3 More Things That Helped Me

It’s been a while since my last post. That’s because I’ve been rearranging the layout of this site, adding more information and working on the final steps toward publishing Dancing on the Edge of Sanity.  However, I haven’t forgotten about the blog and how it might help women who are facing postpartum depression or anxiety.  In my last post “I’ve Got Something to Say,” I noted six things that helped me recover.  And while I’m not a nurse, doctor, therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist, and I don’t intend to offer treatment or a cure-all remedy, I can offer some thoughts based on my experience.

Here they are…

1) Knowledge – The guilt and dark feelings common to postpartum depression and anxiety are isolating.  They are difficult to share for a number of reasons.  Luckily, there are many brave women who have spoken about their struggle.  Finding these stories and learning more about perinatal mood disorders helped me.  I didn’t feel as alone or as ashamed.  It took me some time to find the right resources since there is a lot of information in cyberspace, and I can’t even begin to list all the blogs, books and websites that exist.  But the resources below (and the resources noted on my Resources page) are excellent places to start.

  • If you are looking for an organization that provides facts, statistics, and might be able to connect you to the local support in your area, I suggest Postpartum Support International.  http://postpartum.net/
  • If you want to read an informative blog that posts a wide range of useful articles and inspiring stories visit http://postpartumprogress.com/
  • If you are looking for a good memoir about postpartum depression, I suggest Down Came the Rain by Brooke Shields.  (Or you can wait for the publication of Dancing on the Edge of Sanity!)

 While knowledge can help, a lack of knowledge can actually be very detrimental.  I suffered from anxiety more so than depression, and I had some horrifying bizarre thoughts that really upset me.  One day, I suddenly began imagining my son in violent life-threatening situations.  I tried desperately to force the thoughts away, but they persisted.  When I shared these petrifying and confusing thoughts with medical and mental health professionals in my community, they were just as scared as I was.  It is unfortunate that I didn’t know about postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder or the intrusive thoughts that sometimes accompany anxiety disorders.  It is disappointing that the local help I sought also did not recognize my intrusive thoughts as intrusive thoughts.  It would have helped to learn that there was a name for what I was experiencing and that other women had encountered this type of anxiety disorder.  For this reason, it is crucial that women seek help from professionals who are familiar with the wide spectrum of perinatal mood disorders.

 2) Exercise – A few weeks prior to my due date, I asked my midwife about postpartum exercise.  When she told me I would need to rest for the two weeks following childbirth, I thought she was nuts. I figured that was standard advice for most women but that it didn’t apply to me. I’m not an elite athlete or anything like that, but I have always been a very active person and I maintained by normal exercise regimen throughout my pregnancy so I figured I would continue to do so right after giving birth.  But as my midwife continued to speak about the importance of allowing the body to heal to avoid complications and problems, I realized I would need to follow her advice.

During the first postpartum week, I had very little energy and very little time.  Nursing and sleeping took up most of the day.  Since forcing myself to eat was an exhausting challenge, I couldn’t even begin to think about doing anything that required physical activity.  But, at the same time, the lack of activity was bringing me down. The immediate postpartum period was a bit of a contradictory state for me.  Doctors, nurses, family and friends told me I needed to use that time to rest, “to sleep when the baby sleeps,” and to take care of myself.  Yet, throughout my entire life, taking care of myself included engaging in regular exercise.  Moreover, exercise had been my frontline defender against anxiety.  As I recognized that I was in the grips of postpartum depression and anxiety, I yearned for the natural mood stabilizing endorphins that exercise would provide.

By the second postpartum week, I had a little more energy and I also had spoken to my midwife about doing very gentle and moderate exercise.  I began slowly and paid close attention to my body. If I observed any signs that I was overdoing it, I backed off.

I began taking short walks.  (Short as in a walk to the mailbox!)  Then, I went to the end of my block.  When my son was big enough for the baby carrier, I placed him in that and walked a half mile around the neighborhood.  It felt wonderful to be outdoors under the sky rather than indoors under a seemingly confining ceiling.  Not to mention, the cool Vermont fresh air has always been invigorating for me.  Even though these short walks were trivial compared to the extensive hiking and running I had done during and before pregnancy, I took great pride in my small achievement and recognized it as a step toward recovery.

I also resumed gentle yoga.  This practice helped lengthen my muscles while it also helped me regain strength.  There are many more physical benefits to yoga, but I find the spiritual and emotional benefits to be the most rewarding.  In the quite peace of the yoga studio, I could allow myself to concentrate on nothing simpler than the basic principle of breath.  It was calming, restorative and centering; it was what my tangled mind was craving.

