Posted in sqt

{sqt} – what I learned from Lent

I’m linking up with Kelly at This Ain’t the Lyceum today for Seven Quick Takes! I couldn’t come up with an SQT topic at all this week so I’m thankful to her for suggesting this one… it turned out to be a good way for me to wrap up the season for myself and prepare for the upcoming long stretch of ordinary time.

  1. Lent is for us – it is something we need, as sinful people, not something God needs for some obscure reason. In Lent we willingly give up something good as a sacrifice to God, a way to tell Him, remind ourselves, and train our bodies to remember that He is more important than even the good things He has made and given us. So there is beauty in the intentional, thought-out abstinence from something meaningful during Lent. However, I did not do that this year, being caught in the throes of PPD for the months between Christmas and Ash Wednesday. So, all of that being said…
  2. God can still use Lent for your spiritual growth even if you don’t plan anything, or just attempt the bare minimum. The point of Lent is to grow closer to God by separating ourselves a bit from the pleasures and conveniences of the world. So if life is beating you over the head to the point where it takes all your energy just to get out of bed and pray, you don’t need to pile on more self-inflicted hardships. Just seek God in your suffering.
  3. As a corollary, God knows the Lent we need, and He’ll make it happen if we are seeking Him. An unplanned Lent, catching me in the midst of an illness that made it hard to do more than the Friday abstinence, was probably far better for the condition of my soul than one where I chose all these difficult fasts and followed my self-imposed sacrifice to the letter: because my deepest temptation is to pride, and the success of a “good” Lent (at least in outward appearance) would have fed that pride and self-righteousness. This Lent didn’t really look very devoted or disciplined at all, and that was hard for me to accept for a while.
  4. Speaking of pride, Lent is (ideally) a humbling time. We impose our fasts and determine our sacrifices, and usually fall short of our goals, and in so doing realize once again how very much we need God’s grace to actually follow Him in any real way! Our inability to hold fast to even a small sacrifice for the sake of drawing closer to Christ gives us the opportunity to confess our weaknesses and stretch our roots deeply into His strength as we try again to live for Him in holiness. When I realized early in the season that my Lenten sacrifice was going to be admitting my inadequacies and seeking help for my mental health, that was a seriously humbling challenge. That’s not the kind of Lent I had wanted; it seemed so small and pathetic, and it forced me to face my weakness head-on and leap blindly into the unknown, trusting that God’s hands would catch me.
  5. Another thing I learned this Lent was the intensity of the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary. To be honest, I had never before prayed through the Sorrowful Mysteries, and never even attempted a serious meditation on the Passion of our Lord. To think about His suffering, for our sake, for the joy of our redemption, was so uncomfortable for me that I avoided it as much as possible. But for Lent this year, I decided to pray only those mysteries in an attempt to prepare my heart for the seriousness of Good Friday and the joy of Easter Sunday. And it was unbelievably hard. To look long and hard at the suffering of another, when that person has entered into that suffering willingly and on your behalf, for your healing or life or freedom, is not easy. But it honors them and their sacrifice to take the time to remember it in its fullness, with reverence and gratitude.
  6. In the combination of these two main aspects of Lent (suffering in some way ourselves and meditating on the suffering of Christ) I found myself falling deeper in love with God and drawing closer to Him in dependence and prayer than I have been for a while. In the depths of my depression I remembered how Jesus faced the agony of fear and emotional pain in the garden, and was comforted to know that He could understand my emotional distress and stand by my side through it. When I wished that I could fight the depression on my own and overcome it without help, I remembered how Jesus Himself was unable to carry His cross, but needed the help of another man’s strength, and realized that needing the help and support of others is part of being human, not a sin or a cause for shame.
  7. Finally, I learned that the spirit of Lent – the desire to draw closer to God, and the willingness to sacrifice certain good things towards that end – shouldn’t end when the season of Lent and its specific sacrifices end. It just takes on other forms. If in Lent I learned how to draw near to God in my suffering, through Christ’s suffering for me, in Easter and beyond I can learn how to draw near to God in my joys and in my boring, everyday routines. He is there also, inviting us to walk with Him through suffering into endless joy and eternal glory.
Posted in sqt

{SQT} – seven things I’ve learned about depression and antidepressants

Now that I’ve been on antidepressants for seven whole days, I can consider myself quite the expert, right? (please note the sarcasm)

Please take this list with a grain of salt, and remember that I speak from my own very limited experience. I’m just trying to share from that experience, not replace the very thorough informational guides that come with the medicine, or the more personally-tailored knowledge you can get from your doctor.

