The Warrior Mom Conference: Together, Safely

The Warrior Mom Conference brought over 100 moms in the Postpartum Progress community together, safely, for a whole weekend. Many of us had never met in person, or had only met once before, but had bared our souls to each other online for years. Most of us brought wounds that hadn’t fully healed. The fact that everyone I’ve talked with felt safe enough to grieve, heal, laugh, make new friends, hug admired strangers, and just plain leave our hotel rooms, tells me that this community is beyond special. This conference was organized by Susan Petcher, on a volunteer basis, and while she may not have “known jack about running a conference,” she definitely knows how to represent and celebrate our community. And how to keep us feeling safe and cared for.

A year ago, Postpartum Progress announced the Warrior Mom Conference, and I felt relief, excitement, just so darn thrilled. I’ve been to blogging conferences once a year, at least, since 2012, and I have never felt quite at home at any of them. Maybe it’s my own ambivalence towards this space; I just resist committing to posting here regularly. But this conference… MY PEOPLE had booked a conference! Not for bloggers. For moms with mental health struggles! I was driving when tickets went on sale, so I pulled over to buy my ticket on my smartphone. Between that purchase and the actual event, this thought nagged me: “I’m not really a Warrior Mom, because I never had a diagnosis like they have.” Translation: I thought that I hadn’t suffered enough to identify with the group, because I would have experienced the same level anxiety, even if I hadn’t had a baby. It is a very big deal that I feel so much a part of the Warrior Mom tribe, because I resisted that. As I held on to my gratitude for not having “fallen off the cliff,” as Katherine Stone put it in her keynote, I kept myself isolated.

I have kept myself isolated despite reaching out to this community before I was even trying to get pregnant, despite planning to put every prevention and support mechanism I had heard of in place, despite sharing my anxieties with supportive groups and individuals I have met while experiencing pregnancy and life postpartum. Without the Warrior Mom Conference, I have no idea how long I might have kept myself just that much apart. But we came together. We were safe. And as I learned from speakers and Warrior Moms, my heart opened. To my absolute shock, out came a whole new perspective on the past three years of my life. So much makes sense, now, but there are so many feelings that threaten to overwhelm.

I suffered from obsessive thoughts, intrusive thoughts, and compulsive behaviors that looked and felt so differently from any anxiety that had come before that I did not know what they were. Perinatal OCD would fit well, if we needed a label. As I learned about how women describe symptoms of depression and anxiety during pregnancy and after childbirth, symptoms that are different from the what we report during depression and anxiety at other times in our lives, I compared the new information with my own experience, and with the stories I had heard over the course of the weekend. My own story shifted and changed, as my memories took on different layers of meaning, and I began to tell pieces of my story using this new language I was acquiring.

Our hotel gave me this little plush mountain goat for my son. It's really mine, though, a mascot.

{Our hotel gave me this little plush mountain goat for my son. It’s really mine, though, a mascot.}

Mid-way through pregnancy, I began to see toxins leaching from plastic into food, from furniture into the air, from mold in a shower into my skin and lungs and blood, and all of it was moving towards the baby I was growing. As time passed, these toxins became colored gaseous monsters reaching for my child. Pesticides were a sickly greenish-yellow, off-gassing chemicals from pressed wood and flame retardants in furniture were a bright green, pale yellow came from flame retardants in most pajamas and chemicals in clothing that had not yet been washed with non-toxic detergent, while dark, swampy green came from plastics. Did I mention the pepto pink that came from phthalates and artificial fragrances in cosmetics, soaps, detergents, and cleaners?

Obsessive and intrusive thoughts about these chemical monsters just waiting to trigger cancer built up anxiety that every choice I made was a choice that would improve my baby’s health or take years off his life. There was no ambiguity. Life or death. Taking the advice of my care providers and sleeping enough, because sleep is the most obvious of my triggers, meant relaxing my vigilance. I “allowed” the very involved father of my own child to “take” our son, because a shorter lifespan seemed preferable to a suicidal mother. I was sure that if I didn’t get enough sleep, I’d lose the will to live. So I bargained with the monsters. All the while, I did not know that this was outside the average new mom anxiety experience. It didn’t seem newsworthy, so I didn’t mention it. It seems so dramatic, all typed out this way, but it was slow and insidious.

I have a lot more to say about all of this, but it’s important to note that while I suffered this way for three years, I can now mourn for that. For the first time in my entire life, I am beginning to feel compassion towards myself, a mother who keeps going and loves hard, even when I am actually certain that threats to our very lives surround us. The Warrior Moms celebrate that with me, and I don’t scare them.

I cannot adequately express how it felt to be in rooms and groups, big and small, with this tribe of women who know what it’s like to live this darkness. I have seen others say “I feel held,” and that’s close. I’m not going over that cliff again, and the embrace of this community reminds me that I’m not falling back into the darkness. And with that, I extend a welcome to OCD. It joins the GAD, major depressive disorder, panic disorder, low cortisol, and other diagnoses or labels I have accrued. I choose to access these labels when I find them useful, and I am fortunate that my providers have always done the same.

Now. Ask me. Am I a Warrior Mom? I battled green monsters that invaded my brain and whispered dire predictions about my child’s safety. Yes, I am a Warrior Mom. That’s an important part of how I became the awesome, strong, loving person I am today. It means that there’s a mighty force fighting with me and for me. I will never tire of thanking them, especially Susan. Real life Warrior Mom hugs are everything.

Low Cortisol Treatment: it’s working!

I met with my lovely endocrinologist nurse practitioner this week, and my psychiatry appointment was last week–everyone agrees. The low cortisol treatment is working. I slowly moved up to 5mg Cortef (cortisone) in the morning and 5mg in the afternoon, with breakfast and lunch. The first thing that happened was that my sleep cycle regulated. I was tired at night and awake in the morning. Because cortisone is a steroid, it really does work that quickly.

