Beyond post partum depression: Part 3: To get up and stay up
I’ve suffered post partum depression. This is how I came out on the other end of the tunnel, or at least to a place where I can see the light. This will be a play in 3 acts:
1) Falling down the pit (warning, a bit depressing)
2) Getting on a stepladder (the salvation part, more pragmatic)
3) Get up and stay up (sorry, probably nauseatingly cheerful)
So, in the last post I wrote about the healing process. The meds and the counselling, and what kind of self-help that has actually helped me. There is also a chapter on stress: anxiety vs passivity and how those affects us.
Admittedly, I’m a lot more sensitive and careful now. Maybe your personality changes a bit when you reach the dark side and then return? Or motherhood makes you change because you have too? It’s something about the responsibility and growing up, I guess.
So, I prioritize differently. Drive more carefully. Choose to stay at home more often (but admittedly for the kids sake I need to stay home more than I actually choose). But I don’t allow irrational nervousness to stop me from doing things I really want. I can go climbing, using a safety harness and a skilled instructor. I can go horseback riding, again using a helmet, and a calm, friendly horse. I just make deliberate choices instead of jumping head first into everything.
Also, I need to care for myself more:
– Exercise regularly. (Yes, I can do that now! Physical therapy did help.)
– I need to go out in the sun every day, and use daylight bulbs during winter.
– I use supplements every once in a while, to sort of boost that body of mine with more energy. Vitamin B12, C and D (during winter) seems to help a lot. Also Calcium seems to be good for me. I guess 2 years of breastfeeding takes it’s toll somehow. I’ve heard Magnesium’s supposed to be generally good too, but I haven’t tried it yet.
– I try to get some peace and quiet time every day to collect myself, evaluate things and make plans. I have a hard time concentrating when everybody wants my attention, so I need that. When I’m organized, it’s much easier to organize the rest of the family. I also need to sleep every once in a while, and need to make room for that.
This will be what this post is mainly about. Ways to feel better, or to prevent relapses, or to recover faster from relapses that may occur.
I didn’t sleep much for a couple of years when Baby Boy the Second came, as that’s what it’s like with some babies. I was on night duty. And day duty. And couldn’t work for a while. And got depressed at times, but got back up, got to sleep eventually, and felt better for it.
It does happen that anxiety hits me, too. It’s when I haven’t been able to exercise for a while, when winter darkness falls and I haven’t taken any supplements for a while. If I have some calcium at this point, the anxiety is gone within an hour or two and I sleep well. It’s like a miracle, and I trust it, because I have reason to.
Also, I find that once the chemistry is under control, it’s all in the mind. When I believe in me, I can. When I don’t, I can’t. It’s that simple. And that difficult. Because how can you force yourself to believe? I don’t think we can. Not forcing it. But we can make things happen, little by little, and when we see some sign of progress, there comes hope, or belief.
Fighting off symptoms, fighting off depression
Once you’re up and start to walk your first ginger steps in normality land, you will probably feel like you’re falling again, at the slightest bump in the road. Being very afraid of falling we tend to be anxious, and so we trick ourselves into more caution – risking again the depression we want to get out of.
Now I think mental pictures are important, and this is what I think:
You don’t fall down, unless you think you do!
Stumble we may, but from flat on the ground we can crawl up, or get help to stand on our feet again. It’s okay.
We can’t fall down that same pit again. We’ve been there, we know how to handle it, we’ve seen the end of it. It’s behind us now. Next time we feel the dizzying feeling of falling, it may be just a bump in the road.
We must allow ourselves to have a day off!
It’s okay. No bottomless pit. Just a day meant to rest. We can come to a pass where we need to go downhill for a while, but we keep our eyes on the road that goes right back up. We won’t be as lost again.
And even if we would stumble down another hole, we don’t need to dig ourselves down as far, before realizing what we are doing, finding that stepladder and crawling back up. Maybe call for help. It will come.
I mean it. I’ve had a terrible year with grief and loss among friends and family, and it feels like never ending rain all around – but I keep doing what I need to survive, and I do. I cry for a while, then have my vitamin pills, go for my walk, play with my kids and at night I sneak into bed with my chocolates and my husband and we close the door on the storms outside. Our own little sanctuary, our home. And there is light in the dark. We have a lot of fun and laughs between dwellings on worry and sadness. It’s allowed. It’s what keeps you going. You need to turn to the light, to get energy, hope and remember what it’s all about.