  1. I was a proud and arrogant fool not to have sought help and started taking an antidepressant earlier in my life. Well, that’s probably too harsh, since depression does its best to talk you out of asking for help. But a lot of things in high school, marriage, and parenting would have been significantly easier if I wasn’t simultaneously trying to manage dysfunctional emotions and deal with faulty cognitive processes along the way – and it was my fear of appearing weak or insufficient or incapable that kept me from opening up or seeking medical guidance.
  2. The mental health system is incredibly challenging to navigate. It seems like every doctor who is liked and respected doesn’t take insurance… and every doctor who does take insurance either works for an inpatient clinic or has horrible reviews. And because of the personal nature of therapy and psychiatry, the doctor or therapist you try first may clash with you pretty badly – and when you’re feeling overwhelmed by everyday life, the thought of having to try multiple doctors and therapists is enough to shut the process down. If I didn’t have access to my Employee Assistance Office I probably would still be avoiding calling people.
  3. Antidepressants come with a pretty intense and rather scary list of side effects. I think what’s worth remembering is that they are potential side effects, not guaranteed side effects, and that the more serious ones are very rare – they just have to be mentioned because they are so potentially dangerous. I’ve had several different side effects that have come and gone already but mostly just headaches, and I would take a bad headache over depression any day. But I didn’t realize that before I started the medicine. I was so scared of the side effects that I held onto the prescription for a whole week before getting it filled (classic case of taking the evil you know over the evil you fear) – and I had been depressed for so long that I didn’t realize the extent to which it was draining my life of energy and joy.
  4. The Internet is full of all the worst-case scenario stories. I know those stories are true (they are more likely if psychiatric medication is prescribed by a general practitioner as opposed to an actual psychiatrist, by the way), but they are not the only part of the picture. If you have depression, an anti-depressant can help restore your energy, your hope, your light, and your life. In general I think it is better to find a good psychiatrist and take his or her advice instead of amping up your feelings of anxiety and hopelessness by endlessly scouring the Internet.
  5. Antidepressants DO NOT turn you into someone you are not. They will allow you to be  more yourself by removing some of the darkness and despair that have infiltrated your soul. I read, back in high school, an article in a Christian magazine arguing against the use of antidepressants, claiming that they dulled one’s sensitivity, empathy, and personality. From what I have experienced, I would agree that antidepressants may make you less sensitive and empathetic. But if you are sensitive to the point that a casual conversation brings you to tears, or empathetic to the point that you cannot help your crying child because his tears fill you with so much guilt and anxiety, you would be well served by having those qualities reduced to a functional level. Sensitivity and empathy are not virtues: it is the actions to which they typically lead, when they are healthy, which are virtuous.
  6. Depression makes virtue more of a challenge. I was amazed at how easy it was to be patient and gentle with the boys when I felt peaceful and happy inside! I suppose the silver lining of the depression is that I’ve gotten to practice pursuing virtue in the midst of challenge and even suffering (although that word always seems so extreme).
  7. I’ll reference that article from high school again to remark that, although antidepressants may be overprescribed (I would have no way of knowing), they are most definitely stigmatized. I have only told one person (besides my husband) in real life that I am now taking an antidepressant, and she is a friend who has been by my side through every episode of depression and every dark moment I’ve had. Frankly, I’m afraid of the reaction I might get, the responses I’ve read in comment sections as educated as that of the New York Times, that tell me what the depression said through all these years: if you only had more faith, if you prayed more, if you served/volunteered more to get your mind off of yourself, if you exercised more, if you ate this food or avoided this other food, if you stopped whining and moping about life, if you focused on the positive, if you practiced gratitude, and so on, you wouldn’t need that medication. It’s just a scam by Big Pharma anyway. It won’t help you much and you’ll do long-term damage to your mind and body. Just pull yourself out of that pit on your own – why are you acting like it’s so hard? And I can’t explain to everyone that I have tried all those things, that sometimes faith and prayer have been about the only things keeping me from suicide, that biking 60 miles a week and cutting out refined sugar didn’t cure my PPD the first time through it, that parenting three children 3 and under doesn’t exactly give a person much time to navel-gaze. Most people wouldn’t care to hear it anyway, because their opinion is already formed. In a way, I’m still the proud and arrogant fool I was for all those years, because I want this to be my dark secret, my shameful crutch; I don’t want anybody to know my weakness, as if it were something sinful. Revealing my hypothyroidism doesn’t change the way anybody thinks of me; revealing my depression (and the way I’ve chosen to treat it) might, and I’m too proud to want to risk lowering myself in their judgment.

Head over to This Ain’t the Lyceum for the rest of the link-up!

