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Parenting and Mental Health: A Tough Balancing Act

When it comes to parenting my kids, I say all the same things that most mothers say. Everyone has Bad Mommy Days. I’m only human. I have to take care of myself in order to take care of my children. Even when things aren’t going so well, I need to remember that I’m a good mother.

But who am I kidding, really? Like most mothers, I expect myself to be perfect at all times, and I take the concept of guilt to a whole new level. Even more so than the Catholics do.

I pile one thing after another onto my plate, and somehow I manage to keep all the balls in the air most of the time. In the event of me dropping a ball, it’s always one that pertains to my own physical or mental health. In other words, I make it a priority to take care of everyone else, but I just kind of accept that it’s OK for me to neglect myself in the process.

This does not make me special by any means. Most mothers do this, and we all know that we’re not supposed to. We all know that the world won’t end if we take a bit of time to ourselves instead of putting on that load of laundry so that Little Johnny can wear his favourite shirt to school tomorrow. But we head right on down to the washing machine anyway.

Let’s face it, this whole equation is grossly unbalanced. I mean, here I am, a mom of a kid with autism and a kid who’s just a little – you know, spirited. I work full-time, freelance on the side, help the husband with his business and take care of household finances. That’s before I even get to the laundry.

It gets really tricky when it comes to my mental health. This is a subject that I am generally not comfortable talking about, but I feel that it’s important. Many, many mothers – myself included – have to deal with the reality of coping with mental illness while being the best parents they can possibly be. And it’s hard, because as scared and vulnerable and anxious as we may feel, it is our instinct to be strong for our kids.

This week is particularly tough, and here’s why. At this week’s therapy session, me and my therapist started the process of delving into a part of my life that was, to say the least, traumatic. I was describing a specific event – not glossing over the story, but describing everything in detail, and reliving the whole mess all over again.

A process like this comes with a certain amount of psychological fallout. My nerves have been in tatters and my emotions are raw. I am not sleeping, because all of a sudden my mind is being forced to try and process stuff that I’ve been keeping buried for the last twenty years.

And I am a mom. I have kids to take care of, autism meltdowns to deal with, boo-boos to kiss better, hugs and affection to bestow.

Being a mom and dealing with mental illness are not really activities that complement one another. And when I have to choose between taking care of my kids and dealing with my issues, guess who wins every single time?

While I’m putting on a brave face for my kids, though, my feelings are still there. I am still feeling the stress, the trauma, the anxiety, and depending on the day, the depression. I am still staying awake until late at night because I’m afraid to go to sleep and face the nightmares.

But I do what I have to do for my kids, because no matter what weirdness is going on inside my own head, parenting will always be the most important thing I ever do.

I know that I am not alone. I know that there are other moms out there who live with mental illness. I would love to hear from those moms, to find out if – and how – they keep things balanced.

(Photo credit: darcyadelaide. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)

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The Truth About Postpartum Depression

I am participating in the 2012 Wordcount Blogathon, which means one post every day for the month of May.

I am also part of a Mental Health Month blog party that’s happening today.

When I landed in Canada almost twelve years ago, the news waves were buzzing with an unfolding tragedy. A young woman, caught in the grip of postpartum depression, had launched herself into the path of an oncoming subway train while holding her weeks-old baby daughter. The baby had died instantly, while the mother hung on in hospital, never regaining consciousness, before she died several weeks later.

The public, including, I confess, myself, practically fell over themselves in their haste to judge this woman for killing an innocent child. Like many people, I was operating under the smug self-righteousness of someone who’s “never been there”. I didn’t have children at that time, therefore I had never experienced postpartum depression. Although I was very familiar with regular depression, and had frequently thought self-destructive thoughts, it had never stretched to me being at risk of hurting another person.

As much as people wanted to be judgmental, there was one particular element of this story that bothered me a great deal. The woman had sought help for postpartum depression and not received it. She had reached out, hoping someone would grab her hand and save her from drowning. In the aftermath of the tragedy, no-one was saying, “If only I had known,” but a number of people were saying, “If only I had helped.”

