Real Time

It’s taken me five months to realize what’s wrong.

Five good months since the birth of my child.

Five months of kisses and cuddles and bleary-eyed marches; blaring noise and silent sleep.

All this time and all this experience it took me to notice things around me:

Systems out of whack. Needs untended. Tweaks to be made.

Funny, how the way you realize you’re surviving is the ability to see what’s awry.

One day, you feel the slight twinge of annoyance. Stress at the the logistics of life. And you think, wait, I’ve reentered the real world without even realizing it. Without any fanfare. No great plunge. But a gradual dipping in of toes, then ankles, calves – until suddenly the cold on your belly button makes your breath catch.

It is exhilarating and chilling at the same time.

You’re doing it. You’re living life, your life, while navigating the care of that of your little one. It’s never easy, always imperfect. It may turn your lips blue and make your teeth chatter, but you’re afloat.

And that is a feat in and of itself.

floating

Pinterest, multiple sources

 

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.

raindrops

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.

light

Jennifer Butler Basile

Without Wee, Within

I am very much inside myself lately.

Thinking about what needs to get done,
Worrying about pain and exhaustion,
Waiting for my next chance to lie down

I weigh this alone time
for its relaxation
vs
opportunity to accomplish,
both sans wee ones

Motherhood has brought me to this state
and yet, it’s all in my head.

I struggle and strive to survive
for them
yet yearn for me

.

power_within

powercube.net

Netflix is Depressing

Netflix is making me depressed.

Ok, I can’t in good conscience blame all of my troubles on on-demand television services, but I can make a good case for their use attributing to my condition.

I’ll be the first to admit that I find cable television seasons highly annoying. You wait an inordinate amount of time for a show to start up again, only to watch it whisk by in five to six weeks. Each episode ends on a ridiculously frustrating cliffhanger, leaving you lunging at the TV for more, an urge you must tamp down for the following week. This manipulative cycle of desire and gratification has got us viewers trapped hook, line, and sinker.

Enter the world of on-demand services.

They don’t solve the week’s wait between new episodes, but glom onto a show just past its prime, and all the episodes are there for the taking. Want to see what happens next? No problem, my addictive friend. Binge away.

Such binges lead to a glorious few days or a week, depending on how long you stretch it out, but leave you – at the end of it – in the ubiquitous showhole. My kids don’t get that commercial. I find it eerily accurate. The fact that I recently learned to knit adds to the effect.

 

But choose a show so popular, there are scads of episodes, and the showhole never becomes an issue. I’ve recently fallen under the spell of Criminal Minds. I never watched it when it initially aired on network television. I missed that highly popular boat. I discovered it on one of the four over-the-air stations we were left with once we cancelled cable – the only one not airing paid programming or home shopping. However, the marathons I loved so much on Mondays and Tuesdays gave way to other crime shows I enjoyed much less the rest of the week. I searched Hulu to no avail. When we added Netflix a few months later, I was so excited to see all seasons represented. I could watch whenever I wanted and start from square one.

I would settle onto the couch with my pregnant morning snack or lunch or under the afghan when I needed a rest, my BAU friends entertaining me while I vegged. I could rationalize sitting there vegetating as long as the episode continued. Just until this episode finishes, just until they find the unsub, just until they solve the mystery.

However, when motivation is not high to begin with, and I haven’t been sleeping through the night, and I’m growing a child, and whatever low-level mental health issue is ailing me come together and Netflix plays their shows on a constant loop, it’s easy to stay on the couch for the next episode and the next and the next . . .

About half way through the third episode, the show isn’t even that scintillating anymore. It’s the construct and the comfort that leave me there, rooted to the couch, all semblance of productivity drowning in the abyss of my mind and pool of my guilt.

There is definitely a pleasure seeking/reward system at work with any media viewing. We seek solace, relaxation, a treat in our favorite show. But just as that huge bowl of ice cream eventually empties out, so our show ends, leaving us wanting and needing more to fill that reward center. With the overzealous access of on-demand services, it can become very easy to remove oneself from time, place, social connection in search of an elusive endgame – whether it’s escape, entertainment, distraction, avoidance, or happiness.

