Dreaming Tree

10552368_10204353021647962_127558677699681406_nThis photo was only my fourth Instagram shot taken in March 2012

 

There is an enormous old tree in the lot next to our house. It’s full of big climbing branches and there is a rope someone nailed into the massive trunk so that you can get up. I haven’t tried it yet.

I remember the tree being a big selling feature when we were deciding on which house to buy six years ago. The house had plenty of other pluses on our list of pros and cons: a finished basement, an open kitchen and family room layout, nice big deck, corner soaking tub in the master bath. But the tree tipped it over the edge for us. Never will another home be built in the space next to where we’ve planted our roots.

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Six months after we moved in, October of 2008. The smell of autumn danced in the breezes and I was finally home again after a week of receiving antipsychotics via injections, then by mouth, then back to my regular meds for good. I was somehow able to release the bleeding ambition I had to be a breastfeeding mom. It hurt. We had seemingly made it through the hardest part – the learning curve of the first four weeks. And now, as quickly as my mania lurched into psychosis, my baby had converted to formula from my motherly nectar.

Why was I so hung up on being my first baby’s sole source of nutrition? Why couldn’t I see past all the outside pressure, push past my own sense of guilt over using formula? Why did I equate breastfeeding with being the ultimate mother? I don’t know.

What I do know is that after twenty-eight days of getting by on the amount of sleep reserved as a form of torture, I fell apart. That morning, on the twenty-ninth day of my newborn’s life, my husband handed our son to his mom, as I flitted around the house collecting my journals from nightstands and closet corners. I clutched them in my arms, along with all the cards friends and family had sent to congratulate us on becoming parents for the first time. I piled them up by the fireplace, making a shrine to my myself. A temple of my words and the love of others to remember me by.

I was terrified of being forgotten.

Lucky for me, a few days of a high dose of Lithium does wonders to balance out the chemicals out of whack in my head. I went from feeling like the sand was about to run out in my hypothetical life timer to realizing that I was still very much alive. I now had someone to take care of other than myself, and if it meant I needed to take medication for life, that’s what I would do and I wasn’t a bad mom because of it or because of having to change feeding methods.

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In the bathtub my first night home from the hospital, looking out the mini-blinds to the branches of the tree glowing in the moonlight, I reached a conclusion. Dave Matthews was playing on the mini CD-player and I remember singing The Dreaming Tree, my heart swelling with the energy of renewal. A deep longing to see my future life in recovery from my mental illness came alive within me.

I had officially been broken. A new mom is fragile to begin with. Throw in an episode of postpartum psychosis and the result is pure poison dissolving the paper thin skin. I thought maybe I had made a mistake. Maybe people like me weren’t meant to have kids. Being diagnosed with mental illness had ripped apart my confidence, my ability to see more than a day ahead at a time, and for awhile it was ruling my life. There were a few months when I rationalized it would be easier to end it all than to try to learn to swim through the waves of anxiety pummeling me day in and day out.

I was being pulled down by an anchor, drowning by waves of this emotion which everyone around me seemed to think I could just push out of my mind. Gulps of air were all I could manage and thankfully there were enough to sustain me. Because eventually, after bobbing in the waves for the roughest storm I had ever known in my 27 years, I was able to pull myself out of the water and onto dry land. With the wherewithal that the rains might very well come again.

We wanted children and so we took a leap of faith that I’d be able to handle motherhood.

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I remember sitting in that tub for almost two hours, scrubbing the film of hospital grime from my skin. I’d only showered once while I was in, as the first few days the psychosis held me tight in its grip, rendering me incapable of taking care of personal hygiene. As I lathered up my body, rinsed the soapy bubbles from my hair and let the rest of me soak, I kept thinking of the tree.

My brain had begun to process feelings and emotions and random images floating through my psyche at a normal rate, as compared to only six days before when the rapid fire of information flooding my mind crashed like an old computer’s hard drive. The meds were doing their job, and although I was lucid, my thoughts were still swirling a bit.

Thoughts of being chosen to go through this. Thoughts of feeling grateful for the trauma my family and I had endured. Thoughts of getting well and making memories with my son under our dreaming tree.

I just knew in my mind that I would find a way to use my story for good. I would give meaning to all the pain and heartache. I had to. I had a child now who’d be looking up to his mom. And I wanted to show him how to fly.