If that sounds like no big deal, understand: I have NO MEMORY of ever feeling this. I have always felt awake at night and exhausted in the morning. Every attempt to reset my sleep cycle failed.

I began to understand how extreme my fatigue had been when I realized that I was bored. I had no idea what to do with myself, with all these extra hours in my day! What an awesome problem to have!

The next thing that I noticed: more energy and better concentration. A few days into this treatment, I found myself sitting on the floor with my amazing son, happily playing: we played all morning. During the morning! I didn’t have to go nap or turn on the TV!

The next thing: less anxiety. This just makes sense. Good sleep and more food (too much, and too little, before) are just going to lower anyone’s anxiety. My psychiatrist says we should go very, very slowly, because withdrawal from clonazepam is so downright nasty, but… I cut one of my doses in half. I take 1 mg morning, noon, and night, but .5 mg in the evening. 3.5 mg total. That’s the first time that number has gone down since I tried to taper, before my pregnancy. I’m near tears just thinking about being free from the four times daily interruption.

What I learned from the endocrinologist: my body will learn to make the right amount of cortisol, eventually! Within a year, maybe! A year is a long time for this treatment, she tells me, but my cortisol is pretty low. There are two kinds of blood tests for cortisol, and on the less commonly used serum test, the range of “normal” is 6-50. Mine came in at 9. This “normal” range comes from a skewed range of data, because we don’t test cortisol levels on people who feel good. I don’t have Addison’s Disease, or something that would prevent cortisol production, physically–the idea is still that the cause is childhood trauma. So 9 is most likely just far too low *for me* and is pretty close to the bottom, anyway. We’re going to keep testing my cortisol levels every so often, and when she’s satisfied that I’ve got a good thing gong, we’ll try tapering the medicine and see what happens. Taking the medicine for a year is the long wait, though! I’m used to a shrug and a “who knows?” when I ask if I will need a medication for LIFE, so I just about danced a jig when told about this idea of a year.

A few months ago, I thought that I would never have enough energy to work the part-time jobs I already have as actively as I’d like (HypnoBirthing, Jamberry, Chloe + Isabel). Not only have I exceeded my own goals and expectations, there–April ROCKED–but I have also applied for FULL-TIME WORK. Because I WANT IT!

I just wrote this before 10:00am. CELEBRATE!

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Cortisol & Childhood Trauma: Medical Mystery Update

I didn’t want to post about this until something was working; it was too hard to wait, while doctors talked to each other and labs came in and the pharmacy waited to get a medication in stock. My labs show some evidence of over-active thyroid, but the endocrinologist I saw surprised me by looking for, and finding, low baseline cortisol levels. Our first appointment was long, because she asked for my life story behind the bare medical facts. It’s long, especially when my dad’s mental health comes up. I had never seen an endocrinologist before, so I just went with it. I wasn’t surprised when she sent more for more labs and told me to come back after she had the results.

I was surprised when my next visit revealed her suspicion that my diagnosis would actually be low cortisol. She gave me a three-page handout on low-dose cortisone treatment for this, but told me she would wait to call in the prescription until after I had done one more cortisol test. This is a blood draw that has to be done before 9:00 am, while fasting (just putting off breakfast and no late-night snacks). I cracked a joke about torturing me with all these early tests.

“I am not a morning person,” I said.

“That’s because you have low cortisol,” she replied, and left the room.

This shook me up. I have not been able to get myself on a regular sleep schedule, well… ever. The anxiety meds were supposed to help with that. The SLEEP AID was supposed to help with that. Nothing has worked. Not even having a baby who became a toddler who does not sleep past 7:00, and 7:00 is a sleeping-in day. Her theory is a good one, because cortisol is supposed to peak at 7:00 am. It’s part of what helps us wake up!

I had no idea about the healthy reasons we produce cortisol–I knew it only as “the stress hormone,” a trigger for adrenaline. I thought of it as bad, because a spike in cortisol means panic. Anxiety attack. I knew that very high levels could harm a developing fetus, because this was one reason I decided to remain on my anti-anxiety medication during pregnancy. If anything, I would have guessed that my cortisol baseline would be very high, all the time. But then, I remembered seeing a post on Facebook, a link to a TED talk about childhood trauma and health, later in life. I googled and found it. This is a transcript of Dr. Nadine Burke Harris’s talk and this is a link to an ad-free video of her speaking about “How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime” – I’ve embedded the YouTube version, here, for our convenience.

Here’s what knocked the wind of out me:

In the mid-’90s, the CDC and Kaiser Permanente discovered an exposure that dramatically increased the risk for seven out of 10 of the leading causes of death in the United States. In high doses, it affects brain development, the immune system, hormonal systems, and even the way our DNA is read and transcribed. … What kind of trauma am I talking about here? I’m not talking about failing a test or losing a basketball game. I am talking about threats that are so severe or pervasive that they literally get under our skin and change our physiology: things like abuse or neglect, or growing up with a parent who struggles with mental illness or substance dependence. [emphasis mine]

Here I was, seeing my psychiatrist, midwife, general practitioner, and an endocrinologist, because my life around my monthly cycles had become hellish. And here was this video, suggesting that it could all go back to life with my dad, particularly those last four years, when I lived alone with him, as his paranoia deepened into psychosis. “Lock the doors and the windows. Your mother is going to try to kidnap you.” And I did.

The day I heard the low-cortisol theory, I went to therapy (thank goodness for therapy) and threw a tantrum. WHY did everything go back to my father? Did this mean that he was still an abuser, still in control, after I hadn’t even spoken to him in almost two years? I actually wished that a hormonal shift had been caused by having a child, because that had nothing to do with my dad. He’s never met my child. I was angry.