Holding Netflix responsible for my lack of mojo and self-control is about as ridiculous as suing McDonald’s for getting fat. I need to set up fail-safes and proactive measures to keep me from swirling ever closer to the rim of the showhole. But it’s so easy to drift along on the gentle current of complacency, detachedness . . .

At least I only have ten more seasons to go.

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.

marianne williamson

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:

duh

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.

ppd1

“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.

Joy over Drudgery

The three of us stared at the idling bus like zombies.

We’d managed to get our children onto it in time, but that – and being upright – were about our only accomplishments this morning.

One didn’t feel well.  One was loopy from the stress of final exams.  I was feeling the effects of a 4:45 wake-up call from my churning stomach.

My husband had already told me to take a nap given my chipper demeanor, but seeing that I wasn’t the only mother not feeling it this morning made me feel a little better.

We all have our reasons, right?

We all walk around on any given day with shit in our eyes, chips on our shoulders, hearts on our sleeves.  The stench of puke in our nostrils.  The laundry pile that threatens to overtake our youngest.  The dirty dishes that make any amount of counter space seem minuscule.  The pile of outgoing Thanksgiving decorations next to the tote of incoming Christmas decorations.

Our worries, our fears, our subconscious thoughts that come out in biting words and bouts of disconnectedness.

We’re all too freaking busy.

And why?

Could we do with less stuff?  Own less clothing?  Schedule less things?

All those must-dos are not things we must have to live – at least not enjoyably.

I think in this season of quiet pinpricks of light amidst a world of darkness, it’s time to take stock of what we really value in our lives – and make time for those people, traditions, ways of being.  We must fan the flames of our hearts and exude joy among the drudgery.

flame-candlelight-burn-candles-christmas-advent

pd4pic.com

And if you’ve got any tips on how to do that, let me know 😉

I’ve Been Had

I had to clear out months of clutter in a matter of weeks.

I had to squeeze in cleaning sessions between naps.

I had to let some things go that seemed absolutely essential.

I had to receive guests into an imperfect house.

I had to admit that the next week was lost due to physical and mental recovery.

I had to hope that it was just the exhaustion of overextension and not the harbinger of a downward slide

into

anger

irritability

the dull padding of apathy.

I have to rally the hopeful spirit of the season and strive to be reborn each day.

 

An Argument for Self-Care

Isn’t it amazing that we only engage in self-care when we have to, when it’s absolutely necessary.  When we’ve reached such critical mass we’re about to blow apart.

That’s usually when I get a humdinger of a sinus infection.  Agony.  Aches and pains.  Congestion.  Fever,  Chills.  As horrible as it is, it forces me down for the count.  To the couch.  To bed early.  To forcing fluids and taking it easy.  Would I think to dial things down when the first symptoms show up?  Heck, no.  Push on through.

This morning I happily scrolled through the WordPress Reader, checking in on some of my favorite blogs.  Catching up.  Touching base.  Doing what bloggers do.  When the hormones of early pregnancy unleashed a horrible churning in my stomach.  I tried to ignore it, but finally had to shove a snack down my gullet before breakfast came up.  Self-care had become an interruption, an annoyance.

Arriving home from my brisk walk to the bus stop, I grabbed a glass of water.  One would think the neutral taste would be good for someone trying to avoid the aforementioned ‘upping-of-the-gullet’.  Un-unh.  It just reminded me that hardly anything tastes good anymore – and that my long-overdue to-do of buying lemons or limes to slice up and put in my water may actually help.  Why should it take utter disgust to push me to finally make this small treat a reality?

What is it about humans – and women in particular – that makes self-care always an afterthought?  Guilt?  A Puritan ethic?  Not wanting to be self-centered, self-absorbed, selfish?  Lack of time?  Money?

I’m sure it’s all of the above.  But I’d venture a guess that it’s most likely a feeling that we’re not worth it.  We don’t deserve a reward – no matter how small.  Especially when there are others in the world who have so little; who suffer so much.

That last point makes an especially compelling argument.  However, there’s a reason flight attendants tell us to put our oxygen masks on first before assisting those next to us.  Mothers, care givers, partners, aid workers, samaritans, humans – none of us are good to those who need us if we’re laid out, dog tired, dead sick.  We can enact great waves of tenderness and care in the world if we start in our own little atmosphere.

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