As each week passed, my body became stronger and I found that I had more energy.  I slowly began reintroducing strenuous cardiovascular exercise into my routine.  I hiked up mountains, I snowshoed and I took Zumba classes.  These exercises were more challenging than they had ever been, but it was worth the sweat.  As my heart rate elevated, I could feel those endorphins zipping through my body, bringing joy back to my life.

3) Sleep – As I have already mentioned, a popular line of advice is “Sleep when the baby sleeps.”  For many women, this advice can be hard to follow, but it helped me.  In fact, once I was able to sleep, I followed that popular line of advice as if my life depended on it.

At first, I couldn’t nap during the day.  I tried and tried and tried to sleep, but nothing could quiet my mind.  Likewise, I had trouble falling asleep at night, especially given my newborn’s sporadic sleep patterns.  (There is something torturous about the interrupted sleep patterns new parents endure.)  The rest and sleep was imperative, yet my mind wouldn’t shut off.  Because I wasn’t getting quality sleep, my condition was worsening.  At one point I wondered, “Is the lack of sleep making me crazy or is the crazy making me unable to sleep?”

Fortunately, the insomnia subsided after the first two postpartum weeks and I was able to relax and nap during the day.  I also began falling asleep at night with more ease.  Eventually, when my son woke to nurse at night, I was able to nurse him and immediately fall back asleep.

Because I held sleep in such high regards, I became fiercely protective of my sleep.  When my son napped, I turned off the phone, pulled the shades down and climbed into bed.  I took advantage of every opportunity I had to sleep and operated under the assumption that at any point, my son might decide to stay up all night so when sleep was available, I had to take it.  I even recorded how much sleep I had during a twenty-four hour period to make sure I was getting what my body needed.

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Knowledge, exercise, sleep, tenacity, acceptance, Zoloft, writing, self-talk and timeliness.  That and many other things helped me.  It seems that a variety of elements came together and each element depended on the others. Thanks for reading!

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I Have Something to Say

“Amateur! Amateur! You’re such an amateur,” taunts the critical voice in my head as I sit down to write and get serious about this blogging thing. But the critical voice is overpowered. I might be new to blogging and internet savvy networking, but I’m not new to writing, I’m not new to feeling, and when it comes to the topic of postpartum mood disorders, I have something worthwhile to say.

Postpartum Support International is launching a blog hop for the month of May to raise awareness about maternal mental health. Hopefully, the blog hop will promote inspiring stories about recovery. We need these encouraging stories because when a woman is grappling with postpartum depression (PPD) or postpartum anxiety (PPA), it is isolating, terrifying and impossible to see anything beyond the fog and darkness. Or at least that was what it was like for me.

The depression and anxiety came on quickly and severely when my son was three days old. I was certain I had the worst case of PPD, and even though I read that women recovered from this condition, I was certain I had the first ever incurable case of PPD. (I also didn’t realize at the time that I had PPA more so than PPD). However, I was quite wrong about the idea that I could not recover and despite some complications in my path towards wellness, my mood improved in a few weeks and the anxiety subsided. After giving birth, it felt as though all the confidence, self-assurance and wisdom I had once possessed had slipped out of me along with my placenta. But over time, I regained my sense of self and once again felt whole. I’m fortunate enough to say that I experienced a remarkable recovery.

What helped me?

1) Timeliness – I sought help immediately. As soon as I detected a problem, I called my midwife and she put me on Zoloft. I didn’t wait to see if the sadness, irritability, insomnia and scary thoughts would go away; I took control and attempted to get help as soon as possible.

2) Journaling – I journaled daily, sometimes twice a day. Some entries served as quick check-ins about my mood while other entries recorded my son’s development. I wrote in great detail about my emotions, worries and fears. I even wrote some acrostic poems and alpha poems. The most helpful journaling approach was when I recognized even the tiniest steps towards recovery. I noted every moment that was positive and created many gratitude lists.  (For more journaling ideas, visit  wisdomwithinink.­com)

3) Self-Talk – There’s an old SNL skit about Stuart Smalley who looks into the mirror and repeats self affirmations such as, I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me! Hokey as it may be, I needed this type of positive self-talk to run non-stop to combat the itty bitty shitty committee that had decided to set up camp in my mind. I can do this, I am a good mom and I’m not a whack job for needing constant self-affirmations. Usually, the self-talk reassured me and even gave me a laugh. However, there were times when my confidence was quite shaky and in those moments, all I could do was promise myself, It’s going to get better. It’s going to get better. It’s going to get better.

4) Medication – Without Zoloft, my chemically imbalanced brain would not have been receptive to journaling, self-talk or any other tool I used.

5) Tenacity – I was tenacious. I was driven. I was determined to get over this incredibly annoying bump in the road, this devastating birth complication, this truly humbling experience.

