Motherhood & Mental Illness: How Will I Ever Make it Through?

Talking about our deeply personal “issues” can be scary. Launching my story into the blogosphere is one of the more vulnerable things I’ve done.

And so is loving the tiny human I call Milo. In fact, loving my baby boy (who’s definitely more of a toddler now than a baby) is THE absolute most vulnerable thing I have ever done. Or ever will do.

Parenthood is like strapping your heart to the outside of your rib cage, totally exposed. It is knowing that in any moment the child for whom you would literally die could get hurt, feel pain, experience sadness or disappointment or heartache. It is surrendering your control over life and its inevitable tragedies simply because you don’t have a choice.

The tender love of a parent is beautiful in all its rawness, but also terrifying when combined with mental illness. And that is the purpose of this post.

Motherhood, mental illness, and the seemingly impossible question:  How will I ever make it through?

I remember about 6 weeks into my pregnancy the round-the-clock morning sickness hit. And so did the deep, penetrating feelings of despair. I agonized over feelings of inadequacy and fear. I obsessed over worse-case-scenarios that I just “knew” were ahead of me and my baby.  Doing just the simple things became an impossible feat.

I figured my emotional crisis resulted from my physical one. After all, it’s difficult to be cheerful when you’re camped out on the bathroom floor 24-7, puking your guts out. I clung to the hope that as soon as the baby came, the sadness would depart.  

So when that perfect, healthy baby with big eyes and curly dark hair entered my life, I couldn’t figure out why those feelings didn’t just flee. Now don’t get me wrong—I was so happy he was finally here, and I loved him infinitely the moment I laid eyes on him, but those familiar feelings of darkness I’d experienced throughout pregnancy were there, more suffocating than ever.

Like any new mother, I felt overwhelmed with the responsibility of caring for such a small human, so fragile and so helpless—and I felt equally fragile and helpless. Even though anxiety and motherhood go hand in hand, I knew what I was feeling was not normal.

Paralyzing fear bit, and it bit hard, especially at night. My body was so desperate for rest, yet I dreaded falling asleep. I worried something horrible would happen to my baby in the night, particularly SIDS. That became an obsessive worry. I would wake up at least every hour in a panic—heart racing, sweat dripping—and lean over my baby’s bed to confirm he was still alive. I slept with the hall light on every night to illuminate his tiny body so that I could monitor the up-and-down movements of his chest. Nothing, including a sleep monitor, seemed to help. Thoughts that he’d be lifeless the next time I woke up tormented me.

The only thing worse than the nighttime anxiety were the intrusive thoughts that pecked at my mind for what seemed my every waking hour. Horrible, scary images popped into my head—thoughts I absolutely detested, thoughts I’d felt I’d done nothing to deserve. I felt stuck in a cloud of darkness that was slowly smothering me. I’d beat myself up over these haunting thoughts. I blamed myself, even though I’d done nothing to merit them.

It seemed everything around me posed a threat. I hated leaving the house for fear my baby would contract a life-threatening illness. I refused to drive without my husband, because that meant I couldn’t sit next to my baby in the back seat and constantly check that he was still breathing. Even news headlines became toxic. Whenever a disturbing story surfaced, my paranoia peaked. The irrational side of me worried I’d be capable of the monstrosities I read about in the news. I felt like a burden to everyone around me. I began to worry my husband would leave me if I became too much to handle, even though he was so gracious and supportive throughout my struggle. Logically, I knew these fears were irrational, but that’s the thing about mental illness and logic—sometimes the two can’t coexist.

I just felt so…dark. I can’t summon a better adjective. I sought even just a sliver of sunlight from the depths of a dark and lonely ocean.

After almost a month of feeling trapped in my own mind, I contacted my doctor. He diagnosed me with Postpartum Depression and Anxiety and prescribed medication. The medication gradually lifted the blanket of sadness, but the extreme panic and the intrusive thoughts lingered. I just didn’t feel like the diagnosis I’d received was complete.

So I continued to struggle, barely keeping my head above water. My husband encouraged me to finally seek help from a therapist.

