I am a perfect storm of a personality. My family has a history of mental illness so I am at a lovely predisposition to a problem in this area as well. I am an introvert, so openly speaking about personal problems is already an enormous effort. I am a perfectionist, control freak, and an idealist. Meaning, I usually think I’m right. Which, I have come to learn, can make life quite difficult when I am, in fact, wrong.
I am saddened that a significant number of women, specifically Canadian women, experience symptoms of postpartum anxiety and depression. But at the same time I am thrilled to see the growing awareness and support for these issues. I know there is no one size fits all for helping those with mental health issues. I recognize some individuals need the help of a doctor and medication in order to cope with the level of illness they are experiencing. I am merely sharing a list of things that profoundly helped me. Make of it what you will.
1. I listened to the hard stuff from a trusted, loved one
I had experienced low moods before having kids but there were never labels attached to these fluctuations. They came and went and nothing much was done about them. Then, throughout my first pregnancy and postpartum experience I dealt with a lot of anxiety but was not aware there was a bigger problem than what I was attributing to tiredness and those “crazy hormones”. I became obsessive about things like my marriage, my son’s sleep schedule, his eating habits, my eating habits. I was irritable and worried and easily angered. I am extremely thankful my husband was honest with me and didn’t try to tip toe around the topic, though he did much tip-toeing around the hallways to avoid the wrath that ensued if a sleeping baby was awakened. A close friend ordered that I was to read NO MORE PARENTING BOOKS – some of the best advice given to me during this time.
2. I met with a psychologist
I unfortunately did not have a very supportive doctor at the time. After listening to my symptoms for a whole of 3 minutes she diagnosed me with a General Anxiety Disorder and wrote me a prescription. I did not want to start with medication if I didn’t have to, so instead I found a psychologist who was a leading researcher on perfectionism and its role in stress, anxiety and work and relationship problems. His approach was Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which I grew to love. It took a lot of courage to step into that room on a weekly basis but I look back on this time with fondness. I was kid-free and would treat myself to a coffee on the way to each appointment. The sun streamed in through the windows as I sat curled up in a comfy leather armchair. My psychologist smiled no matter what oddities of myself I explained to him. “I feel so grateful when people like you decide to become parents” he once said to me. His kindness brought tears to my eyes. Beyond the list of my weaknesses he so diligently recorded with ball point pen, he was able to see my strengths.
3. I did a lot of writing
I have always been an avid journal-keeper, but I began to see this exercise as an integral part of my mental strength. My psychologist did not recommend journalling as it can often turn into another place to ruminate over negative thoughts. However, it was through journalling that I began to understand where some of my anxiety and stress was coming from. It was a place where I could let go of negative emotions without letting them boil over into my relationships. Writing helped me to become more self-aware so that I could better articulate my needs to myself and to others. Journalling grew into a passion for writing itself. A passion I had forgotten existed and one that has been a main catalyst in transforming my approach to life.
4. I started to practice mindfulness
It was my psychologist who first introduced me to the idea of mindfulness. We sat in our leather chairs facing each other one sunny morning, my eyes closed, while he read a 5 minute guided meditation script to me. The room was quiet and tranquil, save for his voice. “That was the most relaxed I’ve ever felt” I told him when the 5 minutes were over. He was astounded and I realized I had some work to do. From that first experience my interest in the topic grew. I became more aware of my tendency to over-think and ruminate on negative thoughts. Mindfulness was a way to free myself from this habit. I read articles and devoured this fantastic book. I do not yet have a daily meditation practice, though I do aspire to this. Nonetheless, mindfulness is one of the best habits I have ever adopted.
5. I ate more peanut butter and toast
My first son was over a year old, I was done breastfeeding, yet my period still hadn’t returned. My husband and I were talking about trying for our second child so, naturally, I began to worry. A naturopath suggested herbs, supplements, and acupuncture while my psychologist prescribed peanut butter on toast, every other day. I decided to start with the latter for obvious reasons. My period came back that month, and I found out I was pregnant the next. My body merely needed a few more calories and a little more fat. The toast was more than just an excuse for gluttony, though. It symbolized a letting go of unrealistic rules and ideals, a welcoming of the imperfect, a new normal.
6. I hung out with my friends more
One of the best ways to see the value in your life is to take part in life with others. I strongly lean towards introversion therefore the act of making social plans does not come naturally to me. Or at least it didn’t, until I began to see the positive effect a play-date or a girl’s night could have on my mood. To be surrounded by moms just like me, experiencing the same joys, annoyances, and monotony of motherhood. How beautiful it was to see that I was not alone. To be reminded in the faces and actions of these women that my role as a mother was important, even when I often felt useless, unappreciated, and insignificant. These friendships became lifelines to me rather than just opportunities to keep my toddler amused.
7. I de-cluttered
After having my second child I decided to stay home with my boys full-time instead of returning to work. One of the first things I de-cluttered was my closet, which was full of work clothes that no longer suited my life at home with kids. I stuffed beautiful dresses, pants, blouses and high heels into garbage bags and donated them to a local charity. Then I moved on to teaching materials, dishes, toys, books, clothes, jewelry. As I cleared closets, drawers, and countertops I noticed the significant impact the new space had on my mental clarity and my mood in general.
8. I practiced thinking habits like a boss
I came across this resource and this one about unhelpful thinking habits and studied them as I would any notes from school on which I might be tested. I read and reread them, memorized them, highlighted them, and taped them to my mirror. I knew I needed this type of guidance until I could think in a more balanced way independently.
9. I spent time getting to know myself
I took personality tests, payed more attention to my likes and dislikes, my mood fluctuations, and spent time reminiscing. I browsed through old photos, read old diaries and journals, and visited favourite childhood locations. When you are spending a lot of time trying to overcome your weaknesses it’s a great confidence boost when you can also focus on your strengths. I read books on writing and creativity, and made more time for reading in general. I was more purposeful in enjoying beautiful things: I listened to music more frequently, lit candles, bought flowers for my kitchen table, went to the beach, tried new recipes, went to concerts, browsed home decorating magazines. I started blogging more, played more piano, and spent more time on the floor playing with my kids. I noticed how the little things could greatly boost my happiness and contentment in life.
10. I changed careers
I decided to leave my teaching career to be a stay-at-home mom. I feel fortunate to have had this choice but it still was not an easy decision to make. It took a lot of thought as I struggled with letting go of a career I had worked hard for. I enjoy being productive. I like to be challenged and to feel useful. Staying-at-home was not the natural decision for me nor do I feel content with this choice every single day. But the joy that comes from spending more time with my kids, as well as the freedom to explore other interests, help to make this decision worthwhile.
The lesson that has woven itself through all of these actions is one of self-love. When we learn to love and accept ourselves we gain the strength to love the rest of the world more freely. And a little more love could do a whole lot of wonder for this world.
Be honest with yourself. Look for help if you need it, accept help when it is offered to you. There is so much freedom on the other side when we learn to let go of all the ugly things that are holding us back. I hope you find a way to show yourself the love you deeply deserve.