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

 

Mental Illness Allowed Me To Find My Gift – My Messy Beautiful

A close family friend who I’ve known since I was a baby invited me to his parent’s house for a Jewish holiday meal one night in 2009, as they did whenever those special occasions roll around. I’m not Jewish, but they treat me like family, so it’s only natural to be at these events, surrounded by friends and loved ones and good food.

After dinner, Dave and I were chatting, catching up on what we both had going on. He described his plans of starting a non-profit with a good friend of his, to give back to the community. I remember my exact first reaction:

“Why on Earth would you want to start a business that doesn’t make you a profit?” although luckily I didn’t say it aloud.

What I forgot in that moment was what Dave had been through. Early on in his life, he had everything going for him. Top athlete, funny guy, made decent grades in school. But in college he got caught up with the new found freedom and after making some bad choices, started doing drugs to self-medicate the pain away. Hard drugs. One night he almost died and so his parents found a treatment facility in California and he went away to get help. He found his recovery path and stayed at the treatment center to become a counselor himself. His addiction led him to a place where he found his gift. And now he had come home and was ready to give his gift away to the world using his non-profit as the vehicle through which to share it.

It would take five more years for me to understand this concept.

Growing up, I painted murals on the walls of my room and wrote in my journal, read poetry and spun dreams of becoming an artist. But when the time came in college to pick a major, I reached for the safe choice: Business, with a concentration in Marketing. That way, I could graduate with a degree that would ensure I’d be able to get a job, while at the same time I’d be able to tap into my artistic side. Really, I was thinking more about money and my future and much less about long-term happiness and making a difference in the world.

I wasn’t following my heart and my lack of follow-through made me envious of my girlfriends who entered the fields of teaching, nursing, and speech-language pathology because they were going to graduate and go out into the world and touch people’s lives each and every day with their talents and they’d get PAID to do what they loved. I wished I could follow my dream of becoming an artist by studying writing or art or design.

But could my creative, business-y work really touch someone’s life the way theirs would?

I was too afraid of the unknown.

Too afraid to fail.

Too afraid to be less than perfect.

Too afraid to expose my feelings through my work.

Too afraid I wouldn’t be able to support myself.

Too afraid of all these things that stood in my way.

They were my fears. And piled up together they appeared as a roadblock to the path to following my dreams.

Upon graduating, I start out in the corporate world with that versatile Business degree and I get a taste of success in the form of bonuses and commissions that keep rolling in as I continue to prove my worth to the company as the top grossing recruiter within the agency. I like this compensation system, and so I work harder and harder. I’m helping people find jobs and I’m helping companies to find talent they desperately need and it feels rewarding all around.

But over the years I become greedy. I work longer and longer hours to pull in the “big bucks”.

At the end of 2005, as I am anticipating the best year-end bonus of my career, the life I had worked so hard to build up to that point, came crashing down around me. I suffered what could only be described as a “nervous breakdown” at that moment. I spent a few nights in a psych ward, but upon my release the psychiatrist I saw attributed the episode to the lack of sleep I had experienced the week before when my husband was away on business travel.

Two weeks later that hypothesis would be proven wrong when my mind succumbed to another manic episode for which I had to be hospitalized on Christmas Day. Talk about the lowest low one can feel. Being left by your family at a psych ward while your mind unravels faster and faster until you’re unrecognizable to even yourself pretty much describes it. That was eight years ago and Christmas, to this day, still brings up mixed emotions for me. More so gratitude now, but fear used to consume my thoughts. Fear that it could happen again, that my life was over now that I was diagnosed with a mental illness. That I’d never have children. That my husband might leave me. That my life was practically worthless now that my brain was sick.

I spent 2006 behind a veil of black. I mourned the life I had to leave behind. My success as a recruiter, my friends at work, my nice, fat paycheck with all those bonuses and commissions. The tears were in endless supply that year, though I tried never to let on to my friends how unhappy I was. I woke up most mornings with anxiety crawling up my spine, and would crumble onto the couch at the end of the day, a mess of nerves and sadness and self-pity.

In my mind I couldn’t see past the day ahead of me. My future was so cloudy, it was as if my diagnosis had pulled an eye mask down over my forehead so that my vision was blocked. No more thinking a year, two years, five years down the road like I had been so used to doing. Those days it was about surviving to see the next sunrise. I battled suicidal thoughts and although ashamed to tell my husband and parents about the images in my head, I did. My psychiatrist adjusted my medication and over the course of several months, the thoughts gradually began to dissolve. I was no longer fighting for my life each day, but I was still battling the voice in my head which asked me continuously what my purpose was.

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It’s been almost nine years since I was diagnosed with type one bipolar disorder. I’ve had two kids, and had two more hospitalizations because I was protecting my babies from the psychiatric medication in my bloodstream which I know now I’ll have to take for the rest of my life. I made it through five years of mania and meds and therapy and psychosis and depression and wanting to just make it all stop. And came to the conclusion that the reality of life with mental illness is that it will never stop; you can only learn to manage it so it doesn’t manage you.

Having overcome my mental health disorder allowed me to find the courage to write about my experiences. It may have taken me time to understand the beauty and impact of true vulnerability, but I’m proud to say that I’m there now. Telling the world that I live with bipolar disorder and still love my life has been the most liberating and gratifying step I’ve taken in this career I’ve carved out for myself. Dave is now the first person I go to for advice. I feel lucky to have such a close friend as a mentor so I don’t feel like I’m starting completely from scratch.

I’ve become a mental health advocate and I run a non-profit called This Is My Brave whose mission is to ignite and actively promote a positive, supportive, national conversation surrounding mental illness. Next month my Associate Producer and I will debut This Is My Brave – the show: a live, theater-based production made up of fourteen individuals from the community who will share their stories of living with mental illness through personal essays, poetry and original music in an effort to silence stigma and inspire change.

I found beauty in the messiness of life with bipolar disorder. It’s in the people who lift me up when I’m down and in the people who have opened up to me about the struggles in their life with mental illness.

I’m grateful to have found meaning in my life, and to be able to give hope away to those who might be in the midst of the same painful place I found myself in years ago. I know they can find a way out with the support of friends and family and quality psychiatric care. If I can do it, they can too.

My messy beautiful is encouraging others to share their stories of living with mental illness so that no one has to feel alone.

I’m thrilled to be participating in the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!

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Glennon Doyle Melton is one of my favorite writers because she taught me that vulnerability is okay. Carry On, Warrior taught me that by showing the world that the imperfections that make me who I am, I in turn am giving others permission to share their messy, beautiful with me. I’ve met some of the most loving, supportive friends this year and my hope is that by giving away a copy of this special book, I’ll be paying it forward so that another person can learn the magic of sharing their messy, beautiful instead of covering it up.

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