Ten Lessons Learned From Two Years of Podcasting

My podcast recently celebrated its second birthday! Looking back over the past two years and seventy-one episodes, these are a few things I have learned since starting my podcast about postpartum depression and maternal mood disorders:

  1. People from around the world are interested in postpartum depression. I have had listeners on every continent (except Antartica). (Penguins don’t listen to podcasts.]
  2. Dads want to learn about postpartum depression as well. I’ve only had one male guest so far (Tyler, Kaleena’s husband, way back on Episode 17), but I have been contacted by several male listeners. Guys, I know you are out there and I know you are listening. Whether dad has postpartum depression himself, or his loved one is struggling, the men need our help as well.
  3. Our stories are of vital importance!
  4. Everyone has a unique adventure.
  5. And yet, there are so many similarities between our stories. We truly are not alone!
  6. Don’t record interviews on your front porch at night, unless you want a cricket to be the star of that episode.
  7. What works today may not work tomorrow. My schedule is constantly evolving. I keep changing the way I do the podcast. It’s a work in progress.
  8. If you feel the call to do something, just start. Don’t wait until you are certain that you will be a perfect success. You will learn from your mistakes.
  9. Tangents are magical.
  10. It’s okay to take breaks. There’s this idea in our modern world that once you start building a following, you have to relentlessly keep going. Blog every day. Produce  two podcast episodes every week. Don’t take a break from Instagram or you will become irrelevant. But this is real life. If you need a break, honor that need and take a break. The people really interested in your work will still be there when you return. I’ve been doing this show for two years, which means I should be at Episode 104 or so, but I’m “only” at 71. That’s okay! The listeners are still there! And I’m still doing the work for all the future moms who will one day stumble on this show at two in the morning during yet another breastfeeding session.

And that’s ten lessons, but I have to share one more: I love all of you! It’s true, I really do.  Every time I put a new episode into the world, I feel a deep sense of love for everyone who might need to hear stories about maternal mood disorders. I know I have helped lots of people by starting this show, but you have helped me become a more loving person by listening. Thank you.

So now that I have been doing the show for two years, will I continue this adventure for two more? Hell, yes! Next up on the show: I’ll be doing the audio version of my memoir. Because why release an expensive audio book when I can just share it on the podcast?

Epilogues Are Weird!

My memoir Adventures with Postpartum Depression has an epilogue, and let me tell you: that was so weird to write. The book needed some finality, but hey, I’m still alive here! As long as I’m alive, I’m going to have issues, setbacks, victories, brain waves, and all sorts of things, good and bad, that affect the way I live.

In the Epilogue, I wrote about the things that were helping me thrive. Everything I wrote in that Epilogue was true – as of September 2017, when I flipped my revised manuscript back over to my editor Anne. But as I myself said in the Epilogue (I love quoting myself):

Like my houseplants, which require water, light, and soil, my soul has some absolute needs: writing, meaningful relationships, time for fun, lots of physical movement, learning, and projects. The ways that I satisfy these absolutes, though, shift.

At the time I wrote the Epilogue, I was doing as much Zumba as possible. As I write this blog post, nine months have passed and things have changed. My two favorite Zumba teachers stopped teaching at my gym. Their replacements … well, let’s just say I am not inspired by their teaching styles. I don’t have the time to run around town and find new Zumba teachers, so instead, I’m walking. A LOT. I also swim once a week during Julian’s swim lesson and I recently started strength training.

In my Epilogue, I also wrote about how I learned to relax and stop screaming at my kids. And that was (mostly) true a few months ago, as I was proofreading my book for publication.

Then Julian turned two and a half. The kids started fighting more. Julian started throwing tantrums. Pippa started experimenting with defiance. And me?

I’m on a spiritual journey. I’m letting motherhood be the microscope that exposes the issues and areas of my life that still need work. I’m also working on losing weight and every food craving is another opportunity to work on those issues.

Whew. It’s an adventure. It’s such a big adventure, I’ve started another website, CourtneyHenningNovak.com, to document the journey. See, I’ve decided to dedicate this website to all things directly related to postpartum mood disorders, because I do not want to overwhelm anyone who is in the process of recovering from something like PPD. If you have PPD, just do what you have to do to survive during that phase of your life.

But for those of you who have recovered and are curious about my continued adventures, you can join me at my new website. I’m excited to see what issues I tackle next!

Mama Journaling 101: The Tools of the Trade

Writing about my postpartum experiences was such an essential part of my recovery from PPD, that I am now writing a series of blog posts to inspire more moms to write their stories. In the first part of this series, I am sharing tips and ideas for journaling. 

I feel a bit pretentious devoting an entire post to “the tools of the trade.” It’s not like we are talking about skydiving or climbing a mountain. If you know how to write, you already know that you need (1) a writing tool and (2) a writing surface and boom, you are set.

But there are a lot of opinions about the “best” way to journal. Many writers insist – insist! – that there is something magical about the connection between pen and paper. They think something mystical gets lost when you write on a computer, so typing should be reserved for later, more polished drafts.

I think there is something magical about writing. And I think, for many writers, there is something magical about putting actual pen to actual paper. For me, though, the tools do not matter. I use a notebook and pen at night for my health journal. (My nightly record of how I slept the night before, food I ate, exercise I did, my moods, self-care, etc.) The rest of the time, I mostly write on my laptop. Sometimes I use a dedicated notebook to journal by hand for a few weeks, but I write faster when I’m typing and that helps me get into the flow.

If you know how you like to write, then write that way. Don’t get hung up on anyone else’s advice.

If you have no idea how you would like to write, then play around and have fun with a few different ways:

  • Sit down at your desktop computer and try writing there.
  • Buy a cheap notebook – or better, dig up an old one gathering dust – and get some cheap pens and just write already.
  • Try your laptop while lounging on your bed.
  • Put some blank sheets of paper on a clipboard and write with a stubby pencil.
  • Try graph paper!
  • A legal pad with the swankiest pen you can afford.
  • Short entries on index cards with a mechanical pencil.

There are dozens of possibilities for writing. Do what works for you. I do not buy fancy notebooks because then I worry about writing perfectly, but maybe a fancy notebook will inspire you to spend an hour each morning musing and ruminating on its lush pristine pages.

Don’t spend too much time trying to decide on your personal tools of the trade. The time you spend debating the virtues of a laptop versus a spiral notebook is time you could spend writing!