And then, I watched this speech, and I was relieved. It wasn’t that my dad was winning. It wasn’t my fault. I hadn’t given in to him. It just happened. My father’s mental illness began before I was born, and it got worse as I grew up. My brain and body responded just as Dr. Burke Harris describes:

Well, imagine you’re walking in the forest and you see a bear. Immediately, your hypothalamus sends a signal to your pituitary, which sends a signal to your adrenal gland that says, “Release stress hormones! Adrenaline! Cortisol!” And so your heart starts to pound, Your pupils dilate, your airways open up, and you are ready to either fight that bear or run from the bear. And that is wonderful if you’re in a forest and there’s a bear. … But the problem is what happens when the bear comes home every night, and this system is activated over and over and over again, and it goes from being adaptive, or life-saving, to maladaptive, or health-damaging. Children are especially sensitive to this repeated stress activation,because their brains and bodies are just developing.

A little more research into cortisol, specifically, revealed that while a child going through that trauma usually has a high baseline level, the adult who is no longer in that situation will often have a low baseline level of cortisol, but the minute we encounter a stressor, cortisol skyrockets. We still react to stressors as though we are seeing a bear in the woods, even if all we face is the prospect of going to the grocery store.

My third and fourth cortisol tests came back low–not “subclinical,” which would indicate a disease like Addison’s disease, but near the bottom end of the “normal” range. This range is skewed, because we do not test the cortisol levels of people who feel good. The same problem exists for thyroid testing. Many patients are told to go home, that there is nothing wrong with them, because testing does not show dangerously high levels. We may not be suffering from a dramatic, textbook illness, but our suffering, fatigue, headaches, insomnia, muscle aches, whatever it is that brought us to that specialist in the first place, well, that suffering is real. It deserves attention. My psychiatrist sent me to this specific specialist because she wants to know why a patient suffers, regardless of what the lab numbers say.

My specialist’s theory, about me having low cortisol “because of the trauma” (her words), is cutting edge. I’ve had time to ask a lot of people with a lot of childhood trauma in their backgrounds, and no one has heard of this. But here’s the thing: it’s working.

I started taking the first of the low doses of hydrocortisone last week. I cut a pill into four pieces and took 1/4th each day for three days. Then, I doubled it. Then, I took half a pill after breakfast and a quarter after lunch. But here’s what happened: the second day I started this treatment, I began to need sleep at night. The next morning, I woke up on time, by myself. That hasn’t happened every day, but I’ve been carefully listening to my body. On six of the past seven days, I have felt tired between 8:00 and 10:00 in the evening, and I have woken up, on my own, without even my child’s voice (or feet in my face) to help me up. I have had energy during the day. The fatigue that once kicked in a few times a day, leaving me feeling like I couldn’t move a muscle, is gone. It’s just gone. I can take a nap at noon, and wake up at 1:00pm, replacing my old habit of getting up at noon and napping from 3:00pm until 6:00pm. I don’t even know what to do with all this time! What a fantastic problem!

I don’t know why, honestly. I don’t know why a tiny amount of cortisone is helping. I don’t know if this will help my anxiety, or help me reach and maintain a healthy weight. I have about 10,000 questions for my next appointment. I want to know if the plan is for me to take this stuff forever, or if my body and brain can heal.

I do know that this specialist is doing something brave and remarkable in trying this treatment with me. It’s a low-risk treatment, but as I said, it’s a cutting-edge theory. She falls into a movement Dr. Burke Harris describes in her talk:

The single most important thing that we need today is the courage to look this problem in the face and say, this is real and this is all of us. I believe that we are the movement.

Me, too. I’m in.

Cinderella and Abuse: She Can’t “Just Leave”

IMG_0307This is not a post about Disney, or Cinderella, or the movie that I haven’t seen. This is a post about a post, by a mom who wants to explain “What Cinderella Teaches Girls About Abuse.” To paraphrase, she says that the movie teaches girls that the answer to all of life’s problems is to be kind, even when that means sacrificing your very self. She writes that this Cinderella, “is indeed kind, but somehow she thinks that courage is needed to endure abuse rather than to flee.” I have no patience for this remark, because an abusive narrative is never that simple.  Whatever the movie has to say about kindness and courage, this mother taught her girls a dangerous and false lesson about abuse.

It glares out from me in this line: “Even my seven-year-old  turned to me and said, ‘Why doesn’t she just leave?’ Good question. ”

No! This is not a GOOD question! Every time I read and reread this, I want to rush into that moment, grab their hands, and say “This is an important question, but the answer is: she does not leave because she has nowhere else to go.”

I thought more of us knew that it is not ok to ask an abuse victim why she hasn’t left yet.

If it’s true that this Cinderella film contains an abuse narrative, then this Cinderella has no self to sacrifice. I don’t know if this iteration of Cinderella is brave, weak, simpering, courageous, selfish, annoying, and it doesn’t matter. By the time you’re old enough to go to a ball, as the child of an emotionally and verbally abusive parent figure, you don’t have a clue where you end and she begins. Or he, in my case.

I took ONE STEP outside the lines my father drew for me, and it brought down a rage that I had never experienced, not directed at me. He did it over the phone, and he left me in a puddle in the grass in the courtyard of my dorm. I will never forget how sick I felt, when I began to unpack the lies. My father’s lies, and my stepmother’s complicity, will haunt me forever, but I also have to live with memories of begging them to love me and trying with all my little heart to be everything I thought they wanted. I am not ashamed. I asked them to love me, because they were supposed to love me.

This moment describes a courage, missed by this blogger, that perhaps only an abused child can recognize: “Cinderella is locked in the attic by her step-mother in an attempt to keep the Prince from finding her. What does Cinderella do? She briefly questions her step-mother about why she is so mean and hateful towards her. ”

A single question – why?

Why do you do this to me, when I have tried all my life to be everything you want? I am good. I am kind. Why?

Every abused child asks herself this question every day. To vocalize that question, to actually ask for an answer, is not something that I ever had the courage do to. The writer mentions Stockholm Syndrome – well, I didn’t know that there was anything wrong! Call it Stockholm Syndrome or Gaslighting, but abuse victims, especially the youngest, rarely see the abuse that is so obvious to everyone on the outside, looking in.

