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.

Using essential oils to manage my bipolar trigger

 

doTERRA to manage bipolar trigger sleepThis is the first of a 12-week series on How I Learned to Manage My Bipolar Illness by Cultivating a Healthy Lifestyle.

 

I became obsessed with doTERRA essential oils during the fall of 2013. Today I’m not sure how I ever lived without them.

(This is not a post encouraging you to buy essential oils from me, but if you are so inclined, I do sell them and you can purchase via this link and I will earn a small commission.)

I want to share with you the difference doTERRA essential oils have made in my life. After ordering the intro kit (Lemon, Lavender and Peppermint) from an old high school friend of mine who was a Wellness Advocate under (surprise!) another high school friend of ours, I became hooked. (doTERRA is a network marketing company, for those of you who aren’t aware.)

I use the Peppermint on my temples whenever I get a headache and it dissolves the pounding within minutes. Peppermint boosts mood, so whenever I feel sluggish during the day, a deep inhale of Peppermint wakes me up. It’s also a great breath freshener. A drop of peppermint does wonders for a fuzzy, post-lunch mouth.

The Lemon oil is my favorite way to flavor my drinking water during the day. Water can be so boring, but we all know how important it is for us to drink. A drop of lemon oil makes water tasty. I also love cooking with Lemon oil. And for cleaning, in a spray bottle with water, it was great to cut grease on countertops and mildew on shower walls.

These two oils are wonderful, and they have plenty of other uses. The versatility of essential oils is what makes them amazing. But Lavender was an absolute game-changer.

Sleep is a trigger, therefore it is essential to treat it

Lavender has an incredibly relaxing scent, and when I apply it to the bottom of my feet before bed and a drop to my chest so my body heat diffuses it for me, I’m usually asleep within fifteen minutes. But that’s not even the best thing about it. After having birthed two babies – both C-sections – my body was never the same. Ever since my first pregnancy, sleeping through the night without getting up to pee at least once was a dream, not reality. Broken sleep was my norm, and my health was suffering.

Enter doTERRA. Lavender oil puts me into a heavy, deep sleep. There are nights when my son will come into our room, crawl into our bed, and I won’t even know until I wake up to his sweet face sharing my pillow. I don’t wake up at 2am to empty my bladder anymore. My nights are filled with restful, perfect sleep and I couldn’t be more grateful.

Since I’ve been a doTERRA Wellness Advocate for over a year now, I’ve had a chance to try many of the fabulous products. But the oils I love the most are the ones that enhance sleep. My favorites are kept on my nightstand. I now alternate between Lavender, Marjoram, Serenity, Bergamot, and Cedarwood for sleep. They all work equally well. It’s been over a year since I’ve had to reach for an Ambien, and I am so thankful to have said goodbye to the groggy side effects of that sleep med in favor of natural supplements which have none.

doTERRA Quality

I have only ever used doTERRA brand oils, but I did do a little research last time I was at the grocery store. There is a large display of essential oils at my local Wegman’s in the Wellness aisle. I was curious, so I spent a few minutes opening the sample bottles and sniffing the various oils and blends.

What a dramatic difference. The oils in the store smelled like a chemical version of doTERRA’s, barely even close to the aroma of the oils I had come to love. I don’t know why I was surprised. doTERRA touts their oils as being Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade, meaning they are 100% pure, free of fillers or artificial contaminants such as pesticides or other chemical residues. Plain and simple, I trust doTERRA.

An investment in my health

doTERRA oils aren’t cheap, but for the many ways I benefit from using them, they are completely worth the money. By joining the company, I’ve made an investment in my health, and I am so glad I was introduced to the many benefits of using essential oils.

Have you tried essential oils? If not, what are you waiting for?

Being Known as Bipolar Mom

Bipolar MomSummer Beach Trip, August 2014

Back when I started my blog three years ago, I guess I had the right idea when it came to choosing a name. It was me in that moment. I was a mom with bipolar, and I wanted a website where other moms with bipolar and other mental illnesses would land. And regular people, too, for that matter. I wanted my site to show up in search results. I was determined to get my story out there to help others who were going through similar experiences. Determined to make an impact, no matter how small. My heart told me that if I could reach people through my writing, I could help change the way people viewed mental illness in our society.

I knew in the back of my mind that I was so much more than my illness, but I needed a platform. So I built it, giving it the most obvious name. I set out on a quest and had no idea where it would lead me.

My words appeared anonymously at first, I had to test the waters. I wrote just words and only shared photos where faces weren’t recognizable to protect our privacy. But blogging behind a mask felt disingenuous and a bit like I was hiding something. It didn’t take long for me to realize my story was one I needed to tell with my real name. I wasn’t ashamed of the fact I had an illness in my brain. I deserved to have a voice, an authentic one, and I was ready to share my real life through not only my stories, but also through real photos of me and my family.

You see, until we put a face on mental illness, the face of a person who has learned to manage their illness so that the illness doesn’t control them, society will continue to stigmatize those who live with mental health disorders because they don’t understand. They don’t understand what we go through on a daily basis, they don’t understand how hard we fight to educate ourselves on the best medicines and treatments for our conditions, and they don’t understand how to support a person who is struggling with a mental illness. They fear what they don’t know. They don’t know it’s possible for a person with a mental illness to fully recover and live a beautiful, productive, successful life.

We can begin to change this ignorance by simply being open. By sharing our story when we have the opportunity. By letting go of the shame and embarrassment we inherited when we were diagnosed. And by not being afraid of being treated differently because of having a mental illness, but instead looking at it as a chance to educate someone and make a difference.

These days when Mary Lambert’s song Secrets comes on the radio, me and my kids sing it loud and proud. It’s no longer a secret that I live with bipolar disorder. I am sometimes recognized as “Bipolar Mom” when at networking events and I’m okay with this. I am a mom with bipolar disorder and my mental illness allowed me to become an advocate. I’ve rediscovered my love of writing and my blog guided me to create This Is My Brave with my creative partner, Anne Marie Ames, providing a platform and community for others living with mental illness to do what I’ve done.

I couldn’t imagine life any other way.  Happy Mental Illness Awareness Week, friends.

Today is National Depression Screening Day. Do yourself a favor and spend 2 minutes taking an online assessment of your mental health.

 

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.}
image (7).

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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