Running from PPD: Trying to Heal While Battling an Eating Disorder

Running from PPD: Trying to Heal While Battling an Eating Disorder -postpartumprogress.com

This story starts with a tub of vanilla ice cream and a Costco-sized jar of Nutella but I don’t know where it ends. What I do know is that I was at my wits end after starting yet another round of dieting and intense exercise, only to find myself too soon sliding backwards; tumbling into another downward spiral of binge eating and self-destruction. Back into a daily ritualized routine of excessive calorie counting, agonizing over nutrition labels and trying to push my body further and further to atone for my dietary sins.

I’m no stranger to dieting, body-image issues, and pitifully low self-esteem; my world has always been colored by the idea that in order to somehow be more loved or accepted, there needed to be less of me. There isn’t a conscious memory I have that isn’t tainted by pressure to be smaller, to eat less, to move more—and that if I could just get my shit together and commit to prescribed diet plans and go outside and run, then I’d be okay. Life could actually start because I’d be small and small means you’re happy, right?

After a battle with antenatal and postpartum depression, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder that left me raw, numb and nearly dead, I shakily reached out for comfort in one of the only ways I really knew how—with a trip to my pantry. Despite medication, therapy and family support, I still wasn’t really sleeping at almost eight months postpartum. Insomnia had ravaged me for close to a year at that point and my body and mind were desperate for reprieve.

So I opened my jar of Nutella, grabbed a spoon and began to eat. The thick, chocolaty sweetness provided me that momentary relief I was after. I could get lost in the taste and texture and if one spoonful wasn’t enough there was nothing to stop me from going back for more. I felt like I’d earned it; that no one could blame me if I did a little comfort eating.

The problem was I wasn’t just comfort eating. One spoonful quickly turned to six. Then the guilt would overwhelm me and I’d silence it with a bowl of ice cream with more Nutella. Then when I was nauseated from the sugar I’d dip my hands into a bag of chips and level things out with some salt. By that point I might then grab my peanut butter and shovel it in while eating handfuls of chocolate chips, straight from the bag.

When I finally reached the point where I couldn’t possibly eat another mouthful, I’d be sick and riding high on a wave of sugar coursing through my veins. My binges were always in the evening, so I’d get ready for bed and then spend hours laying in silence as my body would literally shake from the sugar rush. It was during those ugly moments I’d plan my workout for the next day. The mighty purge. My reckoning. Punishment.

My days would start with the same vow to never binge again and in order to make right my food choices from the night before I would have to spend hours exercising. Still carrying deep shame from my birth experience and failed launch into motherhood, I didn’t want to meet other moms and try and find something to talk about.

I didn’t want to try and drag my son to infant swimming lessons and mommy and me bullshit at Gymboree. Instead I chose to fill my monotonous days that began to seemingly blur together with either a hot yoga or spin class, followed by an hour or more of running and cap it all off with an hour long walk with my son in his stroller. I’d restrict my food intake to just enough to keep my hunger at bay and blood sugar from flat lining. This strategy would work during the morning and afternoon, but by the time evening would roll around and my son was in bed, all bets were off. I would binge, eating thousands of calories over the course of an hour or two and repeat this cycle five or six nights a week.

I gained 20 pounds in a month. Overwhelmed and devastated by the number on the scale I knew that my eating was out of control, but I was so utterly exhausted from the months I’d spent trying to find the right treatment for my depression that I had nothing left. Nothing left to ask for help or admit I had yet another problem. My sleep was still a disaster and my exercise program was quickly falling apart, along with my body. But I convinced myself that I just needed to try harder and I’d be okay.

I was able to curtail my binges to a more “reasonable” once or twice a week, meanwhile I pushed through injuries and trained for a 10k race. Something was wrong with my pelvis because of my pregnancy and even though I’d had x-rays, seen my doctor, a chiropractor, massage therapist and acupuncturist, I would lose all feeling in my legs about three kilometres into a run. They would go completely numb but I would just keep running.