Remember: you don’t have to figure out your magical combination of writing tools the first time you sit down to journal. I flip-flop between computer and handwriting. The change is probably good for my mind. So just use whatever you have on hand today, and, you can always try something different tomorrow, next week, or whenever you want.

Journaling Prompts

  • Have you kept a journal before? How? What were your tools of the trade?
  • Do you crave a fancy journal?
  • Do you have all the tools you think you need?
  • Do you ever spend time thinking about reasons to not write when you could be using that time to actually write?
  • Do you think you might be secretly looking for excuses to avoid journaling?
  • Do you hate these journaling prompts?

 

Mama Journaling 101: Neglect the Housework

You are a mother. You do not exactly have heaps of excess free time lying around. I’m telling you to journal to help you fully recover from your postpartum experiences, but when exactly is that supposed to happen?

First and foremost, get enough sleep. Sleep is essential to mental health. Please don’t stay up late or wake up early because Courtney said you should journal. You need to have in place the basic building blocks of health – I’m talking about sleep, food, shelter – before you can worry about journaling.

But let’s say you are getting enough sleep and all the other essentials to feel sort of like a human being. You still have a tiny helpless human who needs your help! When are you supposed to find five minutes to write?

I wrote when Pippa was napping. I could only do this once I was getting enough sleep at night myself. But once that piece was in place, I wrote while Pippa napped.

I know what you are thinking: nap time is the only time I can get chores done.

Pippa, though, never liked napping in her crib. To many outside observers, this seemed like a curse. For me, it was a blessing. Because she took most of her naps in the baby carrier, with her sweet baby head pressed against my chest, I could not worry about things like meal prep and dirty dishes during nap time. But writing with a baby in the carrier? No problem!

I love the book If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. Ueland says that writers must neglect the housework. I could not agree more. You only have 24 hours in a day. If you currently do not have enough time to write, then you are going to have to steal time from an activity. So this is my advice to new mamas: let the counters get a little sticky. You do not have to sterilize the tables every day. It’s okay if there’s some toothpaste goo next to the bathroom sink. Let the dirty dishes accumulate until there’s a huge mountain and then cue up a podcast and tackle them all at once. Choose writing before you choose housework!

It’s okay to do housework when the baby is awake. That’s what I did when Pippa was a baby and that is what I do to this day. Guess what? Kids like chores! My children help me with dishes, laundry, sweeping, and wiping off dirty counters. If they get bored, they wander away and play.

When Pippa was a newborn, I thought I was supposed to watch and observe her every waking moment, always at the ready to shake a rattle or make silly faces. But then I realized: she needs time to play independently. She needs time to explore her world by herself. If I’m always entertaining her, then she never learns how to be an independent, creative thinker.

So as I recovered from postpartum depression, I learned to sit on the couch and journal while Pippa crawled around the living room and put everything (everything!) in her mouth. I brought my journal to indoor playgrounds and when she was occupied, I wrote. There were plenty of interruptions, but I figured writing time with interruptions was better than no writing time at all.

I have to be fully honest: I’m still coming to terms with the fact that my house does not look like a house that has been styled for a magazine shoot. Sometimes it drives me crazy that toys are scattered everywhere and do not get me started on the dried up bits of oatmeal on the kitchen walls.

But my expectation of an immaculately perfect house comes from external pressures. It comes from magazines, television commercials for cleaning products, and even the IKEA catalog. To this day, I am haunted by a commercial I saw when I was seven or eight years old. A mom was stressed that her mommy friends would disapprove of the state of her kitchen floors. That one commercial gave me a seriously twisted attitude about housework.

But guess what? My kitchen floors are far from immaculate. There are all sorts of crumbs. But when my mom friends visit, they do no hesitate to put their children on the floor.

The next time you want to write, but you feel compelled to vacuum, I want you to think about housework as a feminist issue. Housework is just busy work that keeps us in the kitchen and out of the board room.

Our children learn to live by watching us. If you spend your days agonizing over housework, then your children (especially your daughters) will do the same when they grow up. If you cannot ignore the vacuum for yourself, do it for your kids. I’m not saying you have to let your home turn into a den of filth and inequity. I’m just saying it’s okay to ignore the crumbs so you can have a few extra minutes to write.

Journaling Prompts:

  • Do you have enough time to journal?
  • When do you write?
  • Do you wish you had more time to write?
  • Are there any household tasks that you could let slide so you could have a little more time for writing?
  • How do you feel about housework?
  • What is your least favorite chore?
  • Are there any chores you enjoy?

As always, pick and choose or ignore the prompts as you see fit. It’s your writing practice! I just hope you find the time to let yourself write.

Mama Journaling 101: Don’t Worry About Grammar or Spelling

Just write

and write

and rite

and right

and don’t let a little thing like spelling or grammer or prose or what yur third grade teacher or fifth grade teacher or who cares what grade, just dont’ let the things they taught you slow you down

write and write and write and write

and magic will happen

its your journal so eff apostrophes and spell check and the correct placement of commas

if you are going to write things for publication, there is this beautiful thing called “revision” but you do not have to write for an audience in your journal

just you

so write and fuck spelling, fuck grammar, and fuck all your preconceived notions about what it means to be a writer

everyone is a writer!

Chapter 25: My Continued Adventures With Momentum

I recently published my memoir. I am sharing several chapters right here on the blog. If you’d like to read more, the ebook and paperback are both available on Amazon. In this chapter, I described a few things that helped me push my recovery from postpartum depression to a higher level.

Less than a month after I was discharged from the hospital, my sister Katherine handed me a paperback with a yellow cover.

The How of Happiness. What is this?”

“The author is a psychologist who studies happiness. In the first part of the book, she explains the science behind happiness. Then there’s a multiple-choice test that determines your happiness style.”

“My ‘happiness style’?”

“There are different things that make people happy, but for each of us, there are certain strategies that maximize our happiness. You can use any of the strategies in the book, but the test helps you figure out the ones that will be the most effective for you.”

“I don’t have time for this crap.”

“It’s not crap. I know a lot of people—”

“Is this book about postpartum depression?”

“No, it’s—”

“Katherine, I have postpartum depression. Some book with a quiz is not going to make me better. I have to take sertraline. I’m doing cognitive behavioral therapy. I have a serious mental illness. Maybe this book is useful for a person who is healthy, but there’s nothing that I can do to change the fact that I have postpartum depression. It’s all in my hormones.”

