Point of Contact

I entered the world of mental health advocacy kicking and screaming.  Some days, quite literally.

Studying English?  Easy, I loved literature and writing.  Teaching?  A way to purvey that love to another generation while parlaying it into a paycheck.  Motherhood?  An extension of the love my husband and I shared.

Postpartum depression and anxiety?  A most unwelcome and unpleasant recalculation in my life’s journey.

For years, I looked for reasons.  I hadn’t recalibrated my compass, had I?  What had happened to lead to this catastrophic turn of events?

I am not the grand cosmic poomba of all things so I cannot answer those questions with any sort of certainty, but I do know that my struggles awakened a raw, yet steely inner strength I’d never had before.  They fostered an empathy of a whole new level for others’ suffering; for the mantle of motherhood and all its ‘come-withs’.

I had to polish some ragged rock I’d gotten caught up on and dragged along on my journey into at least a burnished gem.  Something positive had to come out of all that suffering.  And perhaps even prevent another woman from travelling the same path.

I started this blog as a way to tell my story, which very few knew.  I thought, with complete disclosure, I might open the dialogue for others.  At least become an ally in an all too commonly silent struggle.  Perhaps I didn’t tackle postpartum directly enough – for many of my discussions and observations were integrated with my life.  However, I still haven’t decided if that was/is a failure, for mental health struggles quickly become an intimate part of one’s life, touching all parts of it.  It also hinted at some version of depression/anxiety becoming part of my ‘new normal’.

And with my ‘new normal’ so different from my old one, I began to develop further plans for burnishing rocks into gems.

I knew what I wanted to do, but with no clinical experience, I had limitations.  I could not mention the word ‘therapeutic’ in any official capacity.  I was petrified that if the programs I had in mind reached the end of my personal experience and empathy, that I wouldn’t be able to help someone in crisis.  

I embarked on a series of webinars offered by Postpartum Support International.  The Social Support Training series, one session every other week, stretched from January to June of last year.  While many of the participants were clinicians in the field of maternal mental health, the course was user-friendly and aimed at individuals interested in starting and supporting groups of mothers in various presentations of mental health.

The Social Support Training was the perfect first step toward a solution.  It offered a wealth of information – statistical and anecdotal, researched and proven – paired with the assurance that social support people are not meant to be clinicians.  They are meant to offer a safe place for mothers to gather and vent, ask questions and talk, discover resources and camaraderie, and just be.

I finished the series a few weeks before I headed to Boston for Postpartum Progress‘ first annual Warrior Mom Conference, the first ever maternal mental health conference for survivors of PMADs.  With my new-found knowledge and training, I looked forward to building on that momentum and connecting with other moms doing the same.  While I did that, I also found parts of me that hadn’t fully healed.  I realized I still had my own work to do and how very complex maternal mental illnesses are.

That fall, my PMAD baby started full-day kindergarten and, though scared as hell, I began formulating plans to kick my ideas into high gear.  I applied for a scholarship offered by Postpartum Progress and the National Council for Behavioral Health to be trained in Mental Health First Aid, which I was awarded a few weeks after discovering I was pregnant with my fourth child.  I faltered, wondering how I would enact my plans with a newborn baby.  But then, they were never my plans anyway.  And now I would have the full-circle experience informing my advocacy.  Up until now, I’d only ever experienced the postpartum piece of mental health; now I could speak to both pre- and postnatal.

I spent two days in New London, Connecticut with two fabulous humans from Child & Family Agency of Southeastern CT learning how to assess and support a person’s mental health status.  Again, the trainers stressed that we were not expected to diagnosis the individuals we come into contact with, but to assess their situation and determine whether they need additional help.  We then must help them feel comfortable and safe until such professional help is acquired.  The trainers helped me gain even more practical ways to help those in need as a civilian, a concerned individual, an advocate.

As I sat in that auditorium, surrounded by empathetic professionals and persons, I flashed back to an article I’d read a week and a half earlier.  “The Community Maternal Mental Health Professional” on The Burnout Cafe (click image for link) discusses the gap between women who need help and the services available to them.  While the central point of contact in this graphic from the article lists a woman’s professional caregivers, and a woman certainly does see these people quite frequently both before and after the baby is born, I would argue another layer of contact needs to be added.  If practitioners aren’t well-informed or comfortable dealing with maternal mental health issues, the assessments, diagnoses, and referrals needed will not occur.  Having been down that dark hole myself, I am well-versed in those discussions.  I can help normalize the feelings a woman may be experiencing, yet not want to admit for fear of retribution to her or her child.  I can point her in the direction of practitioners specializing in the exact type of care she so desperately needs.

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“The Community Maternal Mental Health Professional” as point of contact (via The Burnout Cafe)

With my personal experiences and new-found knowledge via recent trainings, I am a point of contact for mothers.  

My plans may morph and grow as my own life and family does, but the end goal is the same:

Helping Mothers Get the Help They Need.

