From the Heart

valentine-1Our little family has been through a few major holidays now, but for some reason Valentine’s Day struck me differently. We’re a family. A family of three. And I am the Mom! I’m the front line; it’s up to me to make these moments Pinterest worthy. So, what did I do? I did what any new Mom would do. I panicked and ran out to Target, with plenty of good company as it turned out. As I wandered around trying to conjure up some lovey ideas, I found myself feeling lost and unwittingly cringing at the card aisle. To say it was bustling would be an understatement. People with armloads of candy, toys, stuffed animals, and heart-adorned attire were hovering, trying to find something with just the right words. Being judgy had no place on my to-do list, so I quickly asked myself why I felt critical. What’s so wrong with embracing Valentine’s Day and treating your loved ones to some extra delights? Nothing. But I realized, for me, honoring and celebrating the love in our family meant creating a few cozy, heartfelt traditions that our daughter will always remember.

After reading an inspiring article from Aha! Parenting, our first family Valentine’s Day took shape. It began with homemade Valentines for each of us—construction paper, scalloped scissors, fancy doilies, and our own words from the heart. We’ll save these Valentines and decorate our home with them each year.

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I got up early to make our favorite whole wheat banana pancakes for breakfast, complete with strawberries and a few festive M&Ms. The homemade Valentines welcomed us to our seats. We savored the leisurely meal, snuck a few extra M&Ms, and dined over a love-themed Spotify playlist—with everything from Lady Gaga to Huey Lewis and the News.

We spread some extra love in the world by donating non-perishables to a food pantry with the help of some other local families. In the future, my heart is set on finding a way to give back to those affected by mental illness over the holidays.

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And finally, my husband gave me the best Valentine’s day gift of all: the gift of time for a solo, midday run…such a precious commodity in this mom’s world!

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When I trotted back through our front door, I was greeted by the four pictures in our hallway and realized they tell quite the love story. In the first one, my husband is holding me at the exact spot we became a couple 19 years ago—at a high school indoor track meet. (Running truly is a common thread in the most important moments in my life!) In the second, we’re plopped down together in a snow drift outside the first home we bought. The third picture is a close up of our daughter, her eyes twinkling with joy as she plays laying down on a blanket. The final picture was taken at Christmas, with the three of us huddled in front of our glowing tree. It’s far from perfection—one sock is missing, one hand is waving in a blur, and we’re over-smiling because it was the hundredth attempt to get one decent family photo. But that’s exactly what I love about it. It’s the real us.

Love brought us together.
Love gave me a reason to fight through my illness.
Love conquered fear about having a family.
Love anchors us through trials—momentous and trivial.

My heart is full.

My Recovery Story – Part II

Shadows from the umbrella danced on my legs while I hid in plain sight. I watched the world go on from my lounge chair by the pool, wishing I could melt into the seething white cement without anyone noticing. I didn’t check my watch; I had no interest in knowing how long I had been there. Playful shrieks floated up from the pool while a woman walked by with her newborn. The tiny baby nestled in her arms as she watched her other children launch into cannonballs from the side of the pool.

She beamed.
I silently wept.

My mind buzzed with relentless agitation and raged against the unfairness. I would never know that kind of joy. All I could do was park myself within arm’s reach of humanity, cry, and wait for Nortriptyline to quietly breathe life back into my ravaged brain. This was my second time fighting Major Depression.

Four months prior, I was stable—stable to the point that my doctor, husband, and I decided I could try weaning off my antidepressant. It had been four years since I was first diagnosed and went into remission, and I had worked hard to maintain my wellness. Quite honestly, I had worked hard to even like myself again. Now, we dreamed of moving on and starting a family. My goal was to accomplish this without Nortriptyline, and I hoped I was healed to the point I wouldn’t have to take it again.

I weaned very gradually over four months, relapsed at the end, and had to go back on my medication—for good. The suffering was real: extreme side effects from starting the medicine again, depression itself, and thinking I would never become a mom. And so, I spent many hours sitting next to that neighborhood pool with the warm sunshine wrapping itself around me. It was the closest thing I had to hope.

My recovery was won in small steps over time. I made the commitment to take Nortriptyline every day and keep regular appointments with my psychiatrist and psychologist. I let go of the idea that it wasn’t natural to take daily medication to be myself, and instead appreciated it for the freedom it gave me to be my best self.

