I wrote this piece tonight as I thought about what happened this past weekend in Texas. It is a very long piece. Much of the piece is ok to read but there is a paragraph quite a ways down in which I discuss some rather graphic thoughts I had about my own children back when I was in the grips of Postpartum Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. If you are still fragile, you may not want to read the entire piece. And if you need help and are unsure where to find it, please start with Postpartum Support International. They will get you pointed in the right direction. They will not judge, they will not blame, they WILL take good care of you and give you a compassionate shoulder on which to lean as you recover.
In today’s society, news smacks you in the face before it’s even managed to hit the snooze button. By the time an event is fully engaged in the morning commute to the office, many of us have already shared our opinions about what it had for breakfast – how it was prepared, what the choice of bacon v. veggie protein substitute says about it, and why the pinstripe power suit was chosen over sweats for the day. We wax poetic about the potential fall-out of the course taken, what may have led up to the formation of said course, and continue to share these thoughts with each other in a show of solidarity and human curiosity. We do all of this irregardless of our intimate knowledge of said event. Many of us don’t give a second thought to this habit because it’s become so ingrained in our culture, even since elementary school. Remember playing Telephone? What the last person called out almost never was what the first person said, was it?
Every so often there is an event so horrific we’d rather it not be discussed or it gets twisted somewhere along the line. It may start out as the picture of perceived perfection but by the time the tale escapes, it’s got disheveled hair, bloodshot eyes, frayed flannel shirt, stained jeans, ripped shoes and the stench of life wafting over at us from the dusty corner of the room. We’d much rather turn to each other or any other direction but towards this horrible aberration crouching in the vestibule of our day. It sways back and forth as it begs for attention. Many times we rush to judgment. Disgust fills our hearts with judgment quickly following. Often we fail to even attempt to understand or develop compassion. What made her this way? Or worse – could THIS happen to us? Out of fear we explain away her existence. We justify her behavior and experience with ignorance and labels so sensational they could only belong to other people – never to us. Never to us, right?
Until it does. Until we awaken one day with disheveled hair, bloodshot eyes and a pile of frayed and filthy clothes in the corner. Suddenly discover we are the aberration in the corner. What then? Where do we turn? What do we do? How do we rejoin society, shed the aberration mask now super-glued to our psyche? How do we help those who find themselves trapped in the same vestibule after us to escape as well?
We slowly build scaffolding around ourselves as we heal. If we are fortunate, we are able to lean on family, qualified and understanding professional caregivers, peers and others. And once we have become strong enough we begin to knock the scaffolding down. Once the dust has cleared after the scaffolding has been removed, we fling open our newly renovated doors to shelter those who are just beginning to realize they too, need scaffolding. We provide the necessary hardware – support, compassion, education. As they begin to heal they find the same empowering passion exists inside themselves as well. So it spreads as they too, break free from their scaffolding to fling open their newly painted doors to shelter others as well, all of us paying forward the compassion and knowledge we received when we were at our worst.
Even with this process there is mourning. Mourning of the loss of innocent souls, mourning those who were not fortunate like us to find shelter in the storm. Mourning that maybe we didn’t do enough to protect those around us.
There is also anger. Anger at the loss of innocent souls, anger that a safe harbor was not provided, anger that not enough was done to protect those we love the most.
Then there is confusion. Confusion over why this happened. Confusion over what went wrong, what could have prevented this horrific tragedy. Confusion as the details are sensationalized as the story is repeated over and over.
And last but not least, there is blame. Blame pointed at the doctors who shouldn’t have let her out of the hospital. Blame pointed at the family for not recognizing the gravity of the situation. Blame, blame, blame.
In the end, we were all failed. We were failed because we are all flawed. We are human. In the throes of tragedy and chaos, we are all tossed about in a rough sea, struggling to find our True North. Each of us has a different True North. Each of us is not equipped to direct others to find their True North. While we may have friends to help us on our journey, there are stretches we must tread alone. These stretches are made easier by the travels of those who have gone before us – especially if they leave comforting words of wisdom behind to guide us.
We may never understand why Otty Sanchez did what she did. We may never fully understand the aberration crouched in the corner. But there is absolutely no reason we can’t reach out to her and show her some compassion. Her family has suffered a tragic loss. An infant brutally murdered by his own mother who then tried to harm herself. I cannot begin to imagine the whirlwind of emotions swirling about this family as they move forward and process the events which unfolded this past Sunday. Events which left even hardened law enforcement officials nearly unable to process the crime scene. Events which left me wanting to to put on blinders. Yet here we are.
Some point. Some judge. Some are eager to throw her to the wolves. Some dissect her situation with an authoritative voice. Others continue on their own journeys, ignoring the aberration in the corner, even if she reaches out desperately for their aid.
