Post Script

The following is not advisable, nor is it recommended or endorsed by any of the information herein; the anecdotes serve as a reflection of my personal experiences. Do not take the same road I have.

 About three and a half weeks ago, I weaned myself off my antidepressant of seven years. For all the advice I’ve heard saying not to do so without medical supervision and all the times I’d poo-poo’d those who abruptly stopped medications – I weaned off my meds without medical supervision having made the decision totally independently.

I’ve written before about the panic that ratchets up watching the tablets dwindle in my amber colored bottle of sanity; about the same reasons I take them leaving me overwhelmed enough not to call the doctor for a new string of refills. It happened the same this time.

Except this time, I’d been growing ever more resentful of that daily bitter pill, something to remember, something to lean on heavily, something to possibly poison me.

In an as-yet-to-be-seen brilliant realization, I decided to space out my tablets to make them last longer – ‘until I got a refill’. I think that was my rationalization. I went down to one for several days, half for several more, and then a quarter.

Also around this time, however, I began reading A Mind of Your Own: The Truth About Depression and How Women Can Heal Their Bodies to Reclaim Their Lives by Kelly Brogan. Now, if the rest of my follies here are not endorsements, this most certainly is not an endorsement of this book. It took me an awful long time to swallow – pun possibly intended – what Brogan had to say. After years of coming to terms – mostly – with taking antidepressants, here was an in-your-face account of how they were absolutely unhealthy and unnecessary. The whole first half of the book told me in no uncertain and sometimes holier-than-thou terms that I had been duped and made a terrible decision for and possibly irreparable damages to my body.

As I said, I started reading this book around the same time I was weaning. I did not read one ‘expert’s’ book and change my entire life regimen around it. As I was already tapering these ‘evil’ meds from my system, however, I was curious to see what other options could help me complete this process.

The second half of Brogan’s book is the best; the part where she gets to the heart of her mission: helping women live healthy and whole lives. I don’t know that her tone was less sanctimonious or I was better able to temper it with my own decisions of what would/would not work for me. Her plan focuses on a four-week implementation of diet, detoxing the home, meditation, exercise and sleep – a four-pronged approach to keeping the body and mind on track.

There is a lot in this book that resonates with me – some of which I already do, in fact. However, the four-pronged approach makes that panic rise in my chest almost as much as the rattle of fewer and fewer pills in the bottle.

When I started meds, feeling so like a failure for needing them (no projection, just my own neuroses), my therapist said, “this is the tenor of your life right now. Whether or not you were previously suffering with a mental illness, you were able to cope. Now, mothering several children, there are significant unalterable circumstances that make you unable to cope. Your medication can help you do so.”

Tenor still untenable.   Nothing new there. Well, actually there is a new kid.

So perfecting diet, sleep, mindfulness, exercise, clean living – all factors dependent on me, everyday, in my imperfect life is a little terrifying. Especially considering that failure, which is inevitable really, means a depressive state. No big.

Back to weaning: Brogan advises her 30 day detox before weaning to reset your system first. Ha. That may have helped. It also may have helped if I didn’t wean in the last week before my period as I prepped and embarked on a week-long trip with all four kids solo only to return, take two weeks to prep for school, and pack for one final vacation that ends on the eve of the new school year. Timing is everything.

There were times I wanted to scalp myself or my children that first week; times I wanted to scream louder than the baby refusing to just.go.to.sleep; scared that the crying jags meant my depression was coming back; irritable and snippy with my husband; and in a much lesser, yet slightly amusing development, America’s Got Talent’s package materials and any high note hit by a contestant made me well up.

Brogan warned me the withdrawal symptoms might present as a relapse of the original condition. Who’s to say I was struggling because I desperately needed the pill to supplement my body or give it a crutch?

I didn’t complete a long yoga session last week seeking clarity of mind in regards to all this. I was finally sick and scared enough at the skin and muscle getting looser around my frame and the big kids were shoe shopping with their grandparents. The amount of tension in my muscles shocked me. I sobbed at even the slightest release of it. Not the wet, slimy tears of a betrayal or breakdown, but the semi-silent, breath-catching heaves of chest with a few slick tears sliding down from the corner of eyes when I unsquinched them long enough to let them fall. I didn’t realize how much I’d been carrying until I tried to let it go.