Some days I’ve stayed in bed. Like after a day of work (where I’m actually still welcome and appreciated, but asked not to carry anything heavy anymore. Reality means I still do sometimes because I need to, and I want to, and I pay the prize by lying flat on my back the next day.). Also, when I have my period, my body is in cramped-up pain a few days. It’s just fact, I faint from it, get sick from it, can’t stand straight. Slightly pathetic. So I take to resting, reading, writing. Taking care of that silly body of mine.
The next day I will be up and running again. Cleaning, washing, wiping, cooking. Playing with the kids. Having a disco in the living room. All that kind of stuff.
Balancing needs and juggling of interests is what parenting and life is all about, isn’t it? No wonder we fail sometimes.
It’s mostly about how to deal with stress. We need some activity in our bodies, so we need a little stress hormones to even move. But we rarely need the full on fight- or flight preparations, and we certainly feel worse wrapping it all inside like we do when we suffer from anxiety.
The power of breathing
Taking a deep breath, actually calms us down quite fast. Inhale through the nose and exhale through your mouth, calmly and deeply.
In case of anxiety, there is another useful tip: Inhale slowly, counting to 4. Hold your breath and count to 4 again. Exhale slowly, counting to 4. Hold your breath again while counting to another 4. (Find your rythm that keeps you breathing easily, not suffocating yourself with too slow counting.) Repeat, 2-3 times.
This practice regulates the chemistry that comes off balance when we tens up and forget to breathe deeply. Stress makes our blood too acidic, and keeping some CO2 helps our body, and us, relax a bit. This is why some recommend breathing in a paper bag too, inhaling CO2, regulating acid.
Singing out loud is also helpful, getting fresh air into your lungs and slowing down our breath. It creates a bit of calm. Deeply depressed maybe you don’t feel like singing. Well, put on some music you like, loud if you like, and just give it a try.
Laughter is healing too, but of course, when stressed or depressed, you don’t laugh that easily.
Stress that sees no way out tends to paralyzes us, making us feel nervous but helpless. It’s a spell that can be broken by action: by physical exercise or expressing ourselves. If it’s allowed to stay internalized for a long time, adding one little thing to another, it causes more or less constant tension. Which in many cases causes illness too.
That paralysis needs to be broken, by some kind of action. The earlier the better. It usually does by moving. Try stretching your arms up and out, then down again. Stand on tip toe, trying to reach the ceiling, then reach for the ground. Lift your knees towards your chest. See, that wasn’t so hard, was it?
Deal with conflict
Conflict causes a lot of stress, anxiety and self-doubt. We can learn to deal with conflicts in constructive ways, so they don’t grow on us. Acting by communicating can prevent a lot of trouble:
We have the right to say no, to a lot of things. We usually have a choice of some kind, we just have to figure out what it is.
We also deserve a chance to express ourselves in matters that are important to us, even if we can’t get our way all the time. We can learn to express our feelings, within reason, instead of internalizing a problem. We can express our wishes and needs, to be understood and taken into account. Most people are not inconsiderate or mean by choice, but by ignorance. Expressing helps understanding to happen.
You can demand to be treated with respect. You are neither a scapegoat, nor a machine or an object of any kind. Your feelings and opinions matter just as much as anyone else’s. It’s not about being aggressive, or breaking down in tears, or being overly personal with people you need to have a professional relationship with. But you have rights.
For one you need information and clarity. When faced with eg criticism you can ask questions. What exactly is meant? When did this happen? What should have been done instead? What is suggested to be done now, to solve the problem? You can ask for specifics. You can ask for goals and constructive solutions. Then take a moment to digest the information.
It’s a way to call on general claims or rumors that doesn’t need to be true. You don’t need to feel bad unless you’ve actually done something wrong, and then the best thing you can do is make an apology, try and make amends and then move on.
When stress and sleep deprivation combine we get all confused, and get unhealthy sleeping patterns. We do sleep better when we feel better. But we need to sleep to feel better. Try the daylight and exercise advice (a walk is good enough), and perhaps some calcium and vitamin-D supplements, if that feels applicable to you. If you are on eternal night watch maybe you need to get a night off every once in a while. Maybe your partner can release you from a shift so that you can sleep a few hours in a row.
We feel much healthier, stronger and more alert when we eat right, and have all the nutrition we need. Vitamins proteins, minerals that will cause lots of trouble to our health when under represented in our food. Junk food is known to be bad for us, as it’s lacking in all of those things, making us full for a while, but still lacking important vitamins.
It doesn’t need to be that hard. Fresh fruit and vegetables are really good for us. Seeds, nuts and whole grains too. Using groceries that are as close to nature as possible, organic food when possible, seems basically good for us. Raw food that we prepare and cook ourselves gives control over the ingredients added. But of course, we don’t always have the time.
