekends. The clinic became my second home. I felt in control there too; cooking, dressing and caring for myself. I was expected to attend clinic every day and I was treated like a human. And despite my initial reluctance, there I could focus 100% on myself.
Every day was group therapy, CBT, DBT, life skills and trauma groups. Doctors monitored my medication and a life coach supported me through meltdowns. The staff collaborated with their treatment. I felt positivity and supported. Finally, I was listened to. Nobody talked over my head or ignored my pleas for help. I was healing, and I took notice of it.
I continued writing in my journal, adding what I learnt in clinic and what I could practice alone. I found yoga, meditated nightly and developed what I call my “Toolkit for Life”. A bag of tricks that would later get me through difficult moments that came my way. I basically learned how to switch the channel.
When the healing began, I’d spend weekends at home, knowing I could return to the clinic anytime if it got too much. I began to live in the moment, forcing myself to stay in the here and now. And I began to feel like myself again.
I discovered that PPD is complex. Medication helps, but it’s only part of the picture. I now understand mental health better. I made friendships in the clinic, shared the healing journey with other patients and aided other women fighting PPD. These women need to be heard and supported and it felt good to help. I even joined Postpartum Support International’s local chapter and joined the committee. All while still in the treatment program!
It’s coming on twelve months and I’m a different person. Life is simpler, I’ve changed habits that have not served me well, and the word “No” is a full sentence in my vocabulary. I’ve let go of guilt, shame and judgement. I’m stronger now and more successful in both my personal and professional life. It’s been a blessing in disguise.
If anything, my message is this: Don’t be afraid to seek help. Don’t feel shame or guilt. I still attend therapy at the clinic and still feel it’s like a second home. Sometimes it may not feel like you’re strong enough, but you are. You’re not alone. Hold onto hope and keep fighting for the help you need. You do have a future and it’s going to be beautiful.
PSI-CT Wants you to Know: Thank You Michelle, for sharing your journey! Friends, Perinatal Depression, Mood and Anxiety Disorders (PMADs) occur in 1 in 7 women and 1 in 10 men. Birth Trauma is a risk factor for both PMADs and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). You aren’t alone, not to blame, and with support you will feel yourself again.