Recently, I took a step out of my comfort zone and did something I never would have imagined myself doing – I joined other Atlanta-area PMAD survivors and climbed Stone Mountain as part of Climb Out of the Darkness. On one hand, the experience was sweaty and unpleasant (to say I’m not the outdoorsy type is putting things mildly) – but it was also immensely satisfying to be with a group of moms and supporters who get it. I climbed a bit more than half of the way up the mountain before realizing I had hit my limit for the day, and came back down, feeling tired, a bit yucky, but most of all, proud. And, always one to stretch a metaphor to its limit, I saw that this was a perfect encapsulation of my experience as a PMAD survivor.
The metaphor of “climbing out” is obvious enough. But what about the fact that I didn’t go all the way to the top? I am my own worst critic, and it would be easy for me to see this as failure. But not only is that not true, it’s simplistic. My decision to stop climbing and go back down did not represent a descent back into the darkness of PPD – rather, it was a shining example of me listening to my body, honoring my limits, checking my expectations, and taking pride in my accomplishments. This has been the greatest lesson I have taken from my experience with severe postpartum depression and anxiety.
My son turned two years old a few short weeks ago. As I reflect back on the past two years, I see this lesson again and again. My therapist once told me, “You can’t compare yourself to others. You can only compare yourself to yourself.” Throughout a tumultuous time this summer, of buying a new house, moving, and renting our old house, I have repeatedly come back to her words. I marvel at how well I have handled these upheavals. A year ago, and certainly two years ago, I could not have comprehended undertaking something as massive as a move with my mental health intact. There have been setbacks along the way, as the stress of the transition has started to wear on me, and there have been a few days when I’ve forgotten to take my medication and felt the effects. But as I take the time to reflect on my therapist’s words, and with the perspective of two years, I see that the setbacks are temporary, rather than an existence I’m doomed to live forever, as I once believed.
I also know that I have a toolkit full of tools I can use when setbacks arise. Simply having perspective is a big part of this toolkit – I can, as my therapist has said, “look at the evidence.” I can see clearly that I have been through hell and back. I have lived through it, and if I can survive that, I can survive anything. I know that I can call my therapist or psychiatrist if I feel I need a change in coping techniques or medication. I know the importance of being well balanced and prioritizing my own needs. And I now have the courage to put my energy where it will be most useful, and let go of things that are not helping.
If there is one gift I could give a new mom suffering from a PMAD, it would be this perspective. Two years ago, I couldn’t see past the next minute, and I was sure I was doomed to be mired in this hellish reality forever.
I have come out the other side. But what I have also learned is, I am still climbing. You don’t wake up one day completely released from the experience of living through a PMAD. It changes you forever; it has certainly changed me. And although I would not wish a PMAD on my worst enemy, I can say with no hyperbole that it has changed me 100% for the better. I am more patient, with myself and with others. I communicate better. I am more flexible and willing to make changes when something isn’t working. I work hard to meet the needs of my body, mind, and soul, and acknowledge that those needs change. I see that there are many paths to wellness. I have become very, very good at tuning out the voices that tell me I’m doing things wrong – because all that matters is that I’m doing what’s best for my family and my situation.
May Day, the day of my son’s birth, traditionally has been a holiday celebrating life, growth, and rebirth. For me, it will always be a time to reflect on the day my life changed forever – and to acknowledge that I am always, always, still climbing. Amber Rhea wears many hats: full-time grad student, working part-time and proudly mothering an energetic little boy who was born in May 2011. She is a survivor of postpartum depression and anxiety and feels strongly about raising awareness of these conditions and increasing support for moms in the Atlanta area.