Posted in musings

presence and PPD

Back in January I decided that my word for 2017 would be “presence”, with the goal of being more present with my family, community, church, and job, instead of being disconnected or lost in daydreams. It’s not that I think daydreams or introversion are a bad thing – I just don’t want to regret the time I wasted or the things I did half-heartedly because I was distracted with meaningless things. And so I did my best, through the worst of my PPD, to be present with my family. When I could barely make myself get out of bed, I would try to play games and read books in the bedroom. I would try to fill the days with fun activities to keep us going so that the depression and anxiety wouldn’t drag me down and away from them. But I still felt so disconnected, so far away from them and from our life together. I spent hours reading just to escape my emotions, and in the process isolated myself from the people around me. I would watch my children laughing without feeling any corresponding happiness; I would sit with Aubade smiling at me and ache with heart-wrenching sadness. Look at these children, so happy and beautiful, the depression whispered, and look at you, so miserable, so unable to laugh and play with them and appreciate their silliness.

Getting an official diagnosis and some outside, objective perspective helped me see that this inability to feel present was not a moral failing or a character flaw, but a symptom of a disease, and that in itself was encouraging and reassuring; it didn’t solve the problem, but it gave me more strength to fight it. It was a shield against the barbed lies that are, for me, a hallmark of the experience of depression. And at each step, as I sought help and as the depression tried to convince me not to ask for help – that the risks of vulnerability or the potential of getting a bad therapist or the side effects of medication were too great – it was my goal of presence that kept pushing me forward. Because I could tell that I was not capable of being fully present in that state, and because I wanted to be fully present, I knew that I needed something to change.

I never thought that I would take an antidepressant. Those are for weak people, the depression had always told me, and I don’t really like the idea of taking a daily pill (I’m still slightly resentful of my daily thyroid hormone replacement, to be honest, to the point where I once tried going off it cold turkey to see if I’d be ok without it… let’s just say that wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever had). And yet, for this past week when I’ve been taking it, I’ve had more internal peace and happiness than I’ve had for a long time. I’ve watched my baby sleeping or cooing up at me and been filled with deep, deep love instead of the ache of inconsolable sadness; I’ve sat with my boys at the table and laughed at their silly antics instead of ignoring or snapping at them. I’ve planned and cooked healthy meals and cleaned up the kitchen every night, and helped my husband with the laundry, and packed diaper bags and taken the kids out without feeling scared or overwhelmed. I feel like I’m living my life again, instead of just observing it through a dim and melancholy glass: I am present. I hope it lasts but I’m not going to waste time worrying about that; I’m going to enjoy this while I can.

Posted in family life

doctors and medicines (in which everyone is sick in various ways)

Well, it’s been a busy few weeks here. To be honest, it’s been harder since Aubade’s birth than I expected it would be, considering that this is our third baby (so we should have more confidence and experience by now) and that she is a significantly easier baby than the first two. It seems like life just keeps throwing curveballs at us…

To begin with, my physical and emotional recovery from the birth has been a bit more complicated this time around, what with the severe tear on the physical side and the postpartum depression and anxiety on the emotional side. Those baby blues I wrote about last month escalated into depression and anxiety so bad that they were making it hard for me to get out of bed and be present with the kids every day; I would get up and shower because I wanted to keep the tear clean, and force myself to get dressed in presentable clothes, because if I didn’t I would just curl up under the covers and feel horrible. My husband would get home from school and I would take Aubade up to bed with me and hide from the world, so overwhelmed from the few hours of parenting on my own. I wasn’t interested in anything at all, really, but I was devouring books just to keep my mind off of real life and to drown out the thoughts of fear and guilt that kept pouring in. And the anxiety – of being left alone with the kids, of driving, of leaving the house, of talking to people outside my family, of letting everyone down, of being “crazy”, and so on – was so strong (despite its obvious irrationality) that I would have waves of pain course through my chest.

My OB treated me with a series of progesterone shots, operating on the principle that the sudden decrease in progesterone at the end of pregnancy can throw the whole hormonal system out of sync and cause PPD/PPA. Fortunately my husband was able to take care of some of them at home so I didn’t have to set up an appointment every other day for the whole series! And they definitely took the edge off of the negative emotions. The first day it felt like I was on a high – much better than normal – and I thought maybe that’s how things would settle in… but no such luck. I’m still in a hole, but it’s not as deep as it was, and some days I feel like I might be climbing out of it.

