Mental Health After Femoral Nerve Damage

An incredibly strong mama shares with us today her mental journey with femoral nerve damage. Her powerful story truly shows that this injury reaches far beyond our lower extremities. It affects every aspect of life after having a baby. Thank you so much for being brave enough to share this story with us and helping so many others by doing so.

Once the physical healing is done, it seems that everyone else move’s on without a second thought. Sometimes it feels like friends and family do not care anymore, and that is understandable simply because they do not know the full struggle of this recovery.  Only those who have faced this challenge will ever understand the true impact this injury has on a mother, and coming to terms with what happened, to be okay with your experience, that can feel impossible.  

In 2018 I was diagnosed with femoral nerve damage in my right leg.  I was in a walker and crutches for 7 weeks, unable to carry my baby for 9 weeks, and after 4 months of physical therapy I was still only about 75% healed.  I have been very open about my story, but I almost never get into detail about my mental and emotional struggles.  However, for me the toll that this injury has had on my mental health has been more devastating than the injury itself.  I feel that these lyrics in the Album Brand New by Matthew West describe it perfectly. 

Truth Be Told by Matthew West

“Lie number one: You’re supposed to have it all together
And when they ask how you’re doing, just smile and tell them ‘Never better’
Lie number two: Everybody’s life is perfect except yours
So keep your messes and your wounds and your secrets safe with you behind closed doors

But truth be told, the truth is rarely told

I say, ‘I’m fine, yeah, I’m fine, oh, I’m fine, hey, I’m fine’
But I’m not, I’m broken
And when it’s out of control I say it’s under control
But it’s not and You know it
I don’t know why it’s so hard to admit it
When being honest is the only way to fix it

It is so hard to open up and to tell others that you are broken inside, but it may be exactly what you need. So, with that, I would like to share my mental health journey.

Most people are aware that there are stages of healing, stages of PTSD and grief.  The initial stage for me was a state of fear and emergency.  This occurred when I was still in the hospital. I could not feel anything from my knee to my ankle, but I still tried to get up and walk 24 hours after my cesarean.  Instead of walking, I collapsed into the arms of my husband and my nurse. I became very scared after that; I was too terrified of falling to get out of bed again, I was afraid of being left alone and having to care for my baby.  I was nervous about needing to use the restroom because I was not sure if I would be able to get there on time with my limited mobility, but I definitely did not want to have to use the bedpan again.  I was also apprehensive about going home to navigate stairs and showers and other obstacles.  There were so many fears, but I was lucky enough to have answers and physical therapy assistance within a couple days. 

I knew that the outcome looked good, my neurologist said that I should heal, and he made a plan for follow up tests.  Physical therapy prepared me to go home and I started to feel a little better about my situation.  Then came one of the most memorable and terrifying moments of my journey with nerve damage.  When I arrived at my parents’ house, where we were staying at the time, I was faced with my first set of stairs.  It was cold outside, our newborn was sleeping just inside the door, still in her car seat, and I could hear the dog’s excitement on the other side of the baby gate. I was worried about her, but everyone was focused on keeping me calm and getting me up the front steps safely.  I thought I was going to fall onto that cold hard concrete, but with my dad and my husband using a gait belt to hold me as steady as possible, I slowly made it inside and began my journey from home.  

Two days after arriving home, I still had a lot of numbness and difficulty lifting my leg, but denial started to set in, or maybe it was just ignorance.  The in-home physical therapy nurse called and left a voicemail to set up an appointment.  I did not want to call back and waste their time, I had started testing myself by slightly and carefully lifting my walker up as I walked, and I wasn’t having any issues. It may not have been the smartest thing to do, but I was excited, and I felt like everything would be fine soon.  I was debating with my husband about not wanting to set up the appointment, and then I got a massive dose of reality.  I wasn’t paying close enough attention to what I was doing, and I fell to my knees.  The conversation ended just like that, and I set up my first in home session. 

Next, I moved into what I consider the survival stage.  I lost all confidence in my leg, and I began to realize the magnitude of my situation, but I thought I was doing well emotionally.  However, instead of really dealing with what was happening, I was completely focused on just getting through each daily task.  Due to my limitations, I spent almost all my time in a recliner, and I had a very poor appetite.  Showers were exhausting, I couldn’t get dressed by myself, get my own glass of water, or really do anything on my own, let alone take care of my baby.  My entire life depended on somebody else being there in case my baby or I needed something.  It literally felt like survival mode, I just had to get myself through this physical recovery, get myself off the pain medications from my cesarean, and care for my baby to the best of my ability. 

