The Myth of Wishing Mental Illnesses Away

The Myth of Wishing Mental Illness Away -postpartumprogress.com

One of the most frustrating things about postpartum mood disorders is the lack of comprehension by those around you. I’ve been talking lately to a young woman who is currently suffering postpartum OCD, and she wrote this to me in a recent email:

It’s so hard not being able to talk to anyone about this. My mom doesn’t understand why I’m going to see a psychiatrist. All I told her was that I keep having these thoughts about bad things happening to the baby. I wouldn’t dare tell her what [I’m really thinking], if she knew she would probably disown me. She says you just have to stop thinking that way, just think about the good things.

Of course, I understand why a loved one would say that. The mother is not trying to be dismissive or overly casual about her daughter’s experience. For most people, the belief is that when you’re having a bad day you simply need to try to think good thoughts. Turn that frown upside down, as it were. And they’re right. But bad days and postpartum illnesses are completely different things.

We don’t tell diabetics or cancer patients to “just think good thoughts,” or “imagine you’re not a diabetic” and suddenly they’re cured. These are physical illnesses that must be treated by doctors. Sure, a positive attitude helps, but just try and survive a devastating illness on positive attitude alone, and I think you’d be gambling with your life.

Postpartum mood disorders are also illnesses. Let’s just take the “mental” part out of the phrase “mental illness,” because for some reason, adding that word makes people put such illnesses in a completely different category, as though somehow they could have been avoided or can be wished away. We are NOT deficient because we get these illnesses, just as people with Parkinson’s or kidney disease aren’t deficient human beings. In each situation, it’s a case of some part or system of the body not working the way it should. Period.

I wish that for one day I could physically demonstrate to people that they’re really not in control of their thoughts the way they think they are. It’s not that I want everyone to suffer as I have; I just want them to understand how our minds really work so that they’ll have empathy for people who are depressed or who have intrusive thoughts. Most people are fortunate that their systems work properly. I’ve spoken with dear friends who love and support me 100 percent who simply cannot comprehend having thoughts that they didn’t generate themselves. It’s not that they don’t want to understand—they just can’t. “Well then where are the thoughts coming from?” “How do you have a thought if you don’t mean to?” “Why are these kinds of thoughts so scary and negative?”

The unsupportive, judging people of the world take it much further. “She’s just selfish and doesn’t want to do the work of having a baby.” “She’s so weak. She should just toughen up. Millions of women have babies and don’t have this problem.” “If you’d just try harder everything would be fine. What’s wrong with you?” “She’s just trying to get attention.” “Just take some vitamins and go for a walk and you’ll be fine.”

These things can’t be wished away. They must be treated, and the people who treat them are psychiatrists and therapists. Once treated, the majority of people recover just fine. The world needs to know this.

