Therapy from the Therapist’s Perspective

In this post, Stacy Stefaniak Luther, PsyD, LPC, answers some questions about therapy and what a new mom can expect should she decide to seek help from a trained therapist.

What are some opening thoughts you’d like to share about therapy?

Visiting a therapist can be very intimidating. It takes courage not only to schedule that first appointment but also to attend that appointment. It can be weird, or awkward, to share your personal story with a stranger. Despite these facts, therapy is an effective way to tackle a variety of mental health concerns including those experienced with a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder. Furthermore. therapy can also serve as a means of self-care, which can be difficult to schedule with an infant but is also critically important to mom’s overall well-being.

As a therapist, I recognize the strength it takes to walk into the office each session and bare your soul; sharing intimate details of yourself and your life. But there is something so special about each individual’s story and the details of this story are worked into the therapeutic approach. Therapy is grounded in research, but treatment isn’t one-size-fits-all.

What can I expect at my first session?

Typically, the first session is a “get-to-know-you” session where the provider will ask a lot of questions and you will be encouraged to ask questions as well. Information about follow-up sessions is discussed at this time in addition to diagnosis, treatment, informed consent, confidentiality, and other more technical aspects of therapy. The first impression during this session is critically important. If you are not comfortable, (say so!) and ask about different providers. A client needs to feel comfortable sharing details that may be private and sensitive; therefore, finding a provider who is a good-fit is essential. Professionals will never be offended if the relationship spark just isn’t there. The relationship is the catalyst for healing so don’t be discouraged if finding the right partnership takes time.

How long is a typical session?

Therapy sessions are anywhere from 30-60 minutes, with 45 minutes being average. During these sessions, you are invited to sit back, relax, and share. The therapist will listen and help you reflect. You will also have the opportunity to learn and practice different skills outside of session. Most importantly, there will be validation that the emotions you are experiencing and the thoughts you are having are real and okay.

How often do I need to come to session?

There are many factors that contribute to scheduling future sessions. Typically, although each situation is unique, you will be asked to schedule 1 session a week (or every other week). During these sessions, your willingness and ability to be open and vulnerable is instrumental in determining the effectiveness of therapy.

Can I bring my baby (and/or my older children) to therapy?

If it serves as a barrier to treatment, a good therapist will encourage women to bring infants (and other children) to session if they want to (or have to). Other times, a mom who is able, might choose to find childcare so that she can enjoy her session independently. It is up the mother to determine what she is most comfortable with and what her lifestyle allows.

What is a therapy office like?

Offices are set up in a variety of different ways, yet all are designed to promote comfort and ease. These are not like your primary care provider’s office. Therapy offices are set up with a home-like atmosphere and often reflect the therapist’s personality.

What is a final message you’d like to leave our readers with?

One theme that is extremely common for the women I work with is how alone they feel. The truth is, there are others out there who have had similar experiences or who are currently experiencing the same difficulties. The women I work with have struggled with infertility, experienced the heartbreak of miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant loss. I’ve seen women who did not want to be pregnant or have children who become pregnant, women who struggle to bond with their infant, women who experience intense, frightening intrusive thoughts, women who are sad, women who are scared, women who don’t feel like themselves…the list goes on. It is so important to know that you are not alone. Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders exist but so does treatment. There is no shame in asking for or receiving help!

We would like to thank Stacy Stefaniak Luther, PsyD, LPC, for sharing her perspective with us. If you would like to learn more about Stacy and/or are local to central Wisconsin and would like to schedule an appointment with her, you may find more information on her website: http://www.bhcwausau.com/learn-stacy-luther-ms/ .

You Can’t Tell by Looking

Recently, in our social media feed, we shared a graphic stating “you can’t always tell by looking”. The truth of this statement rings staggeringly true for so many moms fighting their way through the postpartum period.

First, let’s start by considering the expectations we (and society) have placed on ourselves well before baby’s arrival. The nursery needs to be perfect and the house clean and organized. Baby will be dressed in one of the many new, adorable outfits he or she was given and we should be back in our old jeans in no time. Breastfeeding will come easy. This will be the happiest time of our lives. For today’s moms, these impractical expectations are reinforced and perpetuated by idealic Facebook and Instagram posts that set a new bar to which we measure ourselves and our success as a mother.

