A Story of Hope: Talia’s Story – Love Takes Time

Trigger warning: birth trauma

I watched my son as he fell asleep in my arms today. In a simple way, it was magical. The way he gazed at me as his eyes started to close melted my heart. He held my finger as dreams began filling his sweet head. Little puffs of breath floated against my chest as he drifted off.

And while I watched, I found myself enamored with this beautiful little soul who now trusts me to be his safe place. It felt like one of those unicorn moments of motherhood.

I cherished the moment as I realized I had experienced very few memories like that in the first part of his life. My postpartum anxiety, depression and PTSD robbed me of them all.

After a hugely traumatic birth experience and hospital stay, my early days of motherhood were filled with grief and rage. My son and I almost died in birth, and in those coming days, weeks, and months after his birth, the darkness that enveloped me made me wish over and over that I had died.

There was no light. There was no joy.

I recall taking hundreds of pictures of him as a newborn hoping that someday I’d actually care. I felt no connection with my son. Or with myself. I was supposed to be a mom now, but what did that even mean?

I was drowning in depression and anxiety. I wanted to escape from what felt like the prison bars of motherhood.

Every time my son cried, I cried too. For every passing day where I couldn’t put him down for even a moment, I felt panic grow in my suffocation.

I felt I was failing as a mom in every way. I knew I needed help. I couldn’t continue on like that.

I started seeing an amazing art therapist twice a week. I began to work through the trauma. I felt supported, and she cheered for me and supported me every step of the way.

I had to face my grief. My rage. I had to accept the work it would take to heal what felt so broken within me.

Slowly, and I do mean very slowly, the haze started to lift.

I’ve had to take motherhood day by day…most times, second by second.

My son will be 10 months on Wednesday, and I’ll be honest, I sometimes feel behind in my healing process. To my own disappointment, there are still dark days.

And yet, today was proof that I am making progress. I was able to see the beauty in that moment. There are now days when I can delight in my son’s giggles and watch in amazement as he grows. Now, no matter how dark the days, the connection I feel with him is unbreakable. It grows stronger by the day. And so do I.

When I became a mom, I thought I’d know what to do. I expected to instantly love my son in the way they talk about in movies. I believed I’d be over the moon with motherhood. It turns out that although my journey would be nothing like that, this broken and worn path I’ve had to take has ended up being even more exceptional and gratifying. Each moment…each milestone is even more meaningful now.

So if you’re somewhere in the middle of this journey, too, know you’re not alone or behind, Mama. You’re exactly where you need to be, and I promise, you’re everything your baby needs, here and now. There is light out there for you, even if you can’t see it right now. Sometimes the best things in life take time. Love. Connection. Motherhood. We’re all works in progress, and perhaps that’s where the magic happens.

–Written by Talia Granzow

A Post of Hope: Katie’s Story

My journey with PPD started very quickly after my first was born. Leading up to giving birth, I was happy, full of life, and overjoyed to meet my little one. I did my hair and makeup the morning I was going to be induced. I couldn’t wait to have her. Quite literally the second after my daughter left my body, I was numb. All the happiness went away, all the joy, and I was completely lost. The next two weeks, I was very weepy, overprotective of my daughter, but also felt nothing for her. I knew that the baby blues were very common right after giving birth, so I chalked it up to that. And mostly, all of the baby blues symptoms did go away after the two weeks. I felt like “Whew! I’m in the clear!”

Fast forward to 4.5 months later. The weepiness started returning. I thought “It’s just because I’m home all day long with the baby. I just need to get out and socialize.” But even something as simple as going to lunch with my husband and mother-in-law brought me to tears for no apparent reason. Quickly, the weepiness turned into depression. Anxiety piggybacked right on top of that shortly after. Yet for weeks, I still kept trying to deny what was going on in my head. Eventually, I went to my doctor and put on a brave face. I told her I MAY have postpartum depression, but I may just be getting cooped up at home. I really down-played it because it all terrified me. She told me I wasn’t showing the signs, and to just keep an eye on it. A week later, on a Sunday morning, something made it very clear to me that something just wasn’t right: my first intrusive thought. A thought I thought I was NEVER capable of having. It scared the life out of me. I knew then and there I had to contact my doctor. I happened to have her direct number, so I called her. I thought “Forget it. No more pretending like something isn’t right. I never want to have a thought like that EVER again.” I told her I felt very disconnected, down, weepy, etc. However, I didn’t share about my thoughts in fear that I would lose my child. After giving her my symptoms, she immediately took action and then knew it was time to treat me for PPD. Even though, in that moment, I was so terrified, I also felt an enormous amount of relief knowing I was finally on my way to getting help.