And that was just the physical.

As trite as it may be, I had an epiphany on the yoga mat that morning. Even if I was taking medication to take care of my mental health, I wasn’t taking care of my self. I’d forgotten to force time for the things that keep my soul alive. Stretching, meditative thought and moments, reading, writing.

Did I need to stop meds to hit rock bottom hard enough to make the burning fire of my calves burn a hole in my consciousness? Perhaps not. Would I recommend cessation of meds as a path to clarity? No. But stopping meds to see where my mind and body were at this point in my life, nearly eight years out from the offending episode of postpartum, and then having such a visceral reaction to the stress in my life and body – that sent me an important message.

Regardless of what my decisions are in regard to lifestyle and care, self-care must be part of it. Placebo or perfect chemistry, a pill isn’t a miracle. All cylinders of my life, my soul must be firing.

Life will never be perfect. Even if I decide to follow Brogan’s regimen or another with or without meds, there will be times I fail. I can’t control circumstances outside my body, my sphere – hell, even in my sphere. (Did I mention I have four children?) But perhaps with the balance of self-care, I can temper the abberations. It’s a tall order, but right now, it’s keeping my mind centered on care – not maintenance or even just keeping the lid on.

That’s a pretty compelling read for me.

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No More Smoke Screens

Last Wednesday, I had my six week follow-up appointment after the birth of my newest baby girl. The six weeks that had elapsed seemed like an eternity and yet instantaneous – like any spool of time surrounding a major life event does.

In the thick of summer vacation, I marched my older three girls into the office with me. Not ideal, but with the aid of electronic devices and some seats just outside the examination room door, I was able to avoid the embarrassment of an internal exam with the oldest two looking on and retching. I stationed my six year old’s chair full of crayons and coloring books at my head, the infant nestled in my chest.

Upon my arrival, the receptionist handed me the ubiquitous clipboard with the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale. I knew it was coming. I was actually looking forward to it. I took it in hand almost giddily. There were a few reasons for this.

1. I didn’t need it.

Just a few days after the birth of my baby, a visiting nurse came to our house. Since it was a holiday weekend, we weren’t able to get an appointment with our pediatrician to check our breastfed baby’s weight and absence of jaundice so the hospital arranged for the home visit. While I expected the nurse to check the baby, she also looked after me, administering an EPDS. My score fell far below the range of danger for postpartum mood and anxiety disorders. Ever the overachiever, I joked with my husband that was a test I’d happily fail.

2.  But if I did, my answers to these questions would signal to my practitioners what sort of help I needed.

3.  If they gave the questionnaire to me, they gave it to all postpartum patients, which meant that all women had access to help if they were struggling.

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Jennifer Butler Basile

Still, when I handed the clipboard to the nurse in the examination room, and she followed up with questions like, ‘Have you ever thought of harming yourself or the baby?’, she asked them in a hushed voice. She apologized, saying she had to ask everyone.  Her tone insinuated it wasn’t me that was crazy, but it was her job to ask every mother in case one of them was. I knew part of her low volume was to spare my very aware six-year-old the world of suicide and psychosis, but I knew that wasn’t all of it. The apologies were born of shame, stigma; to separate me from those ‘tainted’ women, those we can’t speak of, for fear of ‘catching’ what they have.

But I was like them. I had what they had. I was just six years out.

Six years earlier, I would’ve been scared off by whispers like that. I wouldn’t have answered truthfully, if I’d thought it would smear me with that shame. Not because I didn’t need help. Not because I wasn’t having irrational thoughts. Not because I knew how to fix it myself. Because I felt that saying yes would be submitting to defeat.

I’m not trying to pin the shortcomings of postpartum care on this one nurse. If anything, this one nurse’s demeanor only shows just how difficult it is to discuss these matters. But the only reason I didn’t face these struggles this time is because someone asked the tough questions. Because a friend, a mother who had gone through the same struggles insisted I get help. And because once I healed, I knew how to prepare and preempt the struggles this time.