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The Relief In Finding Postpartum Progress

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I don’t remember exactly when I found Postpartum Progress and Katherine Stone, but it was probably during my son’s naptime in late 2008. I was googling “postpartum psychosis,” desperate to find someone who could tell me I wasn’t a monster because of what had happened to me. My mind was still raw, my emotions fragile. I was scared. What would people think of me when they found out? Are my friends going to turn their backs on me? Am I ever going to be able to be a good mom to this beautiful baby?

In the back of my mind I couldn’t help but remember the story plastered over the news during the summer I graduated college (2001) and how the mom who was so severely sick from postpartum psychosis that she committed an unthinkable act and her five children were gone in an instant. We shared the same diagnosis, and yet I still had to search. If I looked hard enough, knew I’d find what I was looking for.

Postpartum Progress was one of the first websites generated from my search. Once the blog came onto my radar screen, I knew I had found the answers I was seeking. The community Katherine had built reassured me that:

  • No matter how isolating it felt at the time, I was not alone in what I was going through.
  • With proper treatment and support I could recover and lead a successful, fulfilling life.
  • There were thousands of other women across the globe who wanted to talk about postpartum mood disorders in order to break down the stigma.
  • My story was important and I should share it to help other women and families.

Having lost complete touch with reality for several days, being forced into the hospital to get the treatment I needed in order to bring me back, and missing out on a week of my newborn’s life is enough to make any woman doubt her abilities as a mother. Especially a mother living with a mental illness.

I had been expecting postpartum depression to deplete my new mama energy and excitement. I was prepared for the baby blues which never came. I had read all the literature on PPD in the pregnancy magazines and pamphlets in my OB’s office. Several times.

With my diagnosis of bipolar type 1 in the spring of 2006, I should have anticipated the onset of psychosis after the birth of my first child in September of 2008. Especially given to the teeny amount of sleep I was (barely) surviving on during those four weeks when I was trying my hardest to be a breastfeeding mom. I should’ve known. I should’ve been ready. But I wasn’t listening when my psychiatrist said we needed to have a plan for the inevitable and instead was left beating myself up over what happened until I found Postpartum Progress.

I spent many a naptime reading the blogs of the women who were featured writers on the site. Each time I read a new post, I felt my spirits lift a bit, the weight on my shoulders growing a little lighter. Eventually I found the courage to start talking more openly about my own mental health with my close friends.

Katherine showed me the beauty in bearing our scars to show other mamas we’re still here. We’re making it because we have each other and because we want to change society’s perception of maternal mental illness.

I applaud Katherine Stone and Postpartum Progress for the incredible work they’ve done over the past ten years. Because of the blood, sweat and tears Katherine and her volunteers have poured into the organization, they have been able to offer the following amazing resources to mothers and families seeking support and information about postpartum mood disorders:

  • PostpartumProgress.com – the most widely read blog in the world of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.
  • “Plain Mama English” guides to understanding postpartum mood disorders – lists of symptoms for the various PPMDs written in language moms can use to recognize whether something is wrong.
  • Climb Out of the Darkness – Postpartum Progress’s annual worldwide fundraiser, raising awareness for perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.
  • Mother’s Day Rally for Mental Health – held on Mother’s Day each year, contributors post letters to new mothers – one an hour for the entire 24 hours of Mother’s Day – to let moms who are struggling know that they can and will get through a PPMD.
  • Private Peer Support Forum – a safe place for moms who are not yet ready to talk publicly.

I am in awe of everything Katherine has done for the good of all moms who experience postpartum mood disorders and I am so very grateful for her passion which fuels Postpartum Progress. In her I found the relief I so desperately sought out. The beauty in sharing my story to help others which led me to where I am today. Thank you so very much, Katherine!

Happy 10-year Anniversary, Postpartum Progress!!!

A Conversation on Ditching Perfectionism

Back in May, I met Sarah Bagley when she attended This Is My Brave. Like I had in 2013, Sarah had auditioned for Listen to your Mother DC this year, but her essay wasn’t selected. She did, however, make the cast of Listen To Your Mother Baltimore, and although I had traveled to the Baltimore show, I missed her performance live since I severely underestimated the time it would take to drive there. (My bad. I had thought the show was in downtown Baltimore when in reality it was in Towson, which is quite a ways further.) The good news is that I’ll get to watch her performance on YouTube when LTYM releases the videos of all the performances in all 32 cities! (Amazing.)

