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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#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.

Help Me Reach {or exceed!} my goal for Climb Out of the Darkness 2014

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Going through a postpartum mood disorder is something no woman should have to experience alone. Which is why I am so passionate about Postpartum Progress and all of the incredible programs this non-profit organization provides through the connectivity of the internet.

Back when I had my first child almost six years ago, there weren’t many people talking openly about postpartum mental health. Sure, there was the literature you’d see in the waiting room at the OB’s office during your monthly visits and the brief articles in pregnancy magazines. But no one really talked about the kinds of postpartum mood disorders, or, more importantly, what they felt like.

None of my friends ended up having PPD, or at least none that I knew of. And even though I had been diagnosed with Bipolar Type 1, and had been hospitalized twice for mania before my pregnancy, I honestly thought I was in the clear. I thought that part of my life was behind me and I no longer needed to worry about a mental breakdown of those sorts since I had been “in remission” for over a year and was completely med-free during my pregnancy. Looking back now I can’t believe I was worried more about PPD than PPP, especially given my previous manic episodes.

I know exactly why. Depression almost killed me in 2006. Two manic episodes, two weeks apart, two hospital stays and I was left a shell of former self. I had been crushed from the outside in, and stayed that way for an entire year. My career came to a screeching halt. I would wake to anxiety wrapped around my entire body, making me wish I could just end it all. I dreaded going out with friends because everyone was always talking about work and family and I was terrified I’d never be able to return to the work that I loved, and was even more fearful of not being able to have the children which I desperately wanted.

The silence surrounding mental illness was part of what made it so hard to pull through that year. I wanted someone to talk to. I tried. But whenever I would try to bring it up, awkwardness would inevitably kill the conversation.  I felt so ashamed. Blank stares, no words, uncomfortable silence. That damn silence. So I stopped trying.

I don’t remember exactly when I found Postpartum Progress, but I do remember how I felt. These are my people. They understand me. They understand what I went through. They understand all the pain and suffering and how unbelievable it feels to come out on the other side. And they want to talk. And listen. And help society to understand that maternal mental illness is just like any other illness. When we’re able to get help and we have support, we can get well and be the mamas we’ve always dreamed we would be. I’ve become friends with a number of phenomenal, passionate, empathetic women through Postpartum Progress who encouraged me to continue sharing my story. I peeled off the layers of shame and found my voice as an advocate.

This coming weekend, women all over the world will be climbing mountains, hiking trails and speaking out about postpartum mood disorders during the 2nd annual Postpartum Progress Climb Out of the Darkness. They’ll be climbing with their friends and families to raise money for Postpartum Progress which will help the organization continue to focus on its key initiatives: raising awareness, fighting stigma and providing peer support for pregnant and new mothers.

My family and I completed the climb last year by ourselves, but this year I volunteered to lead Team McLean, here in Virginia, in a hike at Great Falls National Park on Sunday. I am so honored to head up this wonderful group and can’t wait to meet them all in person. Whenever I meet people who have walked similar roads to mine, I feel an instant connection.

Our team has done a tremendous job fundraising, but we still have time! Personally, I am only $290 away from my goal of $1,000 and would be so appreciative of your support. The minimum donation on Crowdrise is $10, but no donation is considered small in my eyes. If I’m able to raise $1k by this Saturday, June 21st, I’ll earn a ticket to the first ever Warrior Mama Conference in Boston next July and I would SO LOVE to be there to hug all these warrior mamas I’ve gotten to know online over the past few years.

Here’s the link to donate: https://www.crowdrise.com/jennifermarshall3-cotd2014/fundraiser/jennifermarshall3

We’re #BackInTheWorld! {See if you can spot me and Owen in the video! Vivian took the picture.}

Thank you so much to David Gray for the use of his new single, Back in the World, from his new album, Mutineers. LOVE THIS SONG.

Your donation will help bring a voice to postpartum mood disorders. It will encourage conversations that will help heal mothers who may be suffering in silence. Please consider donating to this life-saving organization today. Thank you so much!

This is Friday

Friday mornings we’re up by 7:30am at the latest. I’m downstairs in my fuzzy yellow bathrobe, attending to priority number one: coffee. I talk the kids into cereal or oatmeal because it’s faster and less messy, even though they’d prefer pancakes or waffles if I could let them choose.

Three minutes later I look over and they’re deep in conversation together so I listen in. He talks of his excitement over his friend coming over to play later in the afternoon, a playdate arranged by the mommies since the two boys seem inseparable at school lately. She ponders what color tights she’ll wear from the rainbow of colors Grandma got her at Target the other day. Friday mornings mean her brother and I get to watch her gracefully twirl and shake and jump while my heart bursts with pride and joy. I melt at seeing how much she loves to dance.

By the time 4:30pm rolls around, we’re anticipating Daddy’s arrival home. He’s the pizza master, and since I’ve been thawing the dough since noon, it’s ready to go and so are our appetites. The kids and their father eat the meat, so they cover their side with turkey pepperoni. Mine usual is mushrooms and yellow pepper slices, whatever veggies are left in the fridge by week’s end. While it cooks we talk about our days. I show off Instagrams from the morning’s dance class and any from the afternoon that I’ve taken. We’re thankful it’s Friday. We have the whole weekend ahead of us, together.

I convince the kids to pick up the toys and puzzles scattered around the family room while the pizza cools, fresh out of the oven. We make it a game with a timer to see who can beat the clock. He hands me a glass of red wine, cheers, and we sit down to our family dinner. Everyone oohs and ahhhs over Daddy’s pizza skills and I vow to never cook again, again. Why cook when your husband is perfectly capable?

The movie starts at 7 and by then we’re all ready for some serious cuddling time. We line up: big person, little person, big person, little person, and stretch the big red furry blanket out over all of us. Phones are left on the kitchen counter, ipads and laptops and turned off. I don’t know a time I am more complete than when I have my children in my arms, my husband squeezing my hand from the other end of the couch, and I stop and appreciate all that I have.

This is Friday night with a three and a five-year old.

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Sure, there are squabbles and timeouts and messes to be cleaned up after every meal and snack. I’m highlighting here, for posterity.

The last few weeks this has been our new tradition. Lucky for us, our kids have only just begun to be exposed to the incredible world of Disney. Our past few Fridays have included The Lorax, Tangled, Brave, Frozen, all but one on loan from our best friends. Not sure what it will be tonight, but one thing is for sure: I love how we do Fridays.

#TGIF and Happy Weekend, everyone!