I am angry, and I’m afraid to say that I’m angry, that this woman’s featured post received praise from so many for teaching her daughters that an abuse victim who stays is weak. Yes, she is on point when she tells them, “that they are never to sacrifice their own self-worth in order to be kind.  I let them know that girls and women can draw their own boundaries and let people know when they have crossed them. That’s okay.” But I did not see boundaries and watch my father cross them, tell him to stop, and go save myself, when he didn’t.

I did not learn to protect my self-worth effectively or to draw healthy boundaries because the person in charge of protecting me did not teach me these things. Where was my own mother, in this story? For most of my life, she was in the same predicament. Life was about survival, and to survive in an abusive home, you never rock the boat. By the time I stopped the cycle, I was married. I had a child. And the best I could do was back away, in total silence, from a great geographical distance, and simply stop answering his calls and emails. I didn’t speak up. I said nothing. I was an adult, and I am still terrified that he is right: I am worth nothing, without him.

It’s not hard to get this one right, even with Cinderella. Steven Sondheim nailed it, in Into the Woods, with “On the Steps of the Palace.”

“So then which do you pick:
Where you’re safe, out of sight,
And yourself, but where everything’s wrong?
Or where everything’s right
And you know that you’ll never belong?”

When safety and abuse are synonymous, and you do not believe that you deserve anything better, you can’t “just leave.”

When you talk to your children about self-worth and kindness, bask in the privilege that they possess, the privilege every child should possess–self-worth that no one has trampled, and boundaries no one has crossed. I pray that my own child never knows what it feels like to have his boundaries erased, to feel violated, to feel that he is worthless. Feel the sun on your faces and enjoy what ought to be a right, and seems too often, to be a privilege granted at random.

AND

It is never a good question to ask, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” Teach your children to stop asking that question.

Medical Mystery, 27 Months Postpartum

Fair warning: I’m going to swear, at the end of this.

Something is very wrong. At first, I thought that I was exhausted from holiday travel, and I assumed that this had triggered mid-winter depression. It’s not uncommon. I asked my psychiatrist for a higher dose of anti-depressants and bought a sun lamp. It let up. Then, it got worse. Curious about why my cycles seemed closer together, I started tracking them. To my very great surprise, they were almost a week shorter than they used to be. When the migraines and moods hit for the second time in January, I fell apart. I couldn’t wake up before noon, but I couldn’t make myself fall asleep, even with a sleep aid. I had taken on this “depression” by setting up a schedule for myself, so it was a sudden change in my sleep patterns. By day 2, I couldn’t stop crying. I had a panic attack about calling my therapist, let alone going to her office. I made it in once or twice, in all of February. I went in to get blood drawn (six vials) so my psychiatrist could run some tests. I saw her as soon as the results were in, but before she even looked at the labs, she listened to me. It was a medical mystery she had seen before: women who had given birth for the first time in our late 20s/30s (instead of at 19, as previous generations might have), seemed to have PMS that sounded almost like peri-menopause. My labs did show a potential risk for some thyroid dysfunction, which would explain a lot, and my Vitamin D levels were very low, so that might explain a lot, too.

Hormones were the big worry, though. We talked about who to see, next. The Vitamin D was the easiest fix: since my number on that test had been 14, instead of between 30 and 100, the normal range, every single time I had been tested since before my pregnancy, and nothing I had tried had budged that number even a little bit, she told me that an endocrinologist would prescribe “this brand that seems to work, when nothing else gets absorbed.” I don’t know what the brand is, yet, and that doesn’t really make sense to me, scientifically, but I had heard about this from a friend, very recently. Because I cannot gain weight–I am eating, people! and I am still under weight by 5-10 pounds! no amount of bacon has given me 5 more pounds!–and have a few other symptoms, she recommended an endocrinologist who wouldn’t focus on the numbers that might not mean much. Evidently, the range of “normal” for thyroid tests is not reliable; we don’t test people who feel great, so no lab has a great idea of what is actually normal. Printouts from labs give you big bold “out of range!” numbers, even when something is just a tiny bit out of range, so it was important to see a specialist who was willing to “try things” to see if they helped me feel better. I listened; I was willing to try just about anything, by then.

By the time I saw my psychiatrist, I was functioning again. I walked to her office, which isn’t far, but that means that I did this all by myself, while my mother-in-law took care of the toddler, at her house, and my husband worked. I made it through 24 hours alone, without freaking out, while ten days earlier, at the beginning of my cycle, I had actually eaten breakfast in bed, because getting out of bed was just. too. much. The timing of all of this sparked a long story, from this Doctor Who Listens, a rare creature, and not one I had expected to meet, having chosen her from an insurance directory based on her proximity to my house.

A long time ago, decades, perhaps, she had met with a “coop” of psychiatrists, ob/gyns, midwives, and endocrinologists; they were all seeing women who had had their first babies in their 30s and arrived at their respective offices with the same symptoms. They couldn’t sleep without waking every few hours, even when their children were sleeping for six. They had “PMS like teenagers” and skin changes to match. Their cycles seemed to refuse to go back to what they had been, before children. They were exhausted, all the time. Some of the doctors in the coop dismissed this as Motherhood. Some decided to start testing hormone levels. They saw enough women with levels somewhere between Healthy 30-year-old Women Levels and Peri-Menopausal Levels to convince about half the care providers that pregnancy was causing a permanent change for the worse.

To make life extra fun, I don’t fit neatly into any category: no obvious thyroid dysfunction, no obvious estrogen withdrawal, definitely no psychiatric cause. The last bit is very good news. My fears that I was spiraling into some sort of psychotic break have been put to rest. The fact that I have no answers and now wait on Doctor Time for appointments and new tests and still don’t know what any of those tests will be or what they will show? That fact SUCKS for anxiety levels. I’m a tangled ball of anxious thoughts, racing around my mind like NASCAR drivers.