Sarah invited me to be a guest on her podcast, where she talks with people about pushing past perfectionism to achieve their goals and what living a B+ life looks like to them. Sarah is a recovering perfectionist, and I can relate on so many levels. Growing up I feel as though I was constantly striving to be a perfectionist, yet at the same time, when I realized that I was never going to excel at whatever sport, activity, class, or musical instrument, I’d find another to pursue. Maybe the next new adventure would become my passion.

What I didn’t realize was that my passion was right in front of me. I’ve always been a writer. From the time I was young I was keeping a diary. Falling in and out of love throughout highschool I wrote sappy poems. When I traveled, I kept a travel journal, documenting the highs and lows of the trip, the new and exciting places I’d seen, knowing that when I returned home I could read back over my words to be transported back in time.

Even though I knew from an early age that I loved to write, my fear of not being a perfect writer kept me from pursuing my passion. Luckily, I’ve moved past this unfounded trepidation to embrace the beauty of being myself, imperfections and all.

As Anna Quindlen writes in her book Being Perfect, “What is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.”

Sarah and I talked about writing, blogging, mental health, the show, and why self-care is important. You can listen here! (Thank you to Sarah for her patience during the interview as my kiddos interrupted more than once. Her editing skills were put to good use!)

Thanks for having me, Sarah! It was fun!

#TBT – A Much Needed Vacation

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The other night as we were getting ready for bed I complained of my lack of writing lately to my husband.

“I just feel so disconnected from my illness. Like I haven’t been experiencing any symptoms so how can I write authentically on my blog?” I whined.

He smiled at me. “That’s a good thing.”

I’m not arguing that a lack of symptoms is anything but wonderful. These past four years I’ve felt better than I ever have. At about year five was when I crossed over to the point of understanding why my body did the things it did, and what I needed to do in order to control my illness lest it control me.

Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of scars from where I’ve been. I especially remember the emotional rips to my heart from the stigma I feared in talking about what I was going through early on.

I wasn’t the only person affected this way by my illness.

Less than two months after my first two episodes and the hospitalizations that followed, Ben and I found ourselves in a tropical paradise. That fall we had booked a romantic February vacation to celebrate our birthdays and Valentine’s day. I spent months researching bed & breakfast spots on the island before settling on one that looked absolutely breathtaking, cozy and perfect.

I still can’t believe I made it through the trip.

The sunsets were magical and sitting across from this man who had cared for me so lovingly brought me to tears almost every night. Even though I was desperate to talk about what had happened to me, to try to figure out why my brain got so screwed up, we couldn’t. It was too soon. It hurt too much to revisit those excruciating moments so soon after we had managed to pull through.

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Our B&B host was welcoming and sweet, and I would have loved to have chatted with her if I would have been able to make it through three sentences before getting choked up. I could barely tell her how much I enjoyed her homemade breakfast let alone tell her how special this trip was to us, how we both needed the relaxation the island was providing more than she’d ever know. It was as if my story was caught in my throat. But why wouldn’t it be? It was so raw and I hadn’t yet been able to process everything that had happened so no wonder my words got stuck and jumbled. It was easier to let the tears speak for me.

My love. He must have been so scared of what was ahead of us. Would I recover? Would I ever be the same woman he fell in love with? Would he be able to hold on to our marriage until I was able to pull myself out of the fog I was sinking into?

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{After I snapped this picture, Ben came face-to-face with a barracuda when he was snorkling!}

People often write to me and ask how I was able to make it. They look at my highlight reel and wonder how I make it look so effortless. But the photos of today don’t reflect the pain and suffering of eight and a half years ago. If you look closely at pictures from 2006, my eyes show the trauma. My feelings may have been bottled-up back then, but photos can’t lie. My smile isn’t as bright and true. My eyes are distant, cold, afraid of the future.

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The future keeps coming. And now I find myself here, ready for what is lies ahead still. But I haven’t done it alone, that’s for sure. My partner honored his vows and stayed by my side, cheering me on each and every day. Through the days when I said I didn’t think I wanted to go on anymore. Through the days when I doubted whether we’d ever have a family. Through the days when I fell asleep crying for it to be over, for the clouds to make way for the sun again in my life.

The sun came back. And although I know that it will come and go at times in my life, I hold on to the past as a reminder of how far I’ve come and how grateful I am for the life I have today.