Back then, postpartum depression was not really taken seriously. People associated it with mothers who killed their children, mothers who were dubbed as “monsters”.

I got hit with a hefty dose of reality when postpartum depression settled over me like a heavy, oppressive blanket after the birth of my second child. I realized that I had been so wrong about this condition, and that its manifestations are as unique and varied as the individuals who suffer from it.

The media, being the media, tends to sensationalize tragedy, and tragedy resulting from postpartum depression is no exception. In the absence of other information, other sources of awareness, is it any wonder that the unknowing public would associate postpartum depression with the killing of babies? That’s what the media has taught society, and it’s not exactly a subject that the average person is going to go and Google.

Media treatment of postpartum depression, along with the resulting generalizations that people make about it, are largely responsible for the fact that many women are too ashamed and scared to seek the help they need. I myself did not seek help, and in fact I would never have been treated had my doctor not noticed that something was way off during a visit for a foot complaint.

There is a great deal of stigma surrounding mental illness in general, and postpartum depression in particular takes a big hit of it. The women who fall victim to it are dealing with so much more than depression. They are also feeling intense guilt and the sense of being “abnormal”. I mean, you have this gorgeous new baby who is supposed be a source of great joy and immeasurable love, and the whole thing has turned into a pear-shaped nightmare. The moms also feel fear that is beyond words. They are terrified that during some moment of insanity, they will hurt their children. They want to die just to save their babies from being raised by terrible mothers.

I could quote numbers at you. I could tell you how many women suffer from postpartum depression in Canada, the United States, and internationally. But whatever numbers I gave you would be completely meaningless. They would not include the scores of women who do not seek help, receive a diagnosis, or get treated.

If I was in charge, postpartum depression information would be included in the education packages that are given to new mothers, whether they are having their first, second or tenth child. When the hospitals handed out their leaflets about breastfeeding and developmental milestones, they would also be handing out information sheets about postpartum depression, along with fridge magnets printed with the telephone number of a crisis line.

The new mother’s partner, or some other designated support person, would be educated on the signs of postpartum depression. They would be taught what warning signs to look for, and what to do if they saw them.

If I was in charge, mothers would be regularly screened for postpartum depression for up to two years following the births of their babies – because it can take that long to strike.

There would be public awareness campaigns. The media would devote more attention to postpartum depression as a genuine medical issue to be handled with caring and compassion. They would stop the practice of only giving this condition the time of day in the wake of tragedies.

In my perfect world, women are not blamed for having this debilitating and often life-threatening condition.

They are helped through their times of terrible darkness, and they emerge bright and beautiful, like butterflies from a cocoon, and they enjoy rich, fulfilling lives filled with the laughter of their children.

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Mental Illness: Don’t Be Ashamed

I am participating in the 2012 Wordcount Blogathon, which means one post every day for the month of May.

Today’s post is written in observance of Mental Health Awareness Month, which runs through May.

Several years ago, as I sat nursing my newborn baby, I watched a talk show in which Tom Cruise said something to the effect of post-partum depression not being a real condition. All these moms needed, he said, was to follow good exercise and nutrition plans, and they wouldn’t have a problem. He was convinced, he said, because he had done research.

The timing of this talk show, with its rantings by someone who by definition will never know what post-partum depression is like, could not have been worse. I was in the thick of post-partum depression myself at the time, and although my particular brand of it never included a desire to hurt my child, fantasies of my own death were a very real part of my life.

I did not seek help for my condition, and in fact I would never have been treated for it had my family doctor not noticed that something was amiss during a visit for something completely unrelated. I had a whole set of issues with that particular doctor, but I fully credit him for saving my life. That’s how close I was to the edge of the cliff.

The fact that I suffered from post-partum depression at all was no surprise to me. If anything, I had been surprised when it hadn’t struck after the birth of my first son.

Even as a teenager, I was prone to bouts of depression. My parents were not really aware of it, and on the few occasions when someone actually noticed that I was not OK, it was always put down to adolescent hormones.

“You’ll grow out of it,” people told me.