These are the first words I have written in weeks.

My sleep is getting worse, as my appointment with the recommended endocrinologist approaches. My fear is not that tests will show something horrible; I had enough blood work to rule out just about everything terrifying, including HIV and Lyme’s disease. (How’s that for thorough? From a psychiatrist! So rare!) Even before those first results came back, I wasn’t afraid that I was *dying* – I didn’t feel like my body was in major trouble. I just feel wrong, inside. So, my panic before getting those first results, and my anxiety, now, is that a lot of specialists and testing will tell me that nothing is wrong. I should go home and get more rest and take Vitamin D and go for more walks, and blah blah blah. Everything I’ve heard before. I want something we can all agree is THERE, and I want something that a simple medication can help with. I don’t want to go through anything like trying to find the right combination of psychiatric medications. I don’t want to try mood stabilizers. None of that is on the table, now, but I just don’t know what will be left to try, if this medical mystery remains a mystery. What if I feel so wrong, moods swinging every which way, for no discernible reason?

I want my body back. I want my mind returned to its previous state, even if that’s a state that requires enough anti-anxiety medication to make most adults sleep all day. I want more than two good days a month. I want to stop feeling terrified that my cycle is going to shorten again. I want to inhabit this body without fears about what it will do to my mind, once or twice a month.

I nearly hugged my psychiatrist, when she said, “Of course, there is no research on this, because it doesn’t happen to men.” She rattled off a list of things I’ve heard chalked up to changes every mother just has to deal with, and I realized all over again, for the 10,000th time, that women are told to put up with all kinds of pain and discomfort and anxiety and mood swings, because that’s just what life as a women is like.

I started teaching a HypnoBirthing course to a lovely family, and I heard myself talking with them about how the uterus functions, and why there is no physiological reason that healthy uterine muscles should cause us pain, not even during childbirth… and the light went on yet again. It says, right there, in the script I know so well, that even during a healthy woman’s menstrual cycle, there is no physiological reason for the pain we call “normal.” Painful cramping is a sign that hormones are out of balance. The medical community knows this, because these are just muscles, and as they function normally, just like any other muscle, they should not hurt. But just as the medical community KNOWS that birth happens without any need for medical intervention but BEHAVES as though each birth is a medical emergency, women who are not pregnant hear that, for no reason at all, we are destined for pain and suffering.

I need all my willpower not to start reciting my HypnoBirthing curriculum, when I hear women joking about how much childbirth sucks, and how it must just be amnesia that lets any woman agree to go through it all again. I remember almost every darn minute of my birth, and it was amazing. Sure, there were moments of discomfort and even pain, but my body, mind, heart, and soul worked together with my baby to accomplish this incredible thing: a baby’s gentle entry into the world, from my womb to my arms. The sensations I remember most clearly? Tension and pressure. Muscles tensing in this incredibly powerful, strong way, in waves what moved down when my baby was ready to move down through the birth path. Pressure as my body unfolded to make space for that tiny body to move, gently, from the uterus to the outside world. I later learned that my child crowned for AN HOUR, and all the while, I craved love and support and gentle reassurance, not painkillers.

I will not settle for a monthly cycle that sucks days from my life, because my body can function perfectly. If hormones calmed me down, during pregnancy and childbirth and that first year of breastfeeding, with no periods, then I refuse to accept that hormones will now turn me into a weeping, raging, miserable person I do not recognize. Somebody who knows where to look had better look everywhere, and find me some damn answers.

I see my midwife a week after I see the endocrinologist, and I’ve already spoken to her on the phone about what we’ll be discussing. Now I just have to pray that my body cooperates enough to let her do her work, because God help me, I only have 8 days between the onset of the next period, as predicted by my handy charting app, and my appointment with my midwife. In the meantime, you’ll find me on Polyvore, distracting myself by making collages of pretty things. And hey, if you want to buy some pretty things, or take a HypnoBirthing class, I am happily competent (no crying!) while I’m working on Jamberry, Chloe and Isabel, and childbirth education.

It felt so good to write this. I keep myself going by reminding myself that I am successfully refusing to lose ME to these moods, or even insomnia, while I wait for answers. I haven’t lost anything, the system has just been hacked by a nasty fucker who is not welcome and will not stay.

FMP app. I like elephants.

FMP app. I like elephants.

Fear and Friendship: Repairing the Damage

This week was unexpectedly intense, in my online world; I wonder if there is a polarizing issue that didn’t come up, among my close friends. I have some distance, because I didn’t end up in the middle of anything, and I have so much empathy, for everyone. Not long ago, I hurt my friend. I thought maybe the world could use some of the insights I’ve gained into relationships, as I try to repair a friendship I damaged badly. I wasn’t going to write about this, publicly, but I’ve been told, privately, that my insight into relationships in general might help people. So, here goes nothing…

I hurt a very dear friend, by not really listening to her, by pretending to validate her experience, when I really didn’t know what was going on with her. Worst of all, I didn’t realize that I was hurting her, until she came to me to express her hurt feelings. It all happened online, where it’s easier to ignore the unspoken, even when I know that something is off. My behavior triggered, for her, feelings of shame, anger, fear, mistrust, and I don’t know what else. I did that. And I didn’t even notice that I had done it. I don’t know if we can repair our friendship.

We have a shot at repairing our friendship, my friend tells me, because I said what amounted to “You are right that I did this very wrong thing.” It took weeks for me to bypass the fear that told me to run away, to fight back by arguing, to do nothing but repeat myself. I didn’t totally succeed. I apologized, when I ought to have realized that she dislikes apologies, having heard too many insincere “I’m sorry”s, in her life. Because I wanted to do it, to help myself feel better, I said it. I justified it by thinking about how it is the thing we do, when we admit a wrong. We apologize. If I had thought about her, more, and me, less, I might have skipped that. I was afraid of more pain. Things were so tense. It eased MY fear, but it made hers worse. Even so, we are stumbling along, with tension and anger and definitely fear, and it’s crucial that I do my best to avoid a reaction from a fearful place.