When this picture was taken, the world saw a mother enjoying an afternoon with her kids at the park. But the reality was that I was at rock bottom and was being completely annihilated by my postpartum anxiety and OCD. While at the park, my mom was on her way to town to help care for my children. Because I was too afraid to be alone with them, this burden had fallen solely on my husband. Intrusive thoughts plagued my mind constantly and I hadn’t eaten or slept much in days. If I was forced to be alone with my kids, I’d keep them outside so that if I went crazy, a neighbor would hear me and save them. I incessantly asked my husband for reassurance, thought daily about checking myself into a hospital and often wondered how much longer I could go on this way. Surely, my kids deserved a better mother.

For some reason, we tell ourselves that the world must never know the pain we are feeling. A mom might tell herself that no one can know how hard it was for her to get out of bed today or that she hasn’t been able to sleep, even when baby is sleeping. No one can know that as she forces herself to rock her baby, she thinks about how she might have made a mistake and how she might wish she never became a mother. No one can know about the terrifying and disturbing thoughts and images that fill her head. So to keep these secrets, she slathers on the concealer, smiles and tells everyone all the things they want to hear.

You also can’t tell by looking, the woman who has suffered a miscarriage. Who is agonizingly grieving the loss of a baby that the world never knew. Or, the mother who carried a child only to lose him or her in some unimaginable way. She might wonder who could understand the physical and emotional torture she has experienced. And then there is, perhaps, the most extreme example of the “you can’t tell by looking” phenomenon which is the mother who hid her struggle and pain so well that the world is shocked when she takes herself from it.

It is true. We can’t always tell by looking but there are a few things we CAN do to help moms come out of hiding. We can ask moms how they are doing…how they are really doing. We can equip them with the information on and the symptoms of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. We can preemptively point them to resources near them that can help should those symptoms arise. We can take the fear out of treatment – whether that be therapy or the need for medication. We can help moms feel less alone by sharing stories of our personal struggles and providing peer support. Finally, we can work towards ending the stigma around maternal mental health and dispeling the idea that motherhood requires perfection. So maybe you couldn’t tell by looking but I am grateful to have the courage to share that mine is the face of a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder. You are not alone.  

–Written by Alexis Bruce

Somewhere Along the Way

Somewhere along the way, mothers are often forgotten. After giving ourselves entirely to the process of growing and birthing a human, it’s unfair that we don’t still share the spotlight when our tiny miracles arrive. But the second we start to feel like we should receive a portion of that love and adoration, we shame ourselves for being selfish.

Somewhere along the way, we might have experienced trauma. And at some point, we started to believe that trauma had only one definition. And that because the pregnancy, labor or birth we experienced may not fit the criteria for this definition, we are not allowed to give it such a label.

Somewhere along the way, this motherhood gig started to look entirely different than what we envisioned. Picture perfect images of a glowing and rested mama holding her peaceful, sleeping babe are replaced with sleepless nights, alarming intrusive thoughts, nursing difficulties and an anguish that makes even the simplest of tasks seem insurmountable.

Somewhere along the way, we might feel as though we lost ourselves. We might grieve the life we once had. The freedom, the friends, the finances now might seem like worlds away. We might wonder if we made a mistake. We might wonder if we have what it takes to be a good mother. We might wonder if our families would be better off without us.

Somewhere along the way, we might feel hopeless. We may feel overcome by darkness and unable to see a way out. We might feel anxiety so intense that we are afraid to leave the house, afraid to sleep when baby sleeps or we might even be too afraid to be alone with the very being we once longed so strongly for. We might have flashbacks, or terrifying nightmares, of birth trauma that bring us instantly back to that wretched place. We might have thoughts that make us question our sanity, our baby’s safety or if we are truly a monster at our core.

But somewhere along the way, we realized that we are not alone. We realized that we are front and center in the spotlight of our baby’s eyes. We realized that baby doesn’t need perfection, just love and just a healthy, happy mama. We realized that trauma is subjective, that our feelings are valid and that we deserve to allow our wounds to heal. We realized that nothing about motherhood will likely be the way we envisioned and we realized that freedom from these expectations lies in acceptance of this fact. We realized that it’s okay to grieve the life we had while also exploring new facets of our identity. And, perhaps, most importantly, we realized that the darkness was not forever. We realized that help is available. We realized that it was in our struggle that we found our strength.

