Bell Let’s Talk Day – Momming with Mental Illness

So I’ve been away for a while.  First, I took some time off for Christmas.  Then, I realized I was online too much, so I wanted to sort out my priorities… and then, my depression acted up.  I like to think of depression as something like arthritis: it’s always there, but sometimes it “acts up.”  In many ways, to me, that’s the most accurate description of depression.  I can still get out of bed.  I can still interact with people, and laugh, and chase my kids.  But it’s harder – almost impossible – on the mornings where my depression is acting up.  It can be affected by the weather: I have a much harder time dealing with depression on cold, dark days than on sunny ones (though this is not always the case).  In addition to the physical similarities, I also see a commonality in the way that people treat depression and arthritis.  If you have arthritis (or any chronic pain condition, like fibromyalgia), you know what I mean when I say this: people don’t want to hear you talk about it.  The first time you are with someone and you are having a flare-up, you tell them about your condition and they are sympathetic.  But if every time you’re with them, you move slower, or you complain (or even mention it), they eventually get tired of hearing about it… or at least it sure feels that way to you.  So you start to pretend that it DOESN’T bother you.  You smile through the winces; you get up and participate, even if all you want to do is sit and cry.

That.  That is depression.  Or at least what it is to me.

I have what is called, in some schools, “high functioning depression” because I can live a “normal” life, even when in the throes of mental illness.  I can camouflage.  I smile, instead of crying.  I play with my kids, and talk to friends, instead of staring at a wall.  I work, instead of sleeping.  I have learned what I look like when I’m “normal” and I emulate those behaviours as closely as possible.  I usually feel like people just don’t want to hear about it (even if that’s simply not true, it’s how I FEEL when I’m there), and that I can’t use it as an excuse for withdrawing from the world, because my friends/coworkers/family deserve better than that, even if it’s what I need for my own well-being.

And this is especially true as a mom.

How do you explain to a 2 year old that you literally can’t talk to her because it is taking every ounce of your energy just to be in clothing?  Or that you can’t walk to the playground today because the struggle to put together more than one-word sentences is simply too overwhelming a task?  My desperate desire for her not to see me having Rochester’s-first-wife-in-the-attic moments is so strong that I power through.  My intense need not to somehow pass this on to her, like some kind of mental flu.  It’s like jr high track and field: you HAVE to participate, even if you’d rather cut your own legs off than race the 800 meter today.  I get in my lane and run the damn race; it’s just that I’m running the race in knee-deep mud, so every stride takes 10 times the effort that it should.  And even when I know it’s not true, it feels like my lane is the only one with this mud in it – like somehow all the other moms got clean lanes.  So I’ll show up.  I’ll race.  I’ll put on my runners, I’ll get in my lane, and I’ll run this damn race like my lane isn’t full of mud.

And the cycle, as vicious as it is, requires that I then recharge from the herculean effort of doing something totally innocuous with copious amounts of sleep.  If you’re a mom, you already know the punchline: sleep is not something easy to come by as a parent.

That’s it.  I don’t have advice.  I don’t think of myself as somehow “better” than other people with depression, just because I can force myself out of bed.  Trust me, there are days when I can’t.  I understand the crushing weight of it.

So, moms out there with depression – I feel you.  A wild, sad, emphatic salute to you in your struggle.  For days when you show up, and days when you can’t.  Days where you smile and laugh and chase and tickle and days when you stare at a blank wall while your baby naps.  For the times you swallow what you want to say and say “I’m fine” and days when you can’t, and you cry when you’re asked if you’re alright.  Stay strong.

This is my annual post for Bell Let’s Talk Day.  I started trying to be more open about my mental illnesses several years ago, starting with a post on Bell Let’s Talk Day on facebook that marked the first time I ever openly anounced my struggles, and I want to end this one the same way I’ve ended them all: if you are struggling, reach out to someone (if you can) and know that you are NOT alone.  If you aren’t struggling, reach out to someone who might be.

Post-Partum Self Care

Ok let’s start off by making one thing very clear: Self-care is NOT SELFISH.