It’s better to wait, than respond in fear. My pain is not secondary to her pain, in importance, but there’s no reason why I can’t put it aside long enough to say, “My dear friend, you are in so much pain. I see that. And I see that I caused you pain.” It’s not easy, but it is simple and important.

There’s a strange connection, here, to a seemingly distant world, HypnoBirthing, where we teach that, during childbirth, fear leads to tension, which leads to pain, which triggers more fear. I made the connection between relationships and my training on fear response when one amazing friend said, after a whole assortment of internet meanness was unleashed on her Facebook wall, “This is not what we are supposed to do to each other.” She’s right on so many levels. Human beings are not supposed to be cruel; by nature, we are creatures of community, not isolation.

I want to talk about why the very best of us, the ones who are good in a crisis and trained to deal with huge emotions, trauma, everything scary–why do we lose our hard-earned knowledge and training, when we are afraid? In the birthing community, many women in the US describe “instincts” that women in other parts of the world, with more supportive attitudes about birth and recovery, do not describe. Which are “natural” and which are not? In the US (and elsewhere), we have been telling women to lie flat on their backs during birth for over a century; it’s more convenient for doctors, so it dates back to when doctors took over from midwives. We now have women feeling, instinctively, that they should lie down, when they are giving birth, even when this works against them, because gravity isn’t helping her, and for many other physiological reasons. What I teach, in HypnoBirthing, are essentially tools to bypass the culturally ingrained messages we have heard all our lives, in order to receive the signals our bodies send us, about where we want to be and how we want to stand/sit/squat/lay down. Fear gets in the way, because doctors we trust tell us to do things like stay on our backs, and breaking with tradition is scary. Physically, fear leads to tension. Because there’s a baby trying to move through the birth passage, physical tension in the surrounding muscles is going to cause pain. Pain is scary, so the cycle repeats.

In countries where birth is less medical, where care providers tend to say less and move more, working around a laboring mother, women usually describe an instinct to squat, or sit on a short stool that essentially puts them in a squatting position. This physical position does all kinds of wonderful things that facilitate an easier and more comfortable birth. I’m oversimplifying, of course, because sometimes, you just want to lie down, but the point is that what birthing women identify as a protective instinct is actually, quite often, a fear-driven impulse, planted by a culture fearful of birth. The popularity of Brene Brown’s books on vulnerability is all I need to illustrate how much our culture longs for a way out of our fear of being vulnerable. When we act from fear, not compassion, the results never feel good. Nevertheless, in social interactions around hugely important topics, we often have good reasons to fear vulnerability. Have you seen an internet discussion on vaccinations? Yikes. We respond from a tense place of fear. Our words and actions hurt each other. Our pain then tells us that our fears were justified. See? You’re hurting! Be afraid! The cycle continues.

cliff edge sq

Fear leads to tension, which leads to pain, which inspires more fear. It doesn’t matter whether I agree with my close friend that her trigger was shaming, inherently. If she says, “I feel so shamed, and stigmatized” and I say, “But you shouldn’t feel that way,” then I have put her in the unhappy position of feeling the fear that comes with shame and stigma, AND having to defending herself against someone with whom she thought she could safely be vulnerable. If I say, instead, “Shame is awful. I’m so sorry you’re feeling that way. I don’t feel that, though.” and wait to see if she has any interest in hearing more about my own feelings, then my friend might still be defensive and angry that I don’t agree with her, but at least she is not afraid that her trust was misplaced, and that an important friendship has faltered.

Between me, and my friend, there is an additional barrier: when I “half-listened” to her, I triggered a flood all these feelings (mostly shame, fear, anger) that she felt during trauma. She and I share the experience of hearing people who say they love us discount and invalidate the reality we see, claiming that a good night’s sleep, some vitamins, and getting ourselves together, trying harder, will “fix it.” If you’re reading this space, you’ve probably experienced the same lack of validation, questioning of your own reality, that comes with seeking help for mental illness. In the case of this friendship, we have also known people who have abused us by using our mental state, our shame, and our fear, against us, to gain power over us. When my friend told me that she felt all those feelings, as I hurt her, I found myself on the other side of the looking glass. There I was, standing next to the people who stigmatized her, refused to validate her experience, who hurt her the most. I wanted to believe, “That’s not me; I am nothing like people who do that. My friend is being absurd, and she should know that she hurt me, with her words, too, by even thinking I’m capable of that.” I had a choice: defend myself, and align myself further with the people who hurt her the most, or own that my behavior was similar to theirs. My behavior does not define who I am, so I can own it, and feel the feelings, without feeling that I’m giving up any part of my identity.

My friend fears that I could hurt her again, and fear still permeates our interactions. I feel afraid, when I see an email from her, and as I try to respond, I conjure up images of the people who have wronged her, not wanting to join them, again. If I let fear overpower me, I make the tension, and pain, worse, until it’s all feeding on each other and building in intensity. I can live with the idea that she feels afraid of interacting with me, and also still see myself as a good friend, with a loving heart, and no intention of hurting anyone. Intention has nothing to do with the pain I caused. I can sit with the deeply discomfiting thoughts that my own fear hurls at me. I can refuse to give in. I can just keep going, and see what happens, without knowing when or if anything is “fixed.” With effort, I can refuse to force a resolution, before the situation is ready to resolve.

My Word for 2015

I chose a word, last year, and I really liked it. I’m not in a place where I want to do much looking back, but since I chose a word last year that represented something I wanted more of (simplicity) and enjoyed the experience of watching that throughout the year, I thought I would do that again. This year, I want to think about abundance.

abundance

I tend to doubt that there will be an abundance of anything, in my life. I have noticed other women doing the same, now that I have become so involved with my Jamberry team, as a leader. I listen to a lot of women tell me, in a lot of different ways, hidden under many codes, that it is not ok to ask for an abundance of wealth, popularity, success, attention. We do not deserve. There are others to think about.