In the middle of all of this, we started getting sick. Apparently it had been a mild winter here in the illness department, but February brought all the germs with it and everyone across the valley is catching and spreading disease. Naively I thought that Aubade would be safe from anything going around because her immune system would be bolstered by mine since she’s exclusively breastfeeding, but it didn’t work out that way. Last Thursday I took all three kids to their pediatrician and after prescribing albuterol, antibiotics, and steroids for the boys she told me to take Aubade straight to the ER at the children’s hospital by our house. I was in shock. The boys had never been sick as newborns, so I didn’t realize how differently a serious illness could present in a newborn as opposed to an older baby or toddler. But because they have fewer energy reserves to draw on, and because they don’t know how to breathe through their mouths, an upper respiratory infection that might just cause a cough and a runny nose in a toddler can accelerate a baby’s breathing rate to the point of exhaustion.

The ER took Aubade’s symptoms as seriously as our pediatrician had; we were in a room within 30 minutes, which is quite impressive for a busy urban emergency department, and within another 30 minutes a respiratory therapist had evaluated her and hooked her up to a high-flow oxygen machine. (The high-flow machine pushes air gently down the baby’s airways, so that they don’t have to work so hard to pull air in past all the congestion in their nose and lungs; the oxygen concentration was originally set twice as high as normal air but they told me it was really the pressure more than the oxygen that she needed.) May I note in passing how much I appreciated the ER nurses? Fast, competent, and caring without a hint of saccharine, they inspired confidence and relieved my anxieties without minimizing Aubade’s condition. Even before the respiratory therapist arrived, they had suctioned out her nose and lungs, and did so again a few hours later when her breathing began to worsen. The pediatric nurses we had after transferring out of the ER that evening were not so wonderful by comparison, though they weren’t bad by any means.

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Aubade in the ER

So… she ended up being in the hospital for the next two nights. The boys slept over at my mom’s house for one of those nights and the first night we had her back home; my husband fought off a stomach bug and tried to keep up with school and job applications and laundry; I sat in the hospital with Aubade and held her and watched movies and tried to sleep. It was rough, even though I could tell she was slowly improving the whole time we were there. RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) usually peaks around the fifth or sixth day, which is when we were in the hospital, so we were able to adequately support her breathing through the worst of it.

Rondel and Limerick caught the same virus, and both presented with coughs and ear infections, but since they are older it wasn’t as dangerous. Rondel is now on a preventative steroid inhalant, though, as every cold he gets turns into a cough – he’s been on Albuterol at least four times just this winter. I’m hoping it will help, and I’m also hoping it isn’t a sign that he’ll be officially diagnosed with asthma at some point in the future. I suppose the silver lining of all this is that my prayer life and relationship with the saints are both growing… that daily shower is a good time to maintain spiritual health as well as physical and emotional health, with a morning prayer thrown in with the shampooing and all. Better that than nothing, anyway, and I know the kids won’t distract me then.

But hopefully the rest of my maternity leave goes a bit better! We’ve still got a spring break trip up north, summer internship applications, physical therapy, and maybe a visit to a psychiatrist to fit in to these next five weeks, on top of the regular demands of school, parenting, and running a home… so if we can stay healthy (physically and mentally) it would be great 🙂

Posted in musings

learning to know the saints (slowly and rather awkwardly)

Just a month or so ago I noticed that while I believe in the community of saints (that is, I believe that the church is the body of Christ, so the part of the body here on earth – us – is still one with the part of the body in heaven – the saints – and we are thus able to have some type of connection or relationship with them), I didn’t really know much about the any of the saints, and I didn’t have a particular relationship with or devotion to any of them except the Virgin Mary. It felt too contrived to try to pick a saint on my own, so I just registered my thought and moved on. I figured it would be best to let such relationships develop naturally, as my relationship with Mary has.

Well, earlier this year, as you know, kind of for the fun of it and to satisfy my curiosity, I used the random saint generator to find a saint of the year for myself, and was given St. Jude, the patron of hopeless and desperate causes. Interesting, I thought. I didn’t feel a connection, so I again registered it and moved on. I read the book of Jude but that was it.

Then I was hit by postpartum depression and anxiety at full force. It was obviously and drastically worse than the transitional sadness and fatigue I’d had the first couple weeks after Aubade was born; it was a massive effort just to get out of bed, and I felt like all my time and emotional energy was expended just in rolling away the negative thoughts that kept intruding into my mind. I would hear a sound (like a car in the bank parking lot behind our house, or a door opening downstairs) and feel stabbing anxiety pain course through my body in the half second before realizing what it was. And I was starting to build escapist fantasies in the back of my mind, because I just wanted to be at peace and peace felt so unattainable.