“Will you just keep the book in case you decide you want to read it?”

“Fine.”

This was not the first time my sister had recommended I read a book. When I was a freshman in college, and Katherine a scrappy third grader with an impressive Beanie Baby collection, she insisted I had to read a new book. To humor her, I agreed to try a few chapters. By the next morning, I was a Harry Potter convert. Maybe I should humor her again and read just a few chapters of The How of Happiness. If I didn’t like it, I could just tell her that I was too busy with Pippa for this sort of self-help book.

Within a few pages, I was forced to admit that my sister was really good at recommending books that I needed at certain junctures in my life. In college, I needed Harry Potter as a break from history classes that focused on war and pestilence. And now, as a new mama, I needed this book to push my mental health to the next level. By the time I reached the test about my happiness style, I was ready with a freshly sharpened pencil and blank notebook.

According to my test results, the three activities that would boost my happiness the most were exercise, learning new things, and projects. These strategies resonated with me. They were the activities that in the past had made me feel like my best self. I dove into the relevant chapters for ideas to implement the strategies.

And then, I did nothing.

Or rather, I continued living the way I had been living: taking my medications, doing my CBT homework, attending the Parent Education class, and going to the mall for a thrill. Instead of being inspired to try new things, I used The How of Happiness to validate the way I was already living my life.

Exercise? I took walks every day. That counted.

Learning new things? At Parent Education class, we discussed all sorts of child-rearing matters. That was enough.

And projects? I was knitting a blanket for my new niece. As a stay-at-home mom, that was about all I could handle in the way of projects.

When I first read The How of Happiness, I was not ready to make changes. I was like a newborn filly, tripping around on shaky legs. I had to learn how to walk before I could run the Kentucky Derby. But three months had passed since I read The How of Happiness. I was ready to pick up the pace. It was time to be proactive in creating some happiness. I needed a bigger project than a baby blanket.

Now I sat at my desk with Pippa napping in the carrier. I opened a new document and typed, in a dramatic font, The Fifty-Two Museums Project. Over the next year, I would visit a different museum, botanical garden, or other cultural site every week. Libraries counted. Children’s museums did not. The boredom had started because I had gotten into a rut of only leaving the house for Parent Education class and the mall, so it made sense to choose a project that would help me get into the habit of going new places.

I started typing a list of places I could go with Pippa. Art museums, historic homes, gardens . . . As I wrote, my excitement grew.

Pippa sighed and stirred. She would be awake soon.

I kissed the top of her head and whispered, “Baby girl, where should we go first?”

* * *

“That’s so cool,” said Fiona, a mom at the Monday Parent Education class, when I told her about my goal to visit fifty-two places by the end of 2014. “Where have you been?”

“The Huntington, LACMA, Descanso, and the Norton Simon.”

“I want to do this, too. We just go to the usual baby classes. I never thought about taking Quinn to an art museum. And what was the other project you mentioned?”

It was early January and the first Parent Education class of 2014. The teacher had asked us to pair up with a mom we did not know very well and share three things about ourselves that the rest of the class probably did not know. Telling Fiona about my projects had felt like a gamble but the gamble had paid off. I had discovered a kindred mom spirit.

“So my other project is the One Hundred Podcasts Project. I started listening to podcasts after Christmas one night when I was bored doing the dishes and wanted some brain candy. I’ve always thought podcasts were something I’d enjoy but never took the effort to find ones that I liked.”

“Which one did you try?”

“NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour. They talked about some new movies and television shows, and it made me feel like a grownup again. I let my brain go stagnant during the first months of motherhood and I’m trying to hit the reboot button, so to speak.”

“I should check out some podcasts.”

When I first realized I was getting bored, I worried that I would have to quit the Parent Education class to find something new. The Fifty-Two Museums Project, however, had given me a new zest for life. Now that I was visiting new places, I could appreciate the parenting class again. The enthusiasm for one enterprise had spilled over into all areas of my life.

* * *

Churn, churn, back and forth, back and forth. I glanced down at the screen. I had been churning for one minute and eighteen seconds.

I changed the intensity and angle, hoping to make the workout feel a little more exciting. This was important. Ever since she had discovered the art of crawling, Pippa could not be bothered to sit in her stroller while mama took her morning walk. There was too much exploring for her to do. Following a baby around my neighborhood, however, did not exactly count as exercise.

I had joined a new gym and registered Pippa for their little day care center so I could get some cardio on the elliptical machines and stair climbers. That was how I had exercised since college. Today I was on a machine near the gym’s exercise studio. Yoga had just ended, and people were filtering into the room for the next class: Zumba.

I had wanted to try Zumba for years and had actually taken a few classes at my old gym right before I got pregnant. I stood in the back of the room so no one would see how ridiculous I looked but then I had trouble seeing what the teacher was doing. No matter. It was still as fun as I had expected.

What I had not expected was how much Zumba would kick my ass. After years of logging miles on the elliptical machine, I assumed I was in good enough shape to dance the grapevine. However, thirty minutes into the hour-long class, I thought my right thigh was going to start convulsing. I needed to leave before I hurt myself.

But what would my classmates think?

I had forced myself to stay until the bitter end, even though my knees started to twitch and my lower back was in agony. There was a woman who looked at least eight months pregnant, effortlessly doing the cha-cha. Surely I could keep my feet shuffling until the end of class.

I went back to Zumba once more before returning to the elliptical machines, where the potential for humiliation was much lower. At the time, I would never have admitted it, but Zumba made me anxious.

A lot had happened since my first attempts at Zumba.

I checked the screen on the elliptical I was currently churning. Less than thirty seconds had elapsed. This was torture. I had to give Zumba a second chance.

I sulked into the half-full studio. The teacher was fiddling with the sound system. As I walked toward the back, I noticed an empty spot in the middle of the room. Before I had time to think, I pivoted and claimed the prime spot. If I was going to try Zumba, I might as well give it my best shot.

“Welcome, everyone.” The teacher waited for our attention. “Is this anyone’s first Zumba class?”

I self-consciously kept my arms at my side. It had been a couple of years, but still, I was telling the truth.

“We have a new song today. Since we have a couple of minutes before class starts, I thought I’d show you some of the more complicated steps. First, we do a little merengue.”

As I shifted my weight from side to side, I forgot where I was or that I was surrounded by strangers. I just lost myself in the movement.