So wave the clipboard proudly. Answer the questions honestly. Ask for help loudly.

Mental health screenings should elucidate symptoms, not throw up smoke screens.

Many Peaces of Mind

By sharing our stories, we encourage others to do the same.

This was a major theme of the Peace of Mind Storytellers Series I attended yesterday. By breaking the silence surrounding mental illness, we also break the stigma. We allow people to admit and accept the struggle and begin recovery.

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As an anxious person (also mere weeks away from delivering a child), attending a day-long event with hundreds of people I’d never met solo was a little nerve-wracking. But I’d been awarded a free ticket through a generous contest by a local mental health facility, Butler Hospital. I’d been following and loving the organization sponsoring the event, PeaceLove Studios, for several years. And the format of the event, like our state’s own local version of TED Talks, sounded pretty cool. As a writer, I am a little obsessed with stories, after all. Add the mental health aspect and I was hooked.

Once the speakers started rolling out, I realized this was not just like our state’s own local version of TED Talks, it basically was one. The speakers hailed from around the country and world. They ranged from college students to policy-makers and changers to international celebrities. While I hadn’t recognized all the names beforehand, I was impressed by the vitae of these individuals – and even more so by the enthralling stories they shared.

wp-1463799329728.jpgLike Faith Jegede-Cole who said mental health has to do with the health of your soul. Michael Thompson who said the goal is not to focus on just the 1 in 4 who suffers from mental illness, but all 4 – to get the others to listen. Kate Milliken whose own family’s silence over mental illness moved her to create a platform for patients and caregivers living with MS to share their experiences. Amelia Grumbach wishing someone else would take control of her life because she couldn’t/didn’t trust herself to do so. Philip Sheppard, a soul-stirring cellist, urging the attack of any creative endeavor without the fear of creating crap. Simon Majumdar saved by love of food and its serving of soul. The rhythm of Steve Gross’ (left) spoken word carrying the buoyant message of the right attitude affecting everything. Butterscotch following her heart’s desire without compromising for anyone. The mother’s love of A.J. Wilde holding her son, Devin, as he found the key to unlock his autism. Ryan Brunty’s lovable yetis expressing the depression he’d been living with silently beforehand. Stephanie Prechter’s fierce devotion to learning as much as possible to support and treat people like herself and her father who suffer with bipolar disorder. Mark Hedstrom moving Movember into the mental health space. Ross Szabo creating a curriculum so that mental health is not something we look at only when something’s wrong, but taught much like physical health education from kindergarten to grade 12 and beyond.

The wide range of experiences of these speakers broadened my perspective of mental illness and health. One of the speakers said, after all, we all have stuff; we’re all human. There are different brands and flavors and struggles, but one thing we all have in common is trying to walk this world with grace and contentment – at least most of the time.

All of these storytellers did so yesterday with beauty. Through their various creative presentations, they gave swell to that part of the soul that makes one glad to be alive, through the ugly and transcendent, the low and the dizzying highs.

The Peace of Mind Storytellers showed in a grand way what PeaceLove Studios is doing everyday: using expressive arts as a therapeutic device for all individuals languishing, battling, flailing, and/or surviving life with mental illness. What ninety participants got to take part in after the series of speakers. Myself included.

I was transported back to the first PeaceLove workshop I’d attended with a friend a few years ago. While in a different space with different people, the atmosphere was the same: a safe place to create, process, emote, and share. Several participants commented that they didn’t consider themselves artistic, but due to the open-ended nature of the activity and low-pressure environment, they enjoyed creating. Another said that while she hadn’t started with any idea in mind, a plan slowly took shape on her canvas – and that it was symbolic and cohesive. I felt similarly. Exhausted at the end of a long day, I didn’t think I was up for any grand metaphor. But what rose to the surface in that quiet, stream of consciousness state was perhaps exactly what my psyche needed at this time. Indeed, what came out reminded me of my constant struggle for balance. But in that gentle unfolding, it wasn’t frustrating as it usually is, but a quiet reminder that it’s a process, about maintaining peace of mind, not achieving it and moving on.

