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

ou 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 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.

Chapter 7: Checking, Checking, Checking

I recently published my memoir Adventures with Postpartum Depression. You can buy the ebook and paperback now on Amazon – woot woot! I’m sharing several chapters on my blog. In this chapter, I describe the development of my postpartum obsessive compulsive disorder.

Two in the morning. I was lying in bed, Nathan sound asleep to my left, Pippa sound asleep in her yellow cradle to my right. The ceiling fan whirred overhead. I was wearing my headphones, and my headphones were plugged into my iPhone, which was playing the sound of a rushing river. Circumstances were perfect for sleep.

Except my wrists were throbbing. Lying in bed, I reprimanded myself. I really needed to stop clutching my smartphone during Pippa’s nocturnal feedings. Except scrolling through blogs was the only thing that kept me awake. If I just watched Frazier reruns, I fell asleep, and if I fell asleep, I might drop Pippa or, worse, lean forward and suffocate her with my own body.

I tried to put my wrists out of my mind. Thinking about the wrists just made me think about the ultrasound. I had gotten the blood test, and the results had shown elevated enzyme levels in my liver. The nurse said this was probably due to weight gain during pregnancy (you think?), but my obstetrician still wanted me to get an ultrasound of my liver before I could get physical therapy for the wrists.

I flipped from my left side to my right. The blood test had been an ordeal. My parents had watched Pippa, and the entire time I was gone, my anxiety spiked as if I were in the middle of a natural disaster. This made no sense. Pippa was safe and happy with my parents. I had pumped a bottle of breast milk in case she got hungry. The lab was only a few miles from our house so if there was an actual natural disaster, I could still get home.

Nevertheless, I suffered. My heart pounded, my skin crawled as if I were covered by hundreds of bugs, and I generally felt as if the world were about to end. It was not. There was absolutely no reason for the way I felt. At least, there was no logical reason, but there was a biological one.

Postpartum depression.

Anxiety is a symptom of postpartum depression, a symptom I was experiencing with greater intensity and frequency. As I tried to get back to sleep, the thought of the ultrasound made my heart race. There were so many things that could go wrong. What if Nathan had to go to work and I had to bring Pippa to the appointment? What if I could not pump enough milk and Pippa got hungry? What if Nathan was annoyed that he had to go into work a little late because his fat wife needed an ultrasound?

These petty concerns were easier to ponder than the deeper fear: What if I had cancer? Rationally, I knew my doctor was being overly cautious. Just as she had wanted to rule out MS when I was constipated, now she wanted to rule out some serious liver condition when all I had were sore wrists. Yet I could not stop myself from worrying that I might have cancer and leave Pippa to grow up without a mother.

I flipped back to my left side. I could not get comfortable. At least Pippa seemed to be comfortable in her cradle.

Or was she?

I tiptoed over and leaned as close as I could to her face and listened for the sound of her breathing. Her chest moved up and down but the room was dark. Maybe my eyes had tricked me into thinking she was breathing but she was actually in distress.

I gently rested my hand on the soft spot on the top of her head where the skull had not fully closed. For a moment, I felt nothing. Trembling, I inched my hand to the left. My body relaxed as I found it: her pulse.

My baby was still alive.

I got back into bed and closed my eyes. My muscles relaxed, my breathing slowed, and the chatter in my brain faded—

Had I checked Pippa’s sleep sack?

At night, Pippa slept in a sleep sack, which was like a sleeping bag with armholes. The sleep sack kept her warm without the risk of smothering her the way a blanket might. Rationally, I knew she was safe and snug in her sleep sack and told myself to go to sleep.

What if I had inadvertently nudged the sleep sack out of place?

What if it was on top of Pippa’s mouth?

What if she was suffocating this very moment?

My eyes flew open.

I closed them and urged myself to go to sleep. I knew Pippa was fine. These fears were ridiculous. I needed to get some decent rest before Pippa wanted to breastfeed again.

Just as it seemed as if I could talk some sense into my anxiety, the guilt chimed in: Was I really placing my desire to sleep above my daughter’s safety? What sort of mother was I?

