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

A Post of Hope: Alexis’ Story

Trigger Warning: Intrusive Thoughts, Pre-Term Labor

It was a beautiful fall day, one that felt more like summer. 33 weeks pregnant with my second boy, I was doing my best to get as much done as possible while my oldest napped. This pregnancy had been so different from my first. Leo was such an active baby (a fact that remains true today). Little did I know that this day would be the beginning of a very terrifying chapter in my life.

When the bleeding started, I went into shock. I called my husband who told me to call 911 immediately. Surely, my baby was gone. After an ambulance ride and hours without answers, my sweet Leo entered the world at 2:29 AM. At 33 weeks, I was told his lungs wouldn’t be ready for the world so hearing his brief cry was as sweet as hearing his heartbeat for the first time. But it didn’t last. Leo was whisked away to the NICU where he would call home for the next 21 days. I’ll never forget my husband and I sitting alone in the hospital room just minutes after his birth wondering if all this was real. When a nurse finally came in, she tossed me some parts and said “start pumping”. This was the start of my journey through postpartum.

I was, without a doubt, in survival mode. I didn’t have a single second to think about what I’d gone through or to begin to process because my babies and my husband needed me. I went through the motions of balancing hospital and home-life like a champ. Family and friends were surprised to see how well I was doing and honestly, I was too. But as soon as Leo’s health improved, I crumbled. I started to experience dark thoughts that terrified me so much that I was afraid to be alone with my kids. Imagine holding this beautiful miracle, who you wanted so badly, and suddenly having violent images of how you might go crazy and harm him. Your worst fears playing out in your mind on a constant loop. Sure, I’d heard of postpartum depression but no one ever told me anything like this could happen! The thoughts became so frequent and the fear so intense that I started to avoid objects that could be potentially dangerous, wouldn’t give my babies baths and, on particularly bad days, would make my husband stay home from work. I was living each moment with a horrible sense of dread that something terrible was about to happen.

Soon, I was overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness and shame. I thought that if I told anyone about the scary thoughts I was having that they would surely take my children from me. So, I remained a prisoner in my mind. I would wake up each morning praying that my brain wouldn’t already be playing the horror movie that had become my existence. But it was always still there. The pit in my stomach, the terrifying images, the “what-if’s”…I was in agony and a shell of the me I used to be. These feelings were coupled with intense guilt. Guilt for the extra burden I was putting on my husband, guilt for avoiding my children and guilt for ever having the thoughts at all. My unwanted thoughts started to convince me that I must be some sort of evil monster and that my sons deserved a much better mother. There were many days where the hopelessness I felt was so deep and heavy that it made me question if I would ever get better and even how much longer I could go on this way.

But this was the face of Postpartum OCD. Somehow, by the grace of God, I found the courage to ask for help. However, like many moms, I immediately felt defeated by the number of weeks I’d have to wait to get an appointment with either a therapist or a psychiatrist. I desperately started searching Google for a local support group or anything that could help me make it through. I stumbled upon Postpartum Support International’s website and saw where they had a warm line for moms to call. On Friday night, before a holiday weekend, I called and left a message with my contact information. By the next morning, a local PSI rep had already contacted me. She quickly put me in touch with Sarah from Moms Mental Health Initiative, a local group I’d never heard of. Here is where my story begins to change.

Within hours of my first conversation with Sarah, I was sitting in a therapist’s office! Not just any therapist but one who was educated on Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders and who was sensitive to the unique symptoms and vulnerability that moms like me can face. The amount of relief I felt after that first appointment is indescribable. Sarah also added me to Circle of Hope, MMHI’s online peer support group. The amazing women I connected with in Circle of Hope openly shared their experiences and offered an outpouring of advice and encouragement.

I’d like to end this post with “and she lived happily ever after”. And while that’s true, my days aren’t without struggle. The reality is that recovery from this disease is not linear. Just when you’re basking in the light, a dark day (or few days) slaps you upside the head. But the difference is that I’m no longer walking through the darkness alone. I have a safety net of amazing people, resources and love around me. And some days, just knowing I’m not alone is enough. So, I see you mama. You’re tired, you’re beaten and you are terrified. But stay strong. Keep fighting and know that through this you will learn that you are capable of more than you ever thought possible. That this trial will show you strength you never knew you possessed. What you’re experiencing is real but it is also treatable. If this sounds like you, I hope that by sharing my story you’ve been inspired to ask for help. Or, if you already have, I hope it’s given you the courage to keep going. You will get through this and you will get better. And someday it might be your story that gives another mom hope.