In the grand and small movements of my day at the Peace of Mind Storytellers Series, the ebb and flow of life was reflected. The entire day was a reflection of life at its best and worst and the journey we all make together. Bound by our stories and in the sharing, we can achieve peace of mind indeed.

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Painting by Jeffrey Sparr, PeaceLove co-founder

Not in Vain

Before my third child, I never dropped the JC.

I was no pure linguist, but I did not take the name of the Lord in vain.

In the months and years following her birth, it became a regular part of my vocabulary, satisfyingly venting my rage and frustration at things gone wrong. Stupid things. Teeth not being brushed. Butts not being wiped. Nothing that should unleash rage, but they were the proverbial straws.

I knew its use signaled a loss of center, of control.

Perhaps it was a desperate plea. But it came out sounding like a kid forced to say please and thank you. Totally inappropriate in tone and timbre.

Finally, one Lent, I decided to make a focused effort to stop saying it improperly. Keeping track of my missteps, I counted eight uses during those forty days. A significant reduction. I never did decide what would be an appropriate penance for each of those eight uses, but my non-JC oath habit stuck.

So here I am 32 weeks into pregnancy #4 and I’m being pelted with more stupid little straws.

My six year old has decided this is a fabulous time to assert her independence. Not in a dig-your-heels-in toddler sort of way, but in a snotty teenage you-can’t-make-me sort of way. Holding a stuffie I’d told her to put away at least three times, I stood over her as she sat on the bathroom floor fully dressed and not making any attempts to prepare for bed. I had to fight the urge to bean her over the head with it. After numerous non-oath reminders, I unleashed a torrent of reprimands peppered with choice words (though no JC – does that earn me some credit?).

Having to remove myself from the situation, I stalked in our bedroom, where my husband stood.

“This kid isn’t even born yet and I’m already swearing!”

He laughed. I think he appreciates seeing me get as frustrated as he does sometimes.

But his laughter also signaled to me that perhaps my reaction, while a bit overblown, was natural. I may be hyper-vigilant to signs of rage due to my postpartum experience last time, but that doesn’t mean that every freak-out is a bad sign. It could just be a bad day. Or a bad moment.

Just as uttering Jesus Christ in a proper context is not a bad thing, expressing anger or frustration in an appropriate way is not either. I need to watch the tone of my words and actions to see whether I’m struggling. It may not be a spiral, but a slight dip in the mood of the day.

I know many postpartum women – or anyone who’s suffered a mental health crisis – who see a bad day, a down period, a low point as a relapse. But even if it is, having been where we have and coming back from that place, we are equipped to do so faster, better, and with the proper supports.

We also are entitled to the same bad days our “normal” counterparts have all the time. Not every infraction is a sign of our condition, a harbinger of more to come.

Of course, all of this is easier said than done. Ironically, the organ we must rely on most strongly to convince us of our strength and resiliency is also the one most affected by our illness.

In that case, perhaps a call to the Lord would not be in vain.

Bitter Sweet

I never wanted another baby. I didn’t desire to hold one. I didn’t get the ‘aww’s and the itch when I’d see someone else’s. I wouldn’t wistfully remember packing them into footies when I saw someone with toddlers preparing to leave a late-night party.

I would bless my lucky stars it wasn’t me.

The very thought of returning to that period rife with anxiety and stress, dark anger and overwhelming feelings made me a bitter, sarcastic person. I was most certainly the old crone in the corner who said, better you than me.

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Jennifer Butler Basile

In fact, just this last summer, a friend and I attended an outdoor concert on the grounds of a winery. As we toasted each other in the camp chairs we’d squeezed into the back end of the event tent to avoid the rain, I thought how lovely it was to get away. We ate our cheese and crackers, we laughed, we reveled in our unfettered evening. As the clouds broke just before sunset, some people ventured onto the surrounding lawn and set up blankets. A stylish young mother in a flowing skirt with dark hair to match, swaddled her baby and rocked to the music. Though we hadn’t said a word to each other, both my friend and I watched the scene; for as soon as I opened my mouth, she knew exactly of whom I spoke.

