Finding Art in the Dark

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“Perhaps it’s good for one to suffer. Can an artist do anything if he’s happy? Would he ever want to do anything? What is art, after all, but a protest against the horrible inclemency of life?”

~Aldous Huxley~

 

Artists are often characterized as moody, dark, misunderstood. We are a suffering sort, regardless of the form our art takes – whether it be digital, acrylic, collage, words, wood, and so on. Our ability to create something phenomenal comes from the way we view and respond to the world. Sometimes, this interpretation may even involve a tango or two (or more) with a mental health struggle. For some of us, it may involve a lifelong diagnosis.

A friend of mine posted a link recently to an article about highly sensitive people. I found myself nodding in response to most of the traits listed. It hit home. Highly sensitive people notice details in everything – noise, texture, scent, emotion, and are easily over-stimulated. This can lead to labels like “shy” or “snobby” or “anti-social”, when all we are doing is protecting our very sensitive souls.

This got me thinking about mothers and fathers who struggle with a mental health diagnosis after the birth of a new child. There is a heightened sense of awareness which comes with this experience. I know that I tried to overcompensate for the lack of emotion I felt (and failed miserably in the process). Fake it till you make it, right?

Art is the interpretation of the world around us, putting it to paper or whatever your chosen form, to present to the world for their interpretation, right?

Isn’t parenting the same thing? It’s your interpretation of the world around you, presented to a tiny human, in the hopes they will grow up and interpret the lessons (art) you’ve created for them over the years properly. Parenting is a museum bigger than the Smithsonian with an even more complicated floor plan replete with trapdoors, false walls, and trick couches ready to fling you under the bus at any moment.

It’s okay to fall through the trap door.

Original Sketch

Original Sketch

The key to finding your way out is to find the silver lining once you fall through that trap door and turn it into art, whatever that means to you. For some of us, that might mean cooking. Or it might mean knitting. Or painting. Or writing.

There’s a reason art therapy is a popular form of therapy. It’s a way to release emotion and express ourselves in a healthy way which re-frames the pain we may feel through the creation of something beautiful. I attribute my creativity to all the pain I have experienced throughout my life. Now, not all of my creations are inspired by pain -some of them are inspired by love- but they are all inspired by intense emotion.

Oddly enough, when I am in the throes of deep emotion, I find myself unable to create. It is only when I am coming out of it, much like the sunshine after a storm shining on a newly soaked field of flowers, I am able to create and it typically happens in a rush. For me, the ability to create again is a sign of wellness. My art is not a form of protest, exactly, but rather, a celebration of the richness which exists just below the surface of the world in which we live.

I remember seeing a quote once (and I am not sure where I saw it) which said that without “art” the Earth would just be “Eh”. So very true – art fuels everything around us, even down to the labels on products we buy at the store. Yes, there are other forces at work but when you peel all the other forces away, it is art. Without it, we would live in a very “eh” world.

My primary form of creating is words. I also love graphic art and find it very soothing. Painting is another form I will often use to let things go. Lately, I’ve been sketching with pencil on printer paper. Pretty darn basic but it’s been quite wonderful to watch things take shape, particularly as I challenge myself to do more and more difficult sketches.

What about you? Do you create art to process your emotions? What form does it take for you? Anything you have created that you’re particularly proud of? Share with us!

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Postpartum Psychosis Doesn’t Equal Failing as a Mom

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A few days ago, I walked into the grocery store holding hands with my three and five-year-olds. The delicate scent of baby powder overwhelmed my nostrils the second we stepped into the diaper-filled walkway of the baby aisle for pull-ups. Immediately and without warning, my memories drifted back to my first postpartum experience. A fresh pack of Pampers always does it.

In September of 2008, I was eagerly awaiting the impending arrival of our first child. I thought we had prepared for everything – nursery, diapers, clothes, breastfeeding supplies – we were ready. I had even read up on postpartum depression. I thought I might be more susceptible to the illness since my mom had a touch of the baby blues after my brother was born and I had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder two years before becoming pregnant. Little did I know it would be the complete opposite end of the spectrum that would grab ahold of my mind the day after our son was born.

I ended up having a C-section because my progress stalled after the epidural and the baby’s heartrate was becoming deeply affected by the contractions. My OB made the quick decision to do the surgery and get him out, to be safe.

It was scary, but over quickly and seeing my son for the first time was a dream come true. I was shivering uncontrollably from the epidural meds, but gave him a kiss and stared at him for a good ten minutes while a nurse took pictures for us and then whisked him off to the nursery. I was wheeled into Recovery for a few hours where I called our friends and family with the good news. The mania hadn’t set in yet, but by this time it was 1am and I had been in labor since 5:30am the day before. By the time I got settled into my room and my son was brought to me so we could try nursing, I had been up for a full twenty-four hours and I was yearning for rest.