Except I didn’t. My depression continued into adulthood, coming in waves that sometimes threatened to drown me completely. It would hit completely without warning, hang around for weeks or months or even years, and then disappear just as suddenly.

During my teens I blamed hormones. For two decades after that, I blamed myself. I blamed the fact that some unwise choices I made during my college years led to trauma that had a lasting effect.

I didn’t seek help. Of course I didn’t. My depression and everything that went with it was my own fault, right? I didn’t deserve to be helped.

When it came down to it, the mental health issues that I have experienced throughout most of my life – be it post-partum depression, good old garden-variety depression, anxiety, and everything else – have been a source of shame to me.

And that, my friends, is a big problem in our society. Too many lives are destroyed and lost because people suffering from mental illnesses feel too ashamed or embarrassed to seek help. Feelings of unworthiness and self-blame act as barriers to the pursuit of inner peace and happiness.

Tom Cruise sitting on his high horse effectively blaming mothers for a debilitating and often life-threatening condition did not help the cause of the mental health community one little bit.

Eventually, just over a year ago, I finally made the very difficult decision to seek professional help. The road since then has not been smooth. With the guidance of my therapist, I am reliving past traumas and undergoing oft-uncomfortable introspection in search of the roots of the conditions that plague me. But I at least know that I am heading somewhere other than a dead end.

My quest for mental health is by far the hardest thing for me to write about.  Because in spite of the steps that I have taken to get help, I have not quite managed to shake the decades-old conviction that this is something for me to be ashamed and embarrassed about.

If I stay silent, though, I remain a part of the problem of the stigma associated with mental illness.

In starting to speak out, however tentatively, I hope to become a part of the solution.

(Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/militaryhealth/3485865665/. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)

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Goodbye WEGO Health Challenge, Hello Blogathon

In April I participated in the Health Activist Writers Month Challenge, in which I published a post every day for the month of April, based on health-related prompts.

I am now participating in the 2012 Wordcount Blogathon, which means one post every day for the month of May.

When I first started Running For Autism a little over two years ago, my blogging was an airy-fairy kind of affair. My original intent was for this to primarily be a running blog, but it morphed very quickly into far more than that. Running is such an important part of who I am, and it is frequently difficult to squeeze it in with all of the other responsibilities I have, and I found impossible to write about it without adding the context of my life. For example, how could I write about running to raise funds for autism without trying to raise some awareness about the impact of autism on my life?

And so my subject matter started expanding to include posts about parenting and autism. As my wedding day approached and I started feeling the typical angst of a bride-to-be, my blog became a place for me to vent about my stress and toss around ideas for how to plan a wedding that both of my children could be fully involved in. At some point I started to try my hand at fiction in the Indie Ink writing challenges. A little while after that, I felt a little glimmer of bravery that allowed me to tentatively start discussing my struggles with depression.

Even as I cast my net of topics wider and grew my audience, I found it difficult to prioritize my blogging. I have a lot on my plate. I am a wife and mother. I have a child with autism. I have a full-time job outside of the home that involves two hours of commuting each day. I help my husband with his business and take care of making sure bills are paid and taxes are filed. I run. I have a commitment to write three articles a week for an ezine.

Inevitably, blogging took a back seat to all of this, and I was posting once or twice a week if I was lucky.

When WEGO Health sent me an email inviting me to participate in the Health Activist Writers Month Challenge, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to see it through to completion. I mean, we were talking about a blog post every day for a month. In the end I signed up, spurred on by the fact that the challenge coincided with Autism Awareness Month. This seemed like a great opportunity not only to give my writing a boost, but to spread the word about autism and offer some hope and encouragement to parents feeling overwhelmed by a newly acquired diagnosis.

We have now reached the end of what turned out to be a very successful challenge. The prompts that were provided offered new ways for me to think about the health focuses that matter most to me – autism, mental health and running. I had to really dig deep and be honest with myself and with the world – or at least, the corner of the world that reads my blog. I had some moments of soul-searching, and I found myself addressing questions that I’ve never had the courage to ask before.