“Then we do a twirl, right to left.”

I had forgotten the joy of a simple twirl.

“And then some hip bumps . . .”

I spent a lot of time with Pippa balanced on my hip. It felt so good to move and stretch those muscles in a new way.

The studio was full now.

“All right, let’s start with a warm-up. Remember, listen to your body and have fun!”

The dancing started.

To my astonishment, I could actually follow the moves. Dance was something I had wanted to try for most of my adult life, but it had not been my thing when I was a kid. I had preferred soccer cleats and basketball hoops over tutus and jazz hands. I assumed I was too old to start dancing.

Another assumption quickly turned to dust.

I could not execute every move perfectly, but so what? A glowing feeling spread across my chest as my body produced endorphins, glorious, magical endorphins. No wonder The How of Happiness had pointed me toward exercise. I just had to find the sort of exercise that made me, literally, want to dance.

As I mastered a new move, I realized I was not just exercising. I was learning. Zumba checked the box for not one but two of my optimal happiness strategies. I had recently signed up for an online Spanish class to incorporate more learning into the stay-at-home mom life, but hey, my brain was not going to object to a little more learning. Especially in a way that was so much fun.

Fun. There was that word again. I had protested when my psychiatrist insisted I bring more fun into my life, convinced it was impossible, but now my body was glowing as if I were racing down a water slide or playing video games with Nathan.

I waved my hands around in the air and cheered with my fellow students at the end of a song. And then, I left.

I had danced for only twenty minutes of an hour-long class, but I could tell my body had reached its limit. If I kept dancing, I would pull a muscle and not be able to come back to this class for who knew how long. That was unacceptable. I needed as much Zumba in my life as possible.

I smiled at the other students as I exited the studio, not caring what they thought about my early departure. All that mattered was that I had been dancing, and that I was going to do it again soon.

* * *

I was back at my desk with Pippa asleep against my chest in the carrier. I had been staring at the same paragraph of my novel for at least five minutes. The story that had been so exciting before I had Pippa now seemed so blah.

I opened a new document and started writing a short story about a woman who had postpartum depression, spent four nights in the hospital, dismantled all her rituals, but definitely was not me because she had red hair and lived in Alaska.

Ugh. I leaned back on the chair and started tapping my foot on the floor. This was not right. I did not want to write a fictionalized version of my postpartum adventures. I wanted—no, needed—to write a memoir.

A memoir? Was I crazy? Only a handful of people knew about my illness. A memoir would completely blow my cover.

That did not matter. I had to do it. The longing to write a memoir about my adventures was in every fiber of every cell of my being. It did not matter that my adventures were still in progress. As I opened yet another document and named it Memoir, something inside of me—my heart, my soul, my purpose—sighed with relief.

I did not know quite where I was going, but I knew the momentum was taking me where I needed to be.

But first, I had to deal with a little something called shame.

Episode 71: Stephanie Trzyna’s Story

This week, Stephanie Trzyna shares her story of postpartum depression and anxiety.

Stephanie lives in Bethel, Connecticut with her geeky husband, preteen daughter and two lovable but crazy cats. By day she is an Architectural Project Manager for a high-end furniture retailer and by night she is an avid true crime watcher. She advocates for mental health as she is a long time sufferer of depression and anxiety. Her daughter has an anxiety diagnosis as well. Stephanie loves to hike and snowshoe, lift weights, read, do word searches, write and vows she cannot survive without coffee.

stephanie Tryzna photo
Stephanie and her daughter

You can find Stephanie on her blog at spaigewrites.com. She recently published interviews with her husband and daughter about what it is like to live with someone who has a mental illness. She is also a frequent contributor on The Mighty, Stigma Fighters and Fairfield County Moms Blog. Stephanie writes about her mental illness struggles and her daughter’s struggles as well (with the occasional random post).

Stephanie is also a contributing author to A Dark Secret: Real Women Share Their Trials & Triumphs of Their Battle With Maternal Mental Health Illness as well as Stigma Fighters Anthologies II & III (and IV coming out soon).

Thank you, Stephanie! You are a powerful advocate for moms who suffer from a maternal mood disorder.

Chapter 18: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

I recently published my memoir Adventures with Postpartum Depression. I’m sharing several chapters on my blog. You can buy the ebook or paperback on Amazon – woot woot! In this chapter, I describe how cognitive behavioral therapy helped me process and come to terms with the fact that I had a mental illness.

My psychologist—I was now the sort of person who had a psychiatrist and a psychologist—shook my hand and showed me into his office. It was early August, about one week since my discharge from the hospital. Nathan, Pippa and I were still staying at my parents’ house. While I was still in the hospital, the psychiatrist had suggested I meet with this psychologist, promising he would help me become the master of my anxiety.

The psychologist sat down on a chair next to a desk with a computer and told me to sit wherever I liked. There was a pair of chairs by the window, but I chose an armchair closer to the psychologist.

This would be my first experience with cognitive behavioral therapy (or “CBT”). The psychologist explained that our sessions would involve lots of talking but he would also give me homework assignments.

“To start, why don’t you tell me why you are here?” The psychologist spoke perfect English but had a lilting accent. I eventually learned that he was from a small village in Spain and that I could always depend on him to be running at least twenty minutes behind schedule.

“I’m here because I have a lot of anxiety and my psychiatrist thought this would help me manage that. I’ve always been an anxious person. When I was young, before I was even in preschool, I had this thing about doors. I always wanted the door to be closed . . .”

For the next fifty minutes, I relayed my life story to the psychologist. Near the end of the hour-long session, I finally started to describe the past few months of my life. With hardly any time left, I said, “I thought about throwing Pippa as hard as I could against the floor. And I thought about taking a knife and slitting my wrists to end my suffering.”

“Let me stop you there.” The psychologist had been listening attentively and taking notes. This was the first interruption. “These dark thoughts—are these the reason you are here?”

My brow crinkled. “No. I had those thoughts and I went to the hospital and I got better. I’m here because I want to be less anxious.”

“So you do not want to talk about the dark thoughts you had about hurting yourself and your daughter Pippa?”

“I do not.”

“Okay. Well, we are out of time, so let’s continue next week.”

Relieved, I paid the receptionist and hurried to my car. When the psychiatrist had suggested I try cognitive behavioral therapy, he had only mentioned it in the context of my anxiety. He had not indicated there would be any need for me to rehash the worst moments of postpartum depression. There must have been a communication error between the psychiatrist and psychologist.

