I got a new pair of glasses. Suddenly, the world is super clear. I keep looking around marveling at all I can see, the distinctness of colors and edges. Suddenly, there is focus. I didn’t realize until now how blurred my seeing used to be.
It’s kind of like depression.
Many women with whom I work struggle with depression. They often realize it after they emerge. When in a depression, the blurry fog tainting things feels like reality. Beliefs just under the surface color your experience. Beliefs like:
This is the way it is. It won’t ever change.
Why try? It won’t make a difference.
I should be better. If I just tried harder, I wouldn’t feel this way.
Other people are functioning – and thriving – so if I’m not, it must be my fault.
There are all kinds of environmental stressors that can trigger depression: work stress, losing a job, moving, divorce or marital difficulties, seasonal changes (lack of light during the winter months), having baby. Here are two surprising ones: recovery from an eating disorder and planning for a wedding. Yep. Even “positive” changes in one’s life can trigger a mood shift and/or a full-blown mood disorder.
Change is scary. Even the “good” changes! And if you have a temperament that tends toward “turtle-ness” (risk-averse, anxious, cautious, slow to warm up) then depression can emerge to “help.” Depression can help slow you down when parts of you are afraid of moving quickly. Depression can help you feel “grounded” when you feel “out of control.” Depression can mute anger or make it feel less scary. Depression can provide a source of constancy or familiarity, when it felt as if everything else is changing.
But what are the “glasses” for depression?
Just in case you think I am advocating for depression, I’m not. I am aware that depression signals something (or many things) need attention, need tending. Let’s look at some of the tools, if you are struggling with depression, that may help.
Meditation is a simple (but not always easy) tool that can assist in bringing compassion and grounding to parts of you that are afraid, angry, or overwhelmed. It can help slow down the anxious thoughts. It can help “turtles” navigate change with more ease. It can provide a tiny bit of distance away from depressive thoughts of things always being like this or things that are uncomfortable or not ok being my fault. The compassionately objective voice that can emerge in meditation might say something like:
“Huh. Have things always been like this? I can see a bigger picture…”
I can feel your struggle right now and there is nothing wrong with you.
I can see a part of you that is hurt. It might help you to tend to, and speak up for, that part.
Instead of a cutting off or lifting away from the experience of depression, meditation can assist in being with it from a larger space. It can help you not get swallowed up by it. It can be the “new pair of glasses” that brings clarity to the blurry-ness. It can help you see a bigger picture, and personalize less. It can gently place you back in the experience of being human rather than the suffering of humanity being “my fault.”
I am not a Psychiatrist. I do not prescribe antidepressants. I do know that many of the women I see are hard-working, conscientious, sensitive beings that believe they “should” be able to “just get over” depression or anxiety without medication. Shame and stigma color their vision. They believe that they should just be able to function and thrive by “eating the right food” (that is a whole other blog, but let’s just say for the record, that you are not “bad,” “dirty,” “clean,” or “good” for eating or not eating any particular food), “doing the right spiritual practice,” and working super extra hard. They compare-and-despair what they are feeling on the inside, to sleek, put-together look of other people’s outsides. They think there is something inherently wrong with them. They think they “shouldn’t” need glasses. They “should” be able to just see!
I’m here to tell you that no matter how hard I worked at being good enough, or eating the “right” food, my eyesight did not get better without glasses.
Just in case you think I am pushing antidepressant medication, I am not. Medication, like meditation, is a tool in the recovery tool box. Some people choose to use this tool and some do not. I work with women who make many different choices in this area. I am erring on the side of offering medication as a tool to – hopefully – offer a stigma free zone for people who struggle with depression to make a choice. There is no right answer for everyone. There is the right answer for you, at the right time for you. If you are considering medication, you will need to explore that question with your doctor.
Important caveat: If you are considering medication for depression, and you also have an eating disorder or are a new mom, it is wise to see a psychiatrist who specializes in those areas. There are particular needs for women recovering from eating disorders (ex awareness around how medication can affect appetite and weight, risk of seizures with certain medications if you have a history of purging) and perinatal mood disorders (ex awareness around safety of different medications during pregnancy, postpartum, and breast-feeding) that your doctor needs to have in mind.
