I Climb for You

Climb Out of the Darkness Postpartum Progress PPD

Last year’s Climb out of the Darkness family photo.

 

This is for the mom who emailed me three days ago asking for advice. A mom with two babies under two who thought she might have PPD, but didn’t know what to do.

You can get through this. You can climb out of the darkness.

I know it doesn’t feel like you can right now. I remember what it felt like.

Even though my type of bipolar leans towards manic episodes, I was pulled down by the darkness for an entire year. It almost suffocated me.

That year is a fuzzy mark on my memory, blurred out by the muted gray which sucked the life out of my world. Most nights I’d fall asleep sobbing, my cheek hot against the damp pillow. Food lost it’s appeal because my anxiety had burned my taste buds along with my desire to eat. The thought of doing anything – even taking a shower – was horribly overwhelming. I felt like life was just too uncomfortable, too painful. I’d climb into bed at night dreading the next day which would inevitably greet me, no matter how much I’d wish I wouldn’t wake up.

I don’t like to re-live those feelings, but they are engrained in my memory.

I’m glad they’re there to remind me of how far I’ve come. They live in me for a reason. So I can tell you to not give up. There are better days ahead. I promise.

With support, and proper treatment, you can and will get well.

I climb for you.

We emailed back and forth and you made that appointment. It’s your first step towards beating this. I’m so proud of you.

Promise me you won’t give up. This isn’t going to be easy. But by reaching out, just like you did when you found my blog, you can find more women who have overcome PPD. You will too.

I climb for you.

Having kids has definitely been the most challenging journey I’ve ever embarked on. Just when you think you have one phase figured out, they’re onto the next. Our little people watch us so closely, learning from the person who brought them into this world. Wait until they get older and you get to tell them all about how you beat this monster. They’re going to be so proud of you, mama. Beaming proud.

I want you to know that I’m pulling for you, and on Saturday, I climb for you. I’m right here beside you, cheering on each step, as you climb your way up to the summit.

*****

This Saturday, June 20th, on the longest day of the year, I’ll be participating in Postpartum Progress’ 3rd annual Climb Out of the Darkness fundraiser. It’s the world’s largest event raising awareness of maternal mental illnesses like postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety & OCD, postpartum PTSD, postpartum psychosis, postpartum bipolar disorder, and pregnancy depression and anxiety. We’re aiming to exceed our goal of raising $200,000 for programs which support women and their families so they can overcome these illnesses. I hope you’ll consider donating to this important cause.

3 tips for navigating pregnancy despite a bipolar diagnosis

Navigating Pregnancy Despite Bipolar Diagnosis

3 days before my daughter arrived in 2010.

My blog turns four years old this August. Having come to this little corner of the internet for nearly four years, writing my story of how I’ve navigated pregnancy and beyond despite living with the diagnosis of Bipolar disorder type 1, I tend to get quite a few questions from my readers. The most common ones come from young women who like me, wondered how they would be able to manage their illness and still be able to care for a newborn. A newborn who would grow into a baby with many demands.

I certainly am not perfect, nor am I an obstetrician or psychiatrist. I’m just a regular mom who, after having found out she had bipolar disorder, wasn’t going to let it get in the way of her dreams of having a family. These are my reflections, looking back on my experiences of having my two children (now 6 and 4). This is what happened to me, and how I’d do things differently if I were to have a third child. (We are 99% sure we won’t be having another one, in case you’re wondering.)

Accepting the diagnosis

Bipolar disorder is a challenging, life-long illness. The first year or two of learning to live with the diagnosis can be devastating and all-consuming. When I was first diagnosed, ten years ago at the age of 26, I had to resign from a career that I excelled at in order to focus on getting well. It took an entire year for me to work with my doctors and therapist to find a medicine and figure out a treatment plan that worked for me. I was able to overcome severe depression and crippling anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts thanks to the vigilance and support of my husband and parents. Once I found stability, and was able to maintain it for a year, my thoughts of starting our family began to take root.

