While the mental health community and culture has been gaining traction over the last couple of years, we as a society still have a very long way to go to create a truly safe space for those dealing with mental health diagnoses. The stigma needs to be removed before people begin to feel comfortable sharing their story. Which is why I am sharing mine. While my mental health path has been far less severe than many I know, I truly believe that by normalizing my story I can help pave the way towards normalizing theirs. And as we navigate the world of women’s mental health, specifically Maternal Mental Health, we can also begin to break down the dangerous societal norms of diet culture and how if effects women.
I’ve struggled with some sort of anxiety for as long as I can remember. As a small child I was quick to anger or get overwhelmed. In high school, I would wake up in the middle of the night, get my younger brother up and tell him we were running late for school. Only for him to come find me in the kitchen making breakfast and yell at me and tell me in was 2:30 in the morning. Other instances looked like getting irrationally angry, on the verge of violence, and needing to be restrained by my older brother until I calmed down. For me anxiety didn’t look like the panic attacks we see women have in the media. There weren’t any brown paper bags or heavy breathing. There was a fire inside of me that was ripping me apart trying to be free.
After watching these instances happen, my mother took me to my doctor who immediately recognized these behaviors as anxiety and put me on medication and encouraged some therapy. I continued to take medication through college, but looking back there were definitely some behaviors that slipped by and continued, even on medication. As a young woman, I was ignorant to these behaviors being signs of anxiety. I self-medicated with drugs and alcohol, rebellious behavior, etc.
Essentially, I went through my twenties thinking I was smooth sailing, intermittently going on and off anxiety medication. This version of living led me down a disordered eating path that would linger for years and something I am still working through. Instead of engaging in harmful behaviors, I fell victim to the other end of the spectrum: extreme dieting and exercise. Seeking control wherever I could find it (a key component to anxiety). I thought that if a little bit of change in my lifestyle made me feel better, then a lot would too right? So, in an effort to curb my anxiety and feel better, I began bingeing and purging, exercising religiously, and restricting food in my diet.
These habits followed me into my marriage and into motherhood.
As we focus on Maternal Mental Health Week, I find myself reflecting on my mental health journey as a mother. For my journey, my mental health before motherhood laid the foundation for how I would handle the changes that motherhood brought. But I’m hard headed and didn’t listen. It wouldn’t happen to me, right?
Personally, motherhood exacerbated an already extreme situation. Being a self-titled “type-A” and controlling personality was my norm. I thought everyone else was crazy. When my first son was born, I thought the tears, stress, and sense of overwhelm was just my hormones. Frankly, so did my husband. It wasn’t until looking back a couple of years later that I realized I should have reached out for help. In some ways I did. When my husband was away playing army (hi, I’m a military spouse), I was genuinely worried that I would hurt our child who was going through the dreaded four-month-sleep-regression.
I called my mom crying and said “please come and help me. I’m scared I’m going to throw *baby* against a wall”. Thankfully, she booked a ticket and flew across the country right away. By the time she arrived I was feeling so ashamed that instead of being grateful for her being there, I yelled and screamed at her because she wasn’t doing anything right. Y’all, the woman raised 4 children. She was doing it right. But my anxiety was so spiraled out of control, I couldn’t see that she was helping. All I saw was that I was incompetent and couldn’t take care of my baby on my own.
Controlling myself with toxic diets and exercise
In addition to trying to work through the ins and outs of motherhood while battling anxiety, I channeled that anxiety to getting my “body back”. During this time my husband was deployed. So I felt no need to hide the weekly weigh-ins, measurements, and restrictive eating I was doing. I would disguise purging as “being too full”. Sadly, I was also introduced to a toxic MLM at this time and I used their theory of “healthy living” to remove dairy, gluten, corn, and ALL processed foods from my diet. All in the name of “healthy living”.
But what I was really doing was taking my anxiety and controlling the one thing that I could: my weight. The compliments I was getting only fueled this behavior. During this time I felt like I had it all under control and was refusing to take my medication. Convinced I was taking care of my body instead of depriving myself of basic nutrition and compulsively control every corner of my being. If I can’t control motherhood and a deployment, I can control me. Or so I thought.
These behaviors continued until I felt myself return to a baseline where I ditched the restrictive eating and MLM. But only because I had hit my goal (and some INCREDIBLY toxic relationships with an upline). During this time, I felt good about myself. I was no longer compulsively measuring myself. My purging had greatly decreased. I was a smaller size than I had ever been in my life.
It also helps that during this time I went back to school and was starting to dissect my behavior and further recognizing my anxiety (you would think a once therapist and graduate degree in mental health would’ve opened my eyes). But it was learning about the nutrition piece that helped all of this fall into place. I started recognizing my anxiety, naming it, and allowing myself to feel the anxiety instead of control it. And I noticed how I manipulated my relationship with food to drive my anxiety away. I was using food as a weapon against myself.