There were two days on which the prompts just couldn’t work for me. Try as I might, I could not get past the writer’s block. The challenge rules allowed two “get out of post free” days, but I was loathe to use them. Instead, I turned to the list of bonus prompts that were provided just for occasions like that. As a result, I published a post every day in April.

Through this challenge, I gained some new readers, and some great new blogs to follow. I read some incredible stories of courage and perseverance. So many aspects of health were covered in this challenge: diabetes, cancer, mental illness, special needs parenting, and so many others.

When you read so many stories of people fighting to survive, going to the ends of the earth for their children, and using their own painful experiences to help their fellow man, it really gives you renewed faith in the awesomeness of humankind.

Thank you to WEGO Health for putting this challenge out there. Thank you to my fellow bloggers for taking me on journeys that I could never have otherwise imagined. And thank you to everyone who reads my blog, who leaves comments or clicks the “like” button, or who shares my posts on Facebook or Twitter. It means a lot to me to know that my voice is being heard.

I am compiling a list of fellow bloggers who took the challenge, and when my new website is launched, they will be on the blogroll.

(Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mariareyesmcdavis/2890706354/. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)

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Finding The Path Of Healing

I am participating in the Health Activist Writers Month Challenge, in which I publish a post every day for the month of April, based on health-related prompts.

April 18 – Open a book: Choose a book and open it to a random page and point to a phrase. Use that phrase to get you writing today. Free write for 15-20 minutes without stopping.

My random phrase comes from a book called Watermelon, written my Marian Keyes – one of my favourite chick-lit authors. The sentence I pointed to with my eyes closed was strangely appropriate. “I was no longer carrying my humiliation like a weapon.”

I am a natural-born late bloomer. I have done many things in life after most people: I was 24 before I selected a career, my first child was born when I was 33, and I finally got married at the ripe old age of 41.

Now that I am old and wise, it doesn’t bother me that I tend to lag behind other people in some respects, but when I was in high school it was a great source of embarrassment for me. Socially speaking, I was streets behind most of my classmates. I was not exactly ostracized by my peers, but I was definitely not one of the “cool kids” either.

I got invited to parties from time to time, but I always felt so awkward when I got there. While my peers were laughing and chatting effortlessly, or retreating to private corners to snog their boyfriends, I was sitting by myself trying, and failing, to look as if I belonged. I could only really enjoy social gatherings if my best friend was there too. My best friend was the one who stopped me from drowning completely, and bless her heart, she is still my best friend today.

I had a couple of half-hearted boyfriends as a teenager, but compared to my classmates, I was geeky and socially inept. At an age where people are desperate to fit in and be accepted by their peers, it was painful. I was an unhappy teenager, although I never really admitted that to anyone.

When I graduated from high school, I went to a university 1400km away from my hometown. I figured that being among people I didn’t know would allow me to turn myself into the person I thought I wanted to be. I had always felt slightly inadequate and I didn’t like myself very much, and I wanted more than anything to reinvent myself.

Even though I made friends at university and had some kind of reasonable social life, the truth was that I was lonely. Never really a party girl, I tried to shoehorn myself into a party lifestyle because that’s what college students did, and I wanted so badly to fit in. And so I found myself immersed in a social group who were a laugh to be around, but I yearned meaningful contact. In those days before the Internet made the world a smaller place, I was not able to confide in my best friend. When waves of depression hit me, I had to get through them alone, with no-one to talk to.

And so, when a man started paying attention to me in my second year, I was flattered enough to fall for him. I do not want to share the details, but I will say that the whole thing was an absolute disaster from beginning to end. I was immersed in a situation that I had no ability to deal with.

The effect on my life was catastrophic. It was as if my future had been mapped out for me, and then a tsunami had come along and wiped everything away, changing the landscape of my life.

I floundered in the wake of this personal disaster. I completely lost all sense of who I was and what I wanted. I vacillated between depression and anger, and I blamed myself for having allowed my life to veer so far off the course I had planned. I drifted for a while, literally and metaphorically, and eventually washed up in a career, albeit one far away from what I had originally wanted.