-Written by Alexis Bruce

Never Say Never – Deciding to have a baby after PPD

The sun was shining brightly on a perfect Arizona day in early April. Our brains were set in relaxation mode, with no clue that a major shift in our lives was about to be set in motion. My husband and I had left our 3 year old back home in Wisconsin with my parents so that we could have a much needed vacation. We headed down to the resort’s pool complex to find that the only loungers available together werein front of the kiddie pool. I didn’t care; all I needed was the sun, a good book, and a fruity cocktail. I could tune out the noisy children like a pro (a survival skill that all moms learn). After some time, I glanced up from Big Little Lies and noticed a baby fast asleep in the shade two chairs down. She looked adorably peaceful as her mom and older sister played in the pool a few feet away. A voice inside my head said, “I could do that. I could have a second baby.” Followed by, “Where the f*ck did that come from?” My heart rate sped up and my chest grew painfully tight. I struggled to control my breathing as the anxiety attack took hold. The thought of having another child was shocking, foreign, and unwanted. It had popped up out of nowhere and needed to go away. Over two and half years ago, I had taken the possibility of more children off the table. My son, Adrian, would be an only child and that was that. It was a hard decision but I came to terms with it, locking any lingering baby-fever in a box marked “never open.” Close friends and family understood and didn’t blame me. Severe postpartum depression and anxiety had left its mark.

Four years ago, as a new mom-to-be, I had high expectations for myself and what life would be like as a parent. Immediately after Adrian was born, reality smacked me across the face. Instead of that post-birth feeling of euphoria, love, and joy that I had expected, I

 felt dead inside. As the days went on, that numbness was replaced by fear, hopelessness, and despair. I felt incapable of doing the one job I had to do: mother my son. Following a diagnosis of postpartum depression and anxiety, I started medications and weekly talk therapy, but my condition continued to worsen. Dosages were increased; medications were switched out; more therapy sessions were added to my schedule; radical treatment options like Electroconvulsive Therapy were attempted. It wasn’t working. About a year and a half passed and my mental health deteriorated further. There were periods of intense suicidal ideation that at times became irresistible. My husband had to hide all the knives and sharp objects in the house. My medications were locked in a safe and dosed out daily. I knew that if I somehow survived this illness, I could never risk putting myself or my family through it again. Having another baby was unthinkable at the time.

Eventually I found a relatively new treatment program that was proven to be highly effective for individuals with major depressive disorder and suicidal ideation. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy saved my life. As I started to improve and finally reached a state of full recovery, I still felt good about the decision to stop at one child. Life with my family felt happy and peaceful. Knowing that the risk of postpartum depression and anxiety is higher after the first episode, I felt no need to rock the boat. Hence, the anxiety that accompanied the thought of having another baby on that fateful day in Arizona. Reaffirming the belief that I was done having babies helped me return to a state of relaxation in that moment. Still the unwelcomed thought persisted.  For weeks I attempted to ignore it, not wanting to face the tough emotions it brought up. Therapy had taught me the importance of getting curious about my emotions. I knew this needed to be unpacked or it would continue to haunt me. I decided to bring it up with my husband, expecting him to look at me like I was crazy and reiterate that we were done having children. Instead, he loved the idea. He felt that we were ready and could handle whatever came our way. I was surprised again when my therapist said he thought it was a great idea. He was sure I’d be able to use my new skills to cope through the postpartum period in a much healthier way. My mom’s reaction was the same. Frankly, I was shocked. Why weren’t these people, who saw firsthand how bad it was, trying to talk me out of this? I know now that it’s because they believed in me, even if I didn’t fully believe in myself yet.

On a sleepless night while wrestling with the big decision, I grabbed my journal and made a three page pros and cons list of having another baby. Reading the list over and over again brought on a mental clarity that I hadn’t felt in more than a month. All the cons could be problem-solved. They were scary, but I was not about to let fear stand in the way of something my heart truly wanted. The pros made it obvious: baby #2 would never feel like a mistake, but not having him or her probably would. The list also helped me develop a sense of confidence in my ability to handle another baby and face the potential of postpartum depression and anxiety. I would do my research, talk to women who had done this before, learn from my experience, and make a comprehensive postpartum plan. Plus, my husband and I make a solid team; by working together to face any obstacles, we could have the family we’d always dreamed of.