The next couple of months were still pretty rough. I kept having intrusive thoughts. I still felt weepy. I still felt downright just dark and sad. But slowly, with the undeniable help of God, along with medication and exercise, I started to get better. I started to see the light again. I started to find myself again, which was a huge fear for me…that I would never be myself again.

Now, looking back on it all and having learned so much more about perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, I understand that I not only had PPD, but also PPA and PPOCD. I had the scary thoughts that so many moms with this disease want to deny having. Up until this moment writing my story, I denied it as well. But I’m done hiding my story. I want my story to help any other mom going through this, so that they know they AREN’T crazy, and they ARE NOT a horrible mom. I want the other moms to know I’m with you. And with the proper help and care, you WILL get better. You WILL be yourself again. Please don’t give up. I’ve made it out on the other side, stronger than ever before, and so can you. 

-Written by Katie Palmisano

Dads and Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders

“We’re pregnant!” As a Dad of now four kiddos, I remember the mix of excitement and terror that came with our first positive pregnancy test. I also remember feeling for the first time (and truthfully still live with) a unique brand of anxiety that goes along with being a parent.

It is very normal to experience symptoms of anxiety and depression while expecting and after the arrival of a newborn. Symptoms of anxiety can include restlessness, feeling keyed up or on edge, being easily fatigued, difficulty concentrating, muscle tension, and sleep disturbances such as troubling falling or staying asleep. Symptoms of depression can include depressed mood, loss of interest in previously pleasurable activities, sleep disturbance, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness, indecisiveness, and thoughts of death or suicide. If you are noticing that these symptoms are persisting or increasing in yourself or your partner, you may be experiencing what is known as a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder (PMAD). Did you know that 1 in 7 women and 1 in 10 men experience a PMAD? To put that in context, that’s a minimum of 3 to 5 parents of students in a class size of 30.

What to know and expect about a PMAD? To begin, it is not the fault of the Mom or Dad and no one did anything wrong to bring the symptoms on. In my work as a clinical therapist, I know that people can under-report the intensity, frequency and duration of their depressive and anxious symptoms. There are a variety of reasons for this, including not wanting to feel like a burden in general or to their spouse in specific, not knowing how to talk about feelings that are persistent and even scary at times, feeling guilt or shame, as well as just being overwhelmed and too exhausted to take note of what is being experienced. The reason for sharing this is that if you are noticing that you or your partner are exhibiting symptoms of anxiety and/or depression, those symptoms could be more intense than you are observing and are likely going to be under-reported by your partner.

What can you do? As a Dad, you are going to feel tired and overwhelmed at times too. Have you felt as a Dad that more is being expected of you? That’s probably because it is! In his book, The New Rules of Marriage, Terry Real talks about 21st century expectations for marriage and how they have shifted. He extends this to indicating that expectations for us as Dads have increased and rightfully so. Taking a hard look at ourselves and how we can share in the hard work of managing the household (e.g., cooking, laundry and cleaning) and talking about this with your partner would be helpful.  

You can be empathetic and show understanding by asking open-ended questions. For example, two great questions are: “What can I do to help?” and “What do you need from me?” Additionally, be prepared for your partner have different answers to those questions depending on the day or that your partner may not be able to speak what they need in the moment. That is totally okay.  On this note, another way to be helpful is to take initiative without being asked. A key point here is communicating with your partner to see if they want to be asked, prefer you take initiative, or a combination of both.

You can encourage self-care for your partner and for you. You can encourage rest, exercise, socializing with friends and prepare healthy meals. You can go with your partner to see the doctor and/or to see a therapist. One avenue to consider when seeking therapy is that many companies and plans have what is called an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). EAPs typically authorize a certain number of sessions (often 3 to 4) that are no cost to the employee or spouse.