I was told to stop. That I was risking serious injury. But I couldn’t stop running; running from my depression, my loneliness and my shame. Running from my failure as a mother, wife and woman. Running from the reality of my heavily distorted eating habits and a rapidly failing body.

My weight continued to climb and I responded with more crash dieting and exercise. The guilt I would pile on my shoulders for every “bad” food choice would result in yet another binge. Meanwhile my body began to burn. I would get numbness and tingling sensations in arms and legs after so much as walking up the stairs. Then the pain started and would go on and on for days.

“Describe it to me”, my doctor asked.

“I feel like a giant bruise or that I have the flu all the time” I replied. “I still barely sleep and can’t think straight most days. I’m terrified of going back to work because I’m in a constant fog and I don’t think I’ll be able to keep up.” Silence followed.

Finally, we landed on a diagnosis: fibromyalgia. With this new problem came more drugs and more weight gain. More binging and comfort eating; guilt and crash dieting. I couldn’t exercise with the same intensity but my sleep was getting better. And my pain was being managed. But my pants didn’t fit.

I kept on with this cycle for months, trying to manage the best I could and lose some weight, but shortly after my 30th birthday it all came crashing down. Another diet, another failure, another binge, and then physical rebellion on the part of my body. Pain everywhere, together with constant digestion issues, complete exhaustion, and a black sinking hole of depression.

I sat down in front of my computer, started researching and was hit square in the face the cold reality that I have an eating disorder—and that I’ve actually been struggling with one for most of my life. A call to an eating disorder specialist confirmed my diagnosis and within a week I started treatment with a nutritionist and psychologist.

The work I’ve done since my diagnosis has been painful and infinitely more difficult emotionally than any I’ve done in the past. We’re digging right into the deepest hurt in my heart and undoing the self-destructive attitudes, beliefs, and coping mechanisms that have kept me afloat.

It’s so much easier to open up that peanut butter and grab the chocolate chips and pretend that the last three years never happened. Or to be seduced by yet another diet and the belief that “this time will be different, you’ll see!” But the relief is momentary and leaves me sick, guilty and ashamed. And I’m done with that. The binge and purge cycle stops here and I’m doing the work now so that this story finds its happy ending.

Postpartum-Onset Bipolar II Disorder & OCD

[Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post comes from Kristen Lautenbach. She shares about her journey to diagnosis. -Jenna]

That Was Then, This Is Now: Postpartum Onset Bipolar II Disorder & OCD -postpartumprogress.com

It’s the spring of 2015, and I’m outdoors with my four young children, breathing in the long awaited warm weather as we walk to the playground. Life is humming along at a hectic pace, just as I’d imagined it would be when I’d found out, the year before, that my husband and I would welcome our fourth child.

But it’s not the challenge of parenting four little people that consumes my thoughts. As we walk along, the outward picture of a happy, carefree family, I’m preoccupied by the vivid images that have been too often flashing in my mind—images of my precious children coming to harm. Suddenly my three-year-old trips on a raised piece of sidewalk, and though he catches himself and continues marching along, in my mind I see him crashing face-first into the concrete. I try my best to push the horrible picture out of sight, but it will return to taunt and terrorize me throughout the day and even after the day has passed.

These graphic pictures of accidents that flicker and flash uninvited are what I now know to be intrusive thoughts, in my case caused by postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder. They began shortly after the birth of my son, an autumn baby, who despite an intense birth experience was born healthy, beautiful, and completely adored. I had experienced these types of unwanted thoughts to a lesser degree following the births of my three older children, but the thoughts—and the anxiety and mild depression that accompanied them—soon diminished and then resolved with time. This time around, I am having a much harder time managing the chaos that seems to be both all around me and inside my very core.

During the first weeks of his life, my newborn son had difficulty breastfeeding, and after several days and nights of nearly constant nursing, a flurry of appointments with lactation experts revealed that an overlooked posterior tongue-tie and thrush, an excess of natural yeast in the body, were to blame. The tongue-tie was easily fixed with a quick clip of the skin under the tongue, but the thrush was more difficult to treat. Life became frantically busy as I fought to keep breastfeeding going while doing my best to care for my other children as well.