For those suffering from allergies, but also vegetarians or vegans, considering your needs is very important. Seeds and nuts are highly nutritious, but also common allergens Vitamin B12 plays an important part in our blood regeneration process, so it’s an important one – that is hard to find if you don’t eat liver, or have supplements.
Sugar is bad, of course. Everyone says so. We shouldn’t overdo it – but a little seems to be okay. If we need an energy boost to get our ass up and about, it’s fine. What we really must avoid is having a lot of sugar in the evening, preventing us from the good nights sleep.
I’ve been told chocolate helps against depression, and I go for it. Darker chocolate, the kind with less sugar.
The problem with sugar is the energy we get from it. We need to let the energy out, or tension and stress will build up, and we’re going to feel much worse. It’s chemistry.
Chemistry affects our whole body, and not only through diet. When there is a imbalance of substances, like a lot of cortisol (caused by stress) or a lack of calcium (like from growing a baby in your body, or breastfeeding for months) we get sick. While cortisol is acidic, calcium is alkaline. Lots of functions don’t work as they should when pH values are unbalanced. I’ve read pregnant and breastfeeding women need 1000 mg calcium a day. That’s a lot! No wonder so many women suffer osteoporosis when aging!
I didn’t have much supplements throughout my first pregnancy (because I was too sick for actually eating), but later I’ve found it helps so much: Dry skin, hair loss, anxiety and a lot of other symptoms connected to general stress flew out the window. I actually stopped using anti-depressants and sleeping pills after a year, replacing them with calcium supplements, and it worked! When getting anxious it helps too. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone without medical supervision of course, but it’s a quite simple supplement to use, and if you’ve been pregnant you might need it. Enough said.
Sunlight is what makes us really wake up in the morning. It gives energy, and also vitamin-D when we allow it to reach our skin. Sitting behind big, light windows we may suffer vitamin-D deprivation too, unless we get out into the open air. 20 minutes or so is said to be enough when you wear light clothing, uncovering arms and face at least.
In the wintertime we might need to make a bit of an effort to get out into the sunlight, preferably in the morning. We need to look up, into the sky (no, not straight into the sun of course). It makes the sleep hormones go away so that we feel better, more awake.
If you are depressed, living behind closed curtains, no wonder you will feel more depressed. Open those curtains. Open the window. Get some fresh air. Then get out, please. Just for a while.
You can defeat the symptoms by exercise at an early stage. When stress is released, out of your system, you feel better, lighter. It sort of opens up the walls, the bubble that you build up around you for safety.
Only, when you are literally stuck in those walls, you can hardly move. And then you feel bad about what has become of you. That’s how depression and anxiety can sneak up and grow on you.
For someone who has not suffered severe depression or sleep deprivation this seems absurd. But in reality, sometimes people are just too tired, too worn out, to just do it. We need to find hope first, to find energy later.
What you need to think, when depressed, is that every little step you take is valuable, it’s progress.
– Every time you get up, open the curtains and look into the light of the day is a new beginning. A step forward. Every time you get dressed and walk outside for some sunlight and fresh air, it’s a good thing.
– Every time you have something to eat that is not candy, crisps or fast food, it’s a good thing (I do recommend fresh fruit – it gives quick energy, vitamins and is easy to grab).
– Every time you have a shower, brush your teeth and get new clothes on, you’ve done good. Because it makes you feel better.
– Try and make a list of what you think you need to do. Then make another where you’ve arranged it according to priority. Paying bills usually is a priority, cleaning the closet can be done later. Much, much later (still, a post about that is coming up).
– If you, like many depressed people, live in a current mess of a home, it will relieve you to clean it. But, you can’t do it all at once. There are important hygienic reasons for keeping at least the kitchen and bathroom clean. So start with one of them, or just a part of one of them.
A depressed person needs help.
They will hardly ask for it though. When in deep depression you don’t believe there is any help. You don’t see any light. You don’t have the energy to stand up, let alone call someone. Friends need to care, and come, and do what they can anyway. The problem is, they don’t know what’s wrong. They don’t know if they’re welcome. Unless they read this of course.
Helping out is hard too. It’s hard to know what to do. When a person is grieving a loss, no one can actually help. But they can be there. Show consideration. Prove they care. It’s worth a lot. Have the guts to listen to all the hard parts. To allow them their feelings. Swallowing down empty words like “I know how you feel” – because no one does, really.
So how do you help someone drowning in sadness and despair? Not by a kick in the ass exactly, because no one despises themselves more than a depressed person him or herself, they need no more of that. But by actual help: Take them by the hand. Draw them a bath. Cook them a meal. Help them to sort things out, or clean up a bit. Turn the light on. Open a window.