But at the same time, I couldn’t take my eyes of my baby boy. This little life grew inside of me for nine months and I finally had the chance to hold him and feel his teeny fingers in mine. I was awestruck by what had just happened, and sleep was the last thing I wanted to do in that moment. I wanted to get to know my baby. I tried nursing him, and we did some skin-to-skin, but by that point I was dizzy with exhaustion. My best friend who is a labor and delivery nurse and who had been with us the entire time, urged us to send him to the nursery so I could try to sleep. I took her advice the entire time we were in the hospital, but with the hourly checks on my vitals, there was no way to get any real rest.

I had been medication-free during my entire pregnancy and planned to stay med-free so that I could breastfeed him. We were sent home after three days in the hospital, and even though I had felt the onset of mania while we were there, I didn’t dare tell anyone because I didn’t want to fail at my first attempt at being a mom to my son.

We arrived home and after the initial wave of exhaustion had passed the morning after he was born, it became fuel for the fire of the vicious escalation of my symptoms. I remember being so anxious about my milk coming in that I would wake up from short stints of sleep covered in burning hot, puffy red hives all over my legs and mid-section. The baby’s schedule made sleeping long stretches impossible, so my sleep deficit grew with no end in sight.

I wasn’t willing to let anyone take over night feedings and my symptoms kept getting worse. From the intensity of my anxiety over not being able to provide my baby’s nourishment, to my sudden sense that I could be supermom and extremely productive on barely any sleep, to auditory hallucinations which eventually were what tipped off my husband and parents that I needed to go to the hospital. I was admitted on October 22nd for Postpartum Psychosis.

Being taken from my four-week old son two days after he was baptized was one of the most grueling events of my life. Nothing can bring back that week we lost. I saw him grow and change so much in one short week via photos my family brought me in the hospital. It broke my heart to be away from my newborn.

But believe it or not, looking back now I can appreciate what we went through. I have embraced my past because it has brought me here. My hope is that sharing my story will help educate people so they can understand that postpartum mood disorders are brain illnesses are like any other illness that can affect the body. We can treat them and we can recover from them. And we will emerge stronger because of them.

No one should ever be afraid of admitting and asking for help. Help starts here. You are not alone.

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Feeling “Normal” Again After PPD

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back to normalSomeone asked me recently whether I feel “normal” again, years after my experience with PPD and postpartum anxiety (PPA). After a pause while I considered what normal actually means (anyone know?), I responded with a brief description of my year (roughly, as it’s a bit of a blur now) of suffering.

My PPD manifested primarily as a whole lot of rage. Many times, my son could not be calmed despite all my best efforts. I hadn’t heard yet about purple crying or the fourth trimester, and his crying seemed personally directed at me. And I was angry ALL THE TIME at my husband. He wasn’t doing enough to help. Or he wasn’t intuiting or understanding what I needed, for example. My postpartum anxiety meant endless intrusive thoughts; I spent my son’s very short sleeps imagining all the horrible things that could go wrong–illness, accidents, you name it. I barely slept, and when I did it was broken sleep, a half hour here and there. My mind raced 20 of 24 hours, every single day. There were times when I thought I had made a terrible mistake in thinking I could be a mother and sobbed right along with my son.

As my maternity leave came near its end, my anxiety grew and I couldn’t imagine returning to work. My husband was, at that time, partially laid off from his job, so even though we needed childcare only 2 days per week, I could not bring myself to trust anyone with my son’s care. I realized I needed to seek professional help or I’d end up quitting my job. Since my husband was laid off, the last thing we could afford was for me to lose my job too!

I broke down in tears at an OBGYN follow-up, and I was referred to the Postpartum Stress Center, which some of you may know is Karen Kleiman’s baby (no pun intended). At my first appointment there, I knew I was in good hands.

My therapist initiated cognitive behavioral therapy. We discussed medication, but I was resistant to the idea at that time because of my anxiety and prior negative experiences with antidepressants. We came up with an outline for treatment that included excluding caffeine and increasing my exercise and exposure to daylight via daily walks. I started to write a blog, which gave me an outlet for my emotions, as well as several new goals; I learned from my therapist later that goal-making is a powerful tool in the recovery from depression, as is writing. Because I started to use social media as an aid for my blogging, I stumbled upon a community of women (and a few men) called #ppdchat on Twitter; this network of women with perinatal mood disorders (like me) became crucial for me. Finally, I felt like someone (many someones) understood what I was experiencing, and someone was always around (online) when I needed to talk. I also began a daily regimen of quality fish oil capsules and multivitamins, and I fit in as much self-care as any new mother could, generally in the form of once-weekly bubble baths at least.

As for the dreaded return to work, I found my courage (this was difficult, but I was fortunate to have a therapist who knows a thing or two about interpersonal effectiveness and who was very encouraging) and I confided in my boss about my PPD and PPA. She was compassionate and agreed to allow me to one work-from-home day per week on a trial basis, and this went on for 15 months, to my shock and gratitude. Telling my boss about my PPD/PPA was one of the hardest parts of the whole experience, but it was a crucial step in the path to my recovery.