I got out of bed, crept toward Pippa, and examined the sleep sack’s position. It was several inches away from her mouth.

I went back to bed and closed my eyes. I took several deep breaths.

What if, while walking back to bed, I had caused a disturbance in the air that moved the sleep sack onto Pippa’s mouth?

It had not always been this way. In the maternity ward, whenever Pippa was swaddled and in her cradle, I knew she was safe. Or, more precisely, it never occurred to me to worry about her safety.

I do not remember exactly when I started checking Pippa during the night—those first weeks are such a blur—but I do know it was not our first night home from the hospital. That first night, I was too busy figuring out a way to get Pippa to sleep in a place other than my arms. She had slept easily in the hospital cradle but screamed every time we put her in the travel crib in the master bedroom.

Nathan and I took turns holding her. Around 1:00 a.m., out of desperation, I checked a baby book the pediatrician had recommended specifically for sleep issues. The book said newborns could sleep in a car seat. I eased Pippa into her car seat and slowly withdrew my hands. She slept. I rejoiced and went to sleep myself. I was too exhausted to think about her breathing.

But eventually, probably when Pippa was a few weeks old, I started to worry. According to my baby books, sudden infant death syndrome claimed the lives of 1,500 infants every year in the United States. That is not actually that big a number when you consider the fact that in 2013, the year Pippa was born, there were 3.93 million births in the United States. That means for every hundred babies born in 2013, less than 0.04 percent of those babies died of SIDS.

SIDS still terrified me.

It was as if the Grim Reaper were hovering nearby, waiting to snatch Pippa while I had the audacity to slumber. I followed all the advice I could find. We kept the cradle in our bedroom, ran a fan all night, used the sleep sack. Pippa still seemed to be in imminent danger. And so I checked to make sure she was breathing, as if by checking I could ward off evil spirits or, at the very least, reassure my frazzled nerves.

The reassurance, though, never lasted more than a few seconds.

I got out of bed again, the fifth time in as many minutes. This time, after checking Pippa’s pulse and watching the fall and rise of her chest, I tucked the sleep sack into her pajamas to make sure it would not get loose during the night.

Now I could sleep.

Except.

Tucking the sleep sack had created a big fabric bulge near Pippa’s neck. Could that interfere with her windpipe?

No, I told myself, she was fine. I had pulled the fabric bulge several inches away from her neck.

But. How could I be sure the fabric bulge would stay in place?

I had to know.

* * *

A few weeks later, once again during the middle of the night, I put my hand on the knob of the front door and turned as hard as I could, twisting back and forth until I was sure it was locked. Then, I turned away to go back to bed.

But. Was it really locked or did it just seem to be locked?

I unlocked the door, relocked it, and then rattled the knob back and forth to make sure it was really, really, really locked.

I felt calm.

I removed my hand from the doorknob.

My heart immediately started to thump as if I were on the verge of a heart attack.

Was the door really locked?!?

After testing the lock’s integrity a dozen more times, I pulled myself away, like a spaceship escaping a tractor beam. At last, I could go back to sleep. I had finished breastfeeding Pippa almost an hour ago, but if I fell asleep right away, I could probably get into a REM cycle before she was awake for the day.

I took a deep breath. Sleep, please, let me sleep.

Was the back door locked?

I had checked the back door just five minutes ago, but maybe something had happened to unlock it.

I chided myself. I was being ridiculous.

But if the door was unlocked, and a kidnapper was prowling the neighborhood . . .

The risk was too high.

After checking the back door, I could not resist the urge to revisit the front door again because you never know.

On my way back to bed, I walked through the kitchen.

When was the last time I checked the stovetop burner?

* * *

If you place a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will leap to safety.

It is said that if you place the same frog in a pot of room-temperature water and flick on a flame, it will not notice the change in temperature. (This is not actually true. Still, I like the metaphor.) Even when the water has started to boil, the  frog will stay in the pot, oblivious that it is being cooked alive.

I was the frog.