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. What a beautifully written mother's story! To reassure the writer/mother, intrusive, negative thoughts can also be the result of having a physical problem: a past traumatic experience; fluctuating moods brought on by hormonal upheaval; glands gone awry in the endocrine system – especially having low thyroid levels as well as having low levels of "healthy fatty acids" – the Omegas. However, the one area of concern that society fails to recognize for women as mothers-to-be and new mothers is the hidden area of an ill-developed psyche. When ramifications left over from having endured past trauma, abuse and negative environment as a child and/or young adult linger in the subconscious mind – our psyche suffers silently and is an unknown factor in our transitioning toward parenthood. The psyche either contributes or hinders how a woman perceives, adjusts and copes with being pregnant and upon becoming a new mother. These are a few of the negative factors, along with the stressors of parenthood, that can cause a mother to have negative thoughts that tend to show up when relating to others as siblings, daughters, wives and as mothers. I know this now to be true as I have only been recently diagnosed with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of a near-death drowning, concussion and sexual abuse that all happened within days of each other; I had just turned seven. PTSD left me with an ill-equipped psyche and as a new mother, after the birth of each of my two children, I experienced Postpartum Psychosis. Both the medical and mental health fields must work together to "get it right" for all women in order to be guaranteed their right to the "golden standard" of care in all aspects of womens' health. It is not simply just a "mental" issue, but if they insist to call it so, then let them also research to find out what brings a woman to have a mental health disorder in the first place – "past abuse and trauma" and make those responsible for the abuse make amends as the RAINN organization insists (Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network).
    Our well-being, both physiological and psychological was well connected over eighty (80)years ago. The misinterpretation of proven scientific studies by psychiatrists and lack of looking at health from a "holistic" point of view is why we are still in the "dark ages" regarding women's health. All of us, professional, medical consumer, and all of society need to get back on track within the aspects of "holistic" health: Physical, emotional, psychological and the spiritual (especially when sexual abuse robs women of their very spirit and hinders the transition into motherhood). The three phases of motherhood was once officially recognized by professionals in the postpartum field as the Postpartum Blues Syndrome, PPBS. Using perinatal is great for the pregnant woman, but only covers up to one month postpartum for the new mother. Prevention is hindered by the varying degrees of terminologies used by differing fields of medicine and by the legal field when cases of maternal infanticide" unfortunately arise. Not having one, distinctful, medically recognized term is very confusing for the general public – they simply turn their heads and remain silently uneducated which only adds to a woman's already heavy postpartum plight. I recently reviewed a tape on PMS to see what made this area of a woman's health a "syndrome". I was amazed to see that PMS had fewer like symptoms than what one of the postpartum phases had. Call this trying period for women what it is: a Postpartum Blues Syndrome. Once society is on the side of postpartum prevention – making PPBS a household name – perhaps then those responsible for writing the Diagnostic & Statistical Manuals, presently DSM-IV, will include PPBS along with "depression with postpartum onset", (PPD) or "psychosis with postpartum onset", (PPP). In the meantime, we all can push for Postpartum Prevention by looking out for those who we need to protect as children and young adults from being victimized by abuse; abuse that will come back to haunt a woman when pregnant and as a new mother. (Note: For parents experiencing problems with alcohol and drug abuse – please, someone set up an intervention and make the parent aware of the potential harm that they may be bringing upon their children. Brain, Child Magazine, Fall 2005, wrote an article entitled, "Is There Going to Be a Mothers' Revolution or What? I say: "If there is a mothers' movement, let it begin with all women demanding better health care in all aspects of being "woman" – especially in their child-bearing years. A woman's right to choose a "Positive Mothering" experience should be a guarantee not a guessing game in life. (Copyrighted Material, 1/20/06) Thanks for sharing the great story Katherine and "keep on keeping on".

  2. Thank you both for all of this. I have very strong feelings about this. I have many family members that tell me that if I could just think postive thoughts then I will feel much better. Sometimes I start to wonder if I am just causing these thoughts, but then I read something like this, and it reminds me that it really is not my fault. This is a horrible illness. I would do anything to help the world to become more aware. So, count me in. Also, I have a question. Are the intrusive thoughts part of ppocd? Because I have them horribly, and they just say that I have PPD. Just curious.

  3. For Ohhmama! et al
    I like to refer to it as PPMD (Postpartum Mood Disorders). (PPD, PPOCD, PTSD, anxiety, phychosis….am I missing any?)
    That way its all inclusive. I think experiences can have bits of everything or maybe just one symptom. We need to get away from "PPD" as the blanket diagnosis. The worst use of that term was when an attorney during Andrea Yates first trial called her illness PPD. When clearly she had PPphychosis. I'm sure this was extremely frightening to many PPMD Moms. And how many did that keep from seeking help ???
    When you are well again, there are plenty of ways to help awaken the world to this. Hang in there, you WILL get beyond this.
    Been there and made it………

  4. Jeanne Duffy says:

    I am on the same page, I have a very SCOTTISH mother, whom at this point is saying "Snap out of it!" Mind you, Sarah will be 1 year old in February, but my Doctor is telling me that because of the 'pre-birth stress' situation ( I was living in Germany, emergency c-section, moving to the States,(not one person could tell me what kind of VISA a Canadian needed to come here, going through a divorce – separated now for 12 years)now fighting the German Govenerment because my partner Common law is German, is not on the birth certificate because I was 'married' to another at the time…..the list goes on that PPD or what ever you wish to call it can last up to 18 months – can someone shed some light on this – I keep thinking maybe I am just a depressed person to begin with -I told my Doc this and he disaggreed going into this whole "You are a Type A Personality, now you find yourself "Supervisor of 'diaper patrol" instead of Nursing Care Manager" – I hope I am making sense ….any thoughts? please….
    Jeanne