I reject the idea that choosing abundance for myself takes anything away from anyone else. There is not a finite amount of success, not as I define it, or a finite amount of joy or love. I am prepared for an abundance of failure, too, as long I learn from it.

I want an abundance of words to flow, again, in this space, and others. I want art in my life, close to me, not just with me as an observer. I want to draw and paint alongside my child, who loves to do these things, and apart from him.

I have come to a place in my life where I want everything I see growing around me to flourish. Bring me all of it, in abundance, as the year continues.

Finding My Soul or, Mental Illness in The Snow Queen

I’ve been meaning to read this fairy tale for years, and I’m so glad I finally did. It’s beautiful, and it’s such a perfect illustration of everything it takes to overcome mental illness that I really have to share. (Pause: yes, this is the Hans Christian Andersen story they took as their inspiration for Frozen, but the two bear only a passing resemblance. Let’s move on, shall we?) The way I read this story, you’ve got two parts of a person. A male child is the smarts, the part of us willing to fall for the cold and distant world where words and appearances reign, as long as they seem logical. Following the glitter of perfection, he commits himself to a half-life without emotion. This is important: it all seems so perfect! Look at the snowflakes, magnified, he tells his best friend, they are truly beautiful, because they are perfect. The female child is all heart, and she can’t understand or follow her friend, because she loves the imperfect beauty of living, growing things–namely, roses. Now, I’ve talked to a whole lot of people about mental illness, at this point in my life as blogger/activist/patient/friend, and the glitter of perfection that is just out of reach? That traps us every time.

My own spiral down into a suicidal state began with the pursuit of perfection in school. I believed that if I could just try a little bit harder, I could Be Perfect, and then, I would rest. Like the small boy in the story and the Snow Queen who whisks him away, each time I seemed to get closer to my goal, I would feel the kiss of perfection’s promise, go numb to the cold, and continue to put every effort into solving meaningless puzzles. There’s a very important distinction, though, in the story and in life: the puzzles involve words whose meaning has been lost, because they have been reduced to shapes, in silence. Cold and silence surrounds the depressed mind, until there is nothing else left, and no other goal to strive for but the puzzle of Perfection. Hans CA uses a different word, but the point is that without the breath of life, there is no meaning in the word. Try as he might, the little boy cannot make the word he needs to gain freedom (and a new pair of skates) with the shards of ice he has been given to play with. No life. Silence. Pursuit of ever-elusive perfection. Numbness. That, friends, is depression.

His way out is through the imperfect and very much alive little girl who survives the journey through The World, reaches the Snow Queen’s palace of light and ice but no beauty, and she rescues her friend using one tool: her voice. She keeps moving, and every time someone or something blocks her path, she tells her story, and the story of her friend, and her path clears. The faith and love that pour out with her words literally removes all obstacles. Her heart saves them, when his head only leads to danger. I hate to spoil a good ending, but since this story has been around for an awfully long time, I’m going to go for it–the two, together, solve the puzzle the Snow Queen has set, the word that he must shape in order to gain his freedom, when they embrace. They are not in love. They are children. But they’re just so happy to be alive, BOTH of them, together, that they weep and hug and all that mess of imperfect life breaks the spell. That is the way out of depression: ALL of it has to come out, and it must be safe for everything to just release.

The two remain linked, without romance implied, because a happily-ever-after comes from within. (From deep within, not in the superficial Disney oh, they’re beautiful and rich and will get married! and oh, right, they’re also good people, silliness.) These two hold on to each other, life, beauty, and the joy of childhood, because they find faith in the goodness of warm, imperfect, messy, glorious life. They are not the most beautiful, the most talented, the smartest, the best anything, in the end. They simply sit, holding hands, and they FEEL. Sure, they sing a song about Jesus, but it’s about finding Jesus in the beauty of roses. You have to feel that kind of faith from a place beyond words and logic. (Sorry, STEM friends, but math is a bit dangerous, in this one, but only because it’s a language too far removed from human emotion. I think we can all agree that the STEM world needs an injection of humanity, in the kindness and decency sense.) The faith that my life matters, without the ability to explain or reason the Why behind that–it saved me.

I remember lying in my room, as an inpatient in a psych program for depression, and stepping away from suicidal thoughts with one conviction: my path had been wrong, because it had lead me to wanting death, so a new and better path must be out there, in life, somewhere. I didn’t believe it. I didn’t see it. I had no idea what it would look like or feel like. I still felt numb. But I remember choosing life, whatever that meant. My mind had been carried away by the Snow Queen, into her glittering, icy world of Perfect, and I had to send my soul running after. Soul is the word I have for what was left, in the dark, to choose to seek healing.

My soul ran, as fast as she could, and when my mind and soul reunited, and I was warm, I had learned to always choose life. Even if it meant the horrible Imperfect. It hurt like hell. The poor girl in the story is often without shoes or warm clothing, and the children walk back home through all of Scandinavia. Spring or not, that’s a long walk. I’m still walking. But I’ve got a hand to hold, now, and even though I really, really, really, REALLY, hate having to face my own flaws, and the messes I make, I’m not going back. I have walked this far. I will keep walking. My rest will be in complete faith, whenever I find it, and that is how I will know that I am home.

snowy road sq

My Silence: I don’t know why.

I don’t have a why. I don’t know why I seem to stop blogging every year around this time. Yes, The Holidays Are Hard. Yes, particularly hard when you’re estranged from a family member. But I don’t miss my dad. Something is just off. I’m trying to sit with that, and be ok with it. Things are hard. I don’t feel like writing. I don’t feel like doing a lot of things. Am I depressed? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I’m not “at my best,” and This Too Shall Pass, and all those things–they’re true. I just want to be in the dark place I’m in, right now. It’s ok. It really is. My heart is hurting for the way this country murders people of color and refuses to even hold a trial for their murderers. My heart is hurting for friends and family who are in tough places. My heart glows for my beautiful family, our beautiful boy, my loving partner. It’s all pretty appropriate. I’m tired, and I don’t have many words for all the reasons why. But it’s been bothering me that I haven’t said anything.