Written by Alexis Bruce

Entering the New Year with Radical Acceptance

A new year is upon us. We may not be ready to leave the one left behind; or, we may be grateful to let go and never look back. For some of us, this was a wonderful year. We achieved recovery. We worked incredibly hard, we saw the light at the end of the tunnel, we grieved, we cried, we conquered. And for some of us, the cloud of darkness hasn’t lifted as we are still in the throes of our battle with a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder.

The new year tends to make us want to set goals, both realistic and not. We attempt to define the best version of the person or mom we want to be. She, most often, is not the reflection we see in the mirror. This realization can lead to feelings of guilt, shame and defeat which perpetuate cycles of depression and self-loathing. But, trust me when I say, you are already enough, mama.

Instead of viewing the turn of the year as a fresh start or a new beginning, we spend time beating ourselves up about all the things we didn’t accomplish, the days we couldn’t get out of bed or the number of times we lost our patience. We relive the failed medication trials, the sleepless nights and the panic attacks. We dwell on the things we may have missed due to our illness and we question our strength and our resolve. We question if we were meant to be mothers at all.

But we cannot live in either the past or the future; therefore, we must learn to accept wherever we are on our journey. We must embrace what we are capable of right now and truly believe that whatever that is, it’s okay. We need to sit with our emotions, good or bad, and acknowledge that both are part of the human experience. In doing so, we learn to sit with our anxiety, discomfort or pain and experience even greater joy when good times arrive again.

So, enter this new year day by day, or even moment by moment. Set appropriate boundaries and expectations for both yourself, and others. Ask for, and accept help, professional or otherwise. And perhaps, most importantly, do what you can to care for and love yourself for, without self-compassion, all other efforts are futile. Know that we often discover purpose in our pain and through this, you will learn so many amazing things about yourself. I know how hard you tried, mama. I know how hard you’re still trying and how you worry that you will never be able to NOT try so hard again. But you have it in you. This new year may not be without its trials, but you will overcome. You are enough…strong enough, brave enough and loved enough. And, you are never, ever alone.

-Written by Alexis Bruce

A Post of Hope: Jessica’s Story

Trigger Warning: suicidal thoughts

“Stop fighting with your past, it’s over now.”

This is something I have been telling myself for a long time. It’s still hard to believe and accept that I have lived through (and survived) the most difficult time in my life. My babies are my greatest gift and I work continuously to help them be smart, sweet and caring human beings. I love them. But, in the back of my mind, I still hear the word, “remember.” Remembering is something I have to do daily. I force myself to remember my struggle so that I will continue to implement the changes I worked so hard to put in place…don’t do too much during the day, stop and play with the girls, it’s 8:00 p.m., the dishes can wait till tomorrow. Remember to breathe. Remember it’s okay to say “no.” Remember to schedule some “me” time.

My story begins with the birth of my first baby and my struggle with (what I now know was) postpartum anxiety (PPA). I had a terrible birth experience and went home very sick. It was incredibly difficult and I still don’t know how I survived those early days. The breastfeeding fails, a baby who wouldn’t sleep, being alone a good part of the day, the complete and utter exhaustion. That was my life for the first few months. When I finally began to feel a little better, I went back to work. Being the “Type A” person that I am, I thought I could do it all and not ask for help. Everything needed to be perfect and in accordance with the way I wanted to to be done. I always wanted to have a plan and to know exactly what was coming. In hindsight, I can see that this was a way of trying to cope with the anxiety that’s been a part of me all my life.

Living with anxiety was much easier before baby. I had the time to clean, organize and make sure everything was done correctly. But having a baby made this nearly impossible. Now, the baby came first. I began to crack. I tried to balance it all while taking care of my baby and working as an RN; but, I became easily frustrated and angry. I felt full of rage and started to experience intrusive thoughts which just made my anxiety worse. I never fully recovered and I never got help. I knew something was wrong, but I just kept going.

