After the birth of my daughter in 2017, I fell into a major depressive episode that impaired my ability to take care of my children. For four months, I deteriorated. During these four months I lost the ability to eat, sleep, and even change my clothes. Parenting with mental illness seemed impossible.
After being turned away from the hospital five times I was finally admitted as an inpatient. Recovery from such a severe illness is not linear. For two years following my episode I had what are called “windows” and “waves,” of symptoms.
During these “waves,” I experienced extreme morning anxiety and loss of appetite. Many days I felt like I was treading water. Some days I thought I wouldn’t survive motherhood at all.
Having children means less time for self care.
Young children require constant attention. Many days I longed for just thirty minutes to work on my cognitive behavioural therapy exercises or go for a walk. I would have given anything for time. Unfortunately, young children make it almost impossible to work on mental health.
How do you parent with mental illness if there is no time to work on mental health?
Taking care of young children when you have a mental health condition can be an extraordinary test of endurance. Coping strategies will be unique to the individual, depending on personality type and existing support system.
There are several ways to cope with parenthood. Sleep deprivation, tantrums, housework and loss of freedom come as a shock to anyone’s system. Experiencing such a dramatic shift combined with the heavy load of mental illness can be excruciating.
The goal should not be the expectation of happiness all the time. Expecting such a thing will only lead to failure. Instead, the goal should be the increased ability to regulate distressing emotions related to parenthood. If you do not have time to go to therapy sessions or exercise, try out these coping strategies instead.
To see my postpartum depression story, click here: http://circumnavigating-madness.com/2019/10/24/my-postpartum-depression-the-descent-into-hell/
Coping strategies that help.
(1) Forbid yourself from living in the future.
Anxiety and depression can cause people to imagine theoretical futures and experience them emotional distress. When we have children we may constantly live in these theoretical futures. If the present moment feels unbearable our minds will escape to the future. If this imagined future seems just as bad as the present moment, depressive symptoms will increase.
Desperation comes when we believe there is no way out. If you see these hard years as ones that will last indefinitely, you are living in the future. Doing so will aggravate mental health, making those thoughts even stronger.
Even though it’s exhausting now, you have to remind yourself constantly that “this too shall pass”. If you believe the future is hopeless, remind yourself that a future that is not hopeless is equally as plausible as one that is.
Instead of thinking, “…nothing will ever be okay again,” say to yourself, “One day, my children will be older, and less reliant on me”. Say this every single time you find yourself experiencing the emotional pain of a future that has yet to happen.
Initially, this will be very difficult. Over time though, your mind will prefer to focus on the future that gives you relief, rather than the one that causes you distress. This is thanks to something call neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to change over time). Your brain is a funny thing – even though it is so complex, it still needs a bit of help sometimes getting back on track.
(2) Ask yourself, “What can I do right now to feel better?”
This simple shift in focus could change everything, and fast. Anxiety, depression, and any other type of mental illness can cause severe emotion and physical distress. When we feel this distress, we create something known as, “second fear”. First fear is your body’s initial physiological response to stress.
Second fear is the “added fear,” or the fear we add via negative responses to the initial distress we experience. Take panic attacks for example. Before a panic attack, worry regarding having the panic attack take hold, causing first-fear symptoms (shaking, heart pounding etc.). As distressing as this may be, it is the second fear (our reaction to the symptoms) that make the panic attack stronger and sustain it.
Our suffering lies within our second fear – our response to physical sensations or thoughts that are outside of our immediate control.
How do we reduce second fear? When you feel a panic attack coming on, or the symptoms of depression, ask yourself immediately, “What can I do right now to feel better?”.
Create a process that genuinely brings you comfort in some way. Whether that be making a herbal tea, putting on a funny video or reading a book. If you are out of the house, redirect your focus to what you will do later to feel better. If you feel like you will never feel better, you have to remind yourself that you will feel better eventually.
With persistence and faith in the process, when you experience a symptom of stress, you should start to feel little “pings” of relief. This is because by doing this exercise you are putting a halt to the cascading chemical cycle that causes the symptoms of distress. Parenting with mental illness is extremely challenging, but it doesn’t have to be.