After Adrian was born, I went into battle naked, unarmed, and blind to the demons I was about to face. This time around, I will enter the arena wearing a full suit of armor, carrying a sword made of Valyrian steel, and with eyes wide open. I know exactly what my demons look like and how to defeat them.  The fear is still there, though not as intense, and it feels like a natural human reaction given the stakes. There’s also a sense of courage and strength that comes from knowing that I have what it takes to survive. The postpartum period will be hard. And it will be worth it.

Written by Megan Nazaret

A Post of Hope: Stephanie’s Story

Trigger warning: Postpartum Depression, Suicide14923873_10105919234159177_486371098_o

A little over a month ago I saw another story about a new mom taking her life. This mom was four months postpartum and her loved ones had no idea she was suffering the way she was. Some may wonder how a new mom with a supportive family, comfortable life, and beautiful new baby could want to take her life. I’d like to share with you how.

Some of the things I felt right after birth seemed to fall in line with what I had heard other new moms confess. As soon as my baby came out, all I wanted to do was sleep. I didn’t want to snuggle, I didn’t want to talk. I wanted everyone to leave me alone and stop touching me so I could turn off the lights, curl up on my side, and try to makes sense of what had just happened to my body. In the nights that followed I asked myself “what have we done?” “what were we thinking?” I entertained scenarios where I would put my baby up for adoption, and wished that one morning I would wake up and maybe he wouldn’t be there. When I’d challenge myself on these thoughts, I’d realize that no, I didn’t actually want to give away my baby, or wake up without him there, but I also felt incredibly trapped.

Two weeks was the timeline I had heard. That the first two weeks are terrible, and then things get a little better. At the two week mark I was entrenched in my battle with nursing. Setback after setback had me consulting several spreadsheets, calling anyone I thought could help, telling anyone who would listen. Pumping, and nipple shielding, and battling thrush, and trying to heal nipples damaged by a tongue tie and lip tie all while not producing enough, and not being able to hold my baby to my chest because it was too painful. It’s incredibly hard to explain to someone who hasn’t been through it, but not being able to nurse the way I wanted, ripped me in half. I still shed tears as I write this over the missed bonding, and the feelings of inadequacy. Much like postpartum depression, the pain of wanting to nurse but not being able to, is something we should talk about more.

Weeks passed and I continued to feel incredibly ill-equipped to care for our baby. Even though our baby was sleeping well, I started waking up very early in the morning only to lie awake waiting for his cry, crippled with anxiety over irrational things. I was convinced that I wouldn’t remember how to do simple tasks like hold him or change his diaper. I chastised myself. “What is my problem? Why can’t I deal? How can I whine like this when I am so privileged? Other moms get through this and much worse. What is my problem!?” At six weeks I officially stopped trying to nurse. I hoped that eliminating this daily stress (and daily failure) would help to raise my confidence. I also reasoned that if I could spend more time with our son and less time with my breast pump, I might finally feel the bond I so desperately wanted.

I crept out of the acceptable “baby blues” period and did not start to feel better, but actually began to feel worse. My anxiety was now creeping into other areas. I was afraid to go outside or be around people, to drive a car, or to go to work. My appetite was nonexistent and I was nauseous a lot of the day. My destructive thoughts were now not only in my head, but were coursing through my body. I’d wake up in the morning vibrating with anxiety. It was like the feeling you have when you drink too much caffeine, times ten, and without end. Up until this point I had been vocal with my husband about how I was feeling, but I could see him bending under its weight. We had envisioned that it would be getting easier by now, not harder. We made some changes to help with my anxiety. My husband took night duty and woke up with our son in the mornings which helped me get more rest. I reached out to my midwife and began taking a variety of herbal supplements. I tried to do yoga again. I kept a gratitude journal. I’d go for a walk around the block first thing every morning. I was diligent and motivated, and then I really really wasn’t.

The first time I noticed a shift was when I woke up one morning, and rather than being anxious about the day ahead, I was devastated that I had to face another day at all. I started to draw inward. I couldn’t seem to access any of the coping mechanisms I had learned throughout my life. I felt as if I had tried everything. As someone who traditionally processes my emotions by talking to others, the thought of doing this seemed like such an utter waste of time. I was convinced there was no getting out of the pit I was in.