Finally, you can get informed and seek out support from people who have been there or who are currently going through what you are…you are not alone! You can communicate with your partner and loved ones in a caring yet direct way that you are concerned about them. The links below are two great places for Dads to start…

http://postpartumdads.org/

You got this and will get through it! There is hope!


-Written by Joe Halaiko, LPC-IT, SAC-IT

Joe Halaiko, LPC-IT, SAC-IT specializes in relationship concerns, trauma, grief/loss, managing chronic illness, depression, substance abuse and anxiety. He has prior experience in human resources and can help people strategize on work issues or navigate career transitions. He works with adolescents, adults, couples and families to develop goals tailored to each of their individual needs. He uses an integrated approach, drawing on Person-centered, Existential/Humanistic and Narrative models, as well as using Cognitive Behavioral and Motivational Interviewing strategies. He plays guitar, and believes in the power of creativity, possibility and compassion.

The Light Went Out–My Postpartum Journey

Trigger Warning: suicidal thoughts

The Light went out.

“You’re glowing!” – I heard it so many times during my pregnancy. I felt the glow; I really did. I could feel the abundance of love and happiness that beamed from my face; the happiness that embraced me. That same glow followed me through childbirth, through the long, sleepless nights of nursing a tiny human and the dreaded witching hour that came in the evening. That glow got me through, but that glow dissolved. My light went out and this is the story of my recovery. I promise, if you keep going, you will also recover from your time of darkness. The light will return.

While growing up, I suffered from a mild form of OCD and some anxiety, though those things never inhibited my ability to live.  I loved to live, to smile, to laugh, to joke—but that all changed. After my third baby, I felt the shift. If you have ever gone through a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder (PMAD), you know that feeling and the very words you’re reading are likely filling your soul with the feelings you once felt. The dark, all-encompassing hole of spiraling thoughts, that you were sure had no end. The hole that completely swallowed you and and made you feel as thought there was no way out. I can look at pictures that I forced myself to take with my sweet newborn and remember the thoughts going through my mind—not feelings of harm, but of hopelessness. PPD/PPA stole my shine at one point; it took the light from within me. The light that once was illuminating my every move—it went out and with little warning.

I remember waking up one day and everything within me was off.  It was as though I had left my physical body and I was walking in a dream, but that dream was my reality. Every second felt like a mini-panic attack.  My brain was in a constant battle of fight and flight, circling itself with thoughts that nothing was real, but it was, it was so real. There was a disconnect from my life and family and it consumed me with feelings of hopelessness and defeat. Who were these children? Surely, they were not mine. This house wasn’t home. My husband, well, I was light years away from a connection I had felt with him just the day before. I would sit in the bathroom and have a raging fight within my head over the very real life that was happening outside of those doors—a life I very much did not feel a part of. I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t leave my house; I could barely leave my chair.  I nursed my baby and handed him back over to dad because it was too much.

I didn’t know then that I was suffering from a PMAD. It seems so obvious, I know. I remember exploring options like brain tumors and prayed that doctors would find one and be able to physically remove the mental anguish I was feeling. I didn’t know this wasn’t a job for my primary doctor.  I surely didn’t think I needed a psychiatrist because something was physically wrong with me, not mentally, right? Me—a student that had been studying mental illness for years and who had devoted hours and hours of learning the signs—I didn’t recognize the type of help I needed. I didn’t recognize that I needed medication to reroute the wiring in my brain or that I needed to surround myself with support. I just didn’t know, and it took me almost too long to figure it out. I was almost too late.

Did you know 20% of postpartum deaths are due to suicide and most women suffering from perinatal mood or disorders do not seek treatment (Wisner, 2013)?  Women like me. They don’t know the signs or think they are at risk. Maybe they are ashamed; too ashamed to seek the help they desperately need. What some new moms may not know is there are people out there longing to help them—begging to give them the ladder they need to climb out of the darkness.  People who won’t guilt or shame them but who will encourage and love them. The signs were there. THEY WERE EVERYWHERE, yet I still felt shame and was filled to the brim with denial.

