Let’s Rewind: The Isolation of Motherhood

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Liz Bauman is an American wife, mom, and writer living in Weisbaden, Germany. When she’s not camped out behind her computer screen, she quests for castles, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and drinks a lot of tea. Earl Grey. Hot. She’s also one of my favorite people, and a woman who’s personhood and journey through motherhood while living with mental illness always leaves me inspired and hopeful. If you’re so inclined, you can learn about her, tweet at her, or hire her. I’m thrilled she’s sharing her experience with us here on Postpartum Progress this week. Here is part One of her story. 

 

Archer at 16 days old

Archer at 16 days old

If asked to describe my experience as a mother in a single word, I’d love to say something like “joyful” or “empowering.” There are certainly days where I feel like motherhood has made me a strong advocate, a better feminist, and a compassionate member of the cult of womanhood. Sometimes, I go weeks at a time feeling like my two children have made me a better, more resilient woman. Like all that breastfeeding and babywearing have somehow infused my very essence with radioactive awesomeness, transforming me into some kind of Hulked-up mama hero.

But, the truth is, my motherhood has been isolating.

Let’s rewind.

Back when my husband and I were young and wild college kids in the expansive plains of South Dakota, we decided we would get out. Get far, far away from small town life and farms and go have big experiences in big cities. Shortly after we got engaged, the husband got accepted to George Washington University and I – on uneasy terms with my family – agreed that we should set forth on our grand adventure.

After 7 years in DC/Baltimore sprawl, we welcomed our son, Archer, and my world got simultaneously brighter and darker.

Let’s rewind again.

I struggled with mental illness since my teens. My diagnosis was a fast-cycling flavor of bipolar disorder characterized by frequent, but largely harmless ups and downs that rarely affected my life profoundly. But, a miscarriage at 23 triggered some major shifts in my brain chemistry that twisted my “frequent, but largely harmless ups and downs” into a screaming spiral into the gnarly pit of mix-state madness that nearly shattered the foundations of the life my husband and I worked so hard to build.

It was my first dose of the vicious isolation of motherhood and I didn’t even get a baby out of the deal. We had told no one that we were expecting, so I grieved our lost child alone. I internalized it and the sadness wrapped sticky, black anger around my bones that eventually permeated my heart and mind.

Broken and desperate, I hit rock bottom and my husband made me promise that I’d seek help.

A new shrink and an RX for Lamictal later, I was better. That seems like an over-simplification, but it was a pretty uneventful period of recovery and we spent a couple years soaking in our baby-free life, just being young and married and loving life on the East Coast. We both had our dream jobs and, with time, overcame the anxieties of miscarriages and mental breakdowns and I weaned off my meds so we could try, once again, to bake ourselves the proverbial bun.

It took a while, but – after 8 months of trying – we discovered we were expecting Archer. And things were good. Pregnancy was wonderful to me. It was my renaissance. I was stable, productive, and happy-all while being unmedicated.

When Archer was born, via emergency c-section, his resultant NICU stay tested my mental fortitude in a way I couldn’t have expected. Without going into all the triggery details, he spent his first couple of days drifting down the “will he/won’t he” line and I wouldn’t wish that sort of terror on anyone.

As he and I recovered, I found myself alone in the hospital. I was discharged and my husband – an important dude with a high-pressure job – went back to work. The nurses, taking pity on me, let me camp out in their on-call room so I could nurse Archer through the night because they didn’t have on-site rooms available for discharged moms.

I cried a lot. I’d never felt so alone. “Is this what motherhood is supposed to look like?” I asked myself as I cradled him his next to his incubator, lights blinking and monitors blooping.

Now, as I sit on the cusp of my second child’s first birthday, I can say pretty definitively, that it may not be what motherhood is supposed to look like, but reality is Kryptonite to supposition.