I knew that I had some risk factors for postpartum depression which is why I started seeing a therapist during my pregnancy. I was also open about my concerns with my midwife and primary care physician. During one of our appointments for our son, I mentioned to our primary care doctor how I had been feeling, he wrote me a prescription for 50mg tablets of Sertraline (Zoloft) saying it might be good to have on hand, just in case – but I had absolutely no intention of taking it. I have a bachelor’s in Psychology and still I couldn’t accept that this was something I couldn’t conquer on my own. Still I was afraid of what psychiatric medicine would do to me. I feared it would change who I was, that it would stunt my feelings, or make me numb, that it would ruin the relationship I had with motherhood and this precious first year with my baby.

So I worked and took care of our baby, as I alternated between vibrating with anxiety and struggling to get out of bed. My second panic attack came when I accidentally opened a folder on our computer of pictures of me while I was pregnant. I realized it was the last time I had felt happy, and was positive it was the last time I ever would. I sobbed and hyperventilated my way out of work and all the way home that day, and I realized I didn’t have much more fight in me. I felt on the verge of something bad. I was still holding it together (well enough) but I didn’t have much left. That day I filled my prescription for Zoloft and that night I took the first 50mg dose.

I fell asleep fine but woke up throughout the night with body tremors. Shivering without being cold. I slept fitfully until the sun rose and was faced with another morning. The same demons were there, but now my mind was racing out of control. I was thrashing and tossing, unable to calm my body or my mind. I told my husband I didn’t think I could walk down the stairs. I told him I had to stay on the bed in order for everyone to stay safe. My eyes were wide and my speech was fast, as if I were in shock. My husband woke up with our son and headed downstairs.

The morning wore on, and slowly my mind started to clear. I went downstairs and started calling people I thought could help me through this. I started with my therapist who said that the Zoloft would be out of my system by the evening, and that I shouldn’t take any more at that dose. I contacted my primary care doctor, I called my parents. By nightfall I had returned to some semblance of normal and had sworn off psychiatric medicine.

The next day was mother’s day.

Hope was now officially gone. The meds had been my lifeline – my last resort. I lost motivation for everything. I’d look at my toothbrush and wonder how I hadn’t already been crushed under the weight of brushing my teeth twice a day for the last 31 years. I couldn’t fathom an existence where things like getting ready in the morning were anything less than monumental. Miraculously the one thing I could do was care for our son. When he needed me, my mind cleared. I smiled for him, I sang to him, I fed him and played with him. I put him down for naps, and once he was asleep, I laid on the floor and cried.

Then I started wishing I didn’t exist. I’d open my eyes in the morning and groan “noooooooooo” almost whimpering at the fact that I was still here. Things were getting worse. I tried to keep talking. I talked to my husband, and my family, and my therapist and a few close friends – robotically reciting what I was feeling. Not because I thought any of them could help….I was way beyond that …. but I needed them to take action if things got out of hand, because I didn’t trust myself to know.

Not wanting to exist and wanting to take your life are two different things. As the days wore on, I started to cross that threshold. One morning I made a pact with myself that if I did end my life, I would do it at night because I tended to think more clearly at night – I thought I at least owed myself that. Another morning I woke up and my first thought was of a bottle of pills in the medicine cabinet downstairs. The following morning, I had the same thought, but this time I told my husband. When he asked if he should take the pills to work with him, my next immediate thought was of a plan B. This was bigger than both of us, and we needed help.

Another call to my therapist linked me with a psychiatric nurse practitioner who had worked with a lot of moms suffering from Postpartum Depression. I was still so turned off by psychiatric meds, but this had now become a life or death situation, and there really wasn’t another place to turn. I had become 100% convinced that everything would be better for everyone if I wasn’t alive. I remember sitting on our porch arguing with my sister, that if I killed myself, my husband could grieve, then move on. Clean break. This was undoubtedly better and more humane than putting him and my son through a life with the joyless, endlessly anxious person I had become.

I set up an appointment with the psychiatric nurse practitioner for the end of the week, and my husband, family, and friends banded together to get me there. Visiting, sleeping over, sitting with me while I cried, helping with work obligations, loving our sweet son, going for walks, bringing me food, sending me texts, and loving and loving and loving and loving.