I offer you the possibility of clarity. As it says in A Course In Miracles, a miracle is a shift in perception. If you are struggling with depression, may you find, and put on, your new pair of glasses. May you see that hope is possible. May you put one foot in front of the other (or tuck them into seated meditation position) and keep looking for a compassionate space inside yourself. May you find exactly the right therapist and tribe of friends that treat you with compassion when you forget. May you feel that change is possible and you are enough. It is. You are.
I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure
the darkness for it shows me the stars.
We are in a dark time of the year. There is a reason why there has always been a light-in-the-darkness time, and not just for those needing light in recovering from depression. Historically, in an agricultural society, December was a time when the harvest was done and therefore it was a time to rest, turn inward and reflect. With the days being darker, and Winter Solstice being the shortest day of the year, bringing and celebrating light is a natural response to, well, not going mad in the darkness. We need light. Not only does the vitamin D literally stave off depression, but symbolically we need to know there is light in the dark.
One theory of the origins of December 25 as the date chosen for the birth of Jesus is that it was originally the pagan festival in Rome celebrating “the birth of the unconquered sun,” celebrating the sun-god and the solstice. Hanukkah is also known as “the Festival of Lights,” Kwanzaa ritual include lighting special candle holders called kinaras, and in the December Hindu festival Pancha Ganapati, a shrine with Ganesha (the Hindu elephant god who clears away obstacles) is lit. Shabe Yaldā or Shabe Chelle, held on the Winter solstice, isan Iranian festival celebrating the victory of light and goodness over darkness and evil, and Chahar Shanbeh Sure, the Iranian “festival of Fire” celebrates light over darkness on the last Tuesday night of the year.
“People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.”
-Elizabeth Kubler Ross
For recovering people, this can be particularly challenging to remember the light: the light of hope, the light of “this too, shall pass,” the light of love. It can be difficult to remember you have an inner light to which you can listen.
There is a lot to be concerned with in the world right now. So much suffering. Holding the light of hope can be hard. So many religions and cultures have this light in the darkness in their symbolism for this very reason. It is a human need; an archetypal commonality we share. Remember that you are only responsible for your light, your candle in the darkness. Light your candle. Revisit, hold onto, re-light this light. In the words of Anne Frank,
“Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.”
Light your candle. The world needs it. The world needs you.
The holidays can be hard. They can be especially difficult for people recovering from disordered eating, alcoholism, depression, or anxiety. The intention of this blog is to help you be a bit more fierce with your own self-care and a bit more compassionate with yourself and others. This is not a list to use to beat up on yourself for not doing enough or being imperfect! May it be helpful, useful, and ease some of your suffering during this time.
Try not to let yourself get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. Getting too tired, hungry/hypoglycemic, resentful, or isolating is a recipe for addictive behaviors and/or depression. Imagine yourself to be a little one (this will not be hard for you parents to imagine) who needs regular meals and snacks, regular emotional understanding, and regular sleep. If little ones get too tired/hungry/emotionally not heard, there will be meltdowns. Be a kind parent to yourself. Pack a self-care bag with protein snacks, water, get to bed on time, make plans with friends and/or providers that “get” you so you can feel nourished and grounded. Practice what a friend of mine calls “aggressive self-care.”
2. Keep 1 Thing Constant
Choose one thing – morning meditation, weekly support group, your meal plan, sobriety, journaling, daily inspirational reading. Whatever it is, just keep coming back to this.
A Word About Kindness and Self-Compassion
The intention here is to help you be a bit more fierce with your own self-care and a bit more compassionate with yourself and others… not to beat up on yourself for not doing enough or being imperfect. So if you HAVEN’T kept one thing constant, just restart it. And when you notice you haven’t kept your thing – whatever your thing is that keeps you grounded and sane – constant (We all fall off the wagon on this. It is part of being included in humanity.), notice with kindness and compassion. Imagine you are a puppy. Gently pick yourself up from the place where you are being unkind to yourself and bring yourself back to the place where you are being kind. Gently bring yourself back to the thing that helps you. Just keep coming back.