 

to be continued…

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Overcoming Resistance in Therapy

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auggie bdayChanging our habits is one of the most conscientious things we do in our lives. It’s more than training yourself to drink eight glasses of water, or to exercise for an hour each day. Changing our habits means retraining our mindset, and not just our bodies. In how we process events, think about ourselves, and our self image. We know these are good things for us, but why do we resist suggestions to change? Are there strategies for overcoming our fixed reactions and coping skills that don’t serve us well?

Only to Just Begin.

When I was living through my postpartum depression, I was seeing my psychiatrist for medication prescription, and my mental health counselor, Susan, who worked with me, (heavy emphasis on work). Susan taught me through application examples, of how I had become who I told myself I was. She explained the tendency to resist cognitive therapy when we don’t see ourselves as being capable of getting better. I had to learn new skills if  I wanted to succeed, and I had to start seeing myself as someone who would recover.

I learned that a barrier to behavioral therapy, is lack of genuine introspection. Therapy was going to be work, and I had to be honest with myself and acknowledge what my challenges were. This meant examining issues about myself, not something flattering to do, that’s for sure. I had to admit that I was a pessimist, and I felt doomed at the start of any homework before I even gave it a try. For us to even bore an inch into my stubborn persistent negative self image, I had to be painfully honest. I had to face my dysfunctional emotions, maladaptive behaviors and cognitive processes. In Susan’s words, “To change a behavior, change an action.” This was beyond the petty advice given by friends and family of “mind over matter,” or “cheer up!”

I didn’t like this part of therapy.

Who likes to think of themselves as dysfunctional and negative? Yet, that’s the truth that I had to accept. With plenty of reading from books that Susan recommended, and from months of honest answers to questions in therapy, I began to turn my self concept around and talk to myself in a positive way.

I thought twice before saying, “Not me.”
I didn’t automatically begin to think, “That’ll never work.”
I stopped myself from saying, “Yeah, but…”

“Yeah, but” was the biggest obstacle we had to overcome together. “Yeah, but, I tried that,” and “Yeah, but, that didn’t work before,” and “Yeah, but, I’ve tried everything.” Self-condemning was the biggest road block to possible improvement. Without the door to my mind and trained thoughts even open a crack, what light would ever get in?

We resist when someone asks or tells us to do something because our self talk makes us lose the war before we even march onto the field. The thing is, without change, there will be no change. Doing things my way hadn’t been working for me… so why did I persist with pessimistic negative thought patterns?

I know I didn’t want to be that way, but I had trained myself over a lifetime. The cost of continuing in that way was becoming evident. We lose friendships, without understanding why. We exhaust family members, unclear why they have no patience. Our marriages barely hang on by a thread from the emotional fatigue of supporting a person who never has hope and is always down.

My question to anyone “stuck” and wanting to change, is this. Examine the impasse. Do you need to find a more pro-active physician? Is there a therapist that’s been recommended to you, but you haven’t sought out yet? Have you resisted suggestions of medication, or continued talk therapy? Work with your medical team and be open to their suggestions for change. Our trained minds are stubborn. My default setting of pessimism was stubborn enough to not even consider suggestions by my therapist. I would think, Why try? Nothing ever works anyhow. Susan taught me how to change the way I view and experience events, ideas, concepts and emotions to find more positive alternatives.

Over a lifetime of negative thought patterns and reactions, our default is set. In my case, comfortably, to see myself as always being anxious, depressed, low energy, and being that one in a thousand who will never get better. The thing is, we can get better. Postpartum depression and anxiety are mental health disorders, but with treatment, people with PPD and PPA  do recover. But as in anything, work and commitment are required to deconstruct ingrained and automatic behaviors.

I once saw myself as eternally depressed. I once saw myself as that one with postpartum depression and anxiety that would never get better. After 11 months of weekly therapy sessions, I began to improve. I saw success and that made me try again, and try harder. It wasn’t an overnight process, and it wasn’t an easy process. It was work, and it’s still not my nature to be hopeful, but through honest dialogue with myself, I had a starting point of recognition and awareness of this about myself.