Some are willing to reach out to offer compassion, understanding, help.
And each one of us is not wrong in our initial reaction. When an aberration occurs we react from a very visceral and primal place. Our attitudes are deeply rooted in the history of humanity, planted firmly within lessons handed down from generation to generation. We often do not have a choice in our initial reaction. However; we have a choice in what we choose to do with this reaction.
We can choose to let this reaction destroy us and build hatred in our hearts or we can allow this reaction to propel us into compassionate action. Action that will help to prevent this aberration from occurring over and over again. This is the path I have chosen. Many others have also chosen this path. (Or as some of them would tell you – the path CHOSE them!) Regardless, myself and those on this path with me believe deeply in compassion, respecting the journey of others, know the importance of social support and understand the importance of professional education in relation to Postpartum Mood & Anxiety Disorders.
We are not perfect. None of us are. But as we work together we can heal those imperfections. The key is to work tirelessly together towards a common goal encompassing knowledge, awareness, compassion and respect for the journey each and every woman and family embarks upon as they grow our great country. No family deserves to be sent down the dark path of Postpartum Mood & Anxiety Disorders without a road map of support. No family deserves to feel the heartache and horror Otty Sanchez’ family must be feeling right now. NO FAMILY should have to suffer this when there is hope. When there is knowledge. Where there is such a strong potential for light and happy endings.
So I ask – with all the knowledge available today, why are we still stuck here? Stuck in the dark ages of ignorance about Postpartum Disorders? Why are there people still denying that mothers struggle with Postpartum Mood Disorders? Trying to convince the masses that Postpartum Mood Disorders have been cooked up by the Pharmaceutical Industry? Hippocrates first wrote about Mood Disorders and Moms way back in 400 B.C. Yes, 400 B.C., well before any industry had been started. Documented episodes of “Milk fever” and maternal madness continue throughout history – before and after the beginnings of the Pharmaceutical industry.
What will it take for us to wake up? If not now, when?
How many more mothers, infants, and families must be destroyed before we come to our senses? Motherhood has been shamelessly turned into a factory process in this country. Birth is unnecessarily medicalized. Recovery is anticipated to be swift as we expect new moms to rip themselves from their infants at a mere six weeks postpartum. After nine months of tremendous change and all we get is 6 weeks to recover? All is well we expect to hear! But what if all is not well? What if they are guilt ridden? What if they truly are depressed? What if they cannot function? What if they are afraid to share these feelings for fear of the stigma? For fear of judgment? For fear of ignorance or pill shoving physicians who won’t explore the potential of physical underlying causes of these negative emotions such as anemia or hypothyroidism/hyperthyroidism? For fear of shaming their family? For fear of being told to just suck it up or that only the weak cry?
I started to wake up five years ago as I imagined myself stabbing my daughter because I wondered what it would feel like to drive a knife into her tiny body (and no, I was not medicated when I had these thoughts). I fully awoke three years ago as I found myself daydreaming about smothering my daughters, convinced it would all be so much easier if they were just gone. Instead, I crawled into bed and called my husband. I ended up hospitalized. From that point on, my eyes were open. Suddenly my life slid into place much like a solved Rubik’s Cube. I planted my feet, turned, and fought the beast.
Today I stand with arms constantly stretched back to reach out to those who now find themselves desperately struggling to make sense of the negative emotions rushing around them after the birth of a child. I wake each and every day with the goal of empowering at least ONE woman to not allow those around her to mislead her towards believing she is at fault and should just duck her head down as she lives her life in misery.
Please, at the very least, familiarize yourself with the following if you or someone you love is pregnant or postpartum:
KNOW the warning signs of Postpartum Psychosis.
KNOW the signs and symptoms of all the Postpartum Mood & Anxiety Disorders.
DISCUSS what to do if signs and symptoms begin to occur. Recruit family members and friends to be on call to help with childcare, meal preparation and household chores if needed.
TALK with your care provider about actions to be taken once signs and symptoms have been identified.
HAVE a plan in place!
EDUCATE your family and friends about Postpartum Mood & Anxiety Disorders. Knowledge is empowering.
Above all, remember that with the birth of a new baby comes the birth of new parents. Yes, they are grown but now they have suddenly been thrust forth into the hardest job they’ll ever have. The learning curve is vicious. They’re now on-call all the time. These new parents need training. They need 24-7 tech support. They need to know there’s someone there they can rely on when they need it most.
So please, check in with those you know with small children. Ask if there’s anything they need. If there’s anything they need to talk about. Offer to take the kids so they can go to a movie, out to dinner, or just stay in to enjoy some much needed silence or catch up on sleep.
Bring back social support. Share your knowledge. Bring back the village. It’s so desperately needed.