* * *

I staggered toward bed, half-assured that the doors were locked and stovetop burners lit.

What about the windows?

I started in the kitchen, yanking upward on each window. Then I moved to the living room. I could see with my eyes that the windows were in fact locked.

Or maybe they only looked that way.

I pulled as hard as I could on the first window. It did not budge.

I turned and considered the second. A huge thorny bougainvillea grew in front of that window. Not even Prince Charming could get through those tangles. The window was completely inaccessible.

Yet I could not resist. I had to check.

Next I went to the nursery and checked the windows by the changing table. Then it was time to survey the guest room.

But wait.

There was a window in the nursery closet. The old owners had sealed that window shut and it was impossible to open. Besides, it was no bigger than a shoe box. No one could climb through it . . .

I had to know.

I opened the closet door, leaned over diaper boxes, and strained at the window as if the house were on fire and this window were the only way out. Only then could I convince myself to move on and check the guest room windows.

At last. We were safe. I could go back to bed.

I turned and started walking back to bed.

What if an intruder had broken into the house during the day?

My heart beat faster.

What if he was hiding under one of the beds?

My breathing accelerated.

I marched back to the guest room. A small part of me protested. No one could be hiding beneath this bed. The frame was barely six inches off the ground and besides, I had crammed all sorts of junk down there.

What if there was a snake?

My heart started to pound even harder. I knelt down at the edge of the bed convinced that something terrible was hiding just behind the bed skirt. If I looked, it would surely kill me; but if I did not look, it might kill Pippa instead.

I took a deep breath and lifted the bed skirt.

No snakes, no fantastical creatures from horror movies.

I finally crawled back into bed, terrified of waking Pippa or Nathan. Neither stirred. Utterly exhausted, I fell asleep before my thoughts could rouse me out of bed.

* * *

Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, oh no, seventeen.

There were seventeen steps.

Not sixteen, a beautiful number that could be divided into two halves of eight steps each or, bliss, four quarters of four steps each.

And not eighteen, which at least had the decency to be an even number.

But seventeen. Seventeen odd-numbered steps.

How could my parents have possibly thought this was a good place to live?

I was nineteen years old, home from college on spring break. My parents had bought a townhouse in a gated community. It was built on top of a hill, so the ground floor was also the top floor. A flight of stairs descended to the second floor, where my siblings and I would sleep.

A flight of stairs with seventeen impossibly odd steps that would torment me every time I needed to go to a different floor.

I experimented with ways to make the seventeen-step staircase feel like an even number. I tried skipping a step, but no matter what step I skipped, I knew the seventeenth step was there. Stepping on the same stair twice also felt wrong. I tried rushing down the stairs without counting, but not counting felt even worse than counting an odd number.

Counting stairs was one of my quirks. I had a few others—turning jumbles of letters on license plates into words, folding laundry in certain ways, counting how many cars I passed when I was in the faster-moving lane of traffic—but they were just innocuous mind games that made me smile. I freely told friends and family about my little games with a sense of pride. They were proof that I was unique and marching to my own beat.

It never occurred to me that these quirks were more than just games; that they were actually a way of exerting control over my world.

It never occurred to me that I was flirting with obsessive compulsive disorder. Or that my quirks could turn into something sinister if given the right circumstances.

* * *

“I’m going to bed.”

Nathan glanced up from his laptop. He likes to piddle with various sports-themed games while watching television. “Good night, sweetheart.”

It was not even nine o’clock, but at two and a half months postpartum, I felt like a shell of my former self. The sooner I got to bed, the better chance I had of getting a full night’s rest and feeling like an actual human being.

I tiptoed into the bedroom, careful not to disturb Pippa. I got into bed and closed my eyes.

Were the doors locked?

My eyes popped back open.

I listened. Nathan was still in the next room watching television and playing games on his computer. I had to check the locks, but he would think it was weird if I started locking and unlocking the doors.

I’d have to start with the front door, which was on the other side of the house. The television volume would drown out the sound effects.

It took me a few minutes to convince myself the front door was locked.

Now it was time for the back door.