  5. Ohhmama, One more thing … I also have dealt with OCD most of my life; and still do from time to time. It sometimes goes on and off similar to the water faucet – other times, its there constantly. I feel it ebbs and flows depending upon how smoothly or not so smoothly things are going on around me. If things are going more smoothly, with how I view them to be – then OCD is on the light side. When things are not so smooth, like a rough, stormy sea – then the OCD makes my husband crazy. You know? But, I have found that if I think past the OCD thought, kind of stepping out from its grasp, then I can be the one in control, not the repetitive action or thought. Does this make sense to you? I am by no means a professional so this is just my sharing how I view my problem. Labels are awful sometimes, especially when they are wrongly assigned. If they must label, fine – but don't ever give in to the label. I had been labeled Bi-polar disorder for about 6 years and had been placed on medicines for it. (3 different until my present Psychiatrist let me try it solo) I have had no label since August of 2000 (Dr. refuses to use one) and have been off anti-depressants for almost four years now. So, don't ever give up on yourself – and thanks for joining in the beginning of what will be a great "new and better" women's movement. "AAM"

  6. Thank you for letting me know that i'm not alone…or crazy. After the birth of my first son, I had these intrusive thoughts that just would not stop and made me sick. They would come out of nowhere and I felt like I was being assulated with horrable, awful things that I would never ever do to my baby. That was very hard…I had devolped a very strong love and affection for my son and yet I continued to have these ugly thoughts. I knew that I could not tell anyone for fear that he would be taken away…so I prayed for them to go away. Every time one would start, I would say a prayer…God, please make these thoughts stop. please take them away. I suffered in silence for over a year then they started to go away. I just had my second son 3 months ago, and the same thing. It makes me so sad to look at my perfect little angel who I love so much and at the same time have these dissgusting intrusive thoughts that make me sick to my stomach with guilt and fear. I finally broke down to my husband, who I'd been afraid to tell, because this has damaged our relationship so bad that we may seperate. That was the first time I said anything to anyone about what I have been going through. I know now that it is OK to talk about this and I can get help. thank you:)

