Let’s talk mental health.. and sewing?
Disclosure: Mentions of pregnancy loss, mental health illness and suicide and just a little swearing
Ok, full disclosure up front. The old Leanne, the pre-Covid and pre-kids and pre-the-world-is-fucked-up Leanne used to think Mental Illness was a bit of a crock. Harsh, I know. I thought it was an overused term and ‘diagnoses for poor behaviour and an excuse to hide away from the problems of the world under a guise of illness. But hey, we are all young and naïve once. Hindsight is a wonderous thing. It can teach us but it can taunt us too.
You’re probably wondering where the hell I’m going with all this. What the heckles has this got to do with sewing? Well, I’ll get to it. Like one of those recipes where you want to just skip to the part about the damn ingredients and the author just keeps going on and on about some trip they did to the country and met a goat that changed their life… this story is going to do much the same. Minus the goat.
Bit of background to put all of this in perspective.
I’m a chronic over achiever. I was always good at things. School – top marks. Sport – played state level. Relationships – let’s not go there. I finished school, started a double Bachelor at University, hated it and left. Started working full time at 18, bought my first house at 21, survived off 2-minute noodles for a while and generally enjoyed life in my early 20’s.
My now husband and I met when I was 16, were friends for a long time before realising that we didn’t just like each other, we were actually meant to be together. Moved in together, started working together in his family business, I was gym instructing before and after work to earn more money, bought a house together 9 months later, engaged, and married when I was 27.
In our wisdom, we decided that we wanted to become a bit more financially stable before we started a family. There’s plenty of time for that, right? So, at the ripe young age of 29, I went off the Pill and we started trying for a baby. And trying. And trying.
Nothing out of the ordinary so far, right? These things take time. Only problem being that I wasn’t actually getting my period. In fact, I hadn’t had one since being on the Pill.
We waited 6 months before going to my GP, who then requested blood tests. The blood tests showed normal levels, so we were referred to a fertility specialist.
Let’s just compile the next 3 years into dot point, because there’s a lot that happened and not enough space to write it all. Here goes:
- 3 rounds of Clomid, no result or change
- 2 rounds of Letrozole, no result or change
- 1 x MRI due to belief of brain tumour, showed all clear (phew)
- 1 x Hysterosalpinogram (type of x-ray where dye is forcibly inserted into the cervix and fallopian tubes to check for blockages – without any anaesthesia)
- 8 x rounds of ovulation induction (for those uninitiated, it’s all the joyous injections of a round of IVF, sans the egg retrieval, but plus the extremely non-romantic timed intercourse – during one of which my mother called and left an extremely long voice message on the machine on the side table right near our heads)
- Preparation for IVF, which at the time included 1 mandatory counselling session, 1 police check, and the icing on the cake – 1 working with children’s check (because at that stage, in Victoria alone, every person wanting to do IVF is a suspected paedophile until proven innocent. Luckily this has been abolished).
- 1 x round of IVF – 15 eggs retrieved, only 1 fertilised. Implanted on day 3, did not take
- Overstimulation due to IVF, hospitalisation with ovaries choc full of fluid
- 3 months break – not only were we financially ruined after forking out $15k for the failed IVF round, I was just done
- 1 x round of ICSI – 12 eggs retrieved, 3 fertilised, 3 frozen at day 5 embryo stage
- 1 month break due to overstimulation, refer to above
- Preparation for transfer of embryo (involving 2 weeks’ worth of stimulation injections as I didn’t naturally ovulate)
- Day of embryo transfer, arrive to be told that our best quality embryo died during thawing process (<3% chance), leaving us with one ready to be transferred, 1 in freezer
- Start bleeding 8 days after transfer, assumption is that embryo didn’t implant, blood test to confirm, but the result came back positive!!!!
- Bled increasingly more for 5 weeks until a massive bleed occurred, rush to specialist with belief of miscarriage, but baby survived
- Anxiety throughout pregnancy, but my beautiful boy Toby born 1/4/2020 via c-section (breech – obviously has my sense of direction)
I know all this sounds dramatic, but we are among the lucky few. IVF/ICSI is often touted as a fix-all; a sure-thing by the uninitiated and uneducated. In reality, very few people walk away with a live baby. Most finish their journey with empty wallets and empty arms. We spent $65k to get our boy. 52 blood tests. 445 self-administered needles. 31 internal ultrasounds. I’ve been poked, prodded and scarred. But the emotional pain is far worse than any needle. 3 years of various treatments, but I would do it all again to have my Toby.
