Despite being pretty pessimistic and hopeless that anything could help me, I started to force myself to try anything because I was desperate to feel like myself again. A lot of times I dreaded it, and initially always doubted that it could do anything for a hopeless case like me. However, what I learned from Dr. David Burns is motivation follows action, not the other way around. Especially in depression, we have to drag ourselves to take the first steps, then the motivation will follow. If we wait for that lightning bolt of motivation to hit us, we'll continue to stay stuck in the same place. Below are steps I took that I believe helped move me toward recovery. Your recovery will probably not look exactly like mine, but I hope the following information will give you some ideas on where to begin.
"Motivation follows action" - David D. Burns, M.D.
1) I worked to shed perfectionism by sharing my shame. It started to lose its power after that.
One of the main causes of depression and anxiety are our negative thoughts and self-defeating beliefs. Yours may be different from mine, but ultimately, Dr. David Burns states we have to defeat them at the gut level in order to feel better. When reflecting back, I realized that my self-defeating beliefs were mainly perfectionism and perceived perfectionism. With perfectionism, I believed that any shortcoming in my parenting meant I was a failure. You can see how this is self-defeating and created my depressed mood and anxiety. Perceived perfectionism meant I wanted others to see that I was perfect and put-together as a mom, without any flaws or defects. This is an impossible goal that will surely set us up for failure. The truth is, our flaws and defects allow others to relate to us, creating bonds and connections, not our perfection. I knew this logically, but had to learn it the hard way to get to that gut level change. Besides, underneath the appearance of perfection is often a hot mess.
"Everybody's normal till you get to know them" - John Ortberg
There are a lot of ways to defeat perfectionism and perceived perfectionism. One of them is by sharing our flaws and defects openly. I stopped hiding and opened up to a dear therapist friend about some of my most shameful symptoms, including wanting to give my baby away. This was really hard to do. She allowed me to cry, hugged me, and encouraged me to get some professional help. I started sharing more openly with other close friends as well and received more support rather than the judgment I was expecting. I realized the biggest critic was in my own head.
2) I stopped stuffing my emotions, and they lost their power, too.
I thought moms were supposed to always be loving, kind, and caring. Moments of resentment, frustration, irritation and any other "negative emotion" felt evil and shameful. What I didn't realize is this did not allow me to be human. All moms and dads will feel a whole spectrum of emotions toward their kids, this is being human.
Becoming a new parent is also a grieving process. It is normal to grieve your old life, sleep, freedom, body, relationship with your partner, etc. You can have all of these feelings and still love your child. It does not make you a bad parent or person. Again, it just means you're human. When I finally allowed myself to admit to missing my old life and worked on accepting all aspects of my new life as a mother, I found more peace.
Harvard's positive psychology professor Tal Ben-Shahar teaches that all emotions flow out of one channel, and when we stuff our uncomfortable emotions (e.g., anger, resentment, jealousy, etc.), we block joy and other positive emotions from flowing out as well. The paradox is that the more we try to stuff the negative emotions, the more they magnify. When we just allow ourselves to feel our uncomfortable human emotions and work through them in a healthy way, they lose control over us, and we can get back to living and enjoying life.
3) I got help despite my pessimism. What matters is the willingness to take action.
I called a psychiatrist friend I had worked with, and she asked me if I was having suicidal thoughts. I'm grateful for her bluntness because I was able to openly talk about these scary thoughts for the first time. A lot of times, loved ones are scared to ask about suicidal thoughts, thinking it'll push the depressed person over the edge. The truth is, openly talking about it could save their life. My psychiatrist friend encouraged me to see my OBGYN for meds the next day and to get some therapy. She also connected me with her niece, who is back to her old self after going through her own battle with postpartum depression and anxiety. I talked to her, and she gave me hope.
I called my OB the next day, got in to see him, and he listened to me for a whole 20 minutes as I cried about what a horrible mother I was. His time and support meant so much to me. He gave me an appropriate side hug and told me that many moms go through this and recover. This gave me more hope. I think it helped me more than the Zoloft he prescribed me, which I stopped taking after about 2 weeks. I didn't feel like it was doing much for me. It was probably also my resistance to medications as well as the anxiety of how it could negatively affect my baby with breastfeeding. For others, medications can play a big role in their recovery. Whatever works for you works.
Many moms go through this and recover.
I contacted a therapist I had worked with in the past, but I ended up canceling because, honestly, my pessimism and hopelessness still got the best of me at times. I didn't think she could help me this time. This is the ebb and flow of recovery. There were some moments of hope followed by relapses. I learned that recovery is not an onward, upward process. The therapist also told me she didn't specialize in postpartum issues. I contacted a place that had a special focus on postpartum issues, but they had a 3-4 week waiting list, and this felt like forever for someone struggling. I also was anxious about finances and didn't want to be a burden by investing the money into something that may or may not help. I realize now that this was also the depression talking.
Then I came across an online support group through Postpartum Support International. I highly recommend support groups because of their power to connect us. They allow us to know we're not the only one suffering through these awful thoughts and feelings and can help us challenge them. These online groups were convenient because you can just join from home and pay what you can.
4) I channeled my energy toward problem solving.
I attended a Le Leche League meeting for breastfeeding support with the encouragement of my husband. They are awesome and completely free. The lactation consultants were super supportive and encouraged me to get my daughter rechecked for a tongue tie through a specialist. They expressed seeing all the signs, which was validating and a relief. It directed me toward some solutions for our breastfeeding struggles. I never even heard of a tongue tie before all of this.
