This Is My Brave

“I wanted share a bit of my story with you and say thank you for sharing yours.”

The best emails I get start this way.

I’m always honoured when someone shares her story with me, and when I get a note of thanks for sharing my experience with postpartum depression it reinforces that the hard parts of sharing a tough story are worth it.

Today I’ve shared a guest post on This Is My Brave about why I think it’s important to speak out about mental health. And it is important – the emails I get tell me so, and I know it firsthand from those I’m thankful to.

I’d love for you to come and read, and while you’re there take some time to read about This Is My Brave the show. Jennifer and Anne Marie are doing a really good, really important, and really brave thing.

PPD: Wandering Wombs & Hysteria

Postpartum depression has been misunderstood for centuries. Today I’m happy to share a guest post from Lissa Cowan, whose novel “Milk Fever” shares a perspective on postpartum depression from the 18th century. 

 

Milk Fever is set in the eighteenth century at a time when women were viewed as inferior to men both intellectually and physically. The familiar historical expression “the weaker sex” helps us to understand how men and society in general viewed women during the Enlightenment. Medical textbooks portrayed women as emotionally sensitive, high strung and morally inferior. Armande, my main character, is a wet nurse who, after she has her baby, is struck with postpartum depression.

The next day, a feeling of foreboding drifted over me. Margot said this sometimes happens to new mothers. As an antidote to my melancholia, she instructed me to walk in the garden and meditate on God. These quiet times only caused me to be prey to my own distressing chatter.

At the time, women with postpartum depression had no language to describe their feelings and no support network to help them deal with their emotional difficulties. Today, we know that support is a key factor to recovery, yet back then not only did women not have any support, they were also shamed by others for their inability to mother as they should after giving birth. In my novel, Armande, an educated woman with a strong sense of self, is still swayed by the culture and society she lives in.milkfever_frontcover_small

That woman is naturally committed to her offspring, that motherhood is a gift from the gods who bestow upon the fairer sex the most delightful experiences, is a philosopher’s flight of fancy. The fact is, though I would not admit it to a living soul, a part of me longed to be relieved of my shrieking and odorous destiny. I washed the child and no sooner did I replace the napkin with ties at the side than she soiled herself again. I held as truths Rousseau’s ideas about motherhood being the equivalent to bliss, yet I now felt that my existence was an illustration of despair. I know I am not the only mother who feels this way.

Let the truth be known: sometimes we mothers are sad, worse even. Sometimes we are nothing at all and are told we have no earthly reason to be thus. You’re a woman. And woman must bear fruit and be glad for it. How could I express sentiments of sadness at being a mother? I’ve nobody to turn to but the extension of myself that I rock back and forth, this bit of breath that clings to me for survival.

Armande has the support of her midwife who encourages her to take care of herself, allows her to rest and doesn’t make her feel that she is a bad mother. Yet in the real world of the 18th century, depression in women was seriously misunderstood and misdiagnosed. As an example, in “D’Alembert’s Dream,” written by 18th century French philosopher Denis Diderot, a fictional Dr. Bordeu presents a woman’s symptoms as he sees them following the birth of her child.

There was a woman who had just given birth to a child; as a result, she suffered a most alarming attack of the vapors—compulsive tears and laughter, a sense of suffocation, convulsions, swelling of the breasts, melancholy silence, piercing shrieks—all the most serious symptoms—and this went on for several years.

The doctor goes on to describe how she supposedly cured herself because she was afraid her lover would tire of her moods. For her consciousness to maintain the upper hand, she took on a conquer-or-die attitude, engaging in several forms of physical exercise until she was cured.

Whenever the rebellion began in her fibers she was able to feel it coming on. She would stand up, run about, busy herself with the most vigorous forms of physical exercise, climb up and down stairs, saw wood or shovel dirt.

It wasn’t until the 1850s that medical science first recognized postpartum depression as a disorder. Before that, abstract terms such as “wandering womb,” which dates back to Hippocrates, made it seem as though a woman’s body was betraying her and leading her emotions astray. This term referred to when the uterus was displaced and would lead to certain pathologies in women. A century later we would hear about women who experienced depression as being neurotic, and the familiar term “wandering womb” was re-coined as “hysteria.” Women who divulged their feelings of depression were often susceptible to strange experimental treatments and widespread ridicule. During the 1950s, electroshock therapy became a popular way for the medical establishment to treat depression in women and keep their so-called neuroses in check.