I couldn’t see to the next day, much less the end of the week. But it came. My parents came over to watch our son and my husband and I headed to my appointment. On the part of the paperwork where they ask about current medications, I wrote vitamins and herbs like skullcap, raspberry leaf and vitamin D. I knew we needed to be there, but I was NOT hopeful about meds. We were called into the office and I recited my story once again.

The first thing the psychiatric nurse practitioner said after listening to my confession was that it sounded like textbook Postpartum Depression. That felt good. She had strong opinions about what I had been prescribed, its dosage, and why I had reacted the way I had. She also had strong opinions about what would work best for me, and what works best for moms with Postpartum Depression in general. In regard to my suicidal thoughts, she was confident, almost flip – saying what she was prescribing should take care of those thoughts by the end of the week, and if not, I could go on a mild antipsychotic which would kick them right out until my new medicine was able to take care of them. Above everything else, she said with absolute certainty that if this didn’t help, we WOULD find the answer together. She gave me her personal cell phone number, told me to call anytime with questions, and again assured me that what I was feeling now wasn’t permanent.

There must have been a part of me that believed her because after my husband and I left that appointment, I ate an entire cheeseburger and french fries at one of our favorite diners. A bigger meal than I had eaten in months.

That night I started on 10mg of fluoxetine (Prozac), and I cried. I cried because it had come to this, and because it felt like such a long road, because I felt like a failure, because of my guilt, because this was my last hope, and because I was very very tired.

My husband and my sister noticed a difference within days. By the end of the week, I was no longer feeling suicidal. Over the next two weeks I started to wake up without feeling anxious. I would get ready in the morning without remembering every painstaking movement, and on May 24th I had a craving for good ramen and made plans with my husband to get some. I not only believed I could feel a little joy, but could also see into the next week. This was huge.

Last week I was rocking my son to sleep, and had to stifle my giggles. I was hit with one of those rare moments when you don’t laugh for humor, but for happiness. A happiness so pure it bubbles up inside, and releases in a laugh and a grin of awe and gratitude.

I am happy. Not simply functioning without overwhelming anxiety and depression (which is a true gift in itself, and was all I strove for months back) but am actually happy. Happiness was a feeling I was convinced I would never see again, and here it is. Here I am – myself again.

Three months ago I would have started this by listing the reasons I was a prime candidate for postpartum depression – trying to prove to you (and me) that it wasn’t weakness, laziness, or unpreparedness that caused this illness. Hoping you (and me) would see that I wasn’t unfit, whiny, coddled or anything else I accused myself of during those first months. But I don’t accuse myself of those things anymore. I was sick, and now, I’m feeling better.

While there are factors that increase the risk for Postpartum Depression (history of mental illness, family history of mental illness, nursing struggles, being over 30, a difficult birth, medical complications during or after birth for mom or baby, etc.) it can happen to anyone, and it does happen to more than 15% of moms making it the most common complication of childbirth. Dads, non-birth moms, and adoptive parents can also suffer from Postpartum Depression. New parents need support. Period.

In my darkest time, I devoured success stories. I didn’t think I would ever have one, but somewhere in my subconscious, it helped knowing someone else had. And so, here is mine.

This isn’t easy to share so publicly. Many times I’ve thought about the people who will read it. High school acquaintances, former employees, people who have seen me a certain way, and will now see me a little differently. But words are powerful. Vulnerability is powerful. Writing this has been therapeutic, but my hope is that it will also serve as a thank you, a PSA, and an apology for anyone to whom I gave the impression that I really had my shit together. It was not my intention to hold back information or to put on aires. This was just something I didn’t feel strong enough to talk about until I could see the other side. Maybe you’ll read this as a new mom and get some validation for what you’re feeling. Or maybe you’ll think, “I feel terrible, but at least I don’t feel THAT bad,” which is valuable too.

Life isn’t perfect now. I still feel stress, I still get overwhelmed, sometimes I still feel shame, but most of my days are filled with smiles, calm breaths, and noticing beauty – which is such an incredible gift.

You or your partner or your sister or your friend or your cousin might have a baby one day. Please remember this story. Put some of these resources in your phone. I write this as a method of healing, a beacon of hope to those suffering, and an appeal to loved ones of mamas and parents everywhere to please ask the questions, give the support, be aware, offer the help, give encouragement, and reserve judgement. I am someone you know who has been there. Reach out.

It WILL get better.