We took my daughter to see Dr. Bailey Schnebel Coleman to get assessed for a tongue tie. She's a dentist and an expert in this area. She diagnosed my daughter with a significant tongue and lip tie, which would affect her ability to breastfeed properly. Dr. Coleman's kindness was my therapy. I, of course, cried again and was beating myself up for not letting my daughter get the surgery earlier when she was diagnosed with a “slight tie” at birth. I think I cried more during these few months than I had in my entire life, probably even outdoing infancy.
Dr. Coleman told me that I am just a mother who wanted to prevent my daughter from going through the pain of surgery, if I could. She emphasized that we as mothers deserve to be more kind to ourselves because we are just doing our best, and moms get blamed a lot. I hope you hear these words for yourself, too. It allowed me to stop blaming myself and helped me to challenge the lies of depression. We did the procedure and it was one of the factors that improved our breastfeeding relationship.
After the surgery, I was told it was important to "retrain the baby" on the "right way" to breastfeed, so I hired a lactation consultant to come to my house. She ended up telling me I was teaching my baby bad habits, which was really helpful. If you didn't catch that, that was sarcasm. What was actually helpful, though, was seeing my baby being weighed before AND after a brief 5-minute feeding, and she gained 4 oz. This was the exact experiment I needed to see to help me shed the lie that she wasn't getting enough to eat. We're still going strong now at 14 months, bad habits and all! This may not be the experiment that you need to shed the lies of your depression and anxiety, but some other way to test your negative thoughts and beliefs can start to shift your mindset and mood.
5) Movement, recreation, and a little fresh air
I finally completely healed physically at about 8 weeks in. It was a slow recovery for me. I'm 4'11," which almost gains me access into the little people club, so that 7 pounder left some marks on her way into the world. I also learned that depression magnifies our sense of physical pain. If pain is 3/10, it can feel like 8/10 when we’re depressed. Since I could freely move again without fear of slowing down my physical recovery, I forced myself to go for walks or worked in my garden every day when my dad was over or when my husband got home from work. The fresh air and sunlight was healing.
I was far from energized and motivated most of the time, so I definitely had to listen to that "motivation follows action" wisdom and push myself into movement. It was always a drag initially, but I often felt a little better afterwards. I also cursed the negative thoughts from the depression and anxiety, and made a point to replace them with telling myself that I can do it, I will overcome this, etc., even if I didn't completely believe it at the time. It sounds corny, but I felt empowered by it as I pulled out the weeds or power-walked.
6) I faced my fears.
Fear + Act of Courage = Confidence - Dr. Aziz
Around this time, my dad was still coming by every day to help me out with the baby. I was scared, but I asked him to let me take care of her by myself. I think my parents felt like they had to babysit me too, and for good reason. I knew I had to face my fear of failing as a mom. I was amazed when I was able to soothe her by myself at about 8 or 9 weeks in. I began to feel more confident about this motherhood thing. It shifted my thought from “I can’t do this” to “maybe I can.” I learned this formula from anxiety expert Dr. Aziz: Fear + Act of Courage = Confidence. Face your fears, the anxiety will surely increase initially, but will eventually burn itself out and lose its power over you.
Lastly, going back to work helped a ton. It shed anxiety's lie that I wouldn't be able to do my job well anymore, wouldn't be able to pump enough milk, can’t juggle dinner and everything else, etc. Seeing the possiblities turned “maybe I can” to “I’m doing it!” I was grateful for my 13 weeks of maternity leave. Unfortunately, not a lot of moms get this opportunity, and I hope that changes. I was sure I would have lost my job If I went back to work in the middle of it all. By then, breastfeeding was going smoothly, and I was enjoying our moments of connection. The depression lifted quite a bit by this time as well. After about 5-6 months, the anxiety also went back to hell where it belonged.
It's October 23rd, 2016. I vividly remember getting ready to go to lunch for my 31st birthday in this picture and how happy I felt to be able to enjoy my little girl and celebrate with my family. She was 7 months by then, and I won't forget how elated I was to be back to myself again.
I won the battle, and recovery feels VICTORIOUS!
It is June 7, 2017 as I'm wrapping up this story. My struggle with postpartum depression and anxiety is nothing but a distant memory. A scary memory, yes, like a vivid nightmare you won't ever forget, but nonetheless, a memory.
In order to shed the powerful lies of depression and anxiety and get to that gut level change, we often need an outside perspective and some powerful tools. We're not meant to suffer in this alone. As hard as it is, fight the pessimism, force yourself to take action, and the motivation will follow. Put in the hard work and it will pay off. It is scary and takes some courage, but you will reap the benefits of your efforts when you don't give up on yourself. The sooner you get the right help and support for you, the more quickly you will recover.
One of my life's mission is to help shed the stigma around mental illness and normalize it as just crap all people go through at some point in their lives to some degree. I hope my story moves this mission forward to some extent. I hope to also shed the stigma of getting help. It could save your life.
Lasting Change Therapy, LLC
After fully recovering, I was inspired to turn my pain into a source of hope and healing for others going through postpartum depression and anxiety. I know raising a new human life is hard enough as it is. Add battling depression and anxiety on top of that, and it feels pretty darn near impossible. I've dedicated myself to finding the best treatments for depression and anxiety for new moms and dads because of my struggle. Beyond the usual empathic support and compassionate listening, I want to help people go beyond talking to fully recovering and having lasting change in their lives, hence the birth of Lasting Change Therapy, LLC, my second child. I am so grateful to be able to be a part of other parents’ recovery every day.
For tips and techniques to feel like yourself again, click here for exclusive access to my free guide and 4-day e-course for overcoming postpartum depression and anxiety.