Although I was able to taper off my medicine (under the close supervision of my psychiatrist), and I had a normal, healthy pregnancy, we were not prepared for what would happen next. Not only was having our first child an incredible shock to my system (I had an emergency C-section after 17 hours of laboring – no pushing, but since the baby wasn’t tolerating contractions and I wasn’t dilating, my OB made the call for surgery), but nothing can prepare you for how you’ll react to motherhood. On top of all this, I had put an enormous amount of pressure on myself to breastfeed. I thought, from all the pregnancy literature I had been devouring before the baby arrived, that breastfeeding was the only acceptable means of feeding the baby.

I was wrong and I learned the hard way.

Even though I knew that lack of sleep was a trigger for me, I didn’t realize how little I’d be sleeping once the baby arrived, especially due to trying to nurse. I barely slept at all in the hospital since the nurses checked my vitals every hour because of the surgery. Exhausted doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt. But I couldn’t take my eyes off our son. We had created a baby. I was in awe of this little person I was holding. It didn’t seem real. Maybe partly because I was headed into the throws of mania even before we left the hospital.

1. Have a plan for once you get the baby home

With our first baby, I did everything and wouldn’t let anyone help. I was trying to succeed at breastfeeding and if someone gave the baby a bottle, he might not go back to nursing. Which meant that I was always the one getting up in the middle of the night to feed and change the baby.

With our second, we had a plan. For the first two weeks, someone would be available to take the middle-of-the-night feedings. My parents stayed with us for a week, so they took turns during the first week home, and then my husband took over during weeks two to four. This allowed me to get a solid stretch of 6-8 hours of sleep a night, critical to my recovery from the birth (a repeat c-section) and to prevent mania from creeping in. I learned to protect my sleep, and because of this, was able to stay mentally healthy once we brought our daughter home.

2. Don’t feel guilty for formula-feeding

I breastfeed our son for the first four weeks of his life, and then ended up in the psych ward for a week because of postpartum psychosis. Having to stop breastfeeding was devastating, but on the way home from the psychiatric ward of the hospital I realized that being healthy for him was more important than anything. If I didn’t have my health, I wouldn’t be able to be present as a mother, no matter how I wanted to feed him.

For our daughter’s arrival, we planned ahead of time that I would not breastfeed. Instead, I got excited about picking out bottles and supplies to formula-feed her, and my postpartum time with her was so much more enjoyable since I didn’t have the extra pressure to make nursing work. I ended up having antenatal psychosis (mania during pregnancy) during the first trimester of my second pregnancy, so I had to take antipsychotics and a mood stabilizer during the pregnancy. Nursing was never an option and I accepted this reality.

3. When a medication works for your condition, weighing the benefits and risks is critical

Having experienced postpartum psychosis after the birth of my first child, we were better prepared, or so we thought, to navigate a second pregnancy successfully. We knew that I needed to protect my sleep, and I planned from the moment we decided we wanted to have another baby that I would formula-feed since I’d be returning to my medicine after the first trimester. This was my mistake.

From my research, I knew there was a risk to the fetus of a heart defect during the first trimester of pregnancy when women took the medication I was taking during pregnancy. So I made a plan with my psychiatrist and the high-risk OB-GYN that I’d taper off the medicine when I found out I was pregnant, and I’d return to it once I cleared the first trimester. Only I hadn’t weighed the benefits of staying on the med against the risk I was taking.

I was closely monitoring things, testing for pregnancy on the earliest day possible following my fertile period. When I finally got a positive test, my excitement over finally being pregnant (we tried for about nine months) took ahold of my body and would not let go. My mind raced with potential baby names as I’d lie awake in bed not able to fall asleep.

Would it be a girl? How would our toddler react when he met his new sibling? What would it be like to be a Mommy to two little ones?

Within a week of very little sleep I was manic and it was quickly leading to psychosis. Having witnessed my manic symptoms before, my husband quickly took action and had me hospitalized. I was five weeks pregnant with our daughter.

When I returned home, medication was required to keep me stable. I went back to the high-risk OB-GYN for a post-hospitalization check-up and was scheduled for regular checkups and monitoring of the baby throughout the pregnancy. Luckily, she was born completely healthy and I had a wonderful postpartum period with no complications. I learned that my risk for psychosis due to the lack of medication in my system was far greater than the risk to my baby in utero.

