As a child I was always nervous, quiet, reserved, and frequently on edge. I was plagued by anxiety depression in middle school. I was teased, bullied, and terrified of public speaking. In high school, I failed drama class for refusing to participate. And as an adult I've continued to struggle as I attempt to heal from assaults and birth-related post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But one thing is for sure: I refuse to let it get the best of me. Because gaining control of my mental health isn’t just what's best for me. It’s also the best gift I could possibly give my son.
Think about being on an airplane with your child. The first thing they do before takeoff is go over the safety rules and regulations. And if you’ve ever paid close attention to the instructions and the less-than-enthusiastic flight attendant mindlessly going through the mandatory motions, you know that parents should put on their oxygen mask before assisting their children. After all, if you don’t take care of yourself, you can't take care of your child. A kid won't know how to properly place an oxygen mask on themselves without assistance. In other words, and in an emergency situation, they need you to care for yourself.
Well, the same fundamental principal rings true when one considers mental health. How can you possibly give your child all the support they need, if you are drowning in a sea of relentless mental health struggles? You can't.
It’s not easy, of course. Gaining control of mental health takes a serious commitment and a substantial, long-term investment. If you have health insurance, it means calling up therapists and doctors and counselors and setting up over-the-phone appointments. It means actually making the time to show up, even if you're uncomfortable leaving the safety of your home and even if you lack your own transportation. And once you've arrived, it means actually opening up to a relative stranger and making the conscious decision to be (and remain) vulnerable.
He can understand what's going on now, and when I break down the first thing he does is ask me what's wrong.
And if you don’t have insurance, and have limited financial means, you also have to seek out free or reduced-price therapy options. A task that is not only difficult, but so frustrating that it often pushes individuals, like me, to abandon treatment all-together.
But here's the thing: putting it off is no longer an option for me. Allowing myself to feel beaten down because finding adequate treatment is difficult is not something I can continue to do. Why? Well, because my son is growing up. He’s getting older. Before I know it he'll be 4, and he’s becoming a much stronger observer of the world every single day. I see it in his eyes. I hear it in his questions. Even his silence is telling. It’s not enough to say, “Oh, my son won’t remember me falling to pieces today because he’s only 15-months-old." He can understand what's going on now, and when I break down the first thing he does is ask me what's wrong. I don't want him to ask that same question, ever day, for as long as he remains under my care.
Before having my son, I was already dealing with anxiety, postpartum depression, and PTSD after losing my first daughter to pre-term labor. I was knee-deep in a depression that bordered suicidal at times, enduring so many intrusive thoughts I'm, honestly, still surprised I made it through the other side. So when I found out I was pregnant, after only seven or eight months of grieving an insurmountable loss, I was nothing short of surprised. Still, I knew, in the marrow of my bones, that I had to see this pregnancy through.
Maybe I was really good at hiding in plain sight and pretending that the inner turmoil I faced on a daily basis didn't exist. Or maybe those who loved and cared for me just didn't know how or when to discuss my emotional and mental wellbeing.
But while I knew continuing with this surprise pregnancy was the right thing for myself and my growing family, I didn’t find support or treatment for my prevailing mental health issues. In fact, I didn’t get any help with my mental health issues at any point during my pregnancy. Looking back, it's upsetting that I was left figuratively, and literally, alone. My OB-GYN knew about my struggles, but never suggested I see a therapist, volunteered to help me find one, or addressed the issues head-on. When I hired a doula the status of my mental health was left in the proverbial dark. Even my partner and family members, who had all seen the depths of my depression and anxiety, never suggested therapy or counseling.
Maybe I was really good at hiding in plain sight and pretending that the inner turmoil I faced on a daily basis didn't exist. Or maybe those who loved and cared for me just didn't know how or when to discuss my emotional and mental wellbeing. Either way, and regardless of the reasons why my mental health was cast aside and ignored, I was a nervous wreck. I was jumpy, jittery, and terrified. It was clear that I needed help.
As a new mother, the trauma only continued. I was physically harmed by my son's entry into the world, and I was emotionally and mentally scared after he spent two months in the NICU. I didn't take care of myself, didn't ask for help, and didn't consider how my mental health was impacting my ability to care for a newborn. I complained about how needy my baby was. On more than one occasion I had to leave him in his crib so I could cry in the other room. I was frustrated by otherwise simple tasks. I felt like I was failing. My new life, as a new mom, didn't feel like much of a life at all.
Finally, and for the first time, I found a therapist after my son turned 2. This particular mental health care provider was a 35-minute drive away, accepted my insurance, and was a great listener. All was well... until my partner and I lost our insurance. As the result of an insurance plan change, I had to find another therapist and, well, this new health care provider wasn't meant to be. After she practically shamed me for my previous sexual assault, during my first session, I got up, walked out, and decided that maybe, just maybe, I didn't need counseling after all.
My new life, as a new mom, didn't feel like much of a life at all.
But here's the thing: we, as fragile human beings enduring great traumas throughout our lives, can’t allow bad experiences to prevent us from seeking the help we not only need, but deserve. Not all counselors, therapists, and other mental health care professionals are the same. Like human beings themselves, there are great ones and terrible ones. There are ones who work great for some folks, and not for others. There are forms of therapy that work better for you, but actually harm others. It’s up to us, as individuals and as patients, to root through the bad and get to the good. That’s part of the work we have to do. That’s part of the work I know I must do to make sure I’m the best mom I can be for my son, and the best person I can be for myself.
So, recently, I found another local therapist just a few block from my home. After spending a few months seeing her twice every 30 days, I suddenly realized I was starting to live a better life. I had a designated session, bookmarked in an otherwise busy schedule, devoted entirely to my unique needs. I could talk about my life, about how difficult things were, about how I could improve how I felt, how I communicated with others, and how I was living day-to-day, all sans judgment. I started EMDR therapy to address and treat my more challenging issues — like the feelings of guilt over the loss of my daughter, the feelings of guilt over my son’s illness at birth, feelings of resentment toward my husband, feelings of anger and sadness toward family — which, coupled with regular sessions, have created a positive impact in my overall life.
I breathe in to the proverbial oxygen mask, arming myself with the tools I need to replace anxiety and grief with strength and joy.
It’s funny how doing just one good or great thing for yourself can often lead into a cascade of better, healthier habits. For me, going to therapy pushes me to work on my mental health frequently, which clears mental space for me to do other things. I have paved the way for me to make better choices, like eating healthy, working out regularly, and finding daily mental clarity.
Of course, things haven't been entirely easy. I had to put therapy on pause the past couple of months due to continued insurance issues, and I’ve seen my health decline as a result. I’m not ready to give up on what I know works best for me, though. I know my son needs me to have more energy, and more patience, and more love. So I persist, for myself and for my son. I breathe into the proverbial oxygen mask, arming myself with the tools I need to replace anxiety and grief with strength and joy. And then I make sure my son has his mask, too, so he always knows I’m here for him.
Because I want my son to be able to rely on me. I want to be the person my son can talk to when he has a problem. I don’t want him holding back because he thinks “mom’s got enough on her plate.” And if he struggles later in life (as he may be predisposed to my mental health issues), I want him to look to me as an example of someone who is doing all they can to make sure they get the help they need.
If you struggle with depression or feelings of self-harm, please seek professional help or call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.