One day, after having carried around the baggage of my past experiences for twenty years, I looked around me at all I have today. I have a solid job and my dream to be a paid writer is starting, in small but definite increments, to come true. I can run half-marathons in spite of not having a “typical” runner’s body. I managed to move halfway across the world and establish myself in a place I had never been to. I have a husband and two miraculous children. Although I make my mistakes, I think I’m doing well as the parent of a child with autism.

That tsunami that had swept so much away also created a new landscape with new paths for me to follow and new goals to shoot for.

This realization, when it hit me, was like a breath of fresh air. Although some scarred remained, I was no longer carrying the humiliation like a weapon.

For the first time, I felt that I owed it to myself to try to heal.

(Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kudumomo/3140538425/. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)

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Poster Child

I am participating in the Health Activist Writers Month Challenge, in which I publish a post every day for the month of April, based on health-related prompts.

April 9 – Keep calm and carry on: Write (and create) your own Keep Calm and Carry On poster. Can you make it about your condition? Then go to http://keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk and actually make an image to post to your blog.

Today I got to unleash my inner artist. There’s no need to mention the fact that my inner artist can barely draw a stick figure. With the Internet being what it is these days, you don’t have to be any good at drawing in order to create pretty posters. All you need is a few photographs and enough imagination to come up with some lines of text.

For today’s post, me and my inner artist made three posters. One about autism, another about mental health, and a third about running.

I’ll probably never be featured in London’s Tate Gallery, but this was kind of fun.

What would you put on your Keep Calm posters?

Autism

 

Mental Health

 

Running

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Poetic License

I am participating in the Health Activist Writers Month Challenge, in which I publish a post every day for the month of April, based on health-related prompts.

April 6 – Health Haiku: Write a haiku about your health focus. 5 syllables/7 syllables/5 syllables. Write as many as you like.

About Autism

Mysterious boy
You always make me wonder
Beautiful strange mind

Touched by autism
You are locked in your own world
I reach into you

He doesn’t say much
His mind is always busy
Silent but present

The room rocks with screams
Communication fails him
I hold him with love

About Mental Health

My mind tortures me
I know I should be happy
Sadness fills my soul

Postnatal darkness
Drowning in new motherhood
Do not be ashamed

Memories flood me
The past seeps into the now
Accept who I am

Look in the mirror
See the beauty within you
Know that you are loved

About Running

Feet hit the sidewalk
Legs are aching, I am tired
No way I can stop

Start line at the race
Getting high on energy
My legs want to run

It’s more than the legs
The body must be healthy
Eat like an athlete

Running keeps me sane
Time to myself, time to think
The stress melts away

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The Stories I Tell And Why I Tell Them

I am participating in the Health Activist Writers Month Challenge, in which I publish a post every day for the month of April, based on health-related prompts.

April 4 – I write about my health because…: Reflect on why you write about your health for 15-20 minutes without stopping.

When I was young, I had a somewhat cavalier attitude towards my health. This was partly due to the invincibility and stupidity of youth, and partly because there were some things happening in my life that relegated my health to the backseat. I really had better things to think about than whether I was eating enough spinach.

Of course, my lifestyle through my early twenties didn’t really lend itself to healthy thinking anyway. I was fond of pasta, Coca Cola and beer. I was not fond of vegetables, exercise or moderation. Water was for swimming or showering in, not for drinking. My daily life was punctuated with cigarettes. I didn’t really care whether I had enough money for groceries as long as I had a six-pack in the fridge and some cigarettes in my purse.

One morning I woke up and realized that I was tired of being a smoker. And just like that, I decided to quit. I reasoned that while I was quitting, I may as well fix up the other troublesome aspects of my lifestyle. And so I gave up the soft drinks, reduced the alcohol consumption and took up running.

In the years since then, more things have happened that have forced me to take a close look at the health of myself and my family. I have learned better ways of running, I have battled some mental health issues, I have lost family members to cancer and I have become an autism mom.

The subject of health is not something I can ignore or take casually. So much depends on it, and it has far-reaching effects on my children. I am mindful of the fact that for the next few years, I am making decisions about food and activity on their behalf. And for their sake, I have to get it right.