“Good for her,” I said, in a tone that unmistakably meant – better her than me; taking an infant to an outdoor evening concert, contending with rain; controlling wine intake if he needs to breastfeed; leaving early if he gets cranky.

My friend laughed and, in effect, toasted that sentiment.

The very sight of a mother and child, lovely as it was, brought my back up in disdain, for fear of the anxiety that wasn’t far behind. I was here to escape; I wanted no such reminder of that part of my life I was trying to escape.

And yet, though feelings like this were very authentic, they didn’t sit well with me.

I loved my girls. I welcomed them willingly into my life. I may not have liked or gracefully handled every aspect of my days with them, but I was dedicated to the role and importance of family in the world.

And so, to scorn other people doing the same thing – it did not compute. I knew exactly how hard it was and should have been supportive rather than snarky. And I suppose I wasn’t overtly snarky, but my attitude toward life had changed. I think the snark helped me build a shell around my wounded psyche. I’d returned to real life, but I hadn’t healed. I needed some fail safe so my wounds didn’t weep everywhere while I went about my business.

In September, I got pregnant.

I had referred to number three as a surprise; what a poor example that was compared to this! Six years out from our youngest. All three kids: potty-trained and self-feeding; able to run around without a bodyguard; play dates with friends and some quiet time for us adults.

What!?

I felt really silly when I thought back to that scene at the concert. I’d served myself up a huge slice of humble pie. How could I have made such a remark and then go and do it to myself? But there was no way I could’ve held my tongue in preparation for what was to come. I never imagined it would be so.

In the days following the birth of our third, I slept fitfully while the baby dozed nearby. I awoke at one point in a cold sweat, having dreamt I was in labor, contracting forcefully. When I realized it was a dream, I thanked God it was over and prayed I’d never have to do it again. It was almost a PTSD reaction. (side note: my postpartum depression was swiftly developing and I’d had a traumatic recovery from labor)

Yet, here we were. Preparing to do it all over again. With a strange sense of calm. I’d had a spiritual epiphany of sorts at the start of my pregnancy that set me off on a good foot. But I also had already faced nearly everything of which I was afraid. I’d seen how shitty it could be – and how I’d survived.

Obviously not unscathed, given my snarky attitude, but I think that’s precisely why I find myself in this lovely predicament. This baby is a chance to wipe away all my negative associations with expecting and bringing a child into this world. Does that mean I’ll push out roses and sunshine? Hell, no. It’s going to be a hard road, but I feel this experience will also rebirth my wonder in life. My ability to see love and light in little faces and the tired faces of mothers. To once again give a shit, to stand and support myself and other mothers around me. To say, not only will you survive, but you will enter a place of peace – at some point.

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Jennifer Butler Basile

Growing

Baby #1: I was excited. I was in awe. I read all the baby updates in all the manuals on the assigned week. I brought my legal pad of questions to each appointment. I was petrified of labor. I cried the hollowest cries while my husband slept beside me on the couch cradling our baby. Who would now console me?

Baby #2: I was excited. I was exhausted. I worried about my first baby with a new baby. I began to look forward to those late night/early morning feedings for the quality one-on-one time they provided. I was so fiercely devoted to protecting baby’s soft little skull and sacred nap time from boisterous big sister, I screamed a lot.

Baby #3: I was blindsided. I was in shock. I was overwhelmed, agitated, obsessive, irritable. I still hadn’t come to terms with the idea of a new baby even as I lay on the delivery bed. I loved her so fiercely I was afraid someone would take her from me. I flipped out at hair elastics stretched over finials of dining chairs. I swore, I flew off the handle, I hid in the bathroom. I cried, begged for it all to be over.

Baby #4: I was surprised. I thought I was done having babies. I have moments almost daily where I think, ‘we’re doing this again?’ and yet, I’m strangely at peace. I still get irritable. I hurt from the physical toll of four pregnancies. I put myself to bed before my children sometimes. I see a therapist. I take meds. I go to acupuncture. I do yoga. I pray the rosary.