Today, we know there is no one trigger for postpartum depression, that it is very serious and that early detection is key to women eventually overcoming the disorder. Yet, even in the early 21st century the disorder continues to be under-diagnosed and some of the age-old archetypes, such as women being emotionally unstable or unfit mothers, still persist. Hopefully with increased awareness, education and outreach, women will no longer feel shame and alone in their emotional struggles. Like the midwife Margot who provided love and support to Armande at her time of greatest need, women need to support each other, to hear each others’ stories of pregnancy, birth, depression, and to be there—as sister, mother, therapist, doctor, social worker, psychologist, friend—no matter what it takes.

 

Lissa M. Cowan is the author of works of non-fiction, and her writing has appeared in Canadian and U.S. magazines and newspapers. She speaks and writes about storytelling, creativity, work-life balance and creative spirituality. She has received awards for her writing and “Milk Fever” is her first novel. Visit her novel page or find her on Twitter or Facebook.

Talking About PPD (and All Its Friends)

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day, so it seems appropriate to share this with you today: Yesterday I did an interview for a news outlet about why it’s important to talk about postpartum depression in the context of maternal suicide. You can see that interview and the rest of their reporting on the Global News website.

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The interview was prompted by a Canadian Medical Association Journal article about why it’s time to put maternal suicide under the microscope, which, in turn, was prompted by the case of Winnipeg mother Lisa Gibson who, it appears, killed her two small children and then herself and was said to have been suffering from postpartum depression. There are a few things I want to say about this issue and my interview with Global News.

I’ll start with this: Women like Lisa Gibson who kill their children are not monsters. That’s a bold statement, but I really believe that to be true. In fact, let’s make it a bolder statement:

Women suffering from postpartum mood disorders who kill their children are not monsters. 


Some of you are already in fits of rage, but hear me out. I don’t want to change your mind about this, because it’s such an emotional topic and I totally get that, but I do want to be able to have a conversation about it. I’ll share my thoughts and I welcome yours in the comments.

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First, women who do this are not suffering from your typical depression. Generally they are suffering from postpartum psychosis, which is as scary as it sounds. Some very brave women have shared their stories of postpartum psychosis and the completely unreal, not-based-in-real-life things they believed. Women like Jenni, who shared that she saw:

“…a figure, a dwarfish figure – a dark, person-shaped creature that scurried toward the bassinet, saw me, and darted away.”

Jenni thought it was this figure—instead of colic—that was responsible for her newborn’s crying.

And then there’s Heather, whose story I’ve shared before. Heather described finding herself naked on the side of a DC highway:

“When helicopters flew overhead, I was convinced the world was going to end and that presidential nominees Barack Obama and John McCain were headed to DC to join forces and save the world. I thought of a few ways I could help save the world: My husband and I could kill each other. Or we could kill our children. Or my parents…”

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So: Women like Heather do not have murderous motives. Often they truly believe killing their children is necessary for reasons that don’t make any sense in the real world. For others it’s less like a plot from a dramatic Hollywood blockbuster and more that they believe their children would be better without them as a mother. Don’t try to make sense of it. It’s psychosis. And until we make it okay to say, “I’m not okay,” and to make it better, easier, not-terrifying for mothers to ask for help, this is going to keep happening.

We need to make it okay to ask for help.


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And that’s why I did the interview. The news clip, of course, includes mere seconds of what was a much longer conversation and if you’re familiar with my story then you haven’t missed much. But the clip also focused on medication – partly because it’s a visual associated with the topic and partly, I suspect, because it’s sort of shocking. (Serious? Clearly associated with mental illness, in any case.) And while medication is one of the things I credit with helping me finally recover, it’s not the only option and it’s not what works for everyone.

The point I wanted to make, essentially, was this: Ask for help. You’re not alone. Postpartum depression is shockingly common and you’re not the only one and it doesn’t make you a bad mother. There are options, and whether you’re hiding in the bathroom crying or formulating a plan to take your own life, you can get help. There is another way.

Please, ask for help.

It’s going to be okay.

 
SUICIDE AND CRISIS RESOURCES

If you (or someone you know) is thinking about hurting yourself or your children, get help. 