The week before Toby arrived, the PM announced the closing of non-essential businesses and the restrictions/elimination of visitors to home and hospitals amongst many other restrictions. We were unable to have our parents come to the hospital or home to meet their first grandchild, and after coming home 2 days after Toby was born, we were allowed 1 midwife visit the following day and then check ups reverted to phone consults. My husband had to return to work immediately (we were considered ‘essential’) and I was left alone, at home, with Toby.
I wish I could say it was perfect... all sunshine, rainbows and happy music. But it wasn’t. Before Toby, I’d never held a newborn before, or changed a nappy. I was recovering from a caesarean, and Toby was a colicky baby who would only sleep on me lest he scream. I was alone from 7:30am-5:30pm, unable to see anyone, unable to leave the house (we were allowed 30 mins exercise a day, but even if I wanted to go shopping, the shops were shut and I couldn’t yet drive).
In my mind, every time I held this baby, he cried. If I got the rare opportunity to pass him to someone so I could eat, pee or have a shower; he stopped crying. He hated me. I was a failure. And upon reflection, he was just a huge feeder (like every hour when awake), and if I was holding him and my boob wasn’t in his mouth, he would cry. It all makes sense now, but at the time, it felt insurmountable.
The old saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ is true. To give birth, and then be isolated, was completely unnatural. To not have any help, support, mother’s groups, regular face-to-face check ups or advice was cruel. The one face-to-face maternal health appointment I did attend made me feel like a failure as I walked away with a laundry list of things I was doing wrong (the primary one was that I was ‘feeding him too much’, as he was putting on ‘too much weight’).
Long story short (still long tbh), I became deeply, darkly and dangerously depressed. Dark thoughts constantly swirled through my head. Thoughts of self-harm were regular. And though I would never dream of hurting my son, I was convinced that he would be better off without me.
In hindsight, trauma from years of failed fertility treatment that went largely unaddressed was a huge contributor to my depression. Although we had achieved the ultimate goal of having a child, every positive we had along the journey was book ended by heart wrenching failures. Then to start my parental journey alone, scared, isolated with no where to go and no one to turn to added to a very dangerous cocktail.
It was my dear husband, recognising that something wasn’t right, that pushed me to visit my GP. She quickly assessed me, and I was diagnosed with post-natal depression, post-natal anxiety and PTSD from the previous years. I was placed on anti-depressants, and referred to a counselor.
I tried to get better. I really did. But those long stretches of time every day loomed before me. I needed something to keep occupied apart from changing nappies and soothing a baby. I needed to feel like a person again.
I have always been into crafts. I loved beading, painting, knitting and crocheting growing up, but had forgotten this big part of me once we started trying for a baby.
The desperate need for face masks was what initially started me on my sewing journey, so I guess I have Covid to thank for that. I started hand sewing them at first, but realised that A) that took way too long, and B) I actually suck at sewing by hand. Sewing had interested me in the past, but apart from a square cushion cover on my mum’s old Pfaff sewing machine, I was yet to attempt anything particularly difficult.
However, seeing that I was finally expressing some sort of interest and excitement (in between the low points), my husband rushed out to Spotlight, bought a half price machine and brought it home that day. A dear friend, who herself is an extremely talented seamstress, pushed me to try some clothes. I clearly remember the first item of clothing I attempted. It was a button up lined jacket cut from a clearance throw blanket from Woolies. It was lopsided, crooked, seam ripped… but that sense of satisfaction and glimmer of hope was what kept me going.
Thoughts of my next sewing project stayed in my mind as I went to bed, and were with me as I woke the next day. Those early morning feeds were illuminated by phone light as I looked for the next pattern, or pressed ‘Add to Cart’ on the Spotlight website (I know, I know). Soon I was creating t-shirts, overalls, pants, coats (all badly sewn, ill-fitting and made with poor quality fabric). But it brought me joy. It made the days easier to bear. It gave me something to look forward to, and to aspire too. I became a happier person, a better mother, a more attentive wife. Of course, the Zoloft helped. But I strongly believe that women need to keep busy, and starting at the wall whilst holding a baby wasn’t enough for me. I could do more; I could be more.
Pattern testing was my next passion. I managed to get involved with a lot of different companies, testing out amazing new patterns and kitting out my son in purely handmade clothes. I lived and breathed it, and soon, things got better.
Fast forward a few years. We have a very happy, very large 2.5 year old who is still decked out in mum’s creations, but now made from amazing quality fabric courtesy of Inklings. We have a 4 month old (conceived naturally just as the old cliché goes). Life is good. Life is brighter. Sewing gave me purpose, and brought me joy. It helped me create an outlet for my emotion, and a way for me to feel fulfilled, successful and proud. It made me a better mother, and brought peace to my head and heart. Did it save my life? I don’t know if I could be that dramatic… but it certainly helped keep me here.