How the system failed me (and so many others)
When I had my second son, my husband had to go away for a couple of weeks again (thanks Army). While he was gone I found myself exhibiting similar behaviors as I did with my first son. But this time around my behaviors had escalated. I screamed A LOT, sweated, felt overwhelmed, felt like I was a ticking time-bomb. I was easily agitated and quick to snap; felt like I was going to implode at any moment. Thankfully, since I had already lived through this once and knew the cycle I was in, I told my husband when he came home that I needed to get some help. And I was met with love and understanding. It turns out he was noticing the same things.
Unfortunately, modern medicine hasn’t quite jumped onto the mental health band wagon of supporting new moms. Sure, we answer a ten question questionnaire at our 6 week appointment. But does anyone actually pay attention to that? Because I feel that all my doctor was concerned with was what kind of birth control I wanted to get on and make sure I was cleared for sex (because you know, you’re REALLY emotionally ready for sex at 6 weeks). When I reached out to my physician she referred me to a social worker who simply went through the motions.
I didn’t feel like I was heard or my struggles seen. She said I didn’t need therapy and put me on the same dose of Zoloft I took when I was 14. And I must say, my anxiety as a new mother of 2 and military spouse was far bigger than my school anxiety from childhood.
Then Covid-19 happened….And a cross country move.
Like many individuals during this pandemic depression became a very real monster for me. I lost all desire to do anything, was upset that I had gained weight and went back to weighing and measuring myself daily, crying over my body image. I stopped really caring if the needs of my children were met, outside of their basic needs, leaning on my husband for everything.
After we moved depression and anxiety really hit a precipice. I was home alone, in our new city, the boys were going crazy and I completely lost control. I started SCREAMING at them. Telling them to shut-up, be silent, and get far away from me. That implosion that I had felt coming for nearly 20 years, it happened. And it happened at the worst time to these two helpless little boys under the age of 4. These two innocent beings that depend on me for everything. I imploded and they were there to receive the aftermath.
I have never in nearly eight years of marriage called my husband and told him he had to come home from work. That we had an emergency. But I did that day. I am beyond lucky that I have a partner who heard the urgency in my voice and came right home, opened his arms and welcomed me in. I know many women have to go through this alone. He held me while I cried over the guilt of traumatizing the boys. And he had a very blunt conversation with me about getting help.
Depression and anxiety had taken a hold of every area of my life. I was shutting out friends, family, my children, had zero libido, didn’t even want to be touched. In a sense, I was an island. I put up walls and shut everyone out and was drowning myself in my own misery. I was going through the motions of everyday life. Pretending everything was alright when it most definitely wasn’t.
This time when I reached out for help I was lucky to have a doctor who heard me and listened.
I scored a 24/27 for depression and a 21/21 for anxiety. I was immediately referred to a psychologist who gave me her personal number to call if I felt like I was going to harm myself, and followed up the next day. She gave me a number of a therapy office that also did medication management. Within 48 hours I was put on a higher dose of Zoloft to help me until I could get an appointment with medication management. Once I did, this doctor put me on Lexapro and Wellbutrin, with Klonopin as needed for anxiety. I started meeting weekly with her and since Covid-19 has exacerbated everyone’s mental health I was put on the waiting list for therapy.
I’ve been on medication for 6 months now and I can honestly say I haven’t felt this stable in a decade, definitely not since before kids. A few weeks ago my husband looked at me and said “it feels so good to have my wife back”. Damn. That really hit me. I had spent so long getting worse and worse that we didn’t notice until I imploded.
Because of medication I am a better wife, better mother, better daughter, better friend.
Now that I can see the forest through the tress I feel ZERO shame for taking medication and recognizing that I have Major Depressive Disorder and Anxiety. That I have disordered eating habits and body dysmorphia. I also have ZERO shame in shouting from the rooftops that our culture and the perception on women’s mental health, maternal mental health, and the diet culture in this country in incredibly flawed. The outcome of my story could be very different. I know for many women in this country the story doesn’t have the ending that mine does. I also know that I am not alone in this journey.
Sadly, I know that if I hadn’t advocated for myself or had a family member advocate for me I don’t know what would have happened to me or my children. The idea that our healthcare system has not and cannot step forward and provide more services to postpartum women is frankly insulting. Our culture is so quick to want women to have children, job, family, happy marriage that we are left to navigate this on our own. In a country that has erectile dysfunction medication at the ready but can’t do more than one postnatal follow up with a mother is arguably one of the biggest flaws in the mental health/healthcare movement.
Normalizing my story hopefully normalizes yours. You are not alone.
If you feel like you need support please follow the links below:
Military One Source (for my fellow military spouses)