I’m heartbroken for the families of the murdered black men and boys, and for this entire country, for everyone poisoned by their murders, and everything that lead to their murders, and the failure to show that those acts have any consequences.

That needs to be said.

I want to be quiet, now.

“The Family Rock” – Helpful and Problematic

I’ve named my job in my family as “rock,” but that name needs a post of its own, to talk about the problematic associations of that image. First, here’s why I use it, and why it’s helpful to me:

  • If you lean on a rock, it supports you. My partner in life has been so supportive, and I want to offer that same support to him. And: parenting. A toddler needs to lean. Hard. His world is expanding and changing fast, so he needs Mama and Dada to be stable.
  • It takes some extreme conditions to crumble or break a good rock. I have given enough of my time and energy to questioning whether or not I’m good enough as a daughter, friend, spouse, parent. You know what? All the drama in my life still hasn’t broken me. I want to know that I am enough. To just exist, as I am, without striving for a perfection that will never exist.
  • If you go somewhere else to do something else, a rock will still be there, when you come back. My family’s income, balance, and happiness depend on my spouse going out and doing a lot of things, in the coming year or more. Finish a dissertation. Find an academic job. Move to who-knows-where. A lot of change is going to come, and when it does, I would really like to have had some time to be still. I want to be comfortable, no matter where Nathan’s work takes him. It’s one thing to lean on each other for support, but I have been doing most of the leaning, which is something else entirely. I was beginning to feel like I couldn’t stand on my own. I can. I will.

Here’s why this image is problematic:

  • If I’m a rock, am I allowed to need support, as well as provide it? I know that being stable and changing are possible at the same time. But I’m posting this on a public blog. The image works for me, in my family, at this moment, but it’s not one of those universally helpful ideas. Thinking of yourself as a rock might lead to feeling like you need to provide support, but not ask for it. That’s not balance. Serious limitation.
  • How do I mark the line between Solid Rock and Crumbling Rock or Broken Rock? What is strength? What is weakness? I spend a lot of time in therapy talking about whether or not I am successfully being rock-like. I really need that, because my therapist is a lot more forgiving than I am. She will push back against any idea that big emotions, or even getting sick, are signs of weakness. She’s good at helping me see the bigger picture, which has a lot to do with me knowing that I am capable and strong, just as I am. I need to be careful that I don’t suddenly decide that an anxiety attack has broken me, and that I have failed as A Rock. My goal is to look back, after we’re on the other side of graduation and job interviews, and feel proud of the stability I have offered my family. I have a lot of room in there to have bad days, get sick, lose patience, ask for a longer parenting break than we agreed on, when we were talking about our schedule for the week. Most important, perhaps, is the fact that I am the ONLY person who decides whether or not I have been A Rock. There is no one in my life who will throw this project back in my face and imply that I’m failing.
  • Is change and growth at odds with this job? In my family, as it exists right now, change and growth are pretty constant, and definitely encouraged. If Nathan wasn’t comfortable with me changing and growing, he’d have spent our entire relationship in some serious discomfort–a LOT has changed. When we met, I would never, ever, have thought that I would be comfortable leaving academia for a life of mothering, writing, childbirth educating, and self-exploration. And yet, here I am. We are just as happy now, if not happier, than we were when we were first married. We are good at this growth thing!

Sometimes, I give advice, in this space. I’ve written about what to look for in a care provider, and questions to ask a potential babysitter. But this is not one of those times. I remember the way my father used to speak to my mother about her role as a stay-at-home mom, and the way he used to hand down his decisions about What’s Good For The Family. It was abusive, controlling, and scary. The scariest part is that I bought into it, for a long time. I believed that my mom’s job as a human being was to cater to our needs. Pick me up here, drop me off there. I can so “no” whenever I want, but you have to do what I say. I don’t have to say “please,” or “thank you,” because all of this is just your job. Well, in what universe does someone not deserve praise for doing her job? My dad polite to teenagers at Dairy Queen, when he thanked them for handing over some pre-packaged (delicious!) “Buster Bar” ice cream treats, but he wouldn’t back up my mom, when she asked me to say “please” instead of demanding that she drop everything to take me to a friend’s house. I can easily imagine telling him about this project, being A Rock, and having it thrown in my face a week later that I had upset him and was, therefore, terrible at being A Rock.

I have spent a lot of time around verbal abuse, directed at me or at someone close to me, so I know that this particular image is one that is easily twisted into a trap. It would boil down to this: “I thought you were going to be a rock for our family, but you’re not behaving exactly the way I expected you to!” Mind-reading would, of course, be included in those expectations. The idea of someone else demanding that I be my family’s rock, for his sake, makes me feel ill.

This image, and this project, came about *because* I no longer have anyone in my life who abuses, manipulates, or uses me. I love the irony in all of this – I’m thinking of myself as an unchanging, totally stable thing, in order to prove to myself that I’m free to change, and that I have changed. I have come so far from the place I was, in college, when I actually asked my friends to spend the night with me, to make sure that my depression wouldn’t turn suicidal again, just a few days after I had been involuntarily hospitalized. I date the beginning of this journey back to the day I really heard the dear friend who pointed out that I was asking for more than my loved ones were qualified to give, let alone comfortable giving. This began the day I walked myself back into that hospital and decided that I would start healing myself with the proper help. I have healed so much that I no loner believe that I am sick.

The mental illness I live with does not make me sick. I took control of my healing journey by giving up control to a bunch of doctors and nurses I had never met. I can call myself A Rock, because I have so much freedom to be whatever I am. I am comfortable with paradox. All these things exist at the same time. It is only from a place of great safety that I can use this language, without fear that someone will use it against me. rocks