Surviving the holidays with your mental health intact

I don’t love Christmas.

Yah, that’s right. I said it.

To the die-hard Christmas fanatics, I know what you’re thinking. What’s not to like? The twinkling lights, the festive food, the spirit of giving, the magic of Santa, the awe and wonder reflected on every innocent child’s face – it’s the most wonderful time of the year!

And to that I say…Meh.

Here’s the thing: I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder which means I have the super power of simultaneously worrying about everything imaginable and yet nothing in particular. It’s like there’s a hamster frantically running on a wheel of worry in my brain that just won’t stop. On good days, the wheel slows down just enough for me to manage my anxious thoughts.  On bad days…well, let’s just say that hamster gets one hell of a workout.

Holiday pressures add a whole new layer of anxiety to my spinning brain, and it’s tough to feel any kind of Christmas spirit when I’m completely overwhelmed.

I know I’m not alone, so I thought I’d share a few of my own holiday survival tips:

1.    Lower your expectations. Then lower them again.

Last year I brought home one of those boxed gingerbread house kits, foolishly thinking that it would be a fun activity to do with my two little boys. I envisioned us gathered around the table, listening to carols, decorating our house with gumdrops and candy canes and making magical, Pinterest-worthy memories.

In reality, it was a complete shit show. The cheap icing wouldn’t hold the gingerbread together and I quickly lost my patience trying in vain to attach the walls to the roof. In a matter of minutes there was icing everywhere, I was seething, the kids were disappointed and I felt like a complete failure. Not exactly a Hallmark moment.

Someone once told me to keep my expectations low so that I’d always be pleasantly surprised.

Lesson learned.

2.    Draw your line in the sand and guard it with your life.

The weeks leading up to Christmas are hectic and the calendar fills up quickly. If you feel like you’re being pulled in a million directions and all the socializing is draining your energy, take a break. Seriously – just say no. If you’re worried about disappointing people (and let’s face it, when are you not?), remember that saying no is a powerful and necessary form of self-care. The more you do it, the easier it gets. So for the sake of your sanity, set your boundaries and stick with them.

While I’m on the subject, you know what else gets a hard NO from me? Elf on the Shelf. The last thing I need to add to my endless to-do list is remember to move that creepy little fucker to a new spot every night. Nope, not in my house.

3.    Avoid shopping malls like the plague.

Nothing induces anxiety and blinding rage quite like an overcrowded shopping mall during the holidays. God bless Amazon and every retail outlet that provides online shopping. Extra blessings for free shipping.

4.     Ask for help.

The greatest lesson I’ve learned from my mental illness is that there is no shame in asking for help. You don’t get a medal for going it alone. Reach out and talk to someone – your partner, a family member, friend, coworker, therapist, support group – someone who will listen without judging or trying to fix you.

Trust that the people who love you don’t want to see you struggle. In fact, they need you to be healthy. You can’t pour from an empty cup, as the saying goes, so this holiday season fill yours up and let it overflow.

Pregnant woman

Goddess myth gone too far

The mental health toll on mothers striving for perfection at all costs

In the weeks following the birth of my first son I was extremely anxious about the fact that I was his sole source of food. Unlike so many mothers I know, breastfeeding was one of the few things that went reasonably well for me. My milk was flowing and my son was thriving, but the same couldn’t be said for me. Suffering from postpartum depression and anxiety that I had not yet recognized or sought help for, I was mentally unravelling. The mere thought of leaving my son – even for a few minutes to go to the grocery store by myself – triggered panic.

If I walk out the door, I take his next meal with me, and every one after that. What if I’m killed in a car accident? If I don’t make it back, how will he survive?

I recently started thinking about my own experience after reading a Time Magazine article that explores what the author, Claire Howorth, refers to as the goddess myth – essentially the unrealistic and incredibly problematic notion that motherhood is innate and that a woman’s body is designed to bring forth and nourish human life as nature intended.

It’s a myth reinforced by the idea that a “natural” birth without pain medication is somehow better and by the pressure to exclusively breastfeed because the medical community preaches that “breast is best.”

Regardless of the intention, the message heard by moms is that to do anything less is to fail straight out of the gate. It’s a pressure amplified by social media posts that rarely reflect the ugly truths about motherhood, and comment sections that too often give voice to mom shaming at its worst.

As Howorth rightly points out, the goddess myth impacts all mothers and the guilt and shame it leads to takes an incredible toll on the way we feel about ourselves. But I would argue that for mothers at risk of, or already suffering from postpartum mental health issues, the implications can be far more dangerous.