I became pregnant with my second baby when my first was three. This pregnancy was harder than the first. Sickness, anxiety and depression began to kick in. I sought help from a therapist because I just couldn’t handle my thoughts sometimes. I also began seeing a psychiatrist. Wonder why it took me so long to get help? Well, for starters, I didn’t know I had PPA. It sounds odd, but when I continued to ask for help at multiple doctor appointments, I was told that I was a new mom and that all this was normal. I should have spoken up and taken a stand, but I just figured the doctors were right.

Thankfully, the postpartum period with my second was not as hard as my first. I remember thinking she was my second chance and I was so happy for the first few months. I decided not to go back to work after maternity leave and I resigned. This baby was much better; but, handling a three-year-old and a newborn began to take its toll.

To make a long story short, after multiple medication attempts, months and months of frustration, anger, yelling, struggling to get through day-to-day life and feeling like a terrible mother, I officially broke. In the summer of 2017, when my youngest was 18 months old, I just wanted to run away and I became suicidal. I wanted to be done with everything. I was exhausted from trying so hard and getting nowhere, exhausted from being with my thoughts and tired of thinking I was crazy.

By August of 2017, I was in a partial hospitalization program. For three weeks, I went daily and, thankfully, I came out a different girl. The tools I learned in the program helped me more than words; however, what helped me the most, was knowing that I wasn’t alone. Suddenly, I knew I wasn’t crazy, that there was help and that I was doing what I needed to do to survive.

Since completing the program, I continue to learn about myself. I have a few “rules” that I follow daily (which are difficult for me sometimes). 8 o’clock is my cut off time and whatever isn’t done, gets done tomorrow. I journal, I went back to work part time and my kids are in school full time. Life is different. It is good and a daily struggle all at the same time. But I got through it and so will you!

In conclusion, my fellow moms, my message to you is to ask for help. Stand up for yourself. Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders don’t just affect moms, they affect the entire family. Establish some rules for yourself to help you keep on track. Learn to say “no.” Remember you are doing your best and that your kids don’t want a perfect mom, they just want you. I will say that these changes won’t happen overnight. You’ll likely have good days and bad days but always remember that you matter. Your feelings are real and don’t ever let anyone tell you any different. Care for yourself everyday and continue to move forward by remembering that you can stop fighting with your past, it’s over now.

Experiencing the Holidays in the Midst of a Perinatal Mood or Anxiety Disorder

The holidays can be a joyful time of year. However, they can also be a source of great stress, overwhelm and even pain. For moms who are struggling with a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder, the pressure to share in the happiness and spirit of the holidays can be intense and feel nearly impossible. The following are some perspectives you may not have considered from the point of view of the mom who is battling a PMAD.

First, imagine the thought of bundling up baby and standing in line at a crowded mall to visit Santa when finding the energy to get out of bed is too much. If you haven’t been able to take a shower all week, guess where buying and wrapping gifts falls on your priority list?  Things like decorating, making food, throwing a party, dressing baby in fancy holiday attire or even trying to feel joy may seem too overwhelming. Imagine what it would feel like to not even want to be around your family or baby at all. Picture wishing you could just hide from everything and everyone until it was all over.

Maybe the holidays cause a spike in your anxiety or OCD. Let’s say you find the courage to attend a holiday party with family or friends. You exhaust yourself pretending to be social; meanwhile, your mind is thwarting intrusive thoughts and you’re ready to jump out of your skin. Your head is filled with questions like, “What if they knew the thoughts I was having about hurting my baby?” “What if they knew I wish I never became a mother?” “What if they knew I thought my family would be better off without me?”

Or, you may be the mom who feels filled with rage. You can’t stand the lines in every store or the added clutter around the house. You fear you might lose it if you hear “Jingle Bells” one more time. And irritated doesn’t even begin to describe how it makes you feel to see others enjoying this time of year. You just wish everyone would just leave you alone.

Perhaps the holidays are difficult because painful memories begin to resurface. Maybe your depression was too heavy last year and you feel you missed out on a special time in your baby’s life. You may be grieving the holidays you wanted to have but didn’t because of your illness. Or, it’s possible that you experienced trauma around the holidays and even just seeing the holiday lights around the neighborhood brings you back to that awful time and place.

