How I Dug Myself Out of Suicidal Depression

{Trigger warning: talk of suicidal thoughts. If you’re in a sensitive place right now, you may want to skip this post.}
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Looking back now it’s so easy to point to the things I did during my year-long devastating depression which in turn lead to my recovery. But in the moment, my husband, my parents and I, we had no clue what would work. We were just trying so hard to get the “old Jenn” back.

Why is it so hard to look forward when you live with depression? Because you’re just trying to make it through the day you’re in. Tomorrow feels impossible, too heavy and suffocating to entertain even a thought of it. So you stay in the here and now and try not to let the anxiety about what’s coming next crush you.

That’s how it felt for me, anyway. When I thought about my life and what the future might look like after two hospitalizations for mania and a diagnosis of Bipolar type 1, I wasn’t able to fill my lungs with air. Every day felt impossible to bear, like I was drowning. So instead of thinking too far ahead, I sipped the air in gulps and lived my life in moments.

Like the moment I realized I was experiencing suicidal thoughts for the first time.

And the moment I realized I had to tell my husband but was terrified because I didn’t want to hurt or scare him. He had been through enough already.

Or the moment I realized the pulsing anxiety making me so nauseous I could barely eat from day to day was the reason I suddenly had to shop for a size smaller.

This realization was soon followed by the moment I admitted to myself that I didn’t want to go on like this. That I had had enough. That I wanted to get well already, for the love of God. I was done being sick.

I didn’t want another sun to set while my anxious mind paralyzed my dreams, didn’t want to be forever consumed by this sadness. I knew I was the only person who could make the decision to change my outcome.

I wanted to come out on the other side of a mental illness diagnosis smiling and happy, despite it all. I wanted to enjoy life. I wanted a family. I wanted to build a future.

So this is what I did at my pivotal moment at the end of 2006, the most draining year of my life.

I advocated for myself.

I decided to try the medication my doctors had been encouraging me to try for many months. I stayed on top of side effects and my symptoms by keeping a detailed journal so I could share my concerns with my doctor between appointments. And I came to terms with my illness, this life-long condition I face each and every day.

I am extremely fortunate to have good doctors, and the most loving, supportive people around me who care deeply about my well-being. I realize it’s not always as simple as trying a new med and communicating with your doctor. But this acceptance thing. The point in my life when I decided to embrace my sometimes malfunctioning brain so that I could move on and make progress was my turning point.

It’s what sparked the fire in my belly to advocate for mental health. It’s what told me that sharing my story could help other people. It’s my way of saying that if I could do it, you can do it, too.

Last week’s tragic news of the passing of Robin Williams occurred while we were traveling on the west coast. I, like the entire world, was deeply saddened by this tremendous loss, but we need to remember that suicide claims the lives of over 39,000 people a year, and suicide is the fourth leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 64 years old in the United States. It’s time we start talking about mental illness and how to prevent suicide. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is a great place to start. Also, if you are struggling, please reach out for help. Talk with a family member or friend. Or contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline
1-800-273-8255
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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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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!

My Mental Health Pride Parade – This Is My Brave

These past few weeks have been filled with rest, family, and relaxation. The beautiful outpouring of appreciation from those who attended the show filled me love and pride for my fellow This Is My Brave cast members and my Co-Founder and dear friend, Anne Marie Ames, without who this production would not have been possible.

During the show, I stayed in the moment the entire time. Sure, I was nervous as hell. But I could practically feel the love radiating from the audience up onto the stage, and it calmed me. Emotions flowed, and at times I wondered if my cast-mates would make it through their pieces without breaking down from the intensity of being that transparent and vulnerable in front of a sold-out audience. Each and every one of them exceeded my expectations. We rocked it and I cannot wait for the world to see what we did that day.

This debut show marked the beginning of our movement. We’ve got a ton of exciting projects in the works, but have to constantly remind ourselves to take things one day at a time. This Is My Brave has come quite a long way in 10 months. I can only imagine what lies ahead.

We hope you’ll stick around for the ride. #ThisIsMyBrave