Canada: Crisis centres in Canada: http://www.suicideprevention.ca/in-crisis-now/find-a-crisis-centre-now/

US - National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

Internationalhttp://www.suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html

And remember, you don’t have to be suicidal to call a hotline. If you need to talk to someone, call. You can also go to the nearest emergency room to ask for help.

Deep Breaths and Thank Yous

I do have a tendency to barf things out there, don’t I? Sometimes it just helps to put it out there instead of pretending things are okay and silently screaming.

So, thank you. Thank you for listening and commenting and sending me messages to let me know you’re out there. It helps. It really does.

One of the worst things about this is feeling alone. And none of us is, which is the lovely thing about writing here. I get reassured that some of you have been here and know what this feels like, and some of you reading this realize it’s not just you either.

We’re not alone.

Second chances tip jarThe good news is that today was better. We’ve adopted a new strategy for dealing with nights because, while I don’t feel like I know what I’m doing with this whole getting-babies-to-sleep thing, I do know one thing: My very chunky baby does not need to be fed two or three times a night. So I’m currently living in that weird place where the air is mostly filled with hope but the scent of desperation still lingers, and I’m afraid that if I breathe too deeply I’ll inhale the fear lurking outside. It’s the fear that this won’t work, because if this doesn’t work I have no earthly idea what to do next. But for now fear shall not rule; I’m going to keep taking deep breaths.

Okay.

Let’s talk about something else for a minute. Speaking of thank yous, I so appreciate your support for the stuff I’m writing elsewhere. I’m in full swing with my new Yummy Mummy Club blog, starting with a post about second chances and a bit of a thank-goodness-it’s-not-me post about babysitting my brother’s twins. I’ve got another one coming up this week where I’m looking for advice on helping a four-year-old make friends and I’d love it if you’d look out for that one too.

And, since it’s one of the most common search terms that leads people here, I’ve shared a version of my postpartum rage story on Huffington Post. I just think we need to talk about that more.

 

Lookout

In my mom and baby yoga class the other day, I caught the eye of a woman across from me. She was blond, her hair pulled back. Average height. Built. She wore a ripped t-shirt and I could see the tattoo on her bicep. Barbed wire maybe? Something tough-looking, anyway.

I probably wouldn’t have really noticed her — at least not more than I notice any of the moms balancing in triangle pose across from me — except that she had an odd look on her face. She looked sort of lost.

I know that look. It’s the one where you’re trying to find inner peace and you can sort of glimpse it but at the same time you’re wondering if your baby is about to squawk again and you’re really not sure if signing up for a yoga class where you bring your baby with you was a good idea. Because if that baby starts screaming, it’s not relaxing for anybody.

I would never have taken Connor to a mom and baby yoga class. I would never have even considered it, because it would have required Xanax to get through it. For both of us. He just wasn’t a calm sort of baby and he would, without a doubt, have disturbed my tranquility like a pebble disturbs the stillness of a pond. So instead I took an evening yoga class with my other new-mom friends and happily left him at home with dad. For that hour, if he screamed instead of sleeping peacefully (which was often the case) it wasn’t my problem. Tranquil, indeed.

So at this present-day yoga class, I looked across at the mom who, at first glance, appeared to be the type who takes no shit from anybody and wondered if perhaps it was the newest soul in her life who was giving her grief.

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Image source: ImageBase

Or maybe it wasn’t her baby. Maybe things just weren’t quite right in her new-mom world. Her baby wasn’t even the fussiest one in the room that day. In fact, on that day her baby could have shrieked her little lungs out and it wouldn’t have garnered much attention. There were lots of babies giving their lungs a workout that day.

It was more the look in her eye. Her gaze that held mine a fraction too long. She didn’t chat much or respond to the instructor’s jokes and observations like the others did, and she was definitely somewhere other than fully immersed in her practice.

Her eyes asked questions I know all too well. Am I getting this right? Am I a good enough mom? Does everyone else find it this hard? 

And the loudest question of all: How did I get here?

These were the signs I saw – the signs of a struggle, and of a post-baby bump in the road. Maybe they were really there in front of me. Or maybe they were just a reflection. At this point I’m not sure, but I’ll be on the lookout for those signs again and will stand by with my map, ready to point her in the right direction if need be.

 

I’m welcoming a new sponsor today. Signazon.com has just about any type of custom sign you could want, from wedding signs and baby shower banners to yard signs or car magnets for your business. Whatever you need a sign for, I’m pretty sure Signazon.com can help you out.