As time went by and therapy and self-care continued, I started to feel more like myself and less like someone who scared me. My confidence at this momming thing increased each day, even though I sometimes didn’t realize this until it was pointed out to me by someone else.

My son is 4 years old now, and I feel great, although it took me a while to get here and of course I have good and bad days, like we all do. But it is difficult to remember the extreme lows of PPD and PPA now, and the anxiety is no longer debilitating. So yes, I would say I feel normal now. If normal even exists, that is!

 

Photo credit: © bbbar – Fotolia.com

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Beyond Medication: Other Treatments and Self Care

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Medication, while important for many, really shouldn’t be the end-all-be-all when it comes to treatment of postpartum mood disorders. I’m not a doctor of course, but I’ve learned this lesson over and over throughout the journey of my own mental illness. There are things I’ve discovered that each of us can do, on top of what we’re already doing with our doctors, to further our own treatment. I truly believe, its just as important to be a vigilant advocate for our own mental health care, as it is to have good doctors.

“Self care” is a word thrown around a lot. To me the word “self care” means ways I can take care of myself to be a better woman, wife and mother. Ways to put myself as a priority, to make myself feel good, less stressed or anxious, and more confident. Putting the oxygen mask on myself first before tending to others, so to speak.

photo (49)I’ve talked to a lot of women who’ve fought PPD and mental illness in my own advocacy work and blogging about mental illness and suicide prevention. So the below  tips are a compilation of my own ideas and others’ experience as well.

What can we do to actively participate in our own treatment?

Here are my top 10 suggestions (in no particular order, except the first one):

#1 Sleep. Without a doubt, to me the number one thing I can do to improve my mental health is get better sleep. Its not always easy with a new or young baby, I know. Really I do. But its vital for our well-being. If that means asking a family member to come over and watch the baby while you take a nap, or asking your spouse to let you sleep in on a Saturday, then do it. They say “it takes a village” for a reason. You cannot do it all alone on little to no sleep.

#2 Healthy Eating. Personally I’ve found limiting carbs and gluten to be a big help in decreasing my anxiety. Getting good protein, and fresh fruits and veggies too. Its been a bit of trial and error with my diet to figure out what works best for me. But I encourage you to think about your own diet and how it might be affecting your mood.

#3 Exercise. I admit, I’m not personally good about this one. But I have so many friends who get a boost from walking/running, yoga, swimming or dance. I also know that the motivation to get out and exercise can be practically non-existent when you’re in the midst of depression. So this one might be an option down the road a bit when you’re starting to feel more like yourself. But if you can manage it, exercise is a great help.

#4 Creative Outlets/Hobbies. For me, during my postpartum depression and anxiety, making jewelry was my savior. Now its drawing and writing/blogging. I know it may seem strange but finding ways to distract the mind and calm you can really help. Knitting, reading, gardening, cooking, singing, taking care of animals, scrap-booking, photography and the list goes on and on. A friend actually just had knitting “prescribed” by her doctor for anxiety. I just love that.

#5 Talking/Therapy. Of course talk therapy with a doctor can be exceedingly beneficial, but so can talking to a friend. Even joining online support groups and “chatting” with those who get it, like the amazing Postpartum Progress community, helps immensely.  I say this all of the time: “saying the words takes away their power.” Opening up to someone you trust and sharing your feelings and fears can absolutely help.

#6 Supplements. From vitamins to minerals to herbs, there are a lot of things that might help you. Its best to work with your doctor or naturopath to come up with what’s right for you. Things like Vitamin D or Magnesium deficiency can contribute to low energy and depression for example. St. John’s Wort has on occasion helped my anxiety. A friend of mine uses a tincture of herbs prescribed by her naturopath that has practically eliminated her chronic anxiety. So these things are certainly worth a look.

#7 A Hot Bath or Shower. I know you new moms don’t always shower. I certainly didn’t on many days. Its a simple thing, but taking a nice hot bath or shower goes a long way to helping you feel human again. Its very relaxing (if you can find someone to watch the baby while you do it.) I’m not talking about a 60-second-wash-down with baby in the bouncer, but a really fabulous hot steaming non-stressful shower.

#8 Avoiding Triggers/Negative Experiences. Discussions on social media or negative news events can be big triggers for someone with PPD. Its really important to increase the positive and decrease the negative, and be kind to ourselves when the news starts to effect us. Its OK not to listen to it. Its OK to step away from the computer or TV news for a bit.

#9 Physical Relaxation. Examples include massage, chiropractic, acupuncture, even a facial. Oh such a great forms of self care! And you SO deserve it.

#10 Alternative Mental Health Treatments. There are many alternative therapies that you can discuss with your doctor. I’ve actually used hypnotherapy in the past to great affect after a trauma. Others I know have done a therapy called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) that was helpful to them. Meditation and mindfulness therapy is another example. I don’t know all of the options, but its worth asking your doctor if an alternative treatment may be right for you.

What do you think of these ideas? Do you have any other suggestions? Would love to hear if something has worked for you. You never know who might benefit from your experiences.

 

 

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