Stress and sleep deprivation wreaked havoc on my vulnerable postpartum state. One afternoon, as I hurried around the kitchen getting a snack ready for the older three, I glanced toward the living room to check on my two-month-old, who was lying on his play mat. His little mouth was purple with the gentian violet I had to apply to his tongue to treat the thrush. In my exhausted state, for a split second, I thought I saw blood pouring from his mouth. My body and mind constantly raced with anxiety. Around this time, I noticed my hands would frequently tremble, and my daughters commented that Mommy often dropped things while getting them ready for school in the morning.

Eventually, my baby settled into a predictable sleeping pattern, the thrush cleared up, and breastfeeding became easier. But while my children slept, I found it increasingly difficult to do so. Sometimes I would fall asleep while settling my three-year-old to bed, then wake up after a few hours’ rest and set to work doing laundry or other housework in the middle of the night. I couldn’t seem to settle down, and though I was worn out, I often felt restless and agitated by the energy I couldn’t get out of my body. My husband is a natural in his role as a dad, and he willingly took over with the children when I was unable to and worked extra hard to pick up wherever I’d left off with the housework. Still, I knew I desperately needed more help keeping up with the increased demands that weighed heavily upon me.

As much as I needed both practical and emotional support, I felt guilty when anyone besides my husband helped me. I had always been able to handle looking after my children, and I was determined to push through the difficult days, hopeful that life would settle down and I would soon feel more like myself again. With no family in town and a group of friends who were all busy with young children of their own, few came close enough to notice that I wasn’t my usual self. Those who offered to help, I all but turned away, insisting everything was alright. My husband could tell that I was struggling, but he had seen me come out of a similar, albeit milder, episode of postpartum depression after the birth of our second child, and he was optimistic that I would get better on my own.

I hoped my husband was right, though I feared this time he wasn’t. As time went on, I felt less and less like myself. When I looked in the mirror, I saw a sad, hollow version of the person I used to be. I started to wonder whether everyone could see how miserable I was, and whether they considered me ungrateful for my beautiful family. Still, most people didn’t even notice that I was having a hard time. Even when I finally confided in a close family member about some of the distressing symptoms I was experiencing, I was given the lighthearted advice, “Fake it until you make it.” I think the comment was meant to encourage me; the idea was that if I could just sit through the storm, I would soon be back into the sunshine. What I wondered but didn’t say was, “What if I don’t make it?” No one understood how deeply I was hurting.

I think that mothers, in particular, can be stoic. We’re used to persevering through all kinds of trials. In my case, I waited until my son was ten months old before finally getting help. I fumbled through the summer vacation with my children, becoming increasingly isolated without the daily interactions that go along with the school routine. I was able to go through the motions of caring for my family; having parented for eight years, I had my mom role practically memorized. Of course, I was only playing the part, a robotic mimic of my real self. Inside, I felt increasingly depressed, anxious, and emotionally fragile. I began experiencing frightening panic attacks and uncharacteristic, dramatic mood swings.

As my condition worsened, I began to wonder if my loved ones would be better off without me. I imagined my husband moving on and marrying someone else—someone completely unlike me. My children might be better off with a different mother, I reasoned, and my family wouldn’t miss me for long. The intrusive thoughts that had begun after my son’s birth now ran rampant much of the day and flashed continuously as I fell asleep at night. While these images had originally focused on my children being accidentally injured, now they included pictures of me harming myself. I had difficulty expressing what was happening, even to my husband. Exhausted and confused, I considered hurting myself as a way to numb my pain.

I was fortunate that in my lowest moment I had someone to call, someone whom I knew would respond with love and without judgement. For me that person was a close friend, the woman who had coached me through my son’s birth and who, fittingly, came to my side and helped me once again. Another friend happened to notice me that same week and immediately snapped to attention, sharing with me her own story of postpartum depression and connecting me to the resources that had helped her.