Now, imagine the guilt and shame you might feel for not being the mom who is decorating cookies, singing carols or staging the perfect holiday card. Imagine how easy it would be to feel some jealousy or resentment towards the moms who seem to skate effortlessly through the holiday season. It’s hard for the mom fighting a PMAD not to wonder “why me?” It’s no wonder she thinks something must be wrong with her when she sees such happiness in the hearts of those around her and she feels nothing at all.

But, have hope. There are some things this mom can do to help cope with this time of year. Here are some basic tips:

  • Set realistic expectations with yourself and others. Know where you are in your recovery journey and respect what you are capable of right now. The lights might not get up this year and you might still be wrapping gifts on Christmas Eve. That’s okay. If attending every holiday party you were invited to is too overwhelming, pick one or two. People will understand.
  • Learn when to say “no.” This also means, asking for help when you need it. Maybe it’s as simple as requesting family members bring a dish to pass; or, it might mean asking for some additional sessions with a therapist.
  • Be mindful. Try to accept whatever feelings, emotions or thoughts come to the surface and try your best to sit with them. They will pass if you let them.
  • Practice good self-care. In the hustle and bustle of the holidays, it can be difficult to find a moment to yourself but carving out this time is absolutely necessary in order to preserve your mental health. Take a bubble bath and listen to your favorite holiday music or treat yourself to a gingerbread latte at your favorite coffee shop.

So, this holiday season, give yourself permission to be wherever you are in your journey. The holidays are a difficult time for many of us so please trust me when I say that you are not alone. Be kind and gentle to yourself. It won’t always be this hard and this darkness is not forever. My hope is that a year from now, you will have found joy again and will be able to enter the holiday season with the happiness and excitement you once knew so well.

-Written by Alexis Bruce

A Post of Hope: Stacy’s Story

My son was born on a Monday evening in early June. The weather was warm and my belly was full from a dinner out with my husband. My baby was a week late and we had a scheduled induction. The process was long and painful. The stress of the induction put both myself and my son at risk. His heart rate often started to drop which caused panic among the doctors and nurses. However, despite infection, failed pitocin and the cord being wrapped, he was born without a C-section. I had always envisioned the moment they would lay him on my chest. I dreamt of being the first face he would see and whispering “I’m your mama.” But that moment didn’t come. He came out, was silent and was immediately given to the NICU team. I watched from the hospital bed and somehow couldn’t find myself in the crowded room. My voice, usually loud and firm, came out quietly and begged “is he okay?”

No one responded.

Did they hear me? Did they not know? Did I not matter anymore?

I’ll never know the answer why.

Minutes seemed like hours but he came to me. He was beautiful and healthy, peaceful and sweet. And yet, I was terrified. My body was shaking from the epidural but, at the same time, I felt a shake in my soul.

When we brought him home, I placed him in the bassinet near our bed. I laid there next to him, just me and my intrusive thoughts. I changed his sleep clothes daily for fear of SIDS. Is this one too tight? Is this one riding up too much? Is this one too heavy?

I spent a good part of the first six weeks laying awake while he slept. I’d repeat in my head “Don’t die…don’t die…don’t die…don’t die.” Somehow, my anxiety had tricked me into thinking I could gain power over all of it; with the right outfits, the perfect bassinet…but I couldn’t, and my pleas to God were just my mind torturing me.

Our days continued and he was a happy, easy baby. But, I was a quiet and emotional shell. My anxiety rode so high that I’d get half-way to work, pull over in a parking lot, and cry. My hands shook constantly. My patience was low and my desire for perfection was intense. I filled my days by cleaning and organizing to distract my mind; this eventually turned into a larger problem. Everything from driving, elevators, grocery stores, kitchen knives, door locks, stairs and even the temperature of our home caused me anxiety. I no longer felt social and I begged and pleaded with my husband to let me stay home. I wanted to stay home from everything. From work. From parties. From family events. The idea of pretending made me angry and even more anxious.

People accused me of being an alcoholic because my moods were out of control and, oftentimes, the only way I could manage social events was to drink. Though it may have appeared that way at times, the false judgement caused me even more guilt and shame. I had an amazing husband, parents, in-laws, and family…and yet, I was alone. It took me a long time to realize that while I was suffering, I hid it well. I remember thinking, “is this how it’s supposed to feel?”, “How can I love him so much but be so unstable?”