I sauntered into the den. Nathan’s eyes were on the television. I sidled a few steps toward the back door. The back door was technically in the same room as the television, but thanks to the position of the couch, it felt like the back door was part of a separate little mud room. Nathan was not looking at me. I sidled closer and felt a thrill, as if I were riding a bike down a steep hill. I was there, close enough to touch the back door, and he had not noticed me.

I started to lock and relock the doors surreptitiously. Nathan kept watching television. My secret was safe.

Or so I thought.

Long after my postpartum depression was diagnosed and treated, Nathan and I talked about the way I locked and relocked the doors. He’d been aware of what I was doing, but he thought it was a result of normal new-mommy fears. Where he grew up, doors were often left unlocked. No one worried about burglars, and they would have thought you were bonkers if you’d inquired about local serial killers. But I was a city girl. In my world, doors needed to be locked.

At least, that was what he told himself. Maybe he was also in denial. It would have been much easier to think his wife was being a bit silly than to confront the possibility that she was swimming in dark psychological waters.

Besides, Nathan knew only that I was checking the doors before bed. He did not know I was checking Pippa’s breathing throughout the night; or that I checked the stovetop burners, windows, closets, under the beds, and sometimes even inside the washing machine; or that I rechecked the doors—and everything else—after every breastfeeding session. Those things happened only when he was fast asleep.

My anxiety sometimes seemed to have a mind of its own. Like, my anxiety knew that it had to be surreptitious and not arouse my husband’s suspicion. Otherwise he might have taken me to a doctor, and the doctor might have helped me, and my suffering might not have lasted as long as it did.

Chapter One: The Girl With Hypochondria

My memoir Adventures with Postpartum Depression is now available as an ebook and paperback on Amazon. Here is Chapter One. In this chapter, I discuss my history with anxiety before I got pregnant.

“You have a cold,” the doctor said.

“That’s it?”

“That’s it. But.”

The doctor flipped through my file. I waited for the death sentence. Cancer? A tumor? Something too exotic to diagnose?

“You seem to come here for a lot of minor complaints. Colds. Headaches. Food poisoning. A spider bite.”

It had been an impressive spider bite. A circle of skin on my left calf had turned pink and warm to the touch and swelled up to a diameter of at least two inches. My skin had never reacted so violently to a bug bite. I’d had to show the bite to a doctor just in case.

The doctor snapped my file shut. “I think you should see a therapist. Your student insurance covers ten visits.”

Therapy? Me? What if my friends found out?

Therapy was for bored housewives and people who could not get their shit together. I did not fall into either category. I was an Ivy League student, writing a senior thesis about the publication of Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography and headed to law school next year. I barely ever cried.

Clearly, though, I was doing something wrong if this doctor thought I needed to talk to a therapist. “Okay,” I said as he handed me a sheet of paper with information about the college’s mental health services. I felt like I should say something more to convince him that I was a normal, successful student who rose above her emotions, but the words got stuck in my throat.

Maybe I could use therapy to learn the right way to act so no one would ever again think my feelings were getting the better of me.

* * *

My new therapist ushered me into his office. He seemed old—in his early thirties, at the very least—and was wearing glasses, a white lab coat, and grey slacks. The blinds were drawn.

I sat down on a chair on the other side of the room and took note of the large box of tissues on a nearby table. Hopefully I would never need them.

“So why are you here?”

“One of the doctors suggested it. He said I’ve been coming to the student medical center too often.”

“Do you think you’ve been coming too often?”

“All my friends think I’m a hypochondriac, so maybe.”

“What do you hope to accomplish in therapy?”

“I want to stop acting like a hypochondriac.”

“Why?”

“Because hypochondriacs are weak and pathetic. People laugh at them.”

What I meant was that I thought hypochondriacs were weak and pathetic. I thought feelings were silly and degrading.

I have tried to understand where and how this aversion to feelings started.

Maybe I learned it from the movies. I watched a lot of Star Wars and Indiana Jones growing up. The heroes almost never took a moment to linger on unpleasant feelings. If someone important died, they got sad for 2.3 seconds before throwing back their shoulders and facing the next attack from Darth Vader or Nazis.