After attempting to receive help, I ended up spending 42 miserable, sobering and confusing hours in the ER and then in a psychiatric institution.  PPA is awful, but the absolute worst part is the intrusive thinking. My intrusive thoughts came about as unwanted images of my son in life threatening situations. (I describe these thoughts more in my memoir Dancing on the Edge of Sanity, but I must warn readers that my descriptions might trigger intrusive thoughts for women suffering from this condition, so read with caution.) Not knowing why these images were surfacing in my mind and totally unaware that these “scary thoughts” had a name, I shared them with the staff at the local ER, and I was swiftly placed under observation by an armed officer and then sent to a psychiatric institution. (This was an overreaction due to ignorance and fear.)

When I returned home and was reunited with my son, I was desperate to prove myself. I had been in need of help, but neither the ER nor the psychiatric hospital had offered me any assistance. In fact, those 42 hours were a tremendous setback in my recovery. However, the experience did have one positive outcome: it strengthened my desire to fight the postpartum anxiety and intrusive thoughts head on.  I felt a tremendous need to prove to the world that I was not homicidal, I was not weak and I was not a bad mother.  I was furious about the lack of knowledge and awareness of postpartum mood disorders in my community so I directed my fury towards the anxiety.

After the incident at the ER, I felt it wasn’t safe for me to share my intrusive thoughts with anyone so I concluded that I needed to fight this demon on my own.  When a thought popped up, I would tell myself, This is my anxiety. My brain chemistry is a bit off and I’m tired, but I’m not crazy. Seeing a horrific image doesn’t mean it will happen. I’d also address the intrusive thought and think Silly unwanted thought, please leave! and Hey crazy thought, you don’t scare me. Get out of here!

In the world of talk therapy, there might even be a name for the strategy I was using. However, at the time, I didn’t think I was utilizing a therapeutic tool; I was merely doing what I needed to do to survive. I was in a battle with some dark force plaguing my mind and there was no way I would let it defeat me.

My desire to overcome the PPA was fueled by a spunky relentless voice that was screaming: I might not be myself these days, but I’m not crazy and I won’t let this anxiety destroy me!

6) Acceptance – I accepted that my brain chemistry was off-kilter. I accepted help around the house, with my son and with many aspects in my life. I accepted that babies cried. I accepted that a crying baby did not make me a bad mother. I accepted that my husband wasn’t perfect, but he was still a wonderful man. I accepted that I didn’t need to accomplish anything more than sleeping, eating and caring for my son. I accepted the idea that I needed to be patient with myself and others. I accepted that everything had happened for a reason. I accepted myself.

If you are dealing with a postpartum mood disorder, there is help out there.

•If you need immediate help, please call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
• If you are looking for local pregnancy or postpartum support and resources in your area, please call or email us:
Postpartum Support International Warmline (English & Spanish)

1-800-944-4PPD (4773)

support@postpartum.net

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Raising Awareness

Isn’t it wonderful that an entire month is dedicated to maternal mental health?  Read the following excerpt from the end of my memoir to really understand why such awareness is crucial.

The brain is a delicate and easily influenced organ.  During the postpartum period, I was insecure and second-guessing every instinct I had.  I worried about everything and anything one could possibly worry about, and when I began imagining John drowning or being in a fire, I didn’t understand what was wrong with my mind.  I knew my level of anxiety wasn’t normal or healthy so I went to the hospital for help.  But I didn’t get any help.  Instead, I heard someone say I couldn’t be near my son without supervision.  I was kept under surveillance by an armed police officer.  I was strongly persuaded to go to a psychiatric hospital where I was promised sleep and help, but in actuality, I was locked on a floor with individuals suffering from mental impairments and mental illnesses that were much different from my condition.  Moreover, there was very little therapeutic treatment available at this facility.   Most of my belongings were confiscated and my privacy was invaded.  Since I was already questioning my sanity and ability to mother, these harsh circumstances merely confirmed my deepest fears: I was in fact utterly crazy and I was incapable of mothering.

When I returned home from Brookview [psychiatric hospital], I was not only recovering from a postpartum mood disorder, but I was also healing from the trauma of being sent to Brookview.  And unless someone has experienced a situation similar to mine, I don’t think one can fully appreciate the notion that erring on the side of caution can actually lead to more harm than good.

I tried to contact the staff at the local ER to better understand why they sent me to Brookview, but no one returned my phone calls or emails.  Because I wasn’t finding any answers locally, I began doing research to better understand postpartum depression, other postpartum mood disorders and the treatments available.  I had read Women’s Moods by Deborah Sichel and Jeanne Watson Driscoll when John was three weeks old.  At the time, I had learned that these authors recognized and treated a variety of perinatal mood disorders.  However, I didn’t read the section titled The Living Nightmare of Postpartum OCD because I didn’t think I had any type of obsessive compulsive disorder.  I wasn’t washing my hands, checking on the baby compulsively or doing any of the things I imaged mothers with postpartum OCD would do.