*****

If you’re considering pregnancy or are currently pregnant, I urge you to work closely with your psychiatrist and OB-GYN to monitor and manage your bipolar symptoms during pregnancy and in the postpartum period. There are great resources available online to help you as you navigate pregnancy: Postpartum Progress, Postpartum Support International, and if you’re in the Washington, DC metro area (Virginia, Maryland and the District), the newly developed DMV-PMH Resource Guide maintains a comprehensive and current regional directory of specialized mental health providers, support groups, advocacy organizations, and other relevant clinical resources pertaining to perinatal mental health.

There are resources available. Please don’t hesitate to ask for help. You can be a mom despite bipolar.

A Peek into My Life

New Year's Eve, 12/31/14 - on our way to the annual celebration at our friends' house in Richmond

New Year’s Eve, 12/31/14 – on our way to the annual celebration at our friends’ house in Richmond

 

The first half of 2015 is almost over. This is hard to believe. It feels like just yesterday that Anne Marie and I were holed up in a Marriott Residence Inn for our 2015 weekend planning retreat. But that was January, and here we are approaching the beginning of June.

This is my first full year as Executive Director of a start-up non-profit. We’ve had a phenomenal start to our first full year in operation, thanks to the support of so many people and companies, plus partner non-profit organizations. We just wrapped up our fourth big-city show this season, and are gearing up to present “This Is My Brave – The Show” to help kick off the start of the Mental Health America annual conference on June 3rd. Plus, we’ve had several community events going on this month, to close out Mental Health Awareness Month – including a mini show presentation at our local library coming up next week! You can follow our schedule here and subscribe to our newsletter to be kept informed of upcoming events.

To say it’s been a busy month is an understatement. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the support of my husband and my wonderful mother-in-law who is always available to babysit the kids when I have a meeting or event for This Is My Brave.

My writing here in this space has taken a hiatus, but I’m working on getting back into my regular writing routine so that I’ll have content to start publishing new blogs in the coming weeks. I’m reading a fascinating book right now on habits called Better Than Before : Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin and it’s helping me to understand my tendencies and how to use those tendencies to my advantage to create habits that I’ll be able to adopt. If you wonder why you aren’t able to adopt a certain habit, say, exercise for example, you may want to check out this book to learn why and how to tailor your habits to your temperament.

So as I work on my writing habit, know that my goal will be to share more here in this space. I’d like to finish out the series I started at the beginning of the year – the 12-part series on How I Learned How to Manage My Bipolar Illness by Cultivating a Healthy Lifestyle. If you’ve been following along, you know I’ve only highlighted five out of the twelve so far. Seven more of those are in draft form in my calendar, waiting to be written out and published. Bipolar disorder is a part of my life, for sure, but since learning to control it, the disease itself has taken up less space, time and energy in my life and I want to share how I’ve been able to do that with you. These aren’t foolproof methods, and my life is in no way perfect, but they have been extremely helpful and if they can help you, too, then I’m happy to share.

Moving forward this year, I’m also going to be using video more, mainly on my Facebook page for this blog, but also in my everyday life. What better way to get a glimpse into someone’s world than by peeking in on everyday moments. When my husband found a little frog in our backyard to show the kids, and when my little man took the swim test yesterday at the pool I was able to broadcast those events live on my Periscope. Are you on there yet? It’s super fun, a bit addicting, and I’d love to connect with you so I could check out your Periscope, too. {You need to have a Twitter account to sign up, as it’s owned by Twitter and as of right now it’s only available on iPhone and Android.}

I’m off to celebrate the rest of Memorial Day weekend with my family and friends. Hope you have a wonderful, restful holiday. Thank you to all our men and women who have served, and who are currently serving, fighting for our freedom. We salute you.

Pushing past my fears to run an 8k

#running4brave Bipolar Mom Life This Is My Brave fundraiser

I’ve hated running for as long as I can remember. This fierce hatred stemmed from the Presidential Physical Fitness Challenges we had to endure in grade school. Middle school was rough enough with puberty. Why did they have to throw in a rigorous athletic test which we had to perform in front of our peers?