But I’m okay.

When I look back at the timeline of my pregnancies, I can see the mounting mental anguish I couldn’t at the time. What could’ve been the ‘baby blues’ with #1, escalated into moderate mood dysfunction with #2, and plunged me into the deepest despair of postpartum depression and anxiety with #3. It still irritates me that something that was probably underlying all the time was manageable for me until I kept adding layer upon layer. However, I am not superwoman.

I am a woman, a mother armed to the teeth with resources and self-knowledge. Fighting, clawing out of that hole after #3, I will never let all that hard work be in vain. I will see the signs early on; I will know which preemptive strikes to take; I will make self-care measures so that I hopefully won’t even need the interventions.

I do not feel strong as a victor shining brightly; but stronger in my resilience, in my survival, my steely will to not succumb.

There is life after postpartum depression. It is different. It’s not easier – but somehow it’s clearer. The unrealistic mist of life as we thought we knew it dissipates. The real, the ugly, the harsh – and the beautiful – are etched crystalline. We see it all – and appreciate the beauty that much more.

To the life, growing inside all of us

Not Mutually Exclusive

There is no need to shame a control-freak, God-fearing Catholic. There is no need to add to the torment she has already inflicted upon herself.

Yet, that is exactly what I found a quote from Marianne Williamson doing last night.

It has been six years since I started medication therapy for my postpartum depression and anxiety. Six years of low dose, slight increases, attempts at doing without – and it still serves me. And yet, a small part of me still questions my need for it.

Why isn’t this glorious life God has given me enough reason to rejoice? Why aren’t the three gorgeous gifts of heaven that are my children a daily cause for celebration? Am I not grateful enough for God’s blessings that I need an antidepressant to merely function, never mind embrace this life?

Catholic guilt is a strong force, but not one I blame for these thoughts. I confessed to my pastor that I feared my mental struggles were tied to a crisis of faith. I worried that turning to secular talk therapy turned me away from God’s gentle care. I fretted that medication was a crutch that kept me from leaning on God’s healing power.

My pastor told me that spirituality is an important piece of one’s healing, but not to the exclusion of other beneficial treatments. My trained counselor was helping me process my feelings without judgment and not keeping me from turning to God for quiet reflection. And if prescription medicine existed in God’s world, created by one of the people He put on this earth, why would I not avail myself of this beneficial tool? Most importantly, my pastor told me that God did not cause this suffering to befall me. It was not a punishment for some wrongdoing or turning away on my part. If I gleaned something good from the experience, perhaps God allowed the growth in me, but He certainly did not beset me with these troubles.

As always, the rational mind, while fully aware of such life-affirming and freeing arguments, still can fall prey to its irrational side. I thought I’d have no problem reading the social media post that started a furious online debate about postpartum mood and anxiety disorders. Yet, as I did, I felt some of the angst I’d been slowly putting to bed for the last six years come creeping back up.

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This statement plays to all the fears of the postpartum mother.  The guilt of needing medication to enjoy the miracle of life and her role in it.  The fact that she can’t come to terms with ‘normal’ changes in her body chemistry.  That she has somehow failed by not meditating enough; praying enough; eating healthily enough.  And then to judge her own success by the love of others – something over which she has no control.  Or does that speak to the love she fails to feel for her child?

I am only living a modicum of successful motherhood because of the very real diagnosis of postpartum depression and its treatment with medicinal drugs.  And yet, this statement still elicits a shameful, guilty feeling in me.  After SIX successful years of such treatment.  

What of the mother just beginning to wonder if she is struggling postpartum?  What thoughts and feelings assault her when she reads this?  She is already doubting herself and ‘succumbing’ to the crutches of medicine.  She already thinks she’s failed.  And now to tell her it’s all a ploy by ‘Big Pharma’?

‘Big Pharma’ is not issuing me any big paycheck.  I’ve written thirteen different posts about the decision, pros/cons of taking psychotropic drugs, most notably Happy Pills.  When the news initially hit that new recommendations called for all pregnant women and mothers to be screened for depression this was my reaction:

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I never dreamed news that was so obvious to me would be seen as a negative by others.