About a year after Milo’s birth, I met with a wonderful counselor who identified something profound: Not only did I have the symptoms of Postpartum Depression and Anxiety, I had many of the symptoms of Postpartum OCD.

Postpartum OCD?! I didn’t even know that was a thing! I always associated OCD with excessive hand-washing and episodes of Hoarders, but I was dealing with obsessive thoughts—thoughts that bombarded me and worried me and scared me.

She pointed out that my case of OCD led to anxiety, which led to the feelings of misery and depression. We discussed how the layers and layers of emotional trauma had affected me, and I left that appointment ready to face the underlying problem of Postpartum OCD head-on.

At first I felt total relief; it was nice to finally have a name for what I was experiencing. Discovering the root of the problem that had dictated my life for over a year was liberating. As I researched the disorder, I felt comfort knowing that what I was thinking and feeling was not my fault, but rather some chemical imbalance wreaking havoc on my brain.

Unfortunately, that sense of relief didn’t last long. I began to let my mental illness define me. I felt guilty and ashamed because of my struggle. I felt like a defective mother.

Useless. Incapable. Broken.

That is why I am eternally grateful for a tiny little moment that eased months and months of pain.

One day I was just feeling so tired of it all. The OCD was so demanding, so emotionally draining, and I felt crushed by the load I was carrying. I began playing the “Why me?” game in my head for the 1,000th time. I yearned to feel like myself again. I wanted to be the optimistic, motivated girl I once knew, not the panicky, paralyzed mom with a stack of postpartum illnesses blackening her personal resume. I wanted out.

Then I felt this all-encompassing feeling of love from on high—so strong it was almost palpable—and I felt the words so clearly, Yes, those things might be a part of you right now, but first and foremost I need you to know that you are a Child of God.

That feeling from my Father in Heaven became the catalyst to true and continual healing. I began to call upon Heaven more intensely. I spoke openly about my struggles with Heavenly Father and turned to my lifelines—my infinitely patient husband and my loving mom. I stopped giving the intrusive thoughts so much power and started attaching them to a figurative balloon and let each float away.

Most importantly, I relied on Christ in an unprecedented way. I envisioned Him by my side, helping me fulfill the tasks before me, helping me fight the battles I was too exhausted to face alone. I felt His tangible presence as I took things one day at a time, sometimes one hour at a time.

There are days when I wish Heavenly Father would just “uninstall” the OCD from my mind, and thus the accompanying anxiety. And then there are days where I feel truly humbled, even grateful, for this trial. The promise found in Ether 12:27—that our weaknesses can be made into strengths through Christ—has come alive for me.

I see others and their unique trials with more compassion. I have connected with individuals I might not have otherwise. I don’t take Milo or the opportunity to be his mother for granted. Daily I thank my Father for giving me a piece of His heaven by sending Milo to me, despite my imperfections, weaknesses, and shortcomings.

And, oh, Milo is so gracious and forgiving of those shortcomings. He trusts deeply, radiates happiness, and heals my soul with his perfect spirit and bright smile. He brings breathtaking joy to my life.

One of the greatest blessings of this trial is the way it has transformed my relationship with the Savior. I trust Him. I know Him. I have learned that He is unfailingly true to His promise, “I will not leave you comfortless.” I have found Christ in my own personal Gethsemane. I’ve come to know that my hardship is not beyond His reach, that I am not beyond His reach. With outstretched arms and scarred hands, He pulls me from the mire of despair.

Again.

And again.

And again.

Said President Nelson, “In a coming day, you will present yourself before the Savior. You will be overwhelmed to the point of tears to be in His holy presence. You will struggle to find words to thank Him for…healing you from the injuries and injustices of this life. You will thank Him for strengthening you to do the impossible, for turning your weaknesses into strengths, and for making it possible for you to live with Him and your family forever.”

So to those who may be asking the same question I once did of How will I ever make it through this?, I say this:  The answer is Christ. He stands ready to help and to heal, to soothe and to strengthen. Whatever your own “impossible” might me, Christ has the power to help you conquer it.

I am so indescribably thankful for Him. I am also thankful for an infinitely loving Father in Heaven who gave His perfect Son so that I can be with mine forever.

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