Shoo, fly, don't bother me! (a very long reflection on postpartum depression/anxiety)

Our baby was born on August 12, 2015, and I felt a level of happiness I'd never known as I had never met Elise Anne before that moment. Babies are powerful; they multiply love. 

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I remembered reading an article in my mom's Good Housekeeping magazine when I was in the sixth grade. It was an interview with Marie Osmond. I didn't know any of her and her family's music, but I just wanted something to read. The interview was about her postpartum depression, and I remember feeling both unsettled and aloof. 

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It must have been two or three times that I lost the postpartum depression worksheet at the hospital. The nurse would come in with a Styrofoam cup of water, some pantyhose underwear, ask me why I was playing white noise and if I had filled out my worksheet. I would fumble around through my quickly accumulated mess searching for the lost paper while wondering how mother and baby unit nurses had never heard of white noise. Eventually I was able to answer the questions before I lost the sheet yet again. 

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Elise brought the most help out of all of my babies. Our apartment community brought meals over every night for two weeks right after Elise was born. My friend, Caroline, took Ryan on a bunch of day trips. My mom came for two weeks to help with the boys and cook, my mother-in-law came for a weekend, Geena was here to help for a week and then our local friends brought us dinners for another month or so. This was quite different from the birth of our first child when a total of zero dinners were brought save from our visiting moms for a week. 

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The first couple months of Elise were most definitely not easy. Sometimes (when I'm being an overly sensitive ninny rather than a confident and understanding woman who recognizes the obvious fact that not everything written on the internet is directed at me) it can be little discouraging to me to hear people's hunky dory recaps of how nothing unpleasant has ever happened post welcoming a new family member and their kids light up every single room they enter, and I'm like, "Okay ... well I'm sitting here with a baby that doesn't stop screaming, a naturally socially unaware child thinking he is the baby, and another child thinking the baby is a football and all of our rooms are so covered with ****, there's no way a child's glow of perfect manners and good-natured gentility is going to light them up." So yes, welcoming Elise was overwhelming and HARD. But that's okay. Hard doesn't keep it from being deemed as utterly beautiful and immensely worthwhile. 

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I texted my fellow postpartum sisters-in-law, "Ummm I just started a period at eight weeks postpartum. WHAT." I had been completely healed since Elise was two weeks old. 

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Getting out of bed was not a problem. Telling my mind to shut up was. I would hop from to-do to to-do pushing the kids to the side. One morning I was hoisting them into the car after a harried morning. Elise was in the baby carrier, and, as I bent over to buckle Ryan in, her head snapped back and I made eye contact with her. I realized this was the first time I had looked into my children's eyes the whole morning. 

A dark spot. 

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We have a community playground where we live, and it is the bees knees 99% of the time. Other times, I'll look at Chris and comment, "It's kind of like Lord of the Flies out there." Let's not forget my kids were only three, almost four and only one, almost two. It's easy for me to not forget that now, but throughout late September and October and early November, I couldn't stop think about all that I had done wrong their entire lives.

Every shriek from Conor was a gong signaling how sucky of a mother I was. Every playground bicker and fight from Ryan would send me into an obsessive replay of my mistakes as a mother. One afternoon I dragged him into our apartment after a playground spat and sobbed to Chris, "He's ruined! I ruined him! I ruined him!" 

A dark spot.

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We got home just as Chris had to leave for a check-in with classmates. I collapsed on the couch. Nothing really wrong had happened while we were out, but I sat panicked on the couch with a tight chest. I tried to focus on Elise and held her up on my knees. I smiled, she smiled, but I still felt like I couldn't breathe. I started sobbing to Chris, "My baby is smiling at me, and I can't even breathe." 

Another dark spot.