Self-care is something that most of us used to do without thinking: we would feel overwhelmed at work; we’d go for a massage.  We were fighting with our partners; we’d take a bubble bath.  We felt unhappy with our bodies; we went to the gym (or, in my case, THOUGHT about going to the gym).  If we were sick, we would stay in bed, eat chicken noodle soup and watch bad television (here’s lookin at you, Chopped… who am I kidding, Chopped isn’t bad televisions, it’s the BEST television and if you don’t agree, we can’t be friends).  We were involved in self-care so regularly, that we often didn’t even realize that’s what we were doing.  For me, pre-baby, reading was key.  Whatever negative feelings I had, reading helped me care for myself.  It allowed me to get out of my busy head, escape for a while into a different world, and come back to reality restored.  I’m an introvert who holds a job that makes me act like an extrovert from 7:30-4:30 every day, and self-care was CRITICAL for me to stay human(ish) for my family, my husband, and my SELF.

Any you know what?  I was NEVER ashamed of taking that time.  I NEVER felt guilty that I needed to take an hour with a face mask on, in a tub, with my thick tome of sci-fi/fantasy escapism.  I knew that it was important, even though I never really stopped to think about it AS important… I just knew instinctively that I NEEDED that time in order to function fully in the other arenas of my life.

But then I was a mom, and everything changed.

If you’re a mom, you know what I mean when I say that all of the self-care you used to do without thinking suddenly seems almost prohibitively difficult to fit into your new life.  The first time I tried to take a bath after I had G, it took me 40 minutes to get into the tub.  I set up a swing (huge, hard to maneuver, and heavy, this thing required a fucking EXTENSION CORD to get it close enough to the bath for me to take one!) and then I nursed, and then I got all of my stuff together (towels, epsom salts, nothing fancy), then I put her in the swing and got one foot in the tub before I heard ppppffffftttttbbbbblurb.  Huge.  Blowout.  Poopmaggedon.  It was in her hair, for crying out loud.  So out of the tub I went.  Changed her, nursed her again (snacking babies will drive you nuts), changed the cover in the swing, and finally got into the bath.  Literally 5 minutes before she started crying.  I ignored her, muttering under my breath questions about why my own child hates me.  She cried harder.  I reluctantly looked over.  She has a spreading wet stain coming up the front of her onesie.  Fuck. ME.

Listen, no one is saying self-care after baby is easy.  I would argue, in fact, that the very reality of how difficult it is for us to take that time makes it even more important that we INSIST on getting it.  Some of the self-care you used to do might not be possible anymore, if we are being honest.  If you are the kind of weird, sad little person who cleans their house as a form of self-care, you may not be able to do a full-day, whole-house clean anymore.  You may need to follow the 15 minute rule: put baby down for FIFTEEN minutes and do ONE small task in that time (dishes, counter tops, etc)… anything that you can FINISH in that time so that you feel that sense of accomplishment.

For me, reading is a challenge now.  I used to disappear for hours.  I’m the kind of reader that actually does not hear you when you talk to me while I’m reading.  I don’t even know you’re there.  I can’t read like that anymore.  Even after the kids are asleep, I have to choose between the kinds of self-care that are most beneficial for me, and, frankly, sleep will win every time.  Like, every time.

So here are some of my recommendations for self-care.