I phoned the facilitator of the postpartum mood disorders support group at my local hospital and described my symptoms. Although I wasn’t eligible to participate in the group since my son was older than six months, I was given the name of a psychiatrist who specializes in maternal medicine, and I was instructed to see my family doctor urgently in order to be referred to her. I called my family doctor and arranged to see her the next day. Finally, I had taken the crucial first step of reaching out for help.

Driving to my doctor’s office, I literally shook with anxiety. It was incredibly scary to try to move my inner turmoil into the outside world, to finally say out loud what was happening in my unsettled mind. As I described my symptoms, my doctor listened compassionately, completed the referral I requested, and even set me up with a complimentary counselling appointment. She then prescribed an antidepressant, which I was to begin taking immediately. The medication, she explained, would allow me to start feeling better after a few weeks, and I was to return in four to six weeks to reassess how I was doing.

For some women with postpartum depression, that antidepressant might have been a lifesaver. For me, however, it resulted in insomnia, extreme anxiety, and mental confusion. By the fifth day of taking the medication, I was completely unable to think clearly. I couldn’t remember what I had done just moments before and repeatedly asked my children questions such as whether I’d already brushed their teeth. A friend saw me dropping off my children for school and, noticing I seemed anxious, insisted she stay with me through the morning. A few hours later, when I became faint and was unable to answer her questions, she called 911.

Of all the women who suffer from depression following the birth of their baby, approximately one in five is actually dealing with some form of bipolar disorder. I was one of those women. This is why the antidepressant actually worsened my symptoms, causing my shifting moods to cycle even more rapidly between racing highs and painful lows. Thankfully, it was only a couple of weeks before I saw the psychiatrist to whom I had been referred. She had the expertise to evaluate my full range of symptoms, and after several appointments I was diagnosed with postpartum OCD and bipolar II disorder. It was a lot to take in, but a relief to finally understand what was happening. With proper treatment that included mood-stabilizing medication, I gradually began to feel better: calmer, happier, hopeful, whole.

My baby boy is now an energetic eighteen-month-old. I can honestly say I’m delighted that I get to be “Mom” to him and his brother and sisters. While I never doubted my love for my children, it is a joy to be able to once again feel that love and not simply to know it. I am immensely grateful that I’ve been able to get professional help for my postpartum mood disorder. I continue to see the specialist who initially helped me, now on a monthly basis. I’m conscientious about taking care of myself, making sure to sleep enough, eat well, and make time for occasional dates with my husband. Medication continues to be a crucial part of my recovery, and I also use a mood chart so that I can track how I’m feeling and better identify what helps to keep me well. Most importantly to me, I have a caring family and a close circle of supportive friends who know what I’ve been through and who remind me of how loved I am.

If you are struggling with a perinatal or postpartum mood disorder, or if you aren’t sure but you just don’t feel like yourself, please reach out and tell someone what’s going on. You may have to talk to more than one person to be heard. You may have to volunteer the information to your family doctor if he or she doesn’t ask. Just please don’t suffer in silence. Getting help doesn’t mean you’re weak, or that your parenting will be called into question. In fact, it’s the opposite: It means that you’re strong, and that you’re devoted to being the healthiest version of yourself that you can be, for you and your family. As my dad said to me when I told him I was getting help, “There is a much prettier world out there, sweetie. And you’re going to see it.”

Babies Are Not Anti-Depressants

Babies Are Not Antidepressants -postpartumprogress.com

There seems to be a notion floating around the internet that babies fix broken people.

They say that it surely must be impossible to be depressed while holding a bundle of joy.

So.

Wait.

You’re basically saying that postpartum depression doesn’t exist.

Did you even realize that is what you were doing?

You are looking at all of us Warrior Moms, dead in the eyes, and saying that you don’t understand how we can be so sad, in such a wretched state, when we clearly have a wonderful life with this new baby.

Let me break it down, because there is clearly some confusion here.

Babies are not antidepressants. Our OBGYN didn’t write us a prescription to get pregnant, thinking it will fix something. Babies don’t fix things.