I shuddered as I turned the key in the ignition. If the psychologist expected me to talk about the dark thoughts, this CBT thing was not going to work.

* * *

“So last week, at the end of our session, you mentioned that you had dark thoughts about hurting yourself and Pippa.”

“Yes.”

“Are you still having these thoughts?”

“No, no, not at all. I haven’t had any dark thoughts since before I admitted myself to the hospital.”

“How do you feel about having had those thoughts?”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you have any feelings about the fact that you thought about hurting yourself and Pippa?”

“Oh.” I took a quick emotional inventory. “No. I feel fine.”

“I want to tell you something important.”

I nodded.

“You do not own your thoughts.”

I frowned.

The psychologist said it again, slowly and forcefully. “You do not own your thoughts.”

I frowned a little more deeply.

He said it again. “You do not own your thoughts.”

My brain recoiled. What was he suggesting? When I thought about hurting Pippa, those terrible thoughts originated within me. It wasn’t like they had been whispered by a demon. Of course they were mine.

“You do not own your thoughts.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Let me give you an example. Do not think about an elephant.”

An image of an elephant popped into my head. I smiled. “You put that thought into my head by saying ‘elephant.’”

“That’s right. And the dark thoughts you had about hurting Pippa and yourself came from a chemical imbalance. They did not come from you.”

I nodded slowly.

“You are not your thoughts. You are your actions. Did you act upon the thoughts you had of hurting Pippa?”

“No, never. I shoved them away.”

“That was you. The thoughts were just thoughts. The act of pushing the thoughts away—that was you.”

I smiled. The psychologist was making sense . . . sort of. Although I still did not understand why we were wasting our time talking about this.

“Would you like to talk some more about your experiences with postpartum depression?”

“No.”

“No?”

“I had postpartum depression but I recovered from that in the hospital. I’m better now. There’s no need to talk about what happened. I’d rather just deal with all this anxiety I’m still feeling.”

“So let me make sure I understand you correctly. You do not want to talk about the postpartum depression anymore?”

“Correct. I don’t want to talk about the postpartum depression.”

Case closed.

Or so I thought.

* * *

“I never knew there were so many teethers.”

“This place has everything.”

It was mid-September, about six weeks since I had been discharged from the hospital and four weeks since I returned home to Pasadena. Except now Pippa and I were staying with my parents again. Nathan was working on a trial in downtown Los Angeles and staying at a hotel near the courthouse. (More on the experience of being a pseudo-single mom with postpartum depression later.)

On this lovely September day, I was at buybuy BABY, a massive store devoted to all things baby, with my parents and Pippa. There were aisles upon aisles of toys, clothes, strollers, sippy cups, first aid supplies, and everything else that a twenty-first-century parent might covet.

It did not take me long to find the books.

I focused on the baby books. There were parenting books as well, but I had burned out on parenting books during the first months of Pippa’s life. They had exacerbated my anxiety. It was safer to admire the selection of Dr. Seuss and Sandra Boynton. I added several to the cart before heading back to my parents.

I paused mid-aisle.

A self-help book had caught my eye. The cover said something about secrets to being a happy mom.

I wanted that book.

I started to reach for it but stopped myself. This was silly. I knew everything I needed to know about happiness. Besides, we had made a pilgrimage to buybuy BABY, not buybuy Mom.

But I adored self-help books. I grabbed the book off the shelf: The Happiest Mom: Ten Secrets to Enjoying Motherhood by Meagan Francis. I started to skim through the chapters and did not want to put it down.

My mom called for me to look at something. I dropped the book into the cart and strolled back to the toys. I needed some new bathroom reading anyway.

* * *

Within hours of our return from buybuy BABY, I had inhaled The Happiest Mom. It gave me a lot of great ideas, but more importantly, it got the wheels in my head turning. Since Pippa’s birth, I had been reading a lot of books about raising a happy, healthy child.

But what about me?

I started looking for books about motherhood on Amazon. My searches returned lots of results. Clearly I was not the first woman to seek a little guidance on the subject.

As I skimmed synopses and reviews, a thought tickled the back of my mind. I ignored it at first and kept looking at memoirs and self-help books that addressed the art of motherhood in general. The thought, though, persisted.

What about books on postpartum depression?

I shoved the thought away. I did not need books about postpartum depression. My experience of the illness was in the past tense, thank you very much. All I had to do was keep taking my medications. I did not need to learn about symptoms or alternative treatments.

Or did I?

I put my phone away and played pat-a-cake with Pippa. She burbled and giggled.

Hadn’t Brooke Shields written a memoir about postpartum depression?

I typed her name into the Amazon search bar and clicked on Down Came the Rain, her memoir about maternal mental illness. I felt as if I were doing something dangerous and forbidden. I needed to put as much distance between myself and the diagnosis as I possibly could. Reading a memoir about postpartum depression would place the illness front and center on the stage of my life. How could I linger on a subject that had landed me in the mental ward?

Below Down Came the Rain, Amazon suggested some other books I might like to read, including Postpartum Depression for Dummies by Dr. Shoshana Bennett. This was a revelation. I had read Dummies books on topics as diverse as California wine, American history, sewing, and football. If the For Dummies series had published a book about postpartum depression, that meant there was a market for it.

I hesitated.

To get the most out of the book, I would have to order a physical copy. That meant there would be a book about postpartum depression in my house. Which meant that a visitor could stumble upon the book and then they would know.

I clicked order anyway. I would have to keep the book somewhere safe. That ought to be easy enough. It wasn’t like I was going to read any more books on the subject. One was enough.

* * *

One was not enough.

Postpartum Depression for Dummies was enlightening and empowering. I learned about so many important things, like the risk factors for postpartum depression and how my new medications worked. Surely that was all I needed to know about my illness.

Except I couldn’t stop thinking about Brooke Shields’s memoir.

I added the book to my virtual shopping cart.

What was I doing? I had to stop associating with the subject matter. What would people think if they found out? I’d be exiled to the island of depressed mommies.

But no matter what I did—wash dishes, change diapers, answer emails—my thoughts wandered toward Down Came the Rain. What had postpartum depression been like for Brooke? Had her experience been anything like my own? How had she recovered?

I had to know.

* * *

“How does the book make you feel?” the psychologist asked.