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I woke up to find toilet paper all over the bathroom. Nothing went well all morning. Listening seemed impossible to them. Patience seemed impossible to me. Loaded everyone up into the car so I could be forced to be nicer to them in public. Kept it together through Costco. Everyone at the food area watched as I tried to lift him into the cart seat and instead his foot smashed a bag of chips. The baby was crying in the baby carrier. We got home. No one was napping. So much screaming. I gave up on lying down with one, left him to vehemently protest his nap on his own. I sat down to cry then smiled then cried again and then smiled again while staring at my sweet baby. Eventually after the baby was asleep, I opened his door to find him asleep in front of the door. I felt guilty, spent and tightly wound. I feel lonely and crowded simultaneously. I fell into the office chair and pleaded to God for answers through cries,  "How did I get here? What am I doing here?"

Another door creaked open and I heard plainly, "Mom. I need you to hold me."

He was freshly awaken and so was my recognition of my purpose. I'm here to hold them. 

A bright spot after a dark spot.

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The baby was fussy and the little ones' big opinions were fussier. I tried to keep my promise to walk around the lake, but the sun was swiftly moving past noon. Her pacifier was forgotten, but her shriek wasn't. I saw a parking lot that creates a shortcut home and suggested it. Surprisingly, they soon volunteered to cut the walk short. So now it was pushing a stroller, nursing in a sling, shriek, shriek shriek, chest tightening, doubt increasing, anxiety smothering. All at once. I see the older two run ahead toward some statue I'd never noticed. He kneels down in front of the statue I recognized as the Sacred Heart, "Mom, I'm looking at Jesus." 

Another bright spot after a dark spot.

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Chris' schedule was on overdrive last fall. He worked til 10pm one night a week and til midnight on another plus all of his classes and the seemingly million commitments his program has (side note: it's still the best program to have a family in, and there definitely are not one million commitments). I had started working again soon after Elise was born because we needed the money. (I know people could wag their fingers chiding me about this postpartum work, and to that I say, "Yeah, yeah, I totally agree ... " And I know people would go further and say that NO DUH you got PPD/A with a schedule like that. Sometimes you just have to put your head down and work to pay the bills, and you know what?  I'm a fortunate one. Working for me doesn't mean a long commute, it doesn't mean leaving my newborn, it doesn't mean pumping in bathrooms, it doesn't mean working for someone who doesn't understand family life. It doesn't mean being a single mom. I am so fortunate).

Bedtimes on those nights Chris was working involved everyone yelling at me and me yelling at them. I'm pretty sure our upstairs neighbors could tell time by the nightly tantrums. 

Eventually, as it always happens, everyone would be asleep. Some nights I would have set out my work and would get to it right away so my anxiety could be placated by the soothing action of crossing a completed task off my mental list. Most nights I'd plop down on the couch and feel suffocated by inadequacy. My mind was an incessant news feed of negative opinions about my mothering. Imagine the social media uproar against the mother after the gorilla was shot at the Cincinnati Zoo. That was my mind constantly decrying my inherent dignity as the mother to my children. 

Chris helped an incredible amount, but it was hard. I went batsh*t crazy on Chris quite a few times. I felt like I was walking everywhere with a swarm of flies unceasingly buzzing around my head. We lived for fall break. Our hypothesis was that my anxiety would be relieved if Chris took care of the children the whole week while I caught up on work and got ahead. Fall break came, and no relief followed. 

It was finally apparent that the tightness in my chest was postpartum depression/anxiety. This realization only made me even more anxious; I'm not someone that asks for help, and I was completely despondent that this situation called for nothing other than help. I felt betrayed by my body; my strong body that was capable of growing life and giving birth to a wondrous, glorious child was also capable of making me feel like I was ruining her and her brothers.

Chris urged me to get help, but I resisted. I felt so sensitive yet emotionally truncated. I had heard so many of my friends' experiences with PPD/A, and I knew there was nothing shameful about it. However, when I was in my own little storm of anxiety, I didn't want connect to any story or advice I had previously heard. It was like all of these pieces of advice were reaching out to shake my hand, and I rudely turned my head away and kept my hand at my side. Go away. 