Nevertheless, when I began researching postpartum mood disorders more carefully, I reread Women’s Moods and realized I had suffered from the obsessive thoughts related to postpartum OCD.  For months I had never fully understood those frightening images of John underwater or trapped behind flames.  I had read about postpartum depression and knew that I had some PPD symptoms, but something else had been going on as well.  I had also feared that I had been suffering from postpartum psychosis, a severe illness that does require hospitalization.  I had carefully read about this condition, but I didn’t feel that the symptoms fit my experience.  When I started reading about postpartum OCD and postpartum panic disorder, I immediately identified with the descriptions of these disorders.  All of the concern I had about my condition diminished once I realized there was a name for what had happened to me.  Many other women had also experienced those terrifying thoughts, known as intrusive thoughts.

 Sichel and Driscoll write about patients who would call them and say, “I’m afraid to be alone with my baby.”  After meeting with these patients, Sichel and Driscoll learned that although these women were having “violent thoughts,” the “obsessions were alien and abhorrent to them.”  The authors write:

“We realized that these women did not fit the usual picture of postpartum depressive or psychotic disorder…We called the newly defined syndrome postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder…The new mothers we studied experienced a heightened vigilance about the possibility of harm to their baby.  They worried, for instance, how easily their infant could slip into the bathwater and drown.  But rather than mobilizing them to exercise more caution in performing this task, the worry persisted, much like a phonograph needle becoming stuck in a grove of an old, scratched record, causing their thoughts to become locked in a biochemical groove. 

In the case of postpartum OCD, this ‘groove’ happens as follows: The women move from the identification of a potential dangerous situation (normal occurrence) to the active thought of the event’s actually happening, with the mother imagining herself as the instrument of harm…They fear their thoughts might become actions: ‘If I think it, I might do it.’”

Mothers with postpartum OCD, however, do not hurt their babies or themselves.  According to Postpartum Support International’s Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders Fact Sheet, the obsessions or intrusive thoughts are “persistent thoughts or mental images related to the baby…These mothers know their thoughts are bizarre and are very unlikely to ever act on them.”  Consequently, the fact sheet also states that postpartum OCD “is the most misunderstood and misdiagnosed of the perinatal mood disorders.” 

After doing more reading and meeting with  Jeanne Watson Driscoll personally, I learned that most mothers who experience obsessive thoughts similar to my own live in shame and avoid anything that might trigger a scary thought.  The compulsive behaviors develop in some women as they attempt to relieve their fears and obsessions.   These mothers sometimes suffer in silence for months, terrified to discuss their intrusive thoughts with anyone. 

I was unlike the mothers who kept these horrifying thoughts to themselves.  I truly believed that discussing these thoughts immediately and openly would help me.  However, no one at the local ER seemed aware of postpartum anxiety, panic and intrusive thoughts.  Moreover, the program and staff at Brookview was not equipped to treat perinatal mood disorders.  If the staff at the ER and at Brookview had had more training and knowledge of perinatal mood disorders, I might not have felt so isolated and frustrated.  However, the response people had to my condition was so far from helpful that I feared asking for help in the early stages of my recovery.  I feared discussing my intrusive thoughts, certain someone would once again separate me from my son.  Thus, it is imperative to raise awareness around perinatal mood disorders so that our support systems are actually providing assistance rather than perpetuating fear and silence.

Sometimes I think about that scared and insecure mother who visited the local ER looking for help.  I wish I could hold her and tell her everything I now know.  I would say, “You’re having these thoughts because of postpartum anxiety and panic.  It’s not your fault.  They are called intrusive thoughts, and other people have had them.  I know they are scary, but having the thought doesn’t mean you will act on it.  You’re going to be okay.”

 It took time, research and healing at my own pace to be able to come to the above conclusion.  When I was going through it, I wasn’t strong enough or informed enough to be this voice, but I feel that much stronger now knowing that I found my way out of the darkness.

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The Writing Journey

During the past few weeks, I have visited a number of blogs and on-line sources about postpartum mood disorders.  There is a great deal of information out there!  I feel as if an entire world has suddenly opened up to me.  Oddly enough, while numerous blogs and support groups have existed in the cloud of cyberspace, I have sat at my computer typing, revising and editing for the last 14 months.  And as I poured my experiences from my mind, through my keyboarding fingers and into my memoir, I have felt such a sense of accomplishment, satisfaction and catharsis.  Yet, writing can be an isolating and relatively lonely experience.  Knowing now that there are so many blogs about this topic, I feel a sense of connection to the many other women writing about this topic, and I look forward to sharing my story, my journey, my dance on the edge of sanity…

Currently, I’m in the final editing stages and working with a self-publishing company.  If you would like a sneak peek at the book, excerpts are linked as pages.

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