  7. I found this website the other day. I too have had a hard time talking to anybody about this. I have 3 very young childen (ages range from 3 months to 3.5 yrs) I was diagnosed early thanks to the pediatrician who insisted I go see my dr for PPD. I reluctantly went and now am ever so grateful because while I am not 100% yet I feel soooo much better than I did 3 months ago today. I was put on Paxil and at first I did not get any better. It turns out that the dosage was too little for me so I had to double it. I can tell you that getting help for this disease has been the hardest thing I have ever done. I had to admit to myself and others that I no longer had control of my feelings and actions on a regular basis. At first I was ashamed. I did not want to admit that at any point I could sink to such lows that I did not feel I would ever get back up again. I used to lay on the living room floor wishing that I would get sucked into it so I could disappear. I wanted to climb into bed and lay there until I disappeared. I would stay in bed for hours during the day. It would take me 4-5 days to change my clothes and take a shower. Sometimes when it was time to make dinner I would lay on the kitchen floor for over an hour until I would be able to stand up and cook. I have had thoughts of suicide. I have put a knife to my wrist with a full hand of pills. My subconscious was reaching out to my husband but the right words for him to understand still have not come out of my mouth. He still does not understand exactly what goes on inside of me. He has tried many times but just can't. I think that the only people who truly understand are the ones that visit this website to post their own experiences with this disease. I used to get so tense that I would try to reach into my arms to pull the bones in my forearms out. I would get in the car and drive to get away. I could not focus. When I went back to work I would lay my head down on my desk for sometimes an hour at a time. I just could not get my act together. I have been seeing a therapist who has helped me tremendously. Since my kids are so young and so close to each other in age I have a tremendous fear of being alone with all 3 of them. I can't face the responsibility for taking care of all 3 of them. I am so afraid that I will be busy with the baby and something will happen to the other 2…they will fall and get hurt, they will do what kids their age do and just get into kid-type trouble. I have been slowly getting better. It helps tremendously that my baby is a very calm baby. She does not easily cry. She will cry and fuss with a dirty diaper and/or when she is extremely hungry. In the beginning of my depression I felt so guilty…I thought that God had given me such a good baby because he knew I was going to have a hard time and that I would not be able to handle a generally fussy baby on top of my 2 and 3 year olds. That guilt still stays with me. I have been lucky that I have not had too many thoughts/feelings of hurting the kids. When it comes to those feelings my mind focuses on myself. I just want the depression to go away. Last week I convinced myself that I wanted the feelings to go away so bad that I almost didn't care about whether my family missed me or not. Today as I was getting my daughter ready for her first dance recital I looked around the house as I was trying to get all 3 kids dressed and thoguht out aloud…"this family could not survive without me". My husband instantly agreed knowing that the responsibility of work and taking care of all 3 kids and their numerous trips to dr's for checkups and dance class and soon preschool would be too much for him to keep up with. I admitted to him that I had put together a calendar loaded with all activities (regular and sporadic) as well as the birthdays of all our extended families' birthdays so that he would be able to carry on in case I did commit suicide. He didn't say it in so many words but I could tell that he was shocked, confused, and touched all at the same time. He doesn't understand me…my mother tells me to "hurry up and get over your baby blues"…and in the meantime I feel like a sinking ship. I was quietly laying on the living room floor tonight…resting, not because I was having a meltdown moment. My husband asked if everything was alright. I responded with…"yeah, just tired". He said he was asking because he did not think I was having a meltdown but wasn't sure if something was wrong. For the first time in forever it felt like he might be slowly picking up on my feelings. He went on to state…"usually if you are having a meltdown you have a blank stare..like you are an empty shell". My response was…"that's funny…that is exactly how I feel when I have a meltdown". Meltdown is what I call it when I am having a hard time dealing with my depression. I feel like I am on the way up the ladder back to who I once was. I think that I may even end up better for having this disease. It has changed how I view things. I think I manage the kids and their behavior better now. I'm not sure if it is the antidepressants or if it is just me maturing as a woman. My 10-11pm obsessive cleaning sure has left my house in the best shape it has ever been in. I have started exercising. I have lost all the baby fat but still would like to lose another 60 pounds.
    I know this was a long comment. I know that every woman's experience is different. I just hope that some of the words I have left tonight may help somebody else in the future. Good luck to all of you who suffer from a form of PPD or whose partners suffer. The best advice I was given during the past 3 months has been…"if everything else is too hard to face…focus on making it through the day. Whatever it takes to physically get through the day. Don't worry about anything else than ending the day with the same headcount you started it with".

  8. Thank you so much for posting this! You have said it so well!

  9. Shannon - PHAT Mommy says:

    Thanks for this great post and all the wonderful comments. I have told myself all the things you mention: I'm weak, just take a walk, snap out of it, etc. It's REALLY difficult and embarrassing to stand your ground and insist to your loved ones that you have a medical mental problem without feeling like you're just trying to get attention.

  10. I have been battling PPD and anxiety since my son was born 4 months ago. I wanted this child so badly and did nothing but research and prepare. Then in the hospital I couldn't sleep because of the anxiety. Got home and still can't sleep more than 3 hours a night. I have constant intrusive thoughts. I look at my friends and other parents in the park with such envy…they are so happy and at ease. All I want is to be a great mother and shower this child with love. I think about suicide constantly…that my son would be better off without me, that I will only mess him up. But then I think of how the knowledge of his mother committing suicide would effect him. So far meds haven't worked but I'm still fighting every day.

  11. I was recently diagnosed with mild ppocd….and i would love to hear about coping techniques……

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