If you are suffering from PPD, I guarantee holding your baby makes you feel numb, scared, empty.

Society LOVES discounting postpartum depression—calling it cute things like “baby blues” and saying that it’s just our hormones surging and that we will be in tip-top shape in no time. To focus on the miracle that has happened to us.

I felt depressed holding my daughter when she was three hours old, five months old, four years old.

My daughter didn’t fix me, because it’s not her job. You know what did help me?

Therapy.

Medication.

Encouragement from other mothers going through the same thing.

You know why?

Because depression—any form of depression at any point in your life—is a disease. It is a sickness. It is not something that aromatherapy, prayer, or holding a five month old baby can cure.

Do you know what we feel when we hold our babies instead of unadulterated joy? Desperation. We hold them, in all of their beautiful glory, and desperately search for some sort of bond.

It was not the annunciation where an angel spoke to me about this wonderful tiny human I have brought in to the world. My heart didn’t swell nine times its actual size. There was silence, loneliness, guilt.

Telling a woman that holding their baby will cure their depression is the same as asking an alcoholic to hold a bottle of whiskey and expecting them to no longer feel addicted. THIS ISN’T HOW THIS WORKS.

So, if you have never dealt with postpartum depression—whether you’re a man, childless, or just incredibly lucky—I suggest you Google what you are talking about before taking your absurd opinion public.

 

What It Feels Like to Live with Postpartum Anxiety

What It Feels Like to Live with Postpartum Anxiety -postpartumprogress.com

Sometimes when you take the stairs and get distracted your foot slips and you miss a step. Or you feel the lip of the stop on the heel of your foot and catch yourself before you stumble downwards. The second you either slip or recover, there is a quick moment when your heart leaps to your throat, you realize you’re sweating, and your chest is pounding. Then you stabilize, go a little slower, and make it down fine. The feeling passes.

Having anxiety is slipping down the stairs and having that feeling replay on an instant feedback loop. The feeling never passes. Instead of a world of calm, interrupted by brief moments of slipping down the stairs, it’s reversed. It is a world of near misses with the occasional moment of calm. With postpartum anxiety it’s heightened. Travelling down the stairs is stressful enough. Travelling down the stairs with the child is signing the death certificate of peace.

My daughter is over three years old, and I have been living with postpartum anxiety since. With a second daughter due in just a month and a half, this has been something lingering in my mind and I want to share with you the things I have learned since being diagnosed. Not because I have the key to fixing or understanding it (wouldn’t that be nice?), but because I was entirely alone when I had it hardest and it almost swept me under, child in tow. I wish I had been told these things.

Not everything, but many small things can be a huge, larger-than-life deal.

I sometimes don’t just cry over spilled milk; on my darkest days I sob to Amy Winehouse because of it and let it undo my entire day. Postpartum anxiety is not necessarily a reaction to what just happened, but a reaction to what could have and probably will later because of it. The responsibility for my daughter can be crippling when I make stupid mistakes. Great, I knocked my coffee over while she was a foot away and now it will ruin the rug and I have to make more and my daughter could have been sitting right where I spilled it and she could have had her skin burn and scarred permanently and why wasn’t I more careful? It focuses more on what could have happened, and also takes everything as a sign for doom later on. You cannot relax at all. Everything leads back to how you messed with your kids and life, and these annoying thoughts are also great contributors to insomnia.

You sometimes feel like you are failing as a parent.

This is something I struggle with every day, even worse while pregnant. My pregnancy has been a roller coaster and every hiccup sends me into guilt wondering what I could have done to prevent the hiccup. I see other moms post photos with their kids at the park, while mine is watching reruns of Tom and Jerry and eating leftover macaroni and cheese from the night before, and the shame doubles down. Rather than just looking at her and realizing she’s happy and content, and that not every day can be a packed day with tons of crafts and fun projects, it’s an automatic reflection of who I am as a parent. I don’t just feel guilty; I feel that the photograph is valid proof that I’m not giving my daughter the tools she needs for a happy, healthy childhood and that I am ruining her future development. Then the panic attack hits and I need to buy more crafts right now and start making a calendar of fun, educational day, or go on a huge cleaning frenzy in order to calm down. I have to do something or else this intense feeling of unease will not pass.