I confronted my fears about taking an antidepressant during pregnancy, passing on depression, and being a good mother. This involved finding the best mental health care in our region and seeking a consultation from a maternal-fetal health expert. In my case, there were very few risks. It would not be considered a high-risk pregnancy. Truly believing I was fit to be a mom took longer, but therapy helped me separate the facts from my fears. On my good days, I would visualize myself in the hospital delivery room with my husband, holding our newborn for the very first time. On the challenging days, I would carefully tuck that dream in the back of my mind. I placed it out of sight so I wouldn’t dwell on what I didn’t have, knowing that I could easily summon it when I was ready to move forward again.

I realized that I would be a better mom for having battled depression. The simple acts of getting out of bed each morning and giving a good morning kiss to my newest love would not be taken for granted. I’d have more compassion for everything from stubbed toes to moody streaks and broken hearts. Depression has given me patience, which would certainly come in handy while pacifying tantrums and waiting for those tiny fingers to pick up every last Cheerio. I’ve undoubtedly gained the humility to ask for help at the first sign of needing it. I figured if I had the stamina and determination to survive being secretly unwell, I could be a tremendously capable mom when feeling well with full support.

Was I ready to become a mom despite depression? The final answer came to me on a wintry Saturday morning run in 2015. My footprints blazed the trail in the pristine snow, and ice glistened on the bare tree branches overhead. Playful shrieks floated up from a nearby hill where families had gathered to sled. Parents chatted on the hilltop while their bundled children flew down the slope with excitement.

They beamed.
So did I.

I knew that I was ready to share the beauty of life with our children—as perfectly imperfect as life may be.

~Sixteen months later~

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My Recovery Story – Part I

One of the most powerful moments in my life was when my antidepressant first started working. I was sitting next to a first-grade student I was tutoring, trying to figure out my next teaching move and waiting for depression to taunt me as usual- “You can’t help him. You’re incompetent. You’re worthless. Why are you even here?” But instead of hearing depression’s voice, I heard my own for the first time in years. “You can do this. You can figure this out. You’re right where you should be and you’re going to be okay.”

I was 26 years old when major depression overpowered me for the first time. It had been pushing me around for years, but now, I felt weakened to the point that I couldn’t push back.  I had been in therapy for a year, but I could barely get myself out of bed in the morning and had to blow-dry my hair hunched over our bathroom rug because I felt so sick to my stomach. I cried relentlessly the moment I came home from work each day—the barrage of negative thoughts had to be released. I constantly beat myself up, felt terrified of being judged, and could no longer focus on improving. It kept getting worse. As much as medication scared me, it was now a risk I was willing to take.

The first psychiatrist I saw prescribed me Zoloft and recommended slowly building up to a therapeutic dose. Within a few days, it became clear that even a small amount of Zoloft made me much worse. I couldn’t eat or sleep and cycled through feelings of stability and extreme agitation every 12 hours. The doctor told me to stop taking the medicine immediately and that he no longer felt that antidepressants were right for me. “You should try things other than medication,” he said, as I stared at him in disbelief. I had finally taken the leap to help myself and lost every shard of wellbeing in the process.  I didn’t think I could go on. Fortunately, over the course of the next six weeks my husband helped me switch doctors, try a different class of antidepressants (tricyclics), and start cognitive behavioral therapy twice a week until I began feeling better. It saved my life.

One of the most important realizations I made in therapy after this episode was that feelings aren’t facts. After letting depression run unchecked for 10 years, I felt my distorted thoughts were true—that I was inherently a miserable, unlovable, unintelligent, incapable person. Therapy helped me learn that what I thought were personality traits were actually symptoms of depression and social anxiety. Over time, the combination of medication and therapy changed my self-talk and allowed me to approach my thoughts more mindfully.

In the face of mental illness, I have earned my Master’s degree, specialized in early literacy, and challenged myself to keep improving in my career. I have adjusted to moves from Virginia to North Carolina and Pennsylvania with my husband of 10 years, and focused on building friendships—old and new. I’ve finished 3 marathons and I’m signed up for my 18th half marathon. I am immensely grateful I had the chance to plan a healthy pregnancy and deliver a healthy baby girl in April 2016. My illness is something I actively manage each day; it’s a marathon fraught with peaks and valleys. But I consider my recovery journey to be one of my greatest unsung achievements in life. I have braved major depression, social anxiety, and severe reactions to antidepressants, one step at a time. Hills inevitably loom in the distance, but I know I will rise to meet them.

Stride On,
S