I could care less about doing the most sit-ups or pull-ups or push-ups. I just wanted to get through it. Especially the mile. The dreaded mile. It seemed like an impossible task to run an entire mile without stopping.

I’d make it through a lap before the monster would begin to take over. The monster being my horrendous blood sugar which would end up taking a nosedive. My breathing would become shallow, my knees ready to buckle as my sneakers hit the track, and I’d begin to lose control. If I tried to talk, my speech came out slurred and jumbled. I was afraid. But instead of telling anyone I needed help, I hid my weakness until I was able to regain control of my body, which I could usually do by slowing to a walk.

Walking when everyone around you is running is not a great feeling.

My best friends from growing up who I danced with for years

My best friends from growing up who I danced with for years

My blood sugar issue continued to follow me through my high school and college years. As a dancer, I had a few embarrassing episodes during recitals. Front and center during one dance number, the excitement of being center stage reached a peak towards the end of the song and I nearly passed out from the severe drop in my blood sugar. I pretty much wanted to quit life after that moment, and almost gave up on dance all together. I didn’t know what was wrong with my body, and was too afraid to ask for help.

 

Similar to how many young people feel about mental health disorders, I’d imagine.

JMU women's water polo - where I met my college best friends

JMU women’s water polo – where I met my college besties

In college I played club water polo all four years, despite almost drowning during one game my freshman year. I was somehow able to get to the side of the pool – I think one of my teammates may have jumped in after me sensing my level of distress. You’d think I would have dropped the sport at that point out of shame, but I stuck it out. The friendships created through my years of dancing and playing polo were what kept me going. I could struggle through my health issues but didn’t want to let go of those friendships.

This was all happening before the world wide web exploded, so naturally I turned to books to try to understand what was going on with my body. A few I found explained that I was experiencing hypoglycemia or a sudden drop in blood sugar. After mustering up the courage to talk with my family about this weird thing that was happening to me, I learned that both my mom and my brother experienced similar issues. I was never formally diagnosed with a condition, but simply learned how to manage my blood sugar on my own through diet, as many of the books I read advised.

My issues with blood sugar caused me to settle into a comfortable, low-impact workout routine once I graduated from college, got married, and started a family. I’d go to the gym and log 45 minutes on the elliptical, sometimes doing a little weight training, but never pushing myself to do more than I thought I was capable of.

Then one day a friend asked me to run a 5k with her. I figured it would be fun to challenge myself, and I had heard of the Couch-to-5k training plan, so I signed up. Getting outside to run 3-4 times a week was invigorating. Before I knew it, I went from running one minute, walking two, to running five minutes then ten, until eventually I was running the entire 3 miles with limited blood sugar issues. Within the next year I ran two more 5k’s. And just this month I ran my fourth 5k in honor of my friend Anna’s son Jack who tragically left this world too soon.

#running4brave This Is My Brave fundraiser

Lucky Leprechaun 5k in Reston. That’s me in the black knit cap and fluorescent yellow jacket.

I never thought I’d do more than a 5k until I met Annie.

Annie has such a big heart and from the first time I met her it was like we had known each other for years. She told Anne Marie and I that she wanted to train for her first half marathon and at the same time raise money for our This Is My Brave high school program. She’s been blogging about her training and each week on thisismybrave.org. I’m continuously impressed by her drive and commitment to reaching her goal. I couldn’t very well sit on the sidelines knowing that an 8k is only 1.8 more miles than a 5k.

I say “only” now. Sitting here tapping away on my laptop from the comfort of the couch.

But on Thursday I went on a training run and it felt great. I know I can do this, and would love your support. If you believe in me, please donate to our #running4brave fundraiser on Crowdrise. All proceeds will be used to create a This Is My Brave high school program to help teens realize they are not alone in dealing with mental illness. With the money raised we’ll be creating a comprehensive video program featuring teens from our spring productions which we hope to be able to offer to Loudoun County Public Schools this fall as an assembly.

Your contribution will make a difference. Annie and her team of runners has already raised nearly $3,000 and we need your help to get to the overall goal of $5k. Every contribution counts. Thank you so much for your support.

#running4brave