It affects your marriage, too.

There are days when I completely misread my husband’s tone, or verbal and body language. I sometimes take very surface things as a direct insult to my capabilities as a wife and mother, and one misunderstanding can lead to major sulking, an argument, or an hour of him trying to reassure me that I’m doing a great job. If the day has been particular garbage, all it takes is “I think the milk went bad” to be translated as “you didn’t use the milk in time and now it’s ruined because it’s all your fault.” Or when he’s just really tired, I’ll think it’s because I did something. It couldn’t possibly be because he worked nine hours of manual labor in 95 degree weather.

But, anxiety can have some advantages.

It isn’t an all doom and gloom though. Having anxiety helps me become a more compassionate person. Because I don’t want my daughter to ever feel the burden of anxiety, or PPA with her own children, I’m more analytical of my actions and try seeking alternative methods for conflict resolution. “No” is definitely a word we use in this house, but how we use it makes all the difference between my experience and hopefully hers. It also helps me approach friendships and my marriage with eyes and ears open more, and I am a better communicator because I approach almost everyone as if they have anxiety. I make my feelings and thoughts as clear as possible, and the worst phrase in the history of the English language to everyone anxiety, “we need to talk,” is one I do not use.

There isn’t really “life after postpartum anxiety,” but instead, “life with postpartum anxiety in remission.”

I am in a much healthier, much better place than I was during my daughter’s first year of life that was when my PPA was at an all-time high. I was still undiagnosed, had not sought treatment, and was navigating life as a single mom. There were some dark times, and I am extremely fortunate that the darkest of those are behind me. I have a loving, compassionate husband and support system. My therapist rocks. I don’t always jump to panic and overreaction when my daughter gets hurt or when we have conflict. I don’t view this progress is being cured, however grateful for it I am. Especially since those hard days still exist. I still have to constantly clean, manage the bills, and be in control of almost every tiny thing in the schedule, lest I want my threads to unravel. Instead, I view my PPA as in remission. The darker times could come back at any time, set off by something beyond my control. I am about to have a second child, and the newborn stage in particular was the hardest for me and I have no idea what will happen next, especially with a toddler in tow. The best thing my husband and I can do is set up conditions that may help lower our chances of it returning. There is no lifelong cure for anxiety itself that I’m aware of, and there are days when the knowledge of that settles in the pit of my stomach.

Postpartum anxiety does not discriminate, and can and does happen to anyone.

I may know the how and why of my condition, but that does not mean that there has to be one. You can have a terrible upbringing, and be entirely alone like I was, or you can have amazing memories growing up, with the loving support group by your side and it can still happen to you. The mind is a terrible, wonderful, and complex thing and everyone experiences things differently. Pain is relative, and there is absolutely no shame in being an otherwise happy individual struck by a painful disorder. Anxiety does not care that your husband is loving. It does not care that you are a single parent. It does not care that you have no financial worries or too many bills to count. It starts at any time, with anyone. While happy, healthy surroundings can and do help with healing, they do not always help; a good place in life is not a reason to ignore your feelings. One of the most dangerous things someone suffering from any perinatal mood disorder can do is treat it as though it isn’t there, or belittle its weight due to surface circumstance. Lung cancer happens to healthy non-smokers at 25 years of age. Postpartum anxiety can happen to happy, active moms surrounded by a great environment.

Every day I wake up, I don’t ask myself if this will be the date comes back in full force. I don’t give myself a mental pep talk that says I can beat it, because I don’t know that I ever will. I don’t want to be in constant fear of that, hiding and trying to find ways around it. Instead, I say that I love myself. Accept myself. I am not my anxiety, but I am tourist with it, not despite it. I repeat these things to myself until I can get out of bed, and I take a deep breath before stepping down the stairs. It feels good when my feet find steady ground.