I had to begin, with difficult questions. By asking others to support and help me. I had to put my ego aside, and ask myself how I talked to myself. I asked trusted friends to be patient with me while I grew in a new, beneficial direction. I had to listen when my therapist told me that I was allowing no room for positivity, or change.

None of this was fun, but all of it was life saving. This work made me feel uneasy, vulnerable, raw. It was hard. I felt shaky, as a new me began to battle with the old me. Much of the time, my new thoughts didn’t feel like mine, so unfamiliar that triumph was hard to imagine — I was not a positive person, remember? But with time, and repetition, as my new thoughts grew to become my own thoughts, I felt capable and stronger. And I began to feel that victory was possible.

My self concept now is of someone who has overcome things that she thought she never would. And it began, by beginning.

*If you’d like to explore more, these are the books that Susan had me read. My therapy wasn’t based solely on positive thought, but together with medication and talk therapy, challenging my self concept was an integral part of my treatment plan. Once my therapist and I worked on (it took a year!) helping me see that recovery was possible, hope set in. Before then, I was resistant. Medication helped, talk therapy helped, eating sleeping exercise support and friendships helped, but it wasn’t until I changed my inner talk, that things began to look hopeful.

Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin E. P. Seligman
Optimal Thinking: How to Be Your Best Self by Rosalene Glickman
Optimism: Learn the Power of Positive Thinking. Our Thoughts Shape our Attitudes  by Abe Kass

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Depression setback or just a bad day?

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raindrops on a window with traffic in the backgroundMany people who have experienced depression (of any sort) know what it feels like when you start slipping. That’s how I’ve always described it – it generally isn’t really one giant, fell-swoop sort of crash, but more like that feeling you get when you’re sitting in your car and you realize the parking brake isn’t on and you’ve taken your foot off the brake and you’re rolling. For one split second you think, “ACK!” Except of course in the car scenario you can just put your foot back on the brake or yank the parking brake up and hopefully prevent any serious damage.

That’s not always the case when depression starts to take over.

To be fair, sometimes it is. Sometimes catching it early enough makes it possible to reverse the backwards slide enough that depression doesn’t take hold. And sometimes, you’re actually not slipping at all. Sometimes it’s just a bad day.

How to know if it’s just a bad day

Learning to recognize when it’s a bad day versus an ongoing issue was one of the hardest lessons for me to learn. At any sign of my usual symptoms I used to panic. I’d think ahead to the next few weeks or months and what I had on the go and assume that none of them were going to happen and wonder why me and let in that little bit of self-loathing that seems to always come along with a new bout of depression. It took wise and experienced friends and supporters asking the same question over and over for me to start asking it of myself: “Is this really a sign of a problem or is it just a bad day?”

When I was really caught in the up-and-down of recovery from PPD, it was actually “just” a bad day relatively often. Not always, of course, and that’s not to say that a bad day doesn’t really and truly suck. But recognizing a bad day is such a huge part of managing depression and not letting it throw you into the deep, dark spiral.

I was talking to a friend about this the other day. “I feel like I’m sliding backwards,” she said. I knew the feeling well, but also knew enough to poke a bit. “Do you think it’s just a bad day,” I asked, “or something more?”

Let me be clear: Answering that question isn’t always easy. Sometimes it’s really hard to be objective enough about our own mental health to be able to realize that it’s a bad day and tomorrow might very well be better. But sometimes it really is as simple as asking that one basic question. And if the question makes you think about specific things — a disastrous morning getting the kids out the door to school, a medication change, being overtired thanks to a child who decided Wednesday night was a good one to test mom’s fortitude — chances are you’re in the Bad Day Zone and needn’t worry about the backwards slide.

That was the case for my friend in our recent conversation. She thought one particular thing might have triggered it, “but it’s definitely a bad day,” she said. “I’m going to try to start over tomorrow.” Sometimes it’s the simple strategies that are the best ones of all.

 

photo credit: Unsplash

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