In April, of the following year, things became so bad that I started to not leave the house. On forced occasions, I would cry and fight with my husband. I hated when he would leave but didn’t want to go with him. In those days, it seemed like we might not make it through and that realization was my turning point.

In May, I made an appointment with my primary doctor and said, “I need help. I think I have postpartum depression. I think it’s going to cause me to divorce my husband and I don’t know why.”

The fight that comes after you ask for help isn’t easy. The medication, the trial and error of different doses, the brain zaps from weaning off, the neutrality of your emotions, the therapy, the marriage counseling and the sadness of feeling like you have failed as a wife and mother are very real.

However, I didn’t fail. By asking for help, I actually showed my strength. I succeeded by putting in the work and fighting for my life. I found a community of women who looked at my struggles with such normalcy and empathy that it helped me see a light at the end of the tunnel and, little by little, the panic subsided.

302…is the number of days it took for me to realize I was drowning.

41…is the number of days after that moment when I finally asked for help.  

29,635,200 seconds…493,920 minutes…8,232 hours of loneliness and pain. And through all of this, I found my strength.


Happy Birthday, Leo

*Trigger Warning: preterm labor, birth trauma

Today marks one year. One year since I laid on the floor in a pool of blood wondering if my baby boy’s heart was still beating. One year since my life was forever changed. Changed by this beautiful miracle of a human and changed by the way my brain morphed into some unknown enemy. Some anniversaries are good. This one is not…

Because one year ago marks the most terrifying day of my life. Stranded, alone, not knowing if either of us would make it. But somehow we did. My sweet Leo, you came into this world at 33 weeks fighting like a lion and that same ferocity shines through in the way you play and the way you love. You have conquered so much in your tiny life and I’d like to think that I have too.

I’ve been anticipating this day. Holding space and bracing myself for what might come. It has been a nightmarish year. One where I couldn’t trust myself to be alone with you much less enjoy you as the gift you truly are. I’m told this day won’t always have so much sting…that time will erase some of the intensity. I pray that is true because the only thing worse than revisiting this trauma is thinking that the day of your birth might be overshadowed by my pain.

To tell you the truth, I am angry. I’m enraged that I didn’t get to hold you on my chest after they ripped you out of me. I feel robbed that the first time I saw your face it was covered in tubes and medical tape. I’m horrified that the first time I heard your cry, it was followed by sounds of them trying to revive you. In fact, I am still grieving all the moments we should have been able to share together. I wanted to breathe in your newness…to inspect every inch of your perfection. I wanted to touch your skin without having to reach through the portholes of your isolette. I wanted to nurse you. I wanted to rock you, on those first few days, in the silence and stillness of the early morning. I wanted your dad and I to bring you home to your brother and sister in the lion outfit I’d so carefully chosen for you. But, instead, I came home with empty hands and a piece of my heart left behind.

I spent those early days balancing home and hospital-life while living in complete survival mode. And when you did finally come home, my anxiety prevented me from enjoying anything at all. How could I relax when there were no monitors to tell me that you were getting enough oxygen or that your heart was still beating? And it got worse. As you got better, postpartum OCD crept in and swallowed me whole. My disease ripped away every shred of  the mom I thought I was and left me debilitated, fearful and empty. My brain worked hard to convince me that I was an evil monster and that I didn’t deserve you. I feared just about everything but worst of all was the fear that I couldn’t protect you from myself.

This has been the hardest year of my life and I’ve learned that I will likely always be vulnerable to triggers that bring me back to that dark place. I understand that I will always need to be cautious and gentle with myself because what I experienced was terrifying and real. But instead of viewing life through the lens of fear and bitterness, I choose to take my trauma and use it fuel my drive for advocacy. I am willing to risk being vulnerable if it means that I can be the voice of comfort and support that makes even one other mom feel less alone. And if, through my story, I am able to bring awareness to the need for better maternal mental health care…then, I will absolutely keep telling it.  