I’m going to imagine that Williamson’s comments were born of the assumption that those standing to make a financial gain would encourage a mindless mass to pop a pill and forget their troubles – and a meaningful life.  I do not encourage anyone to medicate their troubles away without also doing the hard personal work of introspection and spiritual growth.  Meds are not successful in a vacuum.  They must be supported by close medical monitoring, therapies, and lifestyle changes.

Choosing medication is not a mutually exclusive option over meditation, prayer, and love.

I fear that the way Williamson’s stance has been presented, the ensuing social media storm will portray just that.  God-fearing people do not fear medical marvels.  God-fearing people do not judge others for decisions they make concerning their own care.  God-fearing people would never want someone to suffer needlessly while thinking it was a fatal flaw of character.

Point of Contact

I entered the world of mental health advocacy kicking and screaming.  Some days, quite literally.

Studying English?  Easy, I loved literature and writing.  Teaching?  A way to purvey that love to another generation while parlaying it into a paycheck.  Motherhood?  An extension of the love my husband and I shared.

Postpartum depression and anxiety?  A most unwelcome and unpleasant recalculation in my life’s journey.

For years, I looked for reasons.  I hadn’t recalibrated my compass, had I?  What had happened to lead to this catastrophic turn of events?

I am not the grand cosmic poomba of all things so I cannot answer those questions with any sort of certainty, but I do know that my struggles awakened a raw, yet steely inner strength I’d never had before.  They fostered an empathy of a whole new level for others’ suffering; for the mantle of motherhood and all its ‘come-withs’.

I had to polish some ragged rock I’d gotten caught up on and dragged along on my journey into at least a burnished gem.  Something positive had to come out of all that suffering.  And perhaps even prevent another woman from travelling the same path.

I started this blog as a way to tell my story, which very few knew.  I thought, with complete disclosure, I might open the dialogue for others.  At least become an ally in an all too commonly silent struggle.  Perhaps I didn’t tackle postpartum directly enough – for many of my discussions and observations were integrated with my life.  However, I still haven’t decided if that was/is a failure, for mental health struggles quickly become an intimate part of one’s life, touching all parts of it.  It also hinted at some version of depression/anxiety becoming part of my ‘new normal’.

And with my ‘new normal’ so different from my old one, I began to develop further plans for burnishing rocks into gems.

I knew what I wanted to do, but with no clinical experience, I had limitations.  I could not mention the word ‘therapeutic’ in any official capacity.  I was petrified that if the programs I had in mind reached the end of my personal experience and empathy, that I wouldn’t be able to help someone in crisis.  

I embarked on a series of webinars offered by Postpartum Support International.  The Social Support Training series, one session every other week, stretched from January to June of last year.  While many of the participants were clinicians in the field of maternal mental health, the course was user-friendly and aimed at individuals interested in starting and supporting groups of mothers in various presentations of mental health.

The Social Support Training was the perfect first step toward a solution.  It offered a wealth of information – statistical and anecdotal, researched and proven – paired with the assurance that social support people are not meant to be clinicians.  They are meant to offer a safe place for mothers to gather and vent, ask questions and talk, discover resources and camaraderie, and just be.

I finished the series a few weeks before I headed to Boston for Postpartum Progress‘ first annual Warrior Mom Conference, the first ever maternal mental health conference for survivors of PMADs.  With my new-found knowledge and training, I looked forward to building on that momentum and connecting with other moms doing the same.  While I did that, I also found parts of me that hadn’t fully healed.  I realized I still had my own work to do and how very complex maternal mental illnesses are.

That fall, my PMAD baby started full-day kindergarten and, though scared as hell, I began formulating plans to kick my ideas into high gear.  I applied for a scholarship offered by Postpartum Progress and the National Council for Behavioral Health to be trained in Mental Health First Aid, which I was awarded a few weeks after discovering I was pregnant with my fourth child.  I faltered, wondering how I would enact my plans with a newborn baby.  But then, they were never my plans anyway.  And now I would have the full-circle experience informing my advocacy.  Up until now, I’d only ever experienced the postpartum piece of mental health; now I could speak to both pre- and postnatal.