We all know how easy this was in our former lives. Just hop in! At any time! With no interruptions and for as long as you want! This is no longer the case. However, a shower can make a world of difference. It is actually one of the main action steps I encourage not only new moms, but also clients recovering from depression to take. Cleaning your body helps your mind. It has the capacity to wash away some of the sleep deprivation and frustration. And it has the added benefit of cleaning away stinky-ness having old milk, snot, and poo that your little one may have generously shared. For at least one moment, your body can be clean, and all your own.
Don’t stop reading yet! I know, if one more person tells you “sleep when the baby sleeps,” you are going to punch them. So I’m not going to tell you that. However, I want to encourage you to carve out in whatever way works for you and your family, a good chunk of sleep for yourself. There is a reason why sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture. Sleep deprivation can cause difficulties in concentrating, irritability, problems with reading, speaking, and an increase in appetite. If the deprivation continues, disorientation, visual hallucinations, social withdrawal and/or challenges, memory lapses, and breaks in reality occur.[i] One of the main treatments for moms recovering from perinatal mood disorders (anxiety, depression, psychosis), along with therapy and medication, is sleep. And the sleep needs to be for prolonged period of uninterrupted time. (Disrupted sleep is as bad as no sleep – more on this
in upcoming sleep blog).
Here some ideas: hire a night doula, have your partner or grandma take over night feedings for one night, ask your partner to do the middle-of-the-night feeds, or do modified sleep training. Preserve and protect your sleep, however you can. Don’t succumb to the temptation for late night Facebook/Online shopping/Great-ideas-planning-your-new-business-vnture-as-a-mommypreneur. If these are still appealing when you are rested, you will know they are coming from a true need. Otherwise, it’s adrenaline-fueled exhaustion that would be better fed with restoring your sleep.
Did you know that vitamin D is one of the best antidepressant vitamins? Low vitamin D has been linked not only with postpartum depression for the mother[ii] but also increased risk of eating disorders in female offspring.[iii] Getting out of the house can be one of the best ways to bring new perspective to what can feel like drudgery of new motherhood. So pack up all your new accoutrements – diaper bag, pacifiers, bottles, snacks, diapers, etc.- and get out into the sun. It may just be to walk around the block. It may be an adventure like getting to the playground or the coffee shop. You may even coordinate this adventure with another new mom, which leads to the next tip…
It is a recent cultural phenomenon that moms are trying to care for their babies alone, at home, by themselves without a “village” of support. This used to be the extended family, or way, way back in human experience, the tribe. Humans thrive on attachment. Without it, we wither. There is no wrong way to have support as a new mom, other than to not have support as a new mom. Your support could be a mom’s group. It could be your partner. It could be your therapist. It could be YOUR mom. It could be your non-mom friend. It could be your friend who is also a mom. It could be your doula, lactation consultant, or mother-in-law. It could be all of these or some combination of these. But having none of these is a recipe for trying to be Supermom (who doesn’t exist, and lives in the isolated perfectionist imaginations of moms who have no support), which can to Postpartum Depression. I love this quote from Dr. Sue Johnson, the founder of emotionally focused therapy:
“Being the “best you can be” is really only possible when you are deeply connected to another. Splendid isolation is for planets, not people.”
If you are providing attachment to your new little one, YOU need to be strongly attached.
Trying to hold, provide food, and give emotional sustenance to your baby without support yourself is like being a tree without roots. You will fall over, you will wilt, you will not thrive. An then this will happen to your baby, too… It is not only okay, but also essential that you have support! Put on your oxygen masks first, Mama.
- Spiritual practice
Last but not least, having a mindfulness practice can be a helpful tool for tolerating the distress and practicing acceptance with all the learnings of new parenthood. This may be 5 minutes of meditation per day. Or it may be one bite of mindful eating during a lunch otherwise filled with Cheerios being thrown on the floor. It may be a yoga class or writing 1 page in your journal every day. You could practice deep breathing every time you hear your baby cry and your stomach tenses up with anxiety or discomfort. For new moms, it is important to Keep It Simple. Remember: the Buddha was NOT a parent when he became enlightened. Unlike him, you don’t have seven days to sit under a tree uninterrupted. You may have seven minutes. Take it. A good practice is to breath in the suffering of all new moms all around the earth and breathe out loving-kindness to all the new moms all around the earth. I used this practice when I was a new mom. It made me feel so much less alone at 3am.