The more I healed physically, the more I struggled mentally.

One of the first emotional moments that I remember was when I fell for the third time.  I was still using my walker, but I was able to navigate more on my own, and this thankfully included using the bathroom by myself.  Although, this was still a difficult feat with my cesarean and nerve damage. I had to maneuver my walker through the tight door, position it correctly, then carefully hold onto the toilet tank and the toilet paper holder so that I could slowly sit down.  This time my knee buckled as I was positioning myself and the walker.  I caught myself on the toilet paper holder, and then I began weeping.  That was just the beginning of the sadness and anger. 

Another topic that is not discussed often is the moment you fall in love with your newborn baby.  We usually hear these stories of love at first sight, of mothers having this magical experience, but for me that did not happen.  This is one of the hardest things for me to admit, but I cannot say that I fell in love with my daughter before we left the hospital.  Yes, I cared for her and I was going to do whatever I could for her, but love?  No, it was weeks, maybe even months before I felt that. 

I was three weeks post-partum when I had an overnight hospital stay for a gallbladder removal.  It was at that point I realized I missed my baby, and I was honestly surprised by it, but even at 3 months postpartum I felt like I had not bonded with my little girl.  It was so difficult to feel that bond with a baby that I could not just pick up and carry on my own, a baby that I could not fully care for by myself because I was too afraid of falling with her in my arms.  I was so thankful for the help of my family, I could not have done it without them, but as time passed, I also came to resent the fact that they could care for my baby when I could not.  

In February, at four months post-partum we were finally able to move into our new home, and I was released from physical therapy.  My knee was no longer buckling on me, and I was about 75% healed with no noticeable improvements for a few weeks.  I had retrained myself to walk without keeping my knee locked, and I was comfortable with carrying my little girl around the house as long as I avoided stairs.  The 3-to-4-month period was all about gaining confidence in my leg and learning to get back to a normal lifestyle.  

However, as I mentioned earlier, the more I healed physically the more I struggled mentally.  I would cry all the time thinking about my injury, of everything that happened in the hospital, and of all the memories I felt like I missed.  I would replay the entire labor and delivery process in my head, always wondering “what if”, what if I had known about this injury? What if I have spoken up and said more about the excruciating pain in my hip flexor? Would I have found another solution instead of requesting the epidural?  The sadness began to turn into anger about all the events that led to my injury and my cesarean, and all the unanswered questions as to what exactly caused the nerve damage.  

After being released from physical therapy I knew I needed to do whatever I could to keep my physical recovery going, and in March I made a commitment to regular Chiropractic care.  Shortly after that I began noticing more twitching in my leg, as well as other signs that my leg was healing.  I was happy to see these signs of healing, but the anger and sadness had turned into extreme irritability. Throughout the Spring and Summer this got worse, to the point where I could not focus on more than one thing at a time.  If I tried to clean up around the house, I would end up too overwhelmed, constantly snapping at my husband as the anger and stress became all consuming.  I was completely out of control. A load of laundry could send me on a tailspin into a full emotional meltdown, and I knew that something was wrong, I just didn’t know how to fix it.  

My leg was mostly healed and I was able to care for my baby alone, it was something that I dreamed about during the first few months, but it just became another avenue for overwhelming anger.  Throughout the spring and summer my husband had chores and things to get done outside, which was completely needed and understandable, but it left me inside alone with my baby.  After taking care of her all week while he worked nights, I felt that I had to do it all on the weekends too.  She was always a very happy baby, but I was already on an emotional rollercoaster and there were a couple times where I became so overwhelmed and angry with my husband for leaving me that it led to suicidal thoughts.  

Those thoughts only creeped into my mind a few times, but it was very disturbing.  I knew that if I just said something to my husband that he would be there for me in an instant.  He was always there to help me and support me during my recovery, always kind and patient, but it took me months to admit to him that I was this broken.  I know this is a hard subject to talk about, but for those of you who are going through this, please reach out to someone for support.  I am so glad that I finally got the courage to say something to my husband because I desperately needed his help. 

In addition, envy started to creep into the equation.  For some background, my nerve injury baby was also my rainbow baby.  When I found out I was pregnant with her it took me a little while to become excited, but throughout the pregnancy I was oddly calm, knowing that everything was going to work out.  Then I delivered a healthy baby, but I was diagnosed with femoral nerve damage.  I would become so sad and jealous of other moms announcing their pregnancies or posting pictures of them standing up with their newborn babies.  I was envious of their excitement to be pregnant, and of their seemingly perfect childbirth, while I felt robbed of ever feeling that excitement again. 