So there I was, longing for help, for someone to pull me out of the water that was filling my lungs, depleting my oxygen, and stealing my life. I needed someone to tell me it would get better; a blog, a friend…anything. Not medicine though—I didn’t need that. I’m not “that” person. I was going to school to help those people, not be one. I just needed a shred of hope. Surely, I could continue hanging from the fraying string of life without the medicine my doctor assured me I needed.

The darker thoughts soon started flooding my mind. I didn’t want to kill myself, but I didn’t want to live. How could I? Nobody could live the rest of their life feeling this way; it wasn’t life, it wasn’t living. For the first time in my life, I understood suicide and the desire to leave the darkness behind. It sounded like a relief. I wasn’t really living anyways. I was simply a beating heart in a lifeless body; a shell that everyone would be better off without. The wall between me and the world was rapidly growing thicker and I didn’t want to be a part of it anymore.

Enter Zoloft.

Now, I know, “prescription medications are the devil.”  I’ve heard it. I’ve seen you write it and share it and rant about big pharma. You’ve listed and rambled on about the long list of side-effects that come with taking SSRI’s and mood enhancers. I’ve scrolled over the posts on social media encouraging people that “nature is medicine, not a pill.” I see you (it’s even possible that at one point I “liked” your post!) but I’m here to tell you that you are the problem. You are an ingredient to a disastrous recipe of misunderstanding mental illness. You are a driving force behind people—moms—feeling shame for taking medicine they desperately need. A huge part of the reason why moms are literally killing themselves and leaving their children and families behind. But a “good” mom wouldn’t need a pill to help her feel love, right? Don’t these moms know the side-effects? Or, that their doctors are at the hands of big pharmaceutical companies and are just pushing prescriptions to fill their pockets? They must not have tried essential oils or used St. John’s Wort, or valerian root, or B12 or D3 or a dose of sunshine. If they had they’d feel better, right? They should try a walk through nature; that would be a cure-all…nevermind that they aren’t showering or picking themselves up off of the couch for days or weeks at a time.

Or, maybe it’s just that you have never felt the overwhelming embrace of a world full of darkness. You’ve been lucky enough to never have to navigate life through a dark tunnel that seems to have no end. We’re taking these medications because we are trying…we are trying so hard! We are desperate to NOT DIE—we do not need your judgement and misguided shame. We need life. We don’t care about side effects of nausea when we don’t even care about living. We don’t care about the profuse sweating we go through, just to feel an ounce of happiness. We don’t care, because we have life—a life we once lost.

The tears literally streamed down my face uncontrollably as I took my first pill of Zoloft. I felt guilt. I felt shame.  I felt like throwing up because I was so confused, but I also felt hope. For the first time in three-long, agonizing months, I felt a tinge of hopefulness, a feeling that things had a chance of getting better. I felt like living was a possible option. I also knew that often medicine can take weeks to kick in, so I scrounged up every last bit of strength in my body and told myself I could hold on for twenty-one more days. I could do this. I looked into the eyes of my children, after explaining my need for medicine and dug as deep as I could to find the energy I needed to live. And I found it. I wove that frayed string of life back together. I built it up, climbed it and threw it out as a lifeline to the others spiraling into a world of darkness.

If you look into your baby’s face and feel nothing, that is not you…that is depression. If you feel like you are nothing, worthless or that life would be better if you were gone—that is not you…that is the depression. If you can’t find the energy to shower or get dressed or move out of your chair, that is not you…that is depression and you are not alone. There is light at the end if you keep going. You are loved. You are more than depression and perinatal mood and anxiety disorders and you will find the spark of life again. One day, you will smile again.  You will half-heartedly laugh again and remember the joy it brings you. You will feel love and you will heal. You will walk outside in the sunshine and take a deep breath of relief—because you’re alive and you beat it. You will look back at your time of darkness and feel like a warrior, because you are. You will look into the mirror and the reflection will be someone you recognize. Do not stop fighting. Do not stop trying to find that light. My light turned back on and if you keep going, yours will too.

Sending love and light.

–Written by Jarrika Falls Stephens

References: Wisner KL, Sit DKY, McShea MC, et al. Onset Timing, Thoughts of Self-harm, and Diagnoses in Postpartum Women With Screen-Positive Depression Findings. JAMA Psychiatry. 2013;70(5):490–498. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.87

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/ .