By taking the steps necessary to reduce your daytime stress, you are reducing the amount of stress hormones in your body. In turn, your sleep will gradually improve. When sleep is improved, mood the next day is also improved. When mood the following day is improved, stress hormones decrease further, improving sleep even more.
By redirecting your thought patterns you are actively giving your brain a chance to see things from a new perspective. This can have dramatic effects on both body and mind. Parenting with mental illness does not have to be Hell. With the right exercises, your body and mind will become stronger.
(3) Lower your expectations of yourself as a parent.
Not all of us are Type A’s – and that’s okay. The day we accept our limitations is the day we free ourselves from the crippling guilt that we will never be good enough.
Let the laundry go for a day – it’s okay. Forget the need to constantly be productive. Let go of the desire to keep up with other high functioning parents around you. If you need help with anything – ask for it.
Rather than focus on the things you are not accomplishing – focus on the things you have accomplished. If all else fails, focus on what you will do to feel better.
Having OCD tendencies I found myself completely burned out the moment I rolled out of bed. I obsessively focused on “all of the things that had to be done,” that day. Dread would fill my chest, weighing me down like carrying a bag of bricks everywhere I went.
Instead of focusing on all the things that had to be done, I began letting go of all expectations. If we all sat down to watch a movie on a bright sunny day – it was okay. If I made grilled cheese for supper instead of a home cooked meal? Well, that was okay too. Guilt had to be put aside completely.
After a few months, I started smiling and laughing more with my kids, and getting outside into the world more. My appetite grew stronger and I gained weight back slowly – but most importantly, I finally enjoyed time with my children. I was parenting with mental illness, and succeeding.
Find something you are passionate about, and make it yours.
Parenthood can easily make a person feel like “this is all there is”. To take something and make it yours is taking your thoughts and removing them from parenthood. All parents need at least one passion or hobby to call their own.
To pick up a project that you feel passion for will have almost immediate positive results. Painting, writing, blogging, woodworking or volunteering are just some examples out of many possibilities.
Loss of identity is common in parenthood. Striking up your passion again and making time for it each week will give you purpose and and motivation on even the darkest days. It will remind you that you are a human being too, one with hopes and dreams and desires. Give yourself something you can work toward and feel proud of at the end of the day.
Belief is key.
Your mind will tell you that any attempt to take back control of your thoughts is impossible. Stop listening to that voice. When you are responsible for young children and sick at the same time, none of this will come easy.
Through it all, you have to believe in your ability to get through these years and succeed with the wisdom that things will not be this hard forever.
I had to strip away every piece of myself that existed prior to my major depressive episode. Like spring cleaning for the brain, I let go of every old thought pattern that kept me sick. I told myself every single day that I could get better, but I would never know unless I actively tried.
It has been two years since my major postpartum depression. By using the three steps listed above, I have managed to maintain functioning, and not fall into further episodes of major depression.
Truth be told, I feel better than I ever have before. The liberation in feeling the sensation of being well is addictive. It is even more addictive than my old thought patterns that kept me continuously sick with anxiety and depression.
The three thought exercises above have allowed me to maintain wellness for two years, and be an engaging, happy mother. I encourage you all to try them out for yourselves, so that you can also reach a state of wellness.
To read more about the unbelievable science behind neuroplasticity, please refer to: https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/neuroplasticity
Parenting with mental illness is like climbing a mountain, but rather than focus on reaching the top immediately we have to focus on the small increments we make over a long period of time.
You may have many days where you feel you might completely lose your mind when parenting with mental illness. This is normal. This is parenthood! Remember these days will not last forever, and one day you will feel better – I am living proof of that.
Here is a link to a book written by Karen R. Kleiman called, “This isn’t What I Expected: Overcoming Postpartum Depression”. This book is a fantastic resource for anyone who is struggling with the difficulties of parenthood.
Remember, this won’t last forever – and you will be okay.