Hmm… a situation in which I was left feeling completely hopeless and desperate for help… and a patron saint whose speciality is in interceding for hopeless and desperate causes… maybe, I thought, that random saint generator wasn’t completely random. So, feeling very awkward and not really knowing what to say, I asked St. Jude if he would pray for me in this situation. After all, what is the worst that could happen? Nothing? And at best, he would hear my request and pray for my healing and peace; a saint living in eternity, championing the hopeless and lost, probably is better about consistently praying for his supplicants than the average busy and distracted friend (of course, I might just be extrapolating from my own inconsistent prayer life).

There is of course no way to verify that St. Jude did anything, but I know that I was able to fight my social anxiety enough to go to the new moms’ community after church two weeks ago, and that the only other woman there that week was an experienced mom who encouraged me spiritually and suggested I call my doctor; I know that instead of spinning into a hole of endless research and indecision I actually did call my doctor; I know that my husband and I started praying together every night, which we’ve never done before and which has really comforted and supported me; and I know that the progesterone shots my doctor prescribed, while not completely knocking out the PPD/PPA, have made me much more functional and given back a lot of the joy in my life. In other words, things don’t feel so hopeless anymore. If nothing else, I feel like someone outside of God and my family (namely, St. Jude) cares about me and how I’m doing emotionally and as a mother – that they are standing beside me before God, praying on my behalf.

I still think I’d like to let my relationships with the saints develop slowly and naturally, at their own pace, but I’m very glad that I’ve made the acquaintance of one of them this year so far, and I think I owe him some thanks.

Posted in musings

postpartum depression

I had PPD with my first baby.

I’d hoped for a natural delivery and done all my prenatal care with a wonderful midwife at a birth center near our home, but I was still pregnant two weeks past my due date and state law required her to transfer my care to an OB and, after a failed induction, Rondel came into the world via a C-section.

The week of his due date I’d had a major fight (for lack of a better word, and without going into the details) with my husband and was feeling extremely emotional and stressed about that episode through the early postpartum weeks (despite how supportive and amazing my husband was through the rest of the pregnancy, delivery, and postpartum period – I have trouble letting go of negative emotions).

So I felt like my body had let me down, and like my marriage was letting me down, and then Rondel turned out to be one of the most sensitive babies I’ve ever met, struggling with the basics of babyhood and responding to his struggles with tears and screams and demands for instant comfort. The sleepless nights wore me down. The constant crying wore me down. Nursing helped hold me together – until his prolonged comfort nursing led to an oversupply and an overactive letdown that led to more frustration and discomfort for us both. Nothing was outside the realm of “normal,” but the sum total of things, plus my own hormonal instability, meant that it wasn’t a good situation.

I didn’t trust anyone else to care for Rondel as well as I could, or to love him as much, even my husband. If someone else was holding him I couldn’t let them out of my sight. But at the same time that I loved him so fiercely and completely, I worried with a deep, uncontrollable fear that I was a horrible mother, that he would be so much better off with someone else, that if I just left the picture somehow both he and my husband would be happier and better in the long run. Neither fear was rational; between the two of them, I felt hopeless and stuck.

I managed to hold life together until I unexpectedly fell pregnant again, around 7 months postpartum, and the changing hormones broke the hold of PPD on my mind and body. There are still things that bring back flashes of it: a rough night with the boys, maybe; the casual off-hand comment of a friend about how women’s bodies are designed to give birth so it shouldn’t be that difficult; a post about how well someone’s infant sleeps through the night thanks to some method or other. The insinuation that because labor was difficult for me, that because I needed an induction and a C-section I somehow was weak or a failure, triggers the old lie that I’m not a good enough mother; the assertion that some parenting technique can make your baby happy, relaxed, independent, and a good sleeper does the same thing. Because my body gave childbirth everything it had, and I gave motherhood everything I had, and we didn’t have the “expected” or “ideal” outcomes.

Now, 3.5 years later, with two more babies’ worth of experience, I know those things don’t define me or the “success” of my motherhood. But it’s a powerful lie.

Will I have PPD again, in this postpartum period or in some future one? I can’t say for certain. I didn’t with Limerick, and I’m still in the baby blues/transitional period with Aubade so it’s too early to know. It was one of my biggest fears through this pregnancy, though – because in the midst of it, asking for help seems almost more difficult than just enduring it, and the overwhelming sense of failure and shame is a pain so great I don’t even want to imagine having to go through it again. But this is the resolution I have made, for myself, for my family, for baby Aubade: that I will make rest and self-care a priority from the beginning to try to prevent it, and that if I feel things are not right within me, even if I can’t say I “know” I have PPD, I will ask for help.