Shortly after her first son was born, Florence Leung, a 32-year-old mother from Vancouver, went missing in October, 2016. Media reports indicated that she had been suffering from postpartum depression, and was seeking treatment at the time of her disappearance. Tragically, Florence never returned home to her baby and husband. Several weeks after she was last seen police reported that her body had been found and foul play was not suspected.

It’s impossible for anyone to understand how Florence was feeling, or to know what she was thinking at the time of her death, but several months later her husband alluded to her mental state and the pressure she was under in a statement posted to a Facebook page dedicated to her memory.

“For all the new moms experiencing low mood or anxiety, please seek help and talk about your feelings,” he wrote. “You are Not alone. You are Not a bad mother. Do not EVER feel bad or guilty about not being able to exclusively breastfeed, even though you may feel the pressure to do so based on posters in maternity wards, brochures in prenatal classes, and teachings at breastfeeding classes.”

The pressure to breastfeed doesn’t cause postpartum depression or anxiety, but there’s no question that for many mothers it’s a contributing factor.

A mother is not a goddess. We are strong and we are fierce, but more importantly we are human. Our bodies have limitations that we cannot change no matter how hard we try.

The sooner we let go of the goddess myth, the better off our mental health will be – and a healthy mother is exactly what a healthy baby needs.

Mother’s Day musings of an anxious mother

I had a few tears this morning even before my first sip of coffee.

My oldest son – six years old and in grade one – gave me a Mother’s Day card he made at school.

Made of pink construction paper, the cover features a hand drawn heart with two smiling figures in the middle holding hands. They are “Mom” and “Lukas” according to the labels he penciled above them. Surrounding the heart, in large crayon-coloured bubble letters, he had written “I Love You Mom.”

Glued to the inside of the card is a sheet of paper titled “All About Mom” where he filled in the blanks with some fascinating tidbits of information about me:

My mom is 37 years old.
She likes to watch me play hockey.
The best thing she cooks is macaroni and cheese.
Her favourite food is macaroni and cheese.
Her favourite thing to do to relax is colour.
We like to do French together.
She is really good at cooking macaroni and cheese.
As you can see, my mom is special because she lets me do anything.  

Clearly there’s a slightly concerning emphasis on macaroni and cheese and the final comment suggesting I’m an overly permissive parent who lets her children run wild may or may not be entirely accurate. But whatever. I digress.

Something about seeing my role as a mother though the eyes of my son completely broke me open emotionally.

As an anxious mother I spend an obscene amount of time worrying about whether I’m doing right by my children. I try my best to manage my anxiety but there are times when it boils over and I’m not the mother I so desperately want to be. I’m beyond irritable and impatient – I’m angry, and it shows. These are the ugly moments of motherhood that don’t get talked about enough. They are buried under a load of guilt and shame that is far too heavy to lift.

I fear these are the moments that will live on in my son’s memory. That they will somehow overshadow all the “good mother” moments – all the times I watched him play hockey, coloured with him, practiced his French vocabulary and made macaroni and cheese over and over again because it’s actually his favourite meal, not mine.

As I read what he wrote in the card, I saw myself as he sees me – as the mother who holds his hand and loves him no matter what.  And what I realized in that moment is that deep down inside, underneath all my fear and anxiety, I know he feels the same way about me.

Dear Facebook, Re: all the things I never told you

Your seemingly innocent question stares back at me from the screen.

What’s on your mind?

The cursor blinks, waiting for a response.

What would happen if I answered truthfully? If I just laid it all out there for you to see. Put it out in the open for you to judge.

A quick scroll through my timeline reflects the life of a mother who adores her family. Just look at my boys in their superhero Halloween costumes, and their matching hockey jerseys. Could they be any cuter?

And there’s my husband, handsome as ever, curled up with the dog. How precious is that?

And that family photo in front of the Christmas tree – the one where the stars somehow magically aligned and we’re all looking at the camera and smiling. Oh yah, that’s the money shot. Eat your heart out Norman Rockwell.

Don’t get me wrong, Facebook. I didn’t lie to you, I swear. These moments are real and so are the beaming smiles on our faces. These moments happened and yes, they were worth sharing. But they don’t tell the whole story – not even close. They are mere glimpses of a life that is far messier and more complicated than anything that can be summed up with over-filtered selfies and meaningless hashtags.

It’s what I didn’t share that’s eating away at me. It’s all the things I never told you.

You see FB…can I call you FB? What I failed to mention is that I struggle with my role as a mother nearly every day. In between the moments of joy that I post, there’s an ugly side to this life that doesn’t get captured on my phone or shared on social media.