Through my journey, I have learned a lot and discovered that there’s so much I still don’t know. Through my writing, I can share what I have discovered and reach out to people who very often have answers that I need. I have come across people who know exactly what I’m going through, making me feel less alone. In sharing a piece of my life, I have found a voice that I might not otherwise have.

I write because I love to, and because – hopefully – I tell stories that people can either relate to or be informed or entertained by. And as long as I think my voice is touching at least one other person, I will continue to write.

(Photo credit: Kirsten Doyle)

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Time In A Bubble

I am participating in the Health Activist Writers Month Challenge, in which I publish a post every day for the month of April, based on health-related prompts.

April 1 – Health Time Capsule: Pretend you’re making a time capsule of you and your health focus that won’t be opened until 2112. What’s in it? What would people think of it when they found it?

timecapsule

Sometimes, usually when I’m reminiscing about one of my grandparents, I wonder what the world was like a hundred years ago. In 1912, my maternal grandmother was nine years old. Cars were just starting to change the way people lived, and people were starting to realize that planes might be more than just a passing fad.

In 1912, the Republic of China was formed and the Titanic sank. Gene Kelly and Pope John Paul I were born, and the members of the Scott expedition to the South Pole died.

One hundred years ago, telephone communications happened over a party line and computers had not even been dreamed up. There was no such thing as a TV dinner. Indeed, there was no such thing as a TV.

It is very clear that the world was a completely different place back then. If you were to take my nine-year-old grandmother from that time and plunk her down in the middle of 2012, she wouldn’t have a clue what to do.

Now I cast my mind to the future, to the year 2112. What thoughts will the people then have about the way the world is today? What would I want them to think? What would I, the 42-year-old me who lives in 2012, want them to know about me and my life?

Maybe I should put together a time capsule, something that some random stranger can dig up a hundred years from now to get a glimpse into my life and the things that are important to me.

There would be photos, of course, a visual record of me and my family. Maybe a flash drive of family videos that the finder could watch – assuming, of course, that flash drive technology isn’t totally redundant by then.

I would include a pair of running shoes, and maybe one of my half-marathon finisher’s medals. I would print out a copy of my training plan, so whoever found the time capsule would know that I took my running seriously and tried to be healthy about it. They would know that I cared enough about my feet to use orthotics, that I ramped up my training in a way to avoid injury, and that running was my biggest stress-relieving tool.

There would, of course, be a lot of stuff about autism. A copy of George’s developmental assessment report and the autism awareness magnet that’s on my car. I would put in a copy of the very first “real” picture that George drew depicting a recognizable scene from a TV show. I would have to include one of George’s Mr. Potato Heads, along with a description of how this little character helped George’s development in so many ways. And what about a program from the biannual autism symposium? I could include one of my fundraising appeal letters for my autism runs.

Out of respect for my younger son, I would include a book about raising a child who is the sibling of a child with autism. I would throw in some of James’ artwork depicting him and George, and a leaflet about the autism centre’s sibling support program. I would want whoever found this to know that George’s autism didn’t only affect George, that we also had to make special consideration for his little brother.

And because James is an individual in his own right, I would include some stuff that’s just about him. A Lightning McQueen car. His soccer shoes. One of the T-shirts my mom has sent him from South Africa, that he always loves wearing.

Mental health is a big issue in my life. I would include some of the antidepressants I took a few years ago before the side effects scared me into stopping. I would print off some stats and information about post-partum depression – something that I suffered terribly from and that I still don’t think there’s enough awareness of. And maybe, just for fun, I would include one of my therapists’ bills. Whoever finds it can then gasp in astonishment and say, “Wow, they only paid that for therapy in 2012?”

Family is an important element in my life as well. My family, by their mere presence, enhance my physical and mental health. My husband’s support of my endeavours has an unquestionable affect on my stress levels and sense of wellbeing. So I would have to include a copy of my marriage certificate.

This time capsule is starting to get kind of full, and I haven’t even touched on some people in my life who would have to be represented, like my mom and my brother, and my best friend Jenny, and some other folks who form the fabric of my life.

I’m off to find a bigger box.

(Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/carbonnyc/2563369930/. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)