  1. Post-partum self-care HAS to start with you caring for a body that has been hit by a metaphoric train.  A 5-10lb, balled-fist waving, rooting, screaming, pooping train that Juggernauted its way out of your body by means of your most delicate parts… or straight out through your abdomen.  Your body NEEDS you to care for it.  If you had an episiotomy, or tore, you HAVE to take care of that.  Take your sits baths (or full baths, if you’re allowed), use your peri-bottle, sit on your donut.  Don’t lift stuff, if you can avoid it.  Go for physio.  Yup, they have physio for THAT.  I won’t get into the awful post-partum situation that developed down there for me, but know that, if you’re an Edmonton mom, CURA physiotherapy can seriously FIX you.  If you had a C-Section, STAY IN BED whenever you can.  Don’t lift things.  Take care of your stitches, and pay attention to the signs of infection.  Listen to your body and know that this is one of the most traumatic experiences your body will go through.  If you had been hit by a literal train, no one would expect you to have cooked dinner two days later.  No one would shame you for not picking up your toddler.  You only get ONE of these bodies.  Care for it.
  2. And while we’re on the topic of your body: fitness.  Ok.  I hate working out.  No, like HATE it.  I liked sport (note the lack of the plural) in school, but since then nothing has really piqued my interest.  I would not survive a horror film.  I’d look that mask-wearing, knife-wielding mad man in the face and be like, welp, guess I’m dying on this couch, then.  BUT taking care of your body becomes even more important post-partum, because of those happy little endorphins that you get from doing it… and endrophins make you happy and HAPPY PEOPLE DON’T KILL THEIR HUSBANDS (5 friend-points if you know this reference).  You don’t have to do anything crazy.  Just… go for a walk.  Take the baby.  Put in earphones and listen to your broadway musicals, or your gangster rap, and stroll.  Taking baby outside like this serves the added bonus of establishing his/her circadian rhythms, which helps with night sleep.  Don’t push your body too hard too fast.  Just because the dr clears you for working out doesn’t mean you need to start doing crazy high intensity workouts.  Do what your body CAN do.  Do it so that you feel good, not so that you’re punishing yourself to try to lose the weight.  A lot of people will tell you that you’ll lose the weight because of breastfeeding, but for me (and for other women I know) my body held onto fat while I was breastfeeding to fuel baby’s growth, so I didn’t start to really lose weight until I stopped breastfeeding.
  3. Speak positively to yourself and about yourself.  No conditions or write up here.  If you don’t already do this, START NOW.  Your children hear what you say about yourself.  Be kind.
  4. Get a hobby- especially one that is creative.  If you don’t have one yet, start one!  I found a fun list of easy-to-start hobbies and am working my way through them.  I started with calligraphy!  It’s a good one because if L wakes up while I’m doing it, I can put it to the side, take care of him, and then pick it back up.  Some hobbies don’t allow for this, so it’s important to take it into consideration.  This was especially important for me, because I did not really have hobbies before I had kids, because my LIFE was my job.  Suddenly, I’m off work for a year with a new human and I realized that I had nothing that filled my time except for her, and I often felt like I was failing in that arena, so I felt like I was failing across the board.  Try new things, friends.  Find something fun and stupid that you can do while you’re off.  Maybe you’ll find something you love.
  5. Eat.  Seriously, don’t forget to.  I won’t even say you should be eating super healthy, just stop forgetting to eat.  Get some breakfast in you.  I bought protein pancake mix that I can throw water into and cook in a couple minutes.  That and a coffee gets my day started on the right foot.
  6. Join a mom’s group.  I definitely already wrote about this.
  7. Take a bath or shower every day, if you can.  I like baths because I can have L next to the tub in his swing, or on the ground, and I dont have to get him completely asleep before I take it.  I have heard rumours of water-slings that you could use in the shower, but I’m terrified of slipping and killing us both.
  8. Find a way to stimulate yourself intellectually.  Babbling all day, or reading the same basic books, will drive you slowly crazy.  Mom-brain is real.  I have swiss cheese brain!  Sleep deprivation + hormones = my cell phone in the fridge.  I love podcasts (which I had never gotten into before L) and I find ones that I learn from.  It’s incredibly important to FEED yourself in all ways.  I am super into American politics and global events, so I listen to a lot of podcasts on that.  And seriously, if you haven’t listened to S-Town yet, you’re wrong and missing out.
  9. Do something that makes you feel pretty.  Buy a dress (or jeans or whatever).  Do your hair.  Paint your nails with that 30 second nail polish.  Look in the mirror, give yourself a big smile, and tell yourself how gor-ge-ous you are.
  10. When you’re ready, go on a date with your partner.  Even just to your own backyard.  I know that it’s hard.  I know that, in a lot of ways, it’s scary.  Do it anyway.  Trust me that you will not miss the extra hour of sleep the next day (and if you do, take a nap when baby falls asleep, if you can).  You NEED to stay connected to your partner.  Ask gramma to watch baby, or put him/her down for the night and take a monitor, or watch Netflix in bed with your headphones while baby is in the bassinet, or go for a walk together with baby snuggled into the stroller.  Hold hands like teenagers.  Kiss.  Talk about your days.  Talk about anything that isn’t the baby.  Talk about the baby.  Check in with each other.  Reaffirm your love, because even though it looks wildly different now, it’s still there and you have to protect it and shelter it and nurse it and care for it, or you’ll wake up from your baby-daze to find yourself living as roommates or strangers.  My husband and I walk to Starbucks with the kids on Sunday mornings and talk about our lives and plans, and we watch stupid TV together at night, even when we’re tired (we are committed Big Brother fans, so that’s our mindless date), and we PLAN for dates.  Right now, it’s hard, but we have already planned to go out in a few weeks for dinner and my first glass of wine (OMG I’VE NEVER BEEN SO EXCITED ABOUT ANYTHING EVER).  I have a hard time pumping, but I have amassed several ounces over the past couple of weeks so that we can make this happen.  Do it.  Trust me, it’s worth it.

xo

Mediocre Mom