“Awful.” I was a fast reader and Down Came the Rain was short. Technically speaking, I should have been able to read it cover to cover in one sitting. But I could not finish it in one sitting, or two or five or ten. Whenever I started to read it, chills crawled all over my body. Then my stomach churned until I thought I would puke. It was too difficult for me to read for more than ten minutes in a row.

“Why do you think that is?”

“Well.” I inhaled slowly. “It makes me remember the way I felt when I had postpartum depression.”

“You said before that you did not have any issues to discuss in regards to your postpartum depression.”

“Can I change my mind about that?”

“Of course.” The psychologist kept a neutral expression on his face.

“I think I have some issues from the postpartum depression, but I don’t understand why. I had postpartum depression. I went to the hospital. I’m taking sertraline. Shouldn’t I be better?”

“No, no, no. You have been through a traumatizing experience. It is natural to have a lot of thoughts and feelings about it. Would you like to talk some more about having postpartum depression?”

I sat and thought. “Yes. I would.”

“Here’s what I think you should do. Before our next session, read Down Came the Rain very quickly, over the course of two or three days at the most. Write down any thoughts or questions you have. Then we can talk about your experience reading the book together.”

A few days later, I picked up the book, this time with pen in hand, and started reading. I followed the psychologist’s advice and underlined the passages that resonated with me. For example, Brooke wrote about her despair of ever feeling better. I easily related to that. Just like my mom, Brooke’s mom suggested she stop breastfeeding to give herself a break. Brooke also thought she should be able to handle motherhood all by herself. It was almost as if Brooke had access to my innermost thoughts.

I did a lot of underlining.

At our next session, we had a book club for two. “I struggled a lot with Brooke’s descriptions of wanting to throw her baby.”

“Why?”

“Well.” I paused. “I thought about throwing Pippa. So it made me flash back to those moments.”

The psychologist nodded.

“I don’t understand why I’m having so many feelings about stuff that happened a month ago.”

“You have been through a traumatic experience.” The week before, he had said the exact same thing. The psychologist rarely repeated himself, so I knew this was important stuff. “You needed some time to distance yourself from the event before you could acknowledge and consider your feelings.”

“I do feel better now. I felt so shitty while reading Down Came the Rain, but now that we have talked about it, I feel lighter.”

“It’s like you are a pressure cooker. You needed to let off some steam.”

“That makes sense.”

“And maybe, some more steam will build up and you will need to let it out again.”

Externally, I nodded in agreement; inwardly, I registered my vehement protest. Surely I had felt enough crappy feelings. Surely I had released enough steam for one lifetime. Surely I was done with the subject of postpartum depression.

As we wrapped up our discussion of Down Came the Rain, the psychologist said, “I know you love writing.” As part of my homework assignments, he had me write about the things that made me anxious. I usually had at least twenty pages for him. This was apparently a bit more prolific than his other patients.

“You could write a book about your experiences with postpartum depression, just like Brooke Shields did. That would be very good for you. It would help you understand and release your feelings. And it would help so many other moms, too. Just like Brooke Shields’s book has helped you.”

“Maaaaaybe.” I did not want to hurt the psychologist’s feelings, but all I wanted to do was move on with my life and forget that this dark chapter had ever happened.

Besides, a memoir would advertise to the world that I was the sort of mom who got postpartum depression. There was no way I would ever be able to do something like that.

Chapter 12: Am I Wearing A Sweatshirt?

I recently published my memoir Adventures with Postpartum Depression. The ebook and paperback are now available on Amazon – woot woot! I’m sharing several chapters right here on the blog. In this chapter, I describe one of the four days I spent at a hospital’s psychiatric unit.

“Is that an oxygen tank?”

“No. It’s a breast pump.”

“What’s that for?”

It was a little after six in the morning.

“It’s for pumping my milk.”

“Why?”

I did not have the heart to ask Edna to be quiet again, so I fielded all of her questions while pumping. The interrogation made me feel even more naked and vulnerable than I already was.

I returned the pump to the nurses’ station and lingered, hoping for some conversation. The nurses ignored me. Breakfast was over an hour away. I would have to find a way to pass the time.

Then I remembered the room with the piano and vending machines. A pre-breakfast soda sounded delightful. Clearly caffeine had not been the cause of my insomnia.

I walked toward the big door at the end of the hallway. This felt almost normal, like I was back in college, walking to the soda machine in the dormitory basement for a study break.

I reached the door and leaned against the big metal bar across the middle. I pushed. The door did not open. I pushed again, with all my might. The door did not budge. It was almost as if it were locked . . .

I jumped back several steps. Mother of God. I had unintentionally been trying to escape the mental ward.

I twirled around and darted into the common room. The hall monitor had not been watching.

I collapsed on a chair and took a few deep breaths. Yesterday, I had not realized the full extent of what it meant to admit myself for psychiatric care at the hospital. Since it was voluntary, I assumed it was a bit like checking into a spa for a chance to rest and recover my health. I would be able to leave whenever I was ready. Reality, though, was a little different. My surroundings made me even more anxious than I had been at home, and I was not free to go whenever I liked.

I was a prisoner.

* * *

In the common room, Silver Hair was bogarting the television. I riffled through a stack of celebrity gossip magazines that were at least six months old. Despairing of having anything to do, I went back to my room to relax before breakfast.

“What’s your name?”

“Courtney.”

“I’m Edna. I’m here because if I stay at my nursing home any longer, I’ll die, I tell you, I’ll die.”

What I would have done for a book.

When I reached my Edna limit (which did not take long), I went back to the hallway. A dozen patients were awake and milling around the corridor outside the common room, waiting for breakfast. A few sat on the benches where Nathan and I had sat last night, waiting for my admission to be finalized. Most were standing, tapping their feet and jiggling away nervous energy.

Against the wall in the hallway, there was a small desk—nothing fancy, just an elevated platform for a desktop computer—and an office chair. A nurse sat there. The main nurse’s station was about twenty feet away, so the nurses took turns manning this outpost to monitor the patients. In addition to the nurse at the desk, another orderly and nurse stood amongst the patients, like police officers making their presence known at a protest.

A month ago, on Father’s Day, my parents, brother, and sister-in-law had visited our house. Their presence had felt like a barbarian invasion. I had retreated to my breastfeeding throne and cowered with Pippa in my arms. So my nerves were not exactly ready to mingle with a bunch of strangers waiting for breakfast in the mental ward. I stopped about eight feet away from the crowd and leaned against the wall.