And you. You handsome, incredible, marvel of a boy. The lessons you’ve taught me in your short time here on Earth have been nothing short of astonishing. As your mother, I can tell you that you will do great things. I hope you are encouraged by the way you’ve fought through every obstacle in your path and are comforted by my fierce and undying love for you. I hope that someday you are as proud of me as I am of you. And even after all this, I’d live it again. I’d go through the trauma, the pain, the fear and the healing all over if it means that I get to share this life with you. It has all been worth it to see your dimples when you smile, to get to run my fingers through your dark, curly hair and to feel your buttery soft skin against mine. This is our story, my love…and it’s only just beginning.     –Love, Mama 

Written by Alexis Bruce

 

A Post of Hope: Ashley’s Story

*Trigger Warning: intrusive thoughts

Ever since I can remember, I  wanted to be a mother. I dreamt about the beauty of being pregnant, feeling a life grow inside of me and giving birth, I envisioned those moments of meeting my baby and feeling an instant connection to him or her. I did have most of those things, but my story is also different. Because along with those beautiful moments, I also experienced the darkness of postpartum OCD. This is my story:

When I was pregnant with my second child, I would experience intense feelings that something wasn’t right. I became obsessed with checking my heart rate to make sure I wasn’t having a heart attack, looking at my legs to make sure there wasn’t a blood clot and counting my baby’s  movements to make sure he was okay. I made countless trips to the ER, Cardiologist, OBGYN and every time everything came back normal. Whenever I left the doctor, a new fear would pop-up even more intense than before which meant more and more checking. My doctor assured me it was anxiety and I tried so many things to make it go away. But the more I tried, the more intense the thoughts and feelings became. I made it through the pregnancy and delivered a healthy, beautiful baby. I was so thankful and thought the anxiety was behind me.

During my first nights home, I was hit with a fear of someone breaking in and kidnapping my son. I would try to sleep but every little noise made me jump up to check that everything was fine. I brushed it off as normal, new mom anxiety. But as the weeks went by, my sleep lessened. I soon became fixated on the fear that I was developing postpartum psychosis. I would spend hours researching and looking for clues that It was going to happen to me. I felt that at any second I would lose my mind and something terrible would happen. I was terrified of being alone with myself or my kids so I begged and pleaded family to stay with me at all times. Things got so intense that my life was completely consumed by fear. I didn’t want to hold my son and I didn’t even recognize who I was anymore. I was a mess and didn’t know how to put myself back together. I begged my mom to take me to the doctor because I just wanted to feel normal again and I thought they would know what to do. I remember sitting in my doctor’s office crying and begging her to tell me how to make this stop. I craved being the mother I had imagined. I wish I could say that after this visit it all went away.  I did start medication and therapy, both of which helped a little, but I was still unable to stop the constant intrusive thoughts.

I then joined a Facebook support group called Circle of Hope through Moms Mental Health Initiative. Through this group,  I met some amazing women who shared their struggles and who were all at different places in the healing process. It was around this time that I was diagnosed with OCD. Prior to this, I thought OCD meant just being super organized (which I am not). I quickly learned that OCD actually means having extreme anxiety combined with the urge to perform compulsions in order to decrease that anxiety.  I was able to identify that my compulsions were checking and seeking reassurance and that the more I gave into those compulsions, the stronger my OCD got. After many conversations with moms in Circle of Hope, I decided to try an intensive program to learn Exposure Response Prevention (ERP). This therapy is considered the gold standard for treating OCD and involves being exposed to all your fears while not engaging in compulsions. After a lot of work, I began to get moments of my life back. In hindsight, as badly as I wanted it all to go away, I have also learned a lot from this experience. I remember asking “why me?” and feeling like I’d be stuck in that place forever. I don’t ever want to relive those moments but I can say that sharing my story and offering hope to other moms is very healing. So, if you are going through postpartum depression, postpartum OCD or any other perinatal mood or anxiety disorder, hang on because you WILL get through this! There is still such a stigma around mental health but I promise you that you are not alone! I survived this hell and so will you! Please reach out for help. Today is almost three years since my son was born and I can honestly say that I am getting to be the mom I always wanted to be. <3 

 

The Waiting Game

No one ever warned you about this. No one told you that you were vulnerable from the moment you saw the positive pregnancy test. But here you are; rock bottom, the lowest of lows…the saddest and scariest place you’ve ever been. But this is reality. You’re here and you’ve decided to ask for help, GOOD FOR YOU! Time to put on that armor and fight for your life.

