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Before living through the past two years, I certainly took my mental health for granted. I posted quotes about positive thinking on the regular, and I generally lived my life with a glass half full attitude. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this type of thinking. But it does miss the mark when it comes to improving outcomes for anyone who has experienced a mental health challenge.
After the challenging pregnancy and birth of my daughter in 2016, it took me about 5 months to realize that I was experiencing challenges with my mental health. For me it manifested in anxiety, the inability to relax or sleep, flashbacks and nightmares, lack of enjoyment in activities I previously loved, and feeling overwhelmed quite regularly. Right before I became pregnant I had spent 6 months caring for my father who had experienced a massive stroke, and I was recovering from a car accident. Life was kinda crazy at that time!
The simplest way to describe what I felt would be that I didn’t feel like myself. Sometimes making sense of what you are going through is tough and confusing. I had a baby to distract me most of the time, and I honestly didn’t really think about what I was experiencing until I felt like I was drowning. It was as if the things that used to bring me great joy didn’t have the same allure anymore.
On Removing The Stigma Surrounding Mental Health
These days we hear a lot about the importance of removing the stigma that surrounds mental health challenges. Stigma is defined as ‘a mark of disgrace or shame associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person’. Additionally, stigma can be described as a perceived negative attribute that causes someone to devalue or think less of the whole person.
My postpartum experience ignited a passion in me to help in reducing this stigma for myself and others. I think that sharing our stories is one of the most powerful ways to help others heal, to heal ourselves and to reclaim the belief society has for those who experience mental health challenges.
Before, it was easy for me to say ‘there’s nothing wrong with having a mental health challenge’ and ‘we should treat these ailments the same way we do a physical injury’. But at the same time, I did believe that I could positive think my way out of just about anything.
Now I see how insidious the labels surrounding mental health can be, and why people have a hard time asking for help. The only way we can move past this is to put a face to these stories, to let our bravery speak out loud, and to grow our compassion muscles.
Here is my story and some of the tools that helped me care for my mental health while I was learning how to navigate a challenge I had never experienced before:
This was hard for me for a number of reasons. My support system was already taxed and dealing with a number of challenges, so it felt tough to raise my own white flag and say ‘I need help!’.
I ended up leaning on my friends so much more than I ever wanted to. There were many days when I felt like I was taking a lot more from my friends than I could give. And if I have learned anything this year, it’s that I have great friends who are willing to do almost anything to help.
As one of my girlfriends said to me: ‘Friendships aren’t about having it be a 50/50 exchange all the time. Sometimes it takes years to even everything out, but we are here through the good, the bad and the ugly!’.
I’ve worked on having faith that I will be able to repay my girlfriends for the listening, visiting, babysitting and uplifting skills they have provided me with this past year.
When you’re caring for others (babies, sick family members, aging parents) it is really easy to let your own most basic needs fall to the back burner. The basics are really the foundation on which all of our health is built. Things like getting enough sleep, eating at regular intervals, getting fresh air, feeling heard and supported, and laughing are simple but not always easy to prioritize when life throws you curveballs.
It can feel elementary and almost annoying to need to focus on such simple things, but the entire foundation needs to be strengthened during times of challenge, not forgotten about. This is one of my greatest take aways from the past year.
When times get tough, level up the self care big time. Dial back your priorities and hone in on the basics. It will repay you infinitely.
This tool helped me significantly. In the fall of 2017 I read Brene Brown’s book ‘I Thought It Was Only Me (But It Isn’t)‘. Reading this book felt like serendipity as there were SO many tools that helped me to re-build my confidence and inner peace after my pregnancy and birth with Sloane and the challenges of the preceding years.
At one point in the book, Brene discusses the difference between putting our challenges in an appropriate context vs. creating a pathology around them. This is so common when dealing with a mental health challenge!
If we are able to contextualize what we are experiencing, this means we can see the big picture. For me that included acknowledging all the changes that had occurred in my life over the past few years. Car accidents, a sick pregnancy, family illnesses, deaths, moving to a new town, giving up my beloved job, a tough birth experience, and my husband being away for most of our daughter’s first 5 months of life.