Maybe I gleaned it from books. I favored big fantasy adventures like The Lord of the Rings and just like the movies, those stories did not dwell on messy feelings like sorrow and loneliness. Even if a character cried, I only had to flip through a couple of pages to get back to the adventure. The message I internalized about life was that emotions deserved very little attention from a heroic character.

Then again, maybe my overdeveloped sense of independence contributed to the way I avoided crying. From an early age, I wanted to be able to do things all by myself. In preschool, I learned how to read. In kindergarten, my mom gave me Ramona and Her Father, a book with chapters and almost no pictures. We sat down on the couch and started to read the book together, but after a few paragraphs, I pulled the book away, insisting I was going to read it by myself. The girl who wanted to read by herself would have loathed asking her parents to help her navigate messy feelings. I had to handle my emotions alone.

Except I did not like the way I felt when I was sad, lonely, embarrassed, or rejected. I learned to shove those feelings away. It was better to listen to some cheerful music and do my homework than to let myself cry when I was dumped two days after my first kiss or when I found out my friends had dressed up in their fanciest clothes and had “prom” at a diner without me.

Whatever the reason, by the time I was in the office of my first therapist, I was determined to be strong and rise above any ugly feelings that might try to ruin my day. Even if that meant acting like everything was fine when my eldest cousin died.

* * *

After several sessions, the therapist observed that my medical complaints had started during the spring of my freshman year.

“I guess so.”

“Did anything happen before the spring that might have triggered your fear of dying?”

“Um,” I thought out loud. “I don’t think so.”

The therapist waited.

“My cousin Kim died.”

“Tell me about that.”

I took a deep breath. I had barely spoken of Kim’s death since it had happened. “It was January. I was a freshman. I saw Kim for the last time ever on Christmas Eve . . .”

On my dad’s side of the family, I was the fifth of sixteen grandchildren. Three of my cousins lived in Michigan, but the rest of us were born and raised in Los Angeles. Family gatherings, from barbeques to baptisms, were frequent and crowded with cousins. Christmas Eve was the most important. Since before I was born, everyone had always celebrated Christmas Eve at my Uncle Phil and Aunt Berta’s house. Aunt Berta made lasagna, there was this amazing pink Cool Whip “casserole,” and the house was crowded with about thirty cousins, aunts, uncles and family friends.

“Kim was sick. But not sick like she was going to die. More like sick because she had had the flu for a week.”

I was hanging out with my cousins Emily and Julie on a couch near the Christmas tree. As kids, we had played tag in the backyard with our brothers. When we felt too old for tag, we played poker with pennies and nickels. Now that we were in college, we just liked to sit and gossip. Emily, Julie, and I had gone to the same all-girls Catholic high school and our classmates were always up to something amusing.

Kim came into the living room. She was thirty-one, and I was not quite nineteen. Despite all the family gatherings, I did not know her very well. I had been the sort of kid who wanted to hang out with other kids. I was not interested in grownup lives, and with our age difference, Kim always seemed like an adult to me. I assumed I would get to know her better when I was older myself and we had boring grownup stuff, like mortgages and grocery lists, in common.

Kim was helping her mom get dinner ready. We chatted while she snapped open a tablecloth and smoothed it over a folding table.

“How are the college girls doing? Anyone have a boyfriend?”

We bantered, and Kim coughed into her arm.

I winced sympathetically. “I heard you had the flu.”

“Had?” Kim laughed. “Try the present tense. This has been the longest flu of my life.”

“Christmas Eve with the flu must be fun.”

“Oh, it’s fantastic.” Kim smiled. “But it’s worth it. This is the first year that Timmy kind of understands what is going on.”

At two and a half, Kim’s son was the baby of the family.

“Then what happened?” My therapist dragged me back to the present day.

“That was the last time I ever talked to her. A couple of days later, she was hospitalized. I wanted to visit but my parents vetoed that idea. But the doctors discharged her and said she was doing better. I came back to Dartmouth for the winter quarter. I forgot about Kim being sick…”

I started to cry and reached for the tissues. I had rarely cried in front of anyone. Hell, I had barely ever cried in solitude.