Then, that following weekend at Mass, one of the my favorite homilists was the priest at Mass. His homily was excellent as always, and at the end, I could almost see the Holy Spirit taking over. His confident and encouraging voice was challenging all of us, but I really thought the Holy Spirit was challenging me. "Don't cling to the darkness," resounded through the Basilica. 

Don't cling to the darkness.

A bright spot. 

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But there was comfort in the darkness. I knew what the darkness felt like. My eyes were accustomed to the fog of anxiety. I didn't know what getting help would mean. I had anxiety about taking anxiety medication. 

A few days later, I opened a surprise package full of goodies from the only and only Christy Brunk. There was an amazing portrait of our family drawn by Christy, the best smelling diaper cream ever, alpha-hydroxy lotion for my horridly dry feet, cute clothes, golden shoes for Elise, fancy soap, a gorgeous sacrament calendar and a letter. I didn't have time to read the letter when I opened the package, but I hurried to sent off a THANK YOU email letting her know the package had arrived and I was FLOORED. 

After the boys had fallen asleep, I spotted the letter on the dresser and stopped to read it. The letter was full of wit and hilarity as could be expected, but then her final sentences closed with a heartfelt solidarity. She recognized how thoroughly difficult life was with three without discounting its goodness and encouraged, "Take your heavy load to the Lord." 

A bright spot.

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After reading Christy's letter, I felt ready to send out a whisper into the world, and at Chris' urging, I emailed my dear friends that I knew had experienced PPD/A. Alexandra and Ana, you are treasures. They directed me to the NaPro doctor in town as I had expected, but I didn't want to go any further. I was stuck again. This time it wasn't that I was turning away extended hands of help because I kept my hand at my side. At this point, I was clinging to a little truth that I needed to love myself and to believe I was a freaking awesome mom.  In my mind, I didn't have a hand to reach out because I was hugging myself too tightly. And this is why God gave me my husband. He picked me up when I couldn't reach out for him. He was there to carry me. He is there to carry me. 

(Hear me! Marry a man who serves you and takes care of you. Serve him. Take care of him).

(Chris, are you cringing from the public sappiness? I am, too. Buuuut, I think it's an important message so it's staying :) )

Chris called the office, told them his wife was experiencing postpartum depression and anxiety and then scheduled an appointment at a time when he could come along. Alexandra volunteered to watch the boys so when the day came, Chris, Elise and I drove to the office in relative peace. 

The doctor was very kind and understanding as he met with the three of us and evaluated me. He told me that my body could have gotten a taste of progesterone during that cycle that ended when Elise was eight weeks old, but then I hadn't experienced a full cycle since. Now my anxiety was caused by the hormonal imbalance my body was left in. I told him how my PPD/A had brought about anxiety about anxiety meds that I hadn't had before. He told us about the NaPro protocol for progesterone therapy, the statistics and possible placebo effect. I felt like that was the best path to choose. I do want to note that he also talked about counseling, to which I said maaaaaaybe because I'm just not comfortable with counseling yet which is my problem, and I know therapy can be very beneficial to mental health. 

They gave me the the progesterone shot before we left the office, and soon after feeling the slight reprieve, I called the pharmacy to fill the prescription for a two week course of progesterone. 

Chris watched YouTube videos and dutifully gave me the injections, and hilariously, he was so pumped every time he aced it. It took two weeks, but I was on the road to healing, the road away from the cloud of flies buzzing about my imperfection. The progesterone is administered in a thick oil so the shot location hurt like a B, but at least I was no longer being one regularly. My thoughts were no longer foggy, and there was a clear distinction between feeling overwhelmed with bedtime because helloooo, three kids three and under and between the previous feeling suffocated by bedtime because helloooo, three kids three and under plus a mental Facebook feed of, "OMG, did you see Katrina's kids today? Worst mom ever. She doesn't deserve to be their mom."