What if I told you that I feel uncontrollable anger sometimes? I’m talking zero to 100, real quick kind of anger. What if I said that I never felt that kind of anger before I had kids? If I posted about the inescapable shame and guilt that comes with this inexplicable rage, would you still want to know what’s on my mind?

Should I tell you about my anxiety? About that time I had a panic attack after I dropped the boys off at daycare? How I drove back home in tears, parked in the driveway and struggled to breathe. How I felt so completely and utterly alone in my panic? Is there an emoticon for that?

What if you knew how scared I am sometimes? How my mind spins with worry and negative thoughts about how I’m not good enough to be a mother. How I’m just not strong enough to handle the overwhelming responsibility of raising these kids. Would you respond with a “like” and a thumbs up?

That’s the kind of shit I don’t tell you, FB.

What will you think of me now that I’ve said these things? Will you judge me? Trust me, it won’t be harsher than I judge myself.

But here’s what I’ve come to realize. Every time I open up to someone about my mental health, I am met with compassion. Every time I let my guard down and show my vulnerability, I am embraced with empathy. Time and time again, without fail. It’s a beautiful thing that catches me by surprise each time it happens.

That is what’s on my mind today Facebook, and I’m more than happy to share.

Julie

Pill bottle

Decision to medicate a tough pill to swallow

The pills were yellow. Bright yellow. Sunshine in a bottle perched on top of the stove alongside the salt and pepper shakers.

A few weeks before I was due to give birth to my second son, I had the prescription filled. The spot on the stove was intentional. I wanted to see them. I needed to know they were there, patiently waiting for me to decide if and when I needed them. Their mere presence gave me comfort.

They were the same pills that brought me out of the darkness of postpartum anxiety and depression the first time. When I couldn’t fall asleep because my mind wouldn’t stop spinning. When every decision and task was an overwhelming obstacle I just couldn’t face.

When I completely fell apart and lost myself, it was those yellow pills that brought me back.

That was five years ago and since then I’ve talked to a lot of moms going through similar struggles in the weeks, months, even years after giving birth. I’m often asked about my decision to take an antidepressant – mostly from mothers who are grappling with the decision themselves.

By the time I realized I needed help, things were bad. I was desperate and more terrified about what would happen if I didn’t take the pills than if I did. Yes, part of me felt like a failure for not being able to just fix it myself but I had to push that aside. It wasn’t about me anymore. My family needed me, and I owed it to my son and my husband to get healthy.

Do I think everyone mother experiencing postpartum depression should do the same? Of course not. It’s an extremely personal decision. But I encourage every mom to consider all her options and make the choice that is right for her, whatever that may be.

Beating postpartum anxiety – the sweetest Valentine gift

Two years ago Valentine’s Day took on a whole new meaning for me. There was no candlelit dinner. No chocolate. A bottle of wine was out of the question.

But nothing says romance like a trip to the doctor for cervical sweep, am I right ladies?

I was five days overdue with my second son, and desperate to get him out. If you’re lucky enough to have no idea what a cervical sweep is or what it involves, I suggest you take a moment to throw some gratitude out to the universe.

I’ll spare you the unpleasant details but I think we can all assume that any sweeping motion associated with my nether regions at this very late stage of pregnancy wasn’t going to feel good. Even if doc had warmed me up with chocolates and wine beforehand – which she didn’t by the way.  Talk about being a foreplay killjoy.

A cervical sweep hurts.  It hurts to have it done, and it hurts afterwards when the contractions and severe cramping trick you into thinking you finally get to evict the stubborn squatter from your belly.

How do I know?  This was my fourth sweep. If at first you don’t succeed, Happy Valentine’s Day to me.

Needless to say, my anxiety was high and getting higher with each passing day that didn’t bring on labour. Knowing my history with postpartum anxiety and depression doc understood the fragility of my mental state. With empathy and kindness she called the hospital to request an induction for the following day if the fourth sweep proved as ineffective as the three before.

So my husband and I went home to wait.

The cramping started almost immediately, but that was no surprise.  After three failed attempts that each brought on brutal pain, I didn’t give it much thought.  But when the pain brought me to my knees on the bathroom floor within 20 minutes of arriving home, I knew it was go time, and time to go fast.

The race to the hospital was dramatic, to say the least.  I was like an injured, wild animal trapped in a cage.  The contractions came one right after the other, with barely any time in between for relief.  With both hands gripping the ceiling handle of the car I convulsed in pain, pleading with my husband to drive faster, and banging on the window as if that would somehow make the red lights turn green.

Tangled up with all the physical pain was the sinking feeling that I wasn’t going to get an epidural.  It was all happening too fast.  I was terrified.