My parents had called my dorm room on a Sunday morning, waking me up. Kim was gone, they said, she had died the day before, in her sleep. I remember crumpling forward into an origami position of shock—elbows on knees, head in hands, legs numb.

“But the doctors said she was fine. They discharged her from the hospital.”

“I know.” In the background, I thought I could hear my dad crying. He had been only thirteen years old when Kim was born and made him an uncle.

I sobbed so hard, my chest hurt. My roommate got out of bed and hugged me from behind.

“Can I come home for the funeral?”

“Of course. Dad already called the airline. There’s a flight that leaves Boston this afternoon. Can you get packed in time to catch the eleven o’clock mini coach?”

I disentangled myself from my roommate’s hug and forced myself to stop crying as I talked travel logistics with my parents. Then I got in the shower and sobbed alone. I was in brand-new emotional territory. My great-grandmother had died when I was seven; my childhood dog had been put to sleep shortly before my senior year of high school; and that was it. I was not prepared to deal with death, not when I was in New Hampshire, far from my home in Los Angeles, in front of friends I had known for less than four months. Especially not with my lifelong aversion to crappy feelings.

I did not cry for Kim again—not even during the funeral. But now, in my therapist’s office, I found I was crying and in need of the box of tissues. For a moment, my chest felt lighter, as if a darkness were leaving my body, but then my brain got involved and resisted the rush of emotions.

I sniffled and pulled myself back together.

“Sorry about that.”

The therapist shrugged. “That’s fine.”

I was horrified with myself. If I had to be a person who did therapy, at least I could be the sort of person who smiled and acted fine during said therapy.

* * *

By our next appointment, I had everything figured out and explained it all to my therapist. “I’ve been acting like a hypochondriac because Kim died suddenly and unexpectedly.”

“Oh?”

“She had been taking diet pills that damaged her heart. Fen-phen.” Kim died in January 1997. Less than a year later, the Food and Drug Administration pulled fen-phen off the market. “But at the time she died, we had no idea why she had been sick, so I became anxious that I too might collapse and die without warning. That’s why I’ve been running to the student center for every medical symptom.”

The therapist nodded and tapped his pen against a clipboard. I remember how smug I felt, coming to that conclusion about my anxiety. My conclusion, however, was just a rushed and amateurish attempt at concocting a psychological explanation to put a bandage on the emotional equivalent of a severed limb.

“The next time I get stressed about a medical symptom, I just need to remind myself that I’m being a hypochondriac. Then I can talk myself off the ledge.”

The therapist tapped his pen even faster against the clipboard.

“So I don’t need any more therapy. I’ve resolved my issues. I’m cured.”

With a completely neutral tone of voice, the therapist said, “You think you have resolved all your issues?”

“Yes. Now that I know what is happening, I can control it.”

If I had known the problems my hypochondria would create after I had my first child, I might have been willing to invest a little more time in therapy. Then again, I would never have believed how badly my efforts to conceal my hypochondria would backfire.

Prologue

My memoir Adventures with Postpartum Depression is now available as an ebook and paperback on Amazon. Here is the Prologue. This was incredibly difficult but cathartic to write.

If I raised my arms in the air and threw Pippa as hard as I could against the hardwood floor, her skull would crack open and her brains would splatter all over the floor.

I gasped and held Pippa closer to me, as if the very thought of throwing her could rip her from my arms. Why did this keep happening? I loved my daughter.

Didn’t I?

What a silly question. Of course I loved Pippa. I had loved her since the moment I learned I was pregnant.

Then why did I keep thinking about throwing her against the floor with all my strength? Why did I keep seeing images of her brains splattered across the room? And why was it getting harder and harder to push the dark thoughts away?

I collapsed on the pink glider in the nursery and patted Pippa’s back. “It’s okay. It’s okay, baby girl, it’s okay.”