I took this photo on a night Chris was working until midnight. The boys had just fallen asleep, Elise was still awake, and there were loads and loads of laundry to fold. In the past, this would have sent me into a tizzy, but not this time. I looked frazzled, but I didn't feel frazzled. I felt like I could do it. I knew I could do it. 

My other, "Hey! I'm back!" revelation came over Thanksgiving which came at the end of the dosage. Conor was being Conor on the steroids that age two brought along, and all I could do was smile because for the first time in a long time my initial thoughts were, "Okay, this is what we can do to improve his behavior ... " rather than beginning an obsessive scrutinizing of every past mistake I ever made as a parent. 

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I've become much more protective of my family against my anxiety.  Chris forces me to go out with friends and to go to coffee shops by myself with nothing that is on a to do list. I had a weekly babysitter during the spring semester. Two hours a week of a babysitter during the day changed my life. I rarely take on custom work since it normally envelopes me in a box of fretfulness over imperfection and potential confrontation and disappointment, and our family life often tanks as a result. I'm unapologetic to my perfectionist side about what works for our family right now rather than what has worked in the past or in the previously dreamed about lofty future.

The stress of working will possibly aggravate PPD/A whenever I'm postpartum again, and we know to be on the lookout. I know some could scoff, "How irresponsible that she has another baby," whenever the time comes, and some could scoff, "How irresponsible that she is working." I understand that both situations could lead to a presumption of haggard misery, but let me say that I want to be encouraged to do hard things, and I don't want being open to life and supporting my husband in our dream to be deemed ineligible as a sought-after hard thing because it's misunderstood as oppressive to women. Yes, it is most definitely not right for many women, and there is certainly a risk of neglecting the ever important self-care. That's true, but this is also true; it can be a hard life, but it is always a worthy life. Disliking a season and hating a moment and suffering from anxiety doesn't mean you can't love the life you are living, the life you have happily chosen and will continue choosing. Disliking a season and hating a moment doesn't demean the worth of life as it is. I can't imagine not having any of my babies, and they bring me to a fullness I could never have known without them. I sincerely hope I get to wonder that first thought upon meeting a child, "How did we live without you?" many more times.  I also can't imagine seeing my husband suffer through his own depression again, and I will work as long as I have to to keep us in a spot where we are both chasing our dream (that's not to say I don't realize that there will be times of sacrifice and waiting as we faithfully discern and surrender). Moreover, I can't imagine not being an artist, and I can't imagine being devoid of the providence Hatch Prints has provided for our family both as food on our table, a roof over our heads and extra joy in my heart. 

I do understand that self-care is of the utmost importance. I do understand that my self-care is a priority to my husband, and I do understand that gives me a leg up in the world of marriage and raising families. Let it be clear: I'm not ignorant enough to think that loving a life disqualifies it from needing work and improvement. 

I don't know how to end this post. I have been writing it since the end of last year when I first came up for air. Now it's summertime, and we have favorite family living a whopping 4.5 minutes away. Ryan had a wonderful first semester of preschool twice a week, Conor talks all the time and makes us laugh with his quips as opposed to communicating via scream only, and Elise makes us want to squeeze her all the time and started walking through our apartment to find me at ten months. Football season is almost here. We are biking to Mass on campus as I love to do, and Hatch Prints is slowly covering more and more of our bills. I still stress a lot about making enough to make ends meet, but I've never been more excited about my artwork and the work God helps me do. Maybe I will even blog occasionally! I guess I'll say, I'm happy to have gone through it and for the new polish sheen it has given to my life, I'm happy that I live in a time when PPD/A can be talked about and treated, I'm happy to have access to medical care, I'm happy to have three children that love me unconditionally, and I'm happy to have a husband who honors the vow, "in sickness and in health." I know not all have the above. Please join me in praying for them and join me in making dedicated efforts to support new families.