Since you probably weren’t expecting this, it’s hard to know where to go first. You cover your bases – OB, primary care…you know you really need to talk to someone and frantically Google therapists and psychiatrists nearby. What you’re feeling is urgent and real.

OB is too busy and you can’t get an appointment for 3 weeks…

Primary care doctor tells you this is just the baby blues…

Therapist can’t see you for another 4 weeks…

Psychiatrist can’t see you for another 5 weeks…

But you are hanging on by.a.thread.

You are playing the waiting game. The space between realizing this is bigger than you and the time where you can connect with the help that you so desperately want and need. You’re terrified. Holding your breath. Fearful that you can’t wait that long. You are not alone!

If you’re reading this, you’re lucky. Because that means you’ve found Moms Mental Health Initiative. It means that you’ve likely been connected with resources near you and that you’ve been given access to a peer support network of moms on a similar journey. Suddenly, there is hope.

But you still may be left with a wait. Whether that is hours or days, how do you fill that time? Here are some things that have been helpful for this struggling mama:

  • SELF-CARE: You might be thinking that taking time for yourself is selfish. Or, maybe you tell yourself that you have a newborn and all this comes with the territory. But I encourage you to think of the safety instructions before a flight: “the passenger should always fit his or her own mask on before helping children, the disabled, or any persons requiring assistance.” You can’t take care of anyone if you’re not taking care of yourself. What does this mean to you? Maybe it’s a walk outside, a 5 minute guided meditation or a few minutes reading a book you enjoy. Whatever it is, make time for it. You do deserve it and it’s essential.
  • MINDFULNESS: This takes dedication and practice. My OCD loves to latch on to the “what-if’s” and mindfulness is often able to shut that down. An exercise that has been helpful for me is the 5 Senses Exercise. The idea is to ground yourself in the present moment through the five senses. Start by sitting upright, rest your hands on top of your thighs, and make sure you’re comfortable. Next, breathe slowly and deeply. Focus in on the 5 senses one by one: hearing, smell, sight, taste, touch. Try to find 3-5 things that you can partner with each of the senses. If you get distracted, that’s okay, just start again. 
    • TIP: YouTube offers many videos guiding you through this exercise if that is helpful for you!
  • BEHAVIORAL ACTIVATION: Essentially, Behavioral Activation is doing the opposite of what you feel like doing. When depression hits, even the smallest of tasks can seem insurmountable. Call a friend, go for a walk or (depending on where you are) this might even mean getting out of bed or taking a shower. That’s okay. The key is to challenge yourself and go against the scary, negative feelings you are feeling. By doing this, you are proving to yourself that it’s possible one step at a time.
  • SELF-COMPASSION: Self-compassion has been a hard lesson for me. However, through my journey, I’ve come to realize just how critical self-compassion is. We all have hard days, we all make mistakes, we all wish we’d handled certain things differently. In those moments, what would you say to a friend? How would you comfort or support them? Why do you deserve any different? The next time you notice negative self-talk, try to shift the perspective and treat yourself like you would a dear friend.
  • GRATITUDE: I wish I had a nickel for everytime someone told me to start a gratitude journal! In a very dark time, I decided I had nothing to lose and started each day by writing 3 things I was grateful for on a notebook beside my bed. What I soon realized is that the entries didn’t need to be profound or life-changing. Some days, I wrote that I was thankful for ice cream or the smell of my babies’ shampoo and those are 100% valid!
  • MOMENT BY MOMENT: Waiting will likely not be easy (boy, I have been there!). When things seem hopeless, the best advice I can give is to take it moment by moment. Remember that two opposite things can be true at the same time: “Right now I am struggling but I have taken action to get the help I need”. Try not to get too far ahead of yourself and focus on what is right in front of you.

I wish I could hit the fast-forward button because I’ve been where you are and it is absolutely agonizing. But hopefully the tips above and even just knowing you aren’t alone gives you some comfort. Above all else, be kind and gentle to yourself. Remind yourself that (even though you might not believe it right now) you are incredible, you are strong and you WILL get better!

-Written by Alexis Bruce