After five months of Chiropractic care, at 10 months postpartum, I decided to switch to a different Doctor to reduce the stress of driving so far away from home. I was thinking a lot about scheduling an appointment with a therapist too, but I just never jumped in and made that commitment.  I felt that it was too much out of my schedule to see both a therapist and a Chiropractor and I did not want to stop my chiropractic adjustments after putting so much time and effort into making each appointment. 

The new Chiropractor ran some scans, just like my previous one, but when I sat down with him to discuss the results, I was shocked by his interpretation of the scans.   Without me saying a word he asked me about my irritability and stress levels.  He said that my scans looked pretty similar to that of an ADHD patient, and he explained the constant fight or flight response.  Everything started to make sense, there was a reason for all the intense emotions and the possibility of fixing the problem. 

Throughout the first few weeks of care with this Chiropractor I began telling more of my story.  I discussed the physical aspects because I was hoping to correct the lag in my injured leg when I tried to run, and I saw improvement, but the biggest impact was with my mental health.  We talked about my constant fear of stairs, and how stepping off a curb still made me nervous a year after my injury even though I was mostly healed.  We discussed the neurological side of PTSD, among many other things, and I felt like I had finally found someone that understood what I was going through, someone who knew and cared about my mental health without me having to explain in detail.  

The discussions and adjustments were exactly what I needed. I quickly started to notice small improvements in my mood, and within two months I felt almost normal again.  However, at that time I was also facing my daughters first birthday and all the memories that came with it. That was when I decided to post about some of my emotional struggles on the Facebook page for Moms with Femoral/Peroneal/Sciatic Nerve Damage from Labor/Delivery.  I found this group a few months after my injury, but I finally opened up about all my disappointments, anger, and regrets.  That is when I learned the true power of community, and sharing stories with other moms who truly understand my situation.  I will always be thankful for the moms that commented that day, the moms who offered advice and encouragement, and helped remind me that the injury was not my fault. 

Within a few weeks after my daughters first birthday, I realized that I wasn’t having any more meltdowns.  I was dealing with my stress, and I slowly learned to place a more continuous focus on being thankful instead of envious.  I felt great, every day I felt more and more like myself again.   

In addition to the other nerve injury moms, I am so thankful for my chiropractor, because who knows, he may have just saved my life.  He certainly improved my relationship with my husband and my child by helping me with my mental health. Follow up scans also confirmed that my body was working smoothly, with significantly less fight or flight reactions.  I am thankful for my husband too, for being so loving and patient even when I was not. 

I am now almost two and a half years postpartum and I am almost fully healed.  I do still have some moments of sadness when I remember those early months, and the memories can catch me off guard sometimes, memories like that trip up my parent’s stairs for the first time or that fall I had in the bathroom.   However, I have come a long way these past two years.  I am actually excited to start trying for another baby soon, nervous, but excited.  This nerve damage will have a lifelong impact on me, with occasional aches and pains and sadness, but I am moving forward, I will not let my fears keep me from my dreams. 

So, for those moms who are in the early, middle, or even late stages of recovery, please do not hesitate to seek help if you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or intense emotions.  Find the support system that works for you because you deserve to heal.  It may seem impossible to move on from what happened, and maybe you will never fully move on, but I believe you can be truly happy again.  You can get through this!  

To the husbands, friends, and families to these injured mothers, please acknowledge mental health. There is much more to this journey than physical healing and she may desperately need your help.  Try to be patient, listen, and continue to check in with her because these concerns may arise long after the birth/injury. 

Finally, to the Doctors and Nurses who are caring for these strong women, please acknowledge that lower extremity nerve damage from childbirth is real.  It is real, and in some cases it is permanent.  I was shocked that my OB/GYN’s never said a word to me about my injury, like moving around the room in a walker was normal after having a baby.  It is not normal, and it is preventable in most cases, so please do something about it.  You are smart and you are capable enough to make a difference.  Mothers in this situation can barely care for themselves sometimes, let alone a baby, and I do not recall anyone checking to make sure I had help at home.  Doctors, please also remember that it can be very hard to bond with a baby during the standard 6-to-8-week U.S. maternity leave, we may need more time, especially when we spend most or all of that time unable to carry our baby. This injury is devasting in many ways, and when showing up to a postpartum appointment in crutches, do not say “it just happens sometimes” and move on, listen to your patients and show some compassion. 

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