“You need to go wait with everyone outside the common room.” A nurse frowned as if I were the unruliest patient in the ward. I shuffled down the hallway. This did not seem like the time or place for civil disobedience.

“It’s so hot in here. Turn on the air conditioner!”

“It’s not hot, Gertrude.” The nurse at the small desk did not even look up from the chart in her lap.

“It’s hot! Too hot! Turn on the air conditioner!”

Another nurse sighed. “Gertrude, take off your sweatshirt.”

“I’m not wearing a sweatshirt.”

Gertrude was a five-foot-tall waif in her forties with long brown hair that looked like it had been styled by a hurricane. The sweatshirt in question was at least five sizes too large for her emaciated body, and to be clear: she was most definitely wearing it.

By now, the hallway was packed with patients and nurses. The patients wore comfortable clothes they had brought from home.

Except Albert.

Albert was wearing a kimono-style hospital gown. In theory, the gown covered all his important bits and pieces, but only if it was properly adjusted and carefully tied in place. There was no margin for error. Albert had casually put on his hospital gown like a bathrobe over pajamas—except he was not wearing pajamas.

Or any other article of clothing.

He slouched belligerently on a chair while muttering Albertish. The gown’s top half flapped open so that everyone could see his hairy chest. The bottom half covered his private parts—barely. If Albert shifted his position or breathed too deeply, that gown was going to flap open and expose things that no woman with postpartum depression should ever have to see.

At first, I stayed in the hallway outside the common room but directed my gaze away from Albert. Then Albert shifted positions and my instinct to NOT SEE ALBERT’S PENIS overrode my desire to obey the nurses. I retreated down the hallway.

Two young nurses, male and female, argued about who should handle the situation. (By “situation,” I mean “Albert’s dick.”)

The male nurse said, “C’mon, it’s your turn to deal with Albert.”

The female nurse rebutted, “This situation requires a man’s touch. You tell him to cover up.”

It did not seem like an ideal time for debate club. A man was indecently exposing himself. Could someone at least throw a towel over that shit?

After several minutes, the male nurse reluctantly sidled up to Albert and told him to fix his gown.

Albert refused.

The male nurse said, “Albert, fix your gown.”

“No. Kabble noble.”

“C’mon.”

“No! Finkle va boom NO!”

“Albert, I’m going to have to take you to solitary again.”

“No, va boom, NO.”

“Albert, stand up now. To your room!”

Albert grunted and huffed as the nurse made him stand and walk back to his room. I kept my eyes averted until I heard a door slam shut.

The slamming door should have made me feel safe, but I was not going to feel safe so long as I was a patient in the B Ward.

* * *

By the time breakfast arrived, I was woozy with hunger. In the past eighteen hours, I had eaten only a handful of cashews. A nurse shoved a tray at me and told me to eat in the common room.

There was an empty armchair next to a small table. It was the perfect place to eat my bowl of sludge and flip through a magazine, but I worried the nurses were observing my every move. If I ate alone, I might be classified as an unsociable loner.

Would that go in my chart?

Did I have a chart?

Would the psychiatrist make me stay in the B Ward forever if I ate breakfast alone?

Was I overthinking everything?

Did the psychiatrist know I was overthinking everything?

I joined my fellow patients at the communal table.

Did I belong here?

I looked at my bare arms. Was I actually wearing a sweatshirt? HOLY FUCK WAS I WEARING A SWEATSHIRT?

I was a patient in the B Ward; the patients in the B Ward had some serious psychiatric issues; ipso facto I must have some serious psychiatric issues. After all, if I was delusional and hallucinating, I wouldn’t know that I was delusional and hallucinating.

What was happening to me?

* * *

My psychiatrist arrived halfway through breakfast.

“Just leave your tray and follow me.” He walked down the hallway and gestured me into a conference room.

I sat down and started to ask a question, but he held up his hand. “Hang on, hang on, hang on.” He thumped down into his chair and yawned dramatically, not bothering to cover his mouth. He sighed noisily, flipped through the folders in his hand, and yawned again. He started to read my chart. I thought about my half-eaten breakfast and hoped none of the patients were having their way with it.

After several minutes, my psychiatrist leaned back in his chair. “So, how did you sleep?”

“Okay. I slept about four hours, woke up, and then slept for another two.”

“That’s great!”

“Can I be transferred to the A Ward?”

The psychiatrist studied me for a long moment. “Why? The beds here are the same as in the A Ward.”

That was not my understanding. The friendly nurse in the emergency room had assured me that in the A Ward, I would have a private bedroom and a little more freedom. It would make this voluntary admission feel a lot more voluntary.

I stuttered, “I have a roommate and I’d rather have my own room and I feel like I don’t belong here. It’s tough. I don’t know how to interact with the patients.”

The psychiatrist glanced at his watch. “What do you mean?”

“Well, it’s just that . . . some of the people here . . .”

“What?” The psychiatrist yawned again.

“I think some of the patients are schizophrenic.”

“So? Just talk to them like you would anyone else.”

By the time the psychiatrist left, my pulse was pounding. How could he think that sharing a room with a stranger was the same thing as having a private room? Did he think I belonged here? With Albert and Gertrude and Edna? Was I losing my mind?

I went back to the common room to finish my breakfast, but an orderly had already thrown my meal away. Now I would be scared and hungry.

It was as if the psychiatrist and nurses wanted to exacerbate my illness.

* * *

“Is there a way that I can call home to check in with my family? I didn’t see a phone in my room.”

“No phones in patient rooms, but here, you can make calls with this.” The nurse handed me a cell phone so large and old, a clown could use it as a circus prop. I walked a few steps away and called my parents’ house.

“Hello?”

“It’s me!” My body shivered with joy. I had never been so happy to hear the sound of my dad’s voice.

“How are you?”

“Much better. I slept last night. Not a ton but I did sleep.”

After a while, he passed the phone to Nathan.

“Hey, babe, how are you?”

“Good!” I said. “Well, you know, as good as I can be. How’s Pippa?”

“She’s good. She misses you but she’s drinking formula just fine. I’m going to take a shower and head over there to visit you this morning.”

For the first time since my admission to the B Ward, I felt like an actual human being and not just a problem that needed to be ignored.

* * *

Late morning, a petite man with glasses stopped me in the hallway. “Are you Courtney? I’m Howard, your social worker.”