This Ain’t Any Ol’ Con

So I am living the hipster life. Typing on a table so repurposedly wonky my laptop rocks back and forth disconcertingly. In sun-dappled shade as I wait to sip my freshly prepared cafe mocha and eat my just warmed vegetable quiche.

Jennifer Butler Basile

Jennifer Butler Basile

It’s delicious.

All of it.

The flaky crust. The gooey egg. The sugary froth. The warm breeze.

The ability to notice such details as the vaguely distant whoosh of traffic. The inability to safeguard little people.

I can’t.

They’re not here.

I am alone.

Which, even though it was an acupuncture appointment I had this morning, was blessedly just what the doctor ordered.

I’m at the back-end of a weekend packed with emotionally-charged, mentally-draining conference work.

The Postpartum Progress Warrior Mom Conference.

Lest you get the wrong impression, I enjoyed this conference immensely.

I so looked forward to connecting with fellow survivors of postpartum mood and anxiety disorders (commonly lumped together and referred to as postpartum depression). I expected to commiserate and trade war stories. I expected to get amazing fuel and ammo for advocacy – a role into which I thought I’d fully transitioned.

I did not expect to be so completely enveloped by the emotions I thought I’d left behind.

All throughout the first day of workshops, panels, and speakers, I teared up and misted over when particularly poignant points were made. But I was good. While I still danced with depression and angled around anxiety on random occasions of my everyday life, my period of postpartum depression was done.

And then, on the second day of the conference, Annette Cycon of MotherWoman got up to talk. As she described what transpired after an inexplicable bout of rage during her two young daughters’ bath time, my grief bubbled up and out of my body.

“I went into my bedroom and curled into the fetal position on the floor. I held my head, rocked back and forth, and sobbed. I said, ‘It’s either homicide or suicide – and I can’t do either. I love myself too much. And I love them too much.’”

Hearing this raw account, I sobbed. My face contorted into the grimace of one silently choking back tears. My shoulders shook. I experienced this incredibly intimate moment of grief in the midst of a room full of mothers. I felt so incredibly alone and yet dreaded anyone noticing and reaching out to me.

And yet, I wasn’t embarrassed.

There was no need.

I was in a room full of women, mothers who, while their own grief/rage/depression/disappointment/detachment/love/mania/compulsion manifested itself differently, had all been at the bottom of their own deep, dark hole. They were all at various footholds on their way back up and out, or sliding down and scrambling for a hand to hold – to stop them – to stop the pain, the agony – to spark the love they needed to feel for themselves and their children.

I may not have expected to awaken the grief, guilt, shame, and pain I thought I’d left behind – and apparently only buried – but I also didn’t expect to find a tribe of mothers instantly and deeply connected by their shared experience. And that was such a life-giving and validating surprise.

Soon, I will have to leave my empty coffee cup and the flaky crumbs of quiche crust behind. Soon, I will have to stop pretending I am an unencumbered hipster who can write alfresco for hours. Soon, I will collect my children and return home to our ‘normal’ lives, our harried routine, my possibly high levels of anxiety and masked depression.

But there will be hugs around the neck and hearty belly laughs. And there will always, always be my tribe of warrior mamas who’ve got my back.

Work in(g on) Progress

When I started this blog chronicling my survival as a mother postpartum, I sought out other blogs with a similar focus.  My research took me all the way to South Africa.  I found Lebogang and her blog, For His Love.  A woman living a totally different life in a totally different part of the world felt the exact same way as me.  I was so glad to read my story on her pages with a different set of characters and timeline, especially since she was further along in her story, which meant I, too, would make it.  After all, that’s what the badge in the bottom right hand corner of her page said:

I survived postpartum depression.  You can too.

This image was like a magic talisman to me.  I clicked on it, half-expecting, I think, the spontaneous appearance of the how-to handbook for solving all my problems.  This mythical handbook did not appear – but Postpartum Progress did, which is, really, the next best thing.

Postpartum Progress is the brainchild of Katherine Stone.  She has built and branded a maternal mental health empire.  It started, as she says, with the blog, then a conference, and is now building its nonprofit status.  But while it started with Stone and her own struggle with postpartum OCD, its success is in the amazing community she’s created for women who all-too-often feel completely alone.

Simply their social media feed is enough to inspire hope, with affirmations, informational tidbits, and links to in-depth articles.  The blog and website offer a wealth of information and resources, that would help any woman while away the wee hours of the panicked postpartum morning before the doctor’s office opens.  And that may be precisely the point that Postpartum Progress exists.  To offer a voice and ear 24/7 to a struggling population whose problems do not adhere to office hours and are not as cut and dry as a short symptom list.

A disclaimer on all their pages states that the information and advice is not a substitute for professional care and consultation.  However, it is a place to start the journey and a companion throughout it.  It offers a place for women who have no vocal allies in their everyday lives, due to stigma, to find friends and examples of success despite struggle.

It is organizations like Postpartum Progress that give me hope for the empowerment, validation, and vindication of all women suffering from perinatal mood disorders.  Even ones like me, who are post postpartum.

IsurvivedPPD1

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