When we pulled up to the hospital I couldn’t even stand up on my own.  My husband helped me inside to the registration area where I doubled over the back of a chair waiting for someone rescue me. Within minutes a group of nurses arrived with a wheelchair and whisked me off to the delivery room.

“I want an epidural.”  The first words out of my mouth, obviously.

I begged for drugs – something, anything, please!  I didn’t care what as long as it took the pain away. The nurses calmly and quietly explained all the reasons why they could only offer me laughing gas to take the edge off.  I wanted to punch them. Furious, I bit down on the tube and tried to huff my way into oblivion.

Nothing.

Left with no other option, I somehow pushed my 9 lb 13 oz baby boy out into the world.

When I close my eyes and conjure up the memories of that experience, it’s not the pain, anxiety, panic or fear that floats to the surface.

It’s the sunlight that I remember, and the way it poured in through the windows of the delivery room and made it glow with warmth.  I remember holding my sweet baby boy against my skin and breathing him in for the first time. And most of all I remember the overwhelming sense of calm that washed over me as I realized I was going to be ok.

I was prepared this time. Therapy sessions during my pregnancy gave me the tools and the confidence to take care of myself, speak up and ask for help and not feel any sense of shame or failure for taking an antidepressant.  I had been down that dark road of postpartum depression before, and I sure as hell wasn’t going back.

I still have anxiety ups and downs, and probably always will.  Managing my thoughts is an ongoing challenge and some days are better than others.

But I can always close my eyes and go back to that moment.  I can feel the sun and the calm, the contentment and the love.

No Valentine’s Day gift will ever top that.

Me, Oprah and my experience with Postpartum Depression and Anxiety

My oldest son is four. He loves books, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and asking questions – lots and lots of questions.

If you make the mistake of not answering in a timely fashion (ie: within seconds) he repeats the question over and over again until he receives a response he deems satisfactory.

His curiosity is insatiable. His love of learning knows no bounds. He searches for meaning in everything.

It’s a quality as irritating as it is endearing.

“But why Mommy? But why?” he pleads, looking up at me with his big, innocent eyes and expecting me to have all the answers. Sometimes responses come easy.

“We’re going this way because it’s faster.”

“You can’t sit on your brother because you’ll hurt him.”

“You’re going to bed because Mommy and Daddy need to watch Game of Thrones.”

I try to answer honestly. I really do. But sometimes the answer is too complicated to explain in terms he’ll understand and it’s just easier to say “I don’t know” and distract him with another subject.

I resorted to this strategy when I spoke about my experience with Postpartum Depression and Anxiety on the IWK Foundation’s Annual Telethon in May.

Not surprisingly the news that mommy was going to be on TV opened a floodgate of questions from my son. I explained to him that after he was born I got sick and the people at the hospital helped me get better.  By going on TV and talking about it I was helping the hospital do the same for other moms who need help.

“But why did you get sick Mommy?”

That’s when I pulled out the distraction technique. It was just a whole lot easier than explaining what I’m about to tell you.

I’ve thought a lot of about why I experienced postpartum depression and anxiety. Sure, there were risk factors, most notably a family history of mental health issues. But I don’t believe I got sick because my grandmother suffered from depression or because my mother has struggled with anxiety for most of her adult life. It’s bigger than that. How do I know? Because Oprah told me.

I can hear the collective groan as I write this. If you’re rolling your eyes, trust me, I totally get it. But before you click away, hear me out.

My maternity leave with my first son coincided with the final season of Oprah’s show. What a happy coincidence! Queen O was seriously killing it on every episode and I looked forward to tuning in every day. By the time the season came to an end I was preaching from the gospel of O. I hung on her every word during her final show, but one thing in particular has stayed with me since:

Everybody has a calling, and your real job in life is to figure out what that is and get about the business of doing it. It lights you up and it lets you know that you are exactly where you’re supposed to be, doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing.

It wasn’t until I started this website and blog, shared my story and spoke out publicly about women’s mental health that I discovered the true reason why I got sick. This is exactly where I’m supposed to be, doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.

This is what lights me up.

So I’m going to get about the business of doing it.

Speaking at Run For Women

Speaking out in support of Reproductive Mental Health

“I don’t want to be the poster girl for anxiety.”

That’s exactly what I said during my last therapy session with my psychiatrist at the IWK. I remember it well because even as the words were leaving my mouth I didn’t feel good about them.

But in that moment, eight months into my second pregnancy, that’s how I felt. I had been seeing her on a regular basis during the second half of my pregnancy, committed to doing whatever it took to prevent another devastating run-in with postpartum anxiety and depression. Every two weeks I would sit on the little couch in her office and talk. I fancy myself a pretty good communicator. Hell, I’ve made a career out of it. Wanna know how I feel about something? Just ask me. I tend to tell it like it is – or at least the way I see it.