Invite them to go for a walk, and make it to a close-by bench if they get tired. Being outside is better than inside, and every single step they take is progress.
Remind them what they are good at, what they know, why you became and stayed friends. Look beyond the resent depressive state.
Cleaning out the closet
Yes, I’m actually talking about cleaning a closet, or a wardrobe, or your garage.
When in therapy or discussing troublesome things with your close ones, it’s your inner closet you open up to get rid of old useless misbeliefs or destructive thoughts, to let some light into the real you. It’s hard work, but it’s good for us. As is the actual cleaning of closets, that tend to become messes in a depressed persons household.
Cleaning is not the first thing anyone should do, as it’s kind of overwhelming in it’s neverending nature. So get better first. But when slightly better, the cleaning might be a bit therapeutic too.
Usually, there is a whole lot of throwing things away to be done. When anxious and depressed we tend to hold onto things. And before we know it we have wall-to-wall piles of… well, I’ve seen newspaper stacks, fabrics, clothes, books…
Truth is, when we feel depressed, living in a mess adds bad feelings about our own shortcomings. It will be so much of a relief to let go of it! “Love it, use it or loose it” is a usable mantra here. You can’t have too many unfinished, or thought-of projects lying around. Leave one or two, for the dreams of the future. Let go of the others. If you by any chance regrets throwing away a project later, you will most likely be able to get started again with new equipment.
My way out
First I needed to talk about things. The pain, the terror, the hopeless feeling of being neglected in that delivery room. People generally don’t want to hear about that. I wrote it down, got sympathy and felt better.
Two years ago, I thought I could never run again. The healing process had done what it could (I wasn’t even allowed to carry my child or pull the wagon at first, but of course you do when you have a child, how can you not?). I was physically okay again, but with advice of caution when exercising and forbidden to work the abs with any sit-ups, feeling hopelessly old in my body and not much of a MILF.
Still, I had got recommendations on how to strengthen my pelvic floor muscles and how to care for them when exercising: it wasn’t hopeless, just hard.
Being in a formerly depressed state, it’s been important with a routine that is not overwhelmingly hard, because then I wouldn’t do it. I also have young children who are in need of me, and carry a lot of viruses with them, so training is interrupted by colds and fevers every other week. Admittedly, I rarely have the time to exercise more than twice a week, but still, that is doing something and it feels good. I don’t care that I won’t be a marathon runner. That would be rather stupid in my situation actually. All I want is to feel good and healthy and to shape up a bit, and that is happening by moving, even in small doses.
Doable exercising routine
– So now, I’m going to go for that jogging I know I need and feel better after. Truly, it’s only a one mile track, and I’m allowing myself to walk part of it, but I rarely need to if I have kept to my idea of running twice a week.
It was my husband recommending this routine. He had read about “how to go from zero to 5 miles in 3 months” or something like that. The great thing was, it started so slow it felt realistic even to me. He tried it, recovering from a knee injury he got when running too hard last time. He was completely fine and happy working himself through the routine. No pain anywhere, it was almost like cheating, he told me. And I saw he was getting there. From the initial walks and small running sessions came the energy to go further, run for longer.
So I figured, I didn’t need to go those 5 miles if I couldn’t manage. I would be okay just to go for the first part of the program, because I would still become healthier from every time I went that track. Every time it would feel easier, and making me healthier. Even if I wouldn’t challenge myself further.
Walking that mile at reasonable pace (compared to the walks with the baby carriage and toddlers playing as they go along, always stopping to have a closer look at everything – we rarely get more than half a mile in an hour…) seemed good enough, 2-3 times a week, initially. It was doable, easy, nice to get an opportunity to breathe actually.
Then I would run 100 steps, walk 200. 2-3 times. It felt good! I could do it, I didn’t die, and nothing fell apart. Yay!
Then I would run 200 steps, walk 100. 2 times. That was doable too. It started to feel easy.
So I ran half a mile, walked 200 steps and ran the last part. Still doable.
Now I usually run the mile uninterrupted. But if I do get tired, and slow down to a walking pace, I figure I’m still doing fine. Every step forward is a step, and that is still exercise. It counts, it helps, it works. Better doable than not. Each walk makes me stronger too, so it’s win-win.
As long as we keep in mind where we are heading, and what we really want, we can take that small step. It’s far too easy to get overwhealmed by unattainable goals, too easy to fall down feeling bad about everything we are not. When really we must try and see to what we have, what we are and what is good about that. We need to praise ourselves for what we do about what we have. Then we can move on, if we want. One small step at a time. Thinking: You took one more step, good for you!