The opposite of contextualizing is pathologizing or thinking that there is something wrong with us. There were many days where I honestly felt like I was doing motherhood wrong. How come this feels so hard? How come I feel overwhelmed so often? How come I can’t access any of my old mindset tools?
When I was able to have more critical awareness about everything that had transpired in my life, I was able to give myself more grace, understanding and compassion. I was able to put my struggles into the appropriate context, and to have the confidence that there wasn’t anything wrong with the way I was doing things, there wasn’t anything ‘wrong’ with me. This helped to increase the positive snowball effect of improving my mental wellbeing.
Oftentimes, well meaning people may try to help by asking questions, or attempting to understand what you are going through. There is a fine line between the ability to listen non-judgementally and listening to offer advice. It’s important to remember that people will only be able to hear you at their level of experience, compassion and their own shame triggers.
It is not your job to explain yourself all the time. Many times I felt like I would try to explain what I was experiencing only to have the feeling of being misunderstood. This often served to fuel more feelings of isolation and like something was wrong with me. Counselling helped me a lot with this.
I learned how to pick and choose who I would be truly vulnerable with. I got better at not needing to explain myself. Because I share parts of my life on social media, I picked and chose what I wrote while I was navigating through my healing journey. It still felt authentic for me to share what was personal, but not every single intimate detail.
I tried to make decisions based on what was best for me and to own them full stop. This put me in the driver’s seat rather than worrying about what everyone else was thinking.
Exercise has always been my number one stress reducing tool. Getting a good sweat and endorphin boost has been a go-to for me since my teenage years. But recovering from my c-section, car accident and the physical exhaustion that anxiety brought meant that exercise sometimes left me feeling worse, and with a more amped up nervous system.
I had to build up a vault of stress reducing tools other than workouts. I developed a more gentle yoga practice, I did belly breathing exercises, I walked with my daughter in the stroller a lot (not always relaxing haha), I took a lot of hot baths, talked things out on the phone, gardened and made time for laughs with girlfriends.
I’ve often thought about what I would do differently if I could go back and do the last couple years over again. Rather than thinking about this from a place of regret, it’s more about using what I’ve learned to share lessons with others and to use my experience as a tool for growth in the future of my own life.
The only thing I would have done differently is to have gone to counselling earlier. Rather than waiting until my daughter was 5 months old, I would have gone during my pregnancy. I had no idea the negative effects that the all day nausea and sickness was having on me. I was truly just trying to get through every day, hoping that when the baby arrived it would be better. But the sickness took a big toll on my mental health. It exhausted me physically, emotionally and mentally and prevented me from doing the things I love like exercising, cooking, and hanging out with friends and family.
No wonder extended sickness in pregnancy puts women at a greater risk of mental health challenges after the baby is born. A positive mindset is not always enough to weather the storms of life.
On Sloane’s first birthday, a bunch of my family and friends were standing around while our nugget ate her first bite of birthday cake. One friend asked, ‘so did this year fly by Lana?!’ and I paused. I could have easily said ‘yes!’ but that would have been a lie.
Of course there were many moments in my first year of motherhood where I couldn’t believe how much she had grown and changed. But there were also many moments that were painfully slow and challenging. For me, the first year both flew and dragged! I share this because I know there are many other mothers who are dealing with similar challenges, and I hope they find comfort in my story.
Like Brene Brown says:
I am not sad or ashamed of my struggles in my transition to motherhood. I am proud of myself, and humbled by the experience. It has helped me to stand up for myself more powerfully, to trust myself better and to take care of my own needs more consistently.
Remember that your mental health is important, it is the foundation of your whole system. If you are struggling and you’re not sure why, do not be afraid to reach out to a professional. Talking to the right person helps. Find a counsellor in your area, or call a close and trusted friend. Do not wait! There is nothing wrong with you, and you are so loved.
Thank you for being here,