You are not alone, Mama. Keep going. Keep practicing any and all of these self-care practices as much as you can for as long as it takes. You are NOT allowed to use this blog to beat up on yourself for what you are not doing. If you are doing that, stop now. Thousands of other moms are struggling right along with you, trying to sleep, shower, get support, see the sunshine, and do spiritual practice! Try, to the best of your ability one moment at a time, to find the kind mother inside yourself for yourself. This kindness is where the real strength of motherhood is: it is this place that is rooted and flexible, fierce and tender. It is the one that defends her right to practice her own self-care as a way to then be able to care for others. It is the mother putting her own oxygen mask on first. In the words of Sue Monk Kidd:
“You have to find a mother inside yourself. We all do. Even if we already have a mother, we still have to find this part of ourselves inside.”
You can do it mama. If you can’t find her, keep looking. You may need to grow your capacity to be a good mom to yourself along with learning to be a good one to your baby. That is okay. She is there, waiting for you to feed, nurture, forgive, and grow her. Oh, and shower her, too!
Linda Shanti McCabe is a Mom and Licensed Clinical Psychologist in San Francisco.As always, this blog is written to provide experience, inspiration, and hope – not to provide psychological treatment. If you are struggling with a perinatal mood disorder, a good resource is Postpartum Support International.
All original art images copyright Linda Shanti McCabe
[i] Bulkeley, Kelly, “Why Sleep Deprivation is Torture” Psychology Today, December 15, 2014.
[ii] Robinson et al. Low maternal serum vitamin D during pregnancy and the risk for postpartum depression symptoms, Archives of Women’s Mental Health, 2014.
[iii] Allen KL, Byrne SM, Kusel MM, Hart PH, Whitehouse AJ. Maternal vitamin D levels during pregnancy and offspring eating disorder risk in adolescence. International Journal of Eating Disorders. Jun 26, 2013.
In introducing this month’s Butterfy Effect theme of CONNECTING, I am honored to share an interview by the founder of Recovery Warriors, Jessica Raymond, MS. Recovery Warriors is a multimedia resource hub for hope and healing from an eating disorder. Here is a link to the podcast: RecoverywarriorsPodcast
The desire to become a mom can be a motivating factor in eating disorder recovery. However,the challenges of pregnancy and the postpartum period mirror the early stages of recovery. Both pregnant and new mothers and women recovering from eating disorders experience anxiety, body image distress, difficulty sleeping, hormonal changes, appetite changes, and ambivalence/excitement/distress around cultivating a new identity. In this episode of The Recovery Warrior Show, expert Dr. Linda Shanti shares personal and professional stories of recovering from an eating disorder and entering into motherhood. Listen in regardless of where you are at in the biological cycle because there is much to learn.
What You’ll Learn
- Why people don’t talk about miscarriages
- How pregnancy is similar to early stages of recovery
- Why you need to be proactive in seeking professional help before having a baby?
- Why how a mother eats affects her child
- Is there a right time to have a kid
The moment a child is born, the mother is also born. She never existed before. The woman existed, but the mother, never. A mother is something absolutely new. -Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh
Advice to Former Self
You’ll get through this honey, you will. It’s going to change you and it is changing you and that’s ok; that’s the way it’s supposed to be. There’s no parallel life that you’re supposed to be leading; this is it, this is not a detour. Just because you’re suffering doesn’t mean you’re on the wrong path; you’re absolutely on the right path. Keep going.
Definition of Recovery
Taking care of yourself physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. Not engaging in behaviors that hurt me. Moving toward growth edges. Accepting my body as it is. Allowing and inviting all feelings. Lowering the bar on perfectionism. Thinking in the rainbow between black and white. Listening to my heart and connecting with a larger purpose.