Apparently everyone in the B Ward was assigned a social worker.

“Sorry it took me so long to catch up with you,” he said. “Why don’t we go talk in your room?”

Edna was in bed but vacated the room at Howard’s request. I sat on my bed. Howard dragged a chair closer and sat a few feet away from me, one leg crossed over the other.

“So Courtney, how are you doing?” The social worker seemed genuinely interested in my answer.

“Okay.” (Translation: I miss my baby; I’m afraid my husband hates me; I’m such an inconvenience to everyone; I hate pumping in front of Edna; I’m bored; I’m scared.)

“So you are here for postpartum depression?”

I nodded.

“We had a patient here with postpartum depression but she was discharged yesterday. That’s such a shame. It would have been great for you to meet her.”

I sat up taller. “I’m glad she was discharged. I’d be worried if there were a ton of long-term patients here with postpartum depression.”

At the end of our meeting, Howard leaned a little closer. “You know you don’t belong here, right? The patients here have much more serious issues than you.”

I nearly wept from relief.

* * *

“There’s going to be a social activity in the common room in a few minutes.”

From the nurse’s tone of voice, I deduced that healthy, improving patients attended group activities. Crazy patients stayed in their rooms.

I walked as quickly as possible to the common room.

When I got there, I sat down at the main table with a handful of patients. Silver Hair and Gertrude were both in attendance. Albert and Edna were not.

We played a trivia game. A social worker asked, “What’s the name of a state that starts with the letter I?”

Gertrude said, “Omaha!”

Silver Hair slapped the table. “Gertrude! Don’t be such a dumb ass! Omaha doesn’t start with the letter I. Iowa and Illinois.”

I silently listened, not mentioning Indiana or Idaho. No one likes a show-off.

The social worker asked us to name a president.

Gertrude said, “Thomas Edison!”

I suppressed a chuckle. I felt a twinge of guilt from the gods of political correctness, but shoved it away. I was a patient here. That meant I could laugh inside my head at Gertrude’s responses to the trivia questions.

If only I weren’t so alone. Laughter is so much more cathartic when it’s shared with another person.

* * *

Nathan arrived with a bag of clean clothes, snacks, toiletries, and books—my husband, my hero, he brought books. A nurse immediately confiscated the bag, including the books, and told me she would inspect it later.

I scanned the B Ward for a place to sit. The common room was crowded with patients, and Edna was lying pathetically in bed. I was not going to ask her to leave the room, not when I had a visitor and she seemed to be all alone. Nathan and I wandered down the hallway.

Albert wandered after us.

While Albert watched, Nathan showed me recent photos of Pippa on his phone. “She’s been crying a lot, but she’s eating. And she slept fine last night. How are you?”

“Ready for the A Ward.”

“How’s your roommate? Do you feel safe?”

“Oh yes, totally safe. She wouldn’t try to hurt me. Though if she did, I could take her.”

“Good.”

Down the hall, a patient started shouting loudly for water.

“That’s Gertrude . . .” I told Nathan about my morning but could not relax. It was all too awkward, standing in the hallway of the psychiatric wing with Albert lurking a few feet away.

I knew I was broken and needed to be in the hospital to get better, but at the same time, I felt guilty about needing hospitalization. Everyone was being inconvenienced by my weakness: Nathan, living with his in-laws and missing work to visit his wife in the psych ward; my parents, rearranging their lives to watch Pippa; and even my psychiatrist, who had to wake up early to check my status.

I felt tense around Nathan, as if anything I said might be the last straw. Anything might make him decide I was not worth all this drama, and he would leave me and take Pippa with him.

I wanted desperately to feel like Nathan-and-Courtney, so in sync that a single word could make us laugh until our faces hurt. But we were not: I was Courtney, a patient in the psychiatric wing, and he was Nathan, the husband of a woman destroyed by postpartum depression.

Standing there in the hallway of the B Ward, I felt as if our marriage was over. Our vows had included “in sickness and in health,” but surely there was an exception for this. I thought I had found my soul mate. The odds had been against us: a boy from rural Nebraska and a girl from Los Angeles. We had been in sync for six years now, which was six years more than most people got. There was no way we could ever get back to the magic of those six years, but at least we had had them.

Then Albert tried to escape.

Journaling 101: Write Whatever You Want

Earlier this month, I blogged about how I want to inspire other mamas to write their postpartum stories. That post is right here. In it, I recommended starting small with journaling before committing to a big project like writing a book. If you want to write a book, that’s awesome, and I’ll eventually write some posts about that since I learned so much from writing my memoir. But for most moms, journaling will probably be enough.

For today, I have two thoughts. (That’s about all my mama brain can churn out in the morning!) (Especially since I quit caffeine.) (I know, I’m crazy.)

(1) Call it whatever you want. If you like the word “journal,” call it a journal. But if you like the word “diary,” call it your diary. Or if you are a Trekkie, call it the Mama’s Log.

Just don’t get hung up on the word “journal.” Words are sometimes loaded with baggage. Maybe you had a ninth grade English teacher who made you keep a journal, and the journal was the bane of your existence. In that case, just the word “journal” might keep you from writing. But what if you come up with a fun phrase like “Mama’s Mental Health Gazette” or “The Continuing Chronicles of Mama’s Motherhood Adventures”? Then you can move past any preconceived notions about journaling and get to writing.

2) Because that is all I want you to do. Write. If you have any inclination to write, then please oh please, just write all ready! And what should you write? Whatever you want! You do not have to keep a meticulous record of the things that happen on a daily basis.

I think of my journal as a “journal,” but it’s really just a document on my laptop where I do “free writing.” Sometimes I write about the things happening in my life, but sometimes I just write a string of affirmations. Or I write the words that pass through my head. Sometimes I write lists of things I want to do just to get them out of my brain and on to the page. The point is: I write what I want to write.

Journaling Prompts:

Have you ever kept a journal in the past?

What did you call it?

How does the word “journal” make you feel?

Let’s say you want to start a practice of regular writing. What word do you want to use to refer to that practice?

And remember, prompts are just meant to get your neurons firing so you do not sit and stare at a blank page or empty computer screen for twenty minutes and then realize nap time is nearly over and shit, you need to answer some emails. Ignore the prompts completely or pick and choose and use the ones you write. You can even write about how lame you think journaling prompts are! I’m not offended. I’m just happy if you take the time to sit and compose a few words and tap into the healing power of writing.