Pippa continued wailing. Though it did no good, I kept patting. Maybe she just had an epic burp stuck in her little tummy. I could never tell when she was cranky and when she was just gassy. All her cries sounded the same: loud.

Maybe it wasn’t a burp. What if one of my hairs was wrapped around one of Pippa’s tiny toes and cutting off circulation? I had seen an article about that on Facebook. A baby cried and cried and her mother had no idea that one of her hairs had gotten tangled around a toe and by the time she noticed, it was too late. The toe had to be amputated.

I put Pippa on the changing table and bent over her hands. She was shrieking now, but I had to act quickly before it was too late. I checked her fingers and toes. No errant hairs. I checked them again. Still none. Pippa was wailing, but I could not stop. I checked her thighs, her forearms, her neck. Part of me felt like I was losing my mind, but the other part of me did not care.

I had to know.

I thought I was being extra-vigilant. My baby was only four months old. Anything could hurt her. Anything could kill her. Surely all new mothers took these sorts of precautions.

I was wrong, though. I was not being extra-vigilant to keep my baby safe. Of course, I wanted her to be safe and healthy, but that was not the reason I was checking for anything that might pose a threat to her safety.

I was checking to make myself feel better.

Most of the time, I vibrated and buzzed with anxiety. A ticker tape of worries constantly ran through my mind. My shoulders ached as if I were carrying around extra weight. My stomach twisted and groaned. The blood in my body seemed to be rushing faster than usual through my arteries and veins.

Except when I was checking. When I was examining Pippa’s body for stray hairs, or crouching down to check that the stovetop burners were lit, or unlocking and relocking the front door a dozen times in a row, I calmed down. For those brief moments that I was checking something, my body felt still and calm. I felt like myself.

Finally satisfied that a hair was not cutting off circulation to one of Pippa’s fingers or toes, I picked her up and tried to soothe her again. Her screams got louder. She was going to scream and scream forever and ever and nothing would make it stop unless I threw her as hard as I could—

No no no!  I pushed the image out of my mind but too late. I had already glimpsed the horror of Pippa’s skull cracked open and felt the relief of imaginary silence.

I was a monster.

I blinked away tears and patted Pippa’s back, counting to one hundred and then back down to zero.

It must be the insomnia. The insomnia had started a month ago. I could sleep only three hours at night. The rest of the night, I lay awake in bed, my skin crawling from the constant buzzing of nerves, my mind refusing to slow down. I wanted so desperately to sleep, but my body seemed to have lost the ability to perform that most basic of functions.

If I could stay strong for just a few more days, surely the insomnia would end and I would become the mom Pippa deserved.

Who was I kidding? The insomnia was never going to end. I had given birth to a beautiful, healthy baby girl but now my body was broken, shattered into a thousand pieces. No one could ever put me back together.

Thank God, I was wrong about that too.

* * *

A few days later, I finally made an appointment with my doctor. She told me that the dark thoughts, the compulsive checking and the sleepless nights was not something that all new mothers experienced. She gave me a diagnosis – postpartum depression – and asked me to admit myself to the hospital for psychiatric care. I agreed and in less than seventy-two hours, I felt like a new person, a phoenix risen from the ashes.

After four days in the hospital, I was ready to reclaim my life. I worked with a cognitive behavioral psychologist to dismantle my anxiety and confront the traumatic parts of my illness. Within a few months of my hospitalization, my psychologist and I decided I had made a full recovery from postpartum depression.

But I was not done.

For almost my entire life, I had forced myself to live within narrow parameters that I thought would make me successful, like studying hard, going to law school, and working at big law firms, but the things that were supposed to make me feel happy made me miserable. Looking back, I know now that my sensitivity to hormonal fluctuations all but guaranteed that I would experience postpartum depression. The way I had been living my life, however, turned an illness into a crisis.

During my recovery, I did some intensive soul-searching and discovered new ways to feel like my most authentic self. I stopped worrying about what everyone else thought and started listening to my intuition. I filled my life with joy, meaning and fulfillment.

This is the story of how postpartum depression was the best thing that ever happened to me.