Katherine Stone: A Letter to New Moms

They say you don't have anything unless you have your health.

I have a bad back. Many peoplehave degenerative disc disease when they are elderly, but mine decided to rear its ugly head in my 30s. It started out with a herniated disc that caused so much painI required a discectomy surgery. That went great. I was fine for a year. Then the same disc herniated again. Not good. Started losing reflexes in my left leg. Searing pain, crawling on the floor kind of pain. So I had surgery again.

The second surgery caused nerve damage.Thevery secondI woke up from the operation, I literally flipped over on thebed because I was in so much pain. Ibegged for help and I distinctly remember the puzzled look on the face of the surgeon. It only got worse after I went home. Twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week I was in excruciating pain. It felt like my entire left leg was on fire, and when I say on fire I don't mean feels-like-a-sunburn on fire. I mean on fire like in an actual blaze, skin melting away and turning to ashes. My muscles stopped working and I lost all use of my left leg, other than as a kickstandthat could helphold me upright.

I could only walk with a walker at the age of 35. I laid in bed almost all day, every day, crying. I was on very heavy pain medication that hadvery littleeffect, other than to deaden my senses and make it easier for me to lay there for hours on end. I saw no end in sight.

I know, you're thinking, where is she going with this and what does it have to do with maternal mental health? I'm getting there, I promise

As I laid there in my bed for MONTHS thinking that my life was over, sobbing about the fact that I couldn't play with my 4-year-old, the fact that Icouldn'tgo to sleep until I passedout from exhaustion each and every night because the pain was so unbearable,the fact that I needed a nurse to take care of me every day, I knew I was sliding down a dark hole. I had been there before, years earlier, when Isuffered postpartum OCD after the birth of my firstchild, mybeautiful boy. I recognized that hole. But I had gotten better then. I had completely recovered. This couldn't be happening again?!

I begged for help to fix my physical condition, and mercifully I finally got it.We found a top-notchneurosurgeon who conducted my third spinal operation — a fusion –and stripped away all of the scar tissue that hadshut down my peripheral nerve. At home recovering, before my nerve decided it would settle down and allow me to get back to my life again, I was scared to death. You see, nerves can sometimes decide they don't want to settle down. They can decide to keep on causing you pain, or they can stop. Heads or tails? I wasconvinced my painwould never stop, and I was drowning in anxiety and negativity. Did I ask for help for my mental state, as I had done for my physical one? Nope.

Stupid.

I waited until I was so freaked out that I thought I might kill myself, even though my leg was actually starting to get better, and ended up in the hospital for a few days. Then, with professional help, the samesort of professional help I hadgotten toheal my back and my leg, I got better. Fully healed and happy.Racing around withmy son in the front yard again, only nowI'm a bit slower.

Why don't welook out for our emotionalhurtsthe same way we do for ourbodily ones?If we get diabetes or cancer or Parkinson's disease,we don't tell ourselves to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. No one says, "If I just sithere and concentrate and think happy thoughts, the _________ (tumor,fracture, infection, tremors, palpitations) will just go way!"But we do tell ourselves,"If Ican just make myselfa______________ (better mom, better breastfeeder, better whatever), my sadness and anxiety will go way!" We're convinced that if we did more or tried harder, or weren't a horribly flawed individual from the getgo, we'd be just fine. I didn't try to operate on my own spine FOR GOODNESS SAKE!, but I did try to get myself out of a deep depression even when I knew I couldn't do it alone any more. Twice.

Moms don't often look out for their mental health andthey don't ask for help whenthey need it. We don't pay attention because, like teenagers who think they're going to live forever, we don't thinka "mental illness"will happen to us. Additionally, no one warns us to pay attention. I had sex education class and home economics in middle school. I even recall having a shop class whereI used some kind ofdangerous electric saw to make a wooden chopping board for my mom in the shape of a pig. But no one told me anythingabout self-care and emotional health.In our society there is a difference between health from the neck up and health from the neck down. And we pay for that.

Here's what I want moms to know this Mother's Day: In between all the great stuff of life and having babies, shit happens. If you think you have a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder, reach out for help. If you're among the fortunate majority of women who end up not suffering from antepartum depression or anxiety, which happens during pregnancy, or postpartum depression or anxiety, which happens after, that's awesome. But it doesn't mean you are home free and can ignore the importance of your emotional well-being. We all have trials we have to get through at the same time that we are parents. Those painful trials may have more to do with adult issues– divorce, house moves, job losses, deaths, illnesses — or more to do with our children — drugs, grades, disabilities, disagreements, illnesses. Whatever they are, they can prevent us from mothering our children in the way we'd like and living the lives we want to liveif we don't take care of ourselves emotionally.

As mothers, we are on call all the time. Atany moment we must be able to take action on behalf of our children. This is the mother's job. You cannot do your job, even imperfectly as I do, if you are not emotionally well. You have to take care of yourself to be able to take care of others. This may mean exercising to reduce stress. Getting good nutrition. Having special time out with the girls, and NOT feeling bad about it.It may mean talking things out with a trusted friend even when you'd rather not talk about whatever it is that's bothering you. And at some point, ifdepression or anxietyis impacting your ability to function on a daily basis,itwill mean seeking help from a therapist or doctor. No matter whether your baby is 3 months old or 30, I know you want to be there for him or her, so do what you have to do to be well.

I have had the distinct displeasure of having my life severely limited for a time both by a physical illness (my back/leg) and a mental one (my postpartum OCD). I know from personal experience thatyou don't have anything unless you have your health, both physical AND mental. I couldn't be the mom I wanted to be until I was well. Now I'mno longerafraid to get help for my brain as well as my body. And I'm one happy mama.

Katherine Stone is the author of the blog Postpartum Progress, the most widely-read blog in the United States on perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. She also serves on the board of directors of Postpartum Support International. Shewasselected as one of WebMD's 2008 Health Heroes for her advocacy work on behalf of women who suffer from postpartum depression and related illnesses. She has two fabulous monkey children that she 'd eat right up if it wouldn't bedeemedsoinappropriate.

About Katherine Stone

is the creator of this blog, and the founder and executive director of Postpartum Progress. She has been named a WebMD Health Hero, one of the fiercest women in America by More magazine, and one of the 15 most influential patient advocates to follow. She is a survivor of postpartum OCD.

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  1. yes. thank you. brilliant. wow.

  2. Lauren Hale says:

    Katherine –
    I had no idea you had gone through all of this. Thank you for sharing this and for organizing today. You are truly a Warrior Mom.
    Lauren

  3. I had no idea either, Katherine. Wow. You are incredible and thank you for all that you do.