As a first-time mom to a six-month-old baby, motherhood is still relatively new to me. But mental illness isn’t. It has been a long, winding road to recovery, and it isn’t a road with a finish line.
When I became unexpectedly pregnant at 21, my family and doctors were terrified that I would suffer from severe postpartum depression or even psychosis given my experiences prior to pregnancy. I was told by one psychiatrist that the hormone withdrawals and the sleep deprivation on top of my clinical history meant that I was “more likely to end up in a psychiatric hospital than not.”
I received my first diagnosis at age 12: obsessive compulsive disorder centered around harmful intrusive thoughts. I didn’t know there was a medical condition for what was invading my brain–I had always seen OCD on television and in movies presented as an intense drive to be neat and clean things. I got familiar with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helped immensely until sophomore year of high school, when I had my first major-depressive episode.
I began engaging in self-harm and binge-drinking. I was put on an antidepressant, which triggered a manic episode and was the catalyst for spending what would have been my junior year of high school in an inpatient treatment facility. After serving as a guinea pig for numerous medications, I was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder and put on a regimen that changed everything. My disposition was sunny and for the first time in a long time, I felt confident that I could go back into the “outside” world as a healthy person.
The stability I had found deteriorated quickly in college, and by 19, I was physically and emotionally exhausted. My destructive coping mechanisms were putting me in serious danger on a regular basis. I sought help because my life depended on it. I threw myself into therapy, into Alcoholics Anonymous, and I advocated to adjust my medication. Slowly, life got better. Eventually, something incredible happened: I developed a powerful sense of self-preservation. At 23, I am still sober, although I am humbled by the fact that when it comes to addiction, the odds are stacked against me.
The day finally came when my baby left my womb and in an instant, he no longer needed the cord that connected us for nine months. Our bodies became two separate entities, and my body was now postpartum. During those first few weeks, I stood over the crib each night while the baby slept in 90-minute intervals to watch him breathe. I called the pediatrician about everything imaginable: the color of his poop, too much snot, too much crying, not enough crying—the list was endless. Miraculously, though, I did not experience any depressive symptoms.
Because I had experience with crippling anxiety in the past, I recognized this and stayed extremely connected to my support network. I shared about my emotions in AA meetings and had an enormous number of sober women with children offer me their time and resources. These women checked in on me regularly and helped to stave off the isolation that I felt in those early postpartum weeks. I reached out to family when I needed help and spoke with my psychiatrist twice a week for the first month.
Anxiety is normal for new moms, but after a decade in and out of mental health care, I knew I didn’t have to suffer just because people say something is “normal.” I was in pain, and I didn’t have to settle for staying in pain. I started CBT to combat the loud alarms going off in my brain that told me my son was constantly in danger and nothing was safe. Had it not been for my mental health literacy as a direct result of my own experience, I would not have known to suggest CBT for myself.
I have never had more gratitude for my experience with mental health than I have since becoming a mom. It is a direct result of my history that I feel comfortable opening up and seeking assistance. While my past did heighten my risk of adverse outcomes, it also equipped me with a toolbox full of coping strategies and a phone full of friends, family and professionals who came to my aid when I was struggling.