I spent two days in New London, Connecticut with two fabulous humans from Child & Family Agency of Southeastern CT learning how to assess and support a person’s mental health status.  Again, the trainers stressed that we were not expected to diagnosis the individuals we come into contact with, but to assess their situation and determine whether they need additional help.  We then must help them feel comfortable and safe until such professional help is acquired.  The trainers helped me gain even more practical ways to help those in need as a civilian, a concerned individual, an advocate.

As I sat in that auditorium, surrounded by empathetic professionals and persons, I flashed back to an article I’d read a week and a half earlier.  “The Community Maternal Mental Health Professional” on The Burnout Cafe (click image for link) discusses the gap between women who need help and the services available to them.  While the central point of contact in this graphic from the article lists a woman’s professional caregivers, and a woman certainly does see these people quite frequently both before and after the baby is born, I would argue another layer of contact needs to be added.  If practitioners aren’t well-informed or comfortable dealing with maternal mental health issues, the assessments, diagnoses, and referrals needed will not occur.  Having been down that dark hole myself, I am well-versed in those discussions.  I can help normalize the feelings a woman may be experiencing, yet not want to admit for fear of retribution to her or her child.  I can point her in the direction of practitioners specializing in the exact type of care she so desperately needs.

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“The Community Maternal Mental Health Professional” as point of contact (via The Burnout Cafe)

With my personal experiences and new-found knowledge via recent trainings, I am a point of contact for mothers.  

My plans may morph and grow as my own life and family does, but the end goal is the same:

Helping Mothers Get the Help They Need.

Recovery Contd.

In an online forum, a mother asked if she was the only one who thought about her experience with postpartum each and every day since she had given birth four years earlier.

I am six years out. While it’s not an everyday occurrence, it often comes to mind. In many ways, it has and continually shapes who I am – as an all-around human, not just certain aspects of motherhood.

Though I wouldn’t recommend it as a means of self-discovery, my postpartum experience taught me a lot about myself. I realized, that while I had been managing it, I’d been suffering from low-level depression and anxiety for years. What I thought was a failure to contain, control, was actually the event horizon of a long-simmering beast’s debut.

So I find it hard when people talk about postpartum recovery. I don’t feel as if I’ve recovered from postpartum depression. I feel like I’ve learned to manage it, but it’s the new normal. While I took an extended hiatus, I’ve returned to my therapist. I never stopped taking my meds. I still have low points that make me wonder if I’ll ever be healed; that make me seek out new treatments and pray for cures.

A cure lies somewhere within the intersection of self-acceptance, medical marvels, and divine intervention. I think it’s impossible that any one will work without the combination of the others.

I need to accept that this may (notice I’m not quite ready yet) be how my chemical makeup operates. That I didn’t fall short on some courage or stick-to-it-ness factor. That I didn’t fail to attract good things through my thoughts. I cannot will myself better with positive thoughts. Though my heart works that way, my mind simply is not wired for that.

Taking medicine to augment your mood is okay, even acceptable. It’s beneficial to your quality of life. It quiets the rage and keeps the nervous energy at bay.

And to fill the gap that always is – there is God. A spiritual dimension to the healing process is essential – and one I was missing for a long time. Unfortunately, this is not a one and done. I must continually seek this solace.

All three spokes of the wheel need continual attention. They all need periodic tweaking and developing. Much to my chagrin, my recovery and learning to live a full life is not a mountain to be scaled and topped with a banner of victory. I have to drag that flag with me wherever I go. As long as it still flies, I guess, there is still hope.

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Crispy, Barbecue Self-Care

Less than 500 words of writing

Eyes closing

One hour and twenty minutes worth of recaptured sleep

Salty, savory snacks

Humorous programming

Mindless knitting

Are my muscles spasm-ing or atrophying?

Is this self-care or lethargy?

A day of needed slacking or anhedonia?

Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

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