But I didn’t want people to know that I was struggling with a mental health issue. I thought if people knew they would walk on eggshells around me afraid that I was a ticking time bomb of panic that they could somehow trigger at any moment. So when I made the poster girl comment, it stayed with me long after my therapy sessions came to end. It wasn’t like me to shy away from difficult subjects. But there is such a powerful and far-reaching stigma associated with mental health, it silenced me too.

It occurred to me one day many months later why that statement bothered me so much. If I’m not willing to talk about my mental health, how can I ever expect other women, especially mothers, to feel any different? By staying silent, I was part of the problem. By speaking out I become part of the solution.

Although you won’t see my face on any posters (and trust me, we can all be thankful for that), I will be speaking out about my own postpartum mental health experiences at the Shoppers Drug Mart Run for Women on Sunday, May 4th in Halifax. I am so honoured to be a part of this event because all money raised goes to IWK’s Reproductive Mental Health Services and its goal of treating pregnant and postpartum women who might otherwise not get the help they so desperately need. Women like me.

Finding your own right way to be a mother

Remember that time when you knew exactly what you were doing and you were completely confident in your abilities as a mother? When you thought, “Oh yah, I got this. I’m totally rockin’ this whole parenting thing?”

If you’re nodding your head and reflecting on that precious memory, well played Mama. I salute you.

If you want to punch me in the face for even suggesting such a feeling is possible, get in line and wait your turn.

I’ve been a mother for about three and half years now. Raising two boys while trying to manage my anxiety is damn hard at the best of times. Faced with the excessive, often conflicting, information, opinions, theories, and musings about what is best for children, (read: what a good mother does), it’s nearly impossible to avoid feeling overwhelmed and overcome with self-doubt.

Case in point: The Swaddle

Oh, how I simultaneously love and loathe the almighty swaddle technique. In the days after my first son, Lukas, was born, the nurses would bundle him up like a burrito in those soft, pre-warmed blankets and he would instantly be soothed to sleep. It was magic, and my son loved it.

In fact, he loved the swaddle so much he wouldn’t sleep any other way. No problem, right? Just keep swaddling. Easy peasy.

Ha! Not quite. Once he starting moving around more, Lukas was no longer content to be confined in what was essentially a straightjacket. He became a master escape artist. No matter how tightly he was wrapped, he would somehow manage to wriggle at least one arm out. I still shiver at the memory of peeking in his room shortly after putting him down, only to discover that his tiny hand had found its way out. Sheer horror, I tell you. It was only a matter of time before the whole arm would be free, and when that happened, it was game over. No swaddle. No sleep. For anyone.

Lukas could not keep from flailing his arms and smacking himself in the head, so my husband and I felt we had no choice but to rely on the swaddle, or some variation of blanket-wrapping, until he was able to sleep on his belly. By that time he was enormous and I was literally tying to swaddle him in a bed sheet. Thank God we were able to break him of the swaddle before resorting to duct tape. Pretty sure that’s where we were headed.

Never once did I question the swaddle. After all, it was the hospital nurses who showed us how to do it, and the dude who wrote “The Happiest Baby on the Block” gives it the hard sell. Frankly, it was the only thing that helped my son sleep, and that was enough for me to give it two big thumbs up.

So, imagine my shock a few weeks ago when an article called New guidelines highlight risks of swaddling babies popped up in my Twitter feed.

“Not the beloved swaddle,” I lamented. “Say it ain’t so!”

Ok, perhaps it was more of a “WTF? Are you effing kidding me?” thought process but the sentiment is the same.

One more thing for an anxious mother to be anxious about. Trust me, there’s always something. Something to worry about, something to agonize over – breast or bottle, co-sleep or crib, cry it out or pick ’em up. The list is endless.

Today it’s swaddling, but tomorrow it will be something else. There will always be some new study, article, blog or argument that pokes holes in our confidence, allowing the self-doubt to seep in.

Knowledge is power, but even more powerful is the ability to think critically about what we read and hear, and decide for ourselves whether it’s information worth acting on. As mothers we need to empower each other to trust our instincts, and support each other even when our choices are different.

I am not, nor will I ever be, an expert on parenting. Like all the other mothers in the world, I’m just doing my best to survive the tough moments and appreciate the joy that comes with the good ones.

But if my experience with anxiety has taught me anything, it’s this – there is no universal “right way” to be a mother. There is only a way that is right for me.