During pregnancy and postpartum, we often feel like we're "going out of our minds," dealing with surging hormones, lack of sleep, dietary issues, lack of support, low energy, and, in some instances, perinatal mood disorders. Society has conditioned us to think that Postpartum Depression (PPD), Postpartum Anxiety (PPA), and other conditions are just unfortunate byproducts of motherhood, that they are the unavoidable cost of bearing children.
But what if "going out of your mind" is actually an opportunity for self-development? I know, I know—in our Western culture, going crazy would never be regarded as even a remotely helpful thing.
But what if it could be? What if there could be a purpose to the madness?
In some cultures, going out of your mind is a sign that something important is occurring. In fact, when some individuals begin to show signs of being out of their mind they enter the training fields of shaman, guru, wise woman, healer, visionary, and seer (watch this TedTalk with Phil Borges: Psychosis or Spiritual Awakening). These ancient cultures understand that spiritual awakening doesn't occur in our minds. In stepping OUT of our mind we move into our emotions, clearing out space for greater clarity and insight. We may begin to see more than one reality, or reality from a different perspective, and with mentoring, guidance and integration can not only help ourselves expand and grow but can help others do so, as well.
Unfortunately, in our modern culture, rather then pulling these individuals into the center of the community and showering them with support, education, mentoring, and guidance we too often push them to the outskirts, isolate them, sedate them, and wonder why they aren't integrating back into society.
Good things happen when we merge ancient and modern, East and West. I believe there is a way to learn from our global ancestors while also incorporating medicine, diagnostic processes, and treatment plans.
My spiritual awakening has occurred hand in hand with healing from my own mental health challenges. I was raised by a verbally and emotionally abusive father. My mother, likely as a result from 27 years of marriage to my father, developed severe anxiety (including stomach ulcers, fused vertebrae in her neck, and a ruptured gal bladder) and symptoms of PTSD. My own teenage mental health was peppered with self-loathing, poor body image, never letting myself cry, denying that I was a woman, symptoms of sexual abuse, and panic attacks. On multiple occasions, in different social settings—like a birthday party, a sleepover, or hanging out with friends—I felt as if I were being sucked into a dark void. My heart would start racing, my breath would catch, like a heavy anvil pressed on my chest pulling me deeper and deeper down.
Then there was that voice in my head that whispered: Nobody wants you here. You could disappear and no one would notice.
By college age, after different forms of therapy, I began to experience a healthier kind of social life and my self-esteem did improve some. But then, upon the birth of my first child, at age 23, my mental health plunged. I felt as infantile and helpless as the baby in my arms. They shouldn't leave me alone with her—I can't be trusted. I don't know what I'm doing. How am I supposed to care for her? Who is going to care for me? How am I supposed to help her grow up into a well-adjusted, secure, confident adult, when I don't know how to be one myself? And that all too familiar voice was back, reminding me that I didn't deserve a spot on this planet, that some other woman would be a much better mother to my daughter than me. I thought I had gotten better, but there I was, back in the abyss—triggered to all my past trauma, sobbing, raging, and hiding from the world.
When my oldest was around 5 or 6 years old (more babies had joined the family in that time), I started to come out of my self-imposed isolation. One of the most profound realizations (which I cover in more depth in a separate blog post Birth Was My Bodhi) was that my traumatic postpartum experience, however difficult it had been, had changed me—and as far as I could tell it was for the better. How did that make sense? I didn't fully understand how but I felt lighter, freer, and more in my body than I had ever been before. It was as if all the messiness and falling to pieces was a real-life chrysalis. Caterpillars, after all, turn into a mushy-stew before their elements recombine into a winged creature of flight.
That was the beginning of an awakening. That was the also the beginning of my work as a birth professional. Interesting that through my sojourn in the darkness I discovered not only myself but came into alignment with my dharma—helping women take flight.
And one of the most effective ways that I have found to help women discover their wings is to help them get out from under their mental health diagnoses. So now you know the name of your mental illness? Great. Then let's get to know it. Let's get past first-name basis with this illness and become intimate with it. Let's find out why this illness has come to make your acquaintance and what its message is for you. A diagnosis need not feel like a millstone tied around our necks. A diagnosis is not the end of the road or a final destination, but rather the beginning of a journey—a heroines journey. A diagnosis, after all, is a classification of symptoms, but it doesn't tell us much about the root cause.
The Yellow Wallpaper
A chilling exploration into the nature of postpartum mental health is the short story The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, written in the 19th century. This soul-pricking story, recommended to me by my dear friend, an adjunct professor in the BYU English department, is both haunting and inspiring.
It is believed to be semi-autobiographical, and it tells the story of a newly postpartum mother that has been prescribed "The Rest Cure," forced into months of solitude, separated from her baby, a prisoner of sorts in an old neglected mansion. She is confined to the old nursery upstairs, with bars over the window and walls plastered with peeling yellow wallpaper that grows progressively more animated and ghoulish as her confinement continues. In time, the wallpaper takes on characteristics of a woman trapped in the wall.
What a profound representation of the postpartum mother's psyche. The woman she described as trying to escape from the wallpaper is a reflection of herself seeking to escape: from the room, her isolation, her life, her pain, and her patriarchal culture. Paradoxically, the wallpaper phantom, acting as a mirror, was the only one actually helping her. The phantom woman sat with her, listened to her, watched over her. In the end, it showed her exactly what she needed—to be cared for, witnessed, and to be set free. Those symptoms were her advocate, and her way back to sanity (if only those closest to her, including the professionals, had understood that). Her consciousness had the answers. Her mania waved its hands in the air, animating itself in the wallpaper patterns...and for what? To get her attention. To help her find her way to integration. To help her heal.
Your body knows what it needs. The prescription is inside of you. So often, those voices in our head are telling us exactly what we need to heal. By way of example, consider some of these negative thoughts and the "root awareness" they reveal:
"You don't deserve to be her mother." —> I have deep feelings of unworthiness
"Your baby would be better off without you." —> I feel wildly under-qualified for motherhood
"If I just shake him hard enough maybe he'll stop crying!" —> I'm over the edge of my limit
My dark thought? The voice that told me over and over again that no one would notice if I disappeared? It revealed the root awareness of my own lack of self-love. It's not that the voice or thought was "right"—that I was unloveable—but that I had come to believe it was right. It was a lie that had grown so big and so disproportionate that it spilled out of my mind in order for me to see it so that I could do something about it. Dark, scary, bad, awful thoughts exist, and though they're deeply unpleasant to look at they demand acknowledgement. They won't be ignored.
What's more is the root awareness can then be transformed into an action plan:
I have deep feelings of unworthiness —> I'm going to reach out to someone I love and admire and ask them what it is they love about me.
I feel wildly under-qualified for motherhood —> I'm going to reach out to other mothers that are a few steps of ahead of me on this path and ask them for guidance and support.
I'm over the edge of my limit —> I am asking for reinforcements right now. I need help/sleep/a break and I'm willing to ask for it.
Thankfully, that overpowering voice got my attention, just like the wallpaper got the attention of our tormented heroine. Instead of ignoring it, wishing it would go away, or pretending it didn't exist, I let myself listen to it and begin to remedy the root awareness (which is different from acting on it, especially if the voice or thought involves self-harm or harm to others). Instead of shaming myself for feeling those feelings, I made space for those feelings to exist, like a visitor in Rumi's "Guest House."
Our psyche doesn't give up easily, you see, and it finds a way to restore wholeness, going to extreme lengths to do so, even going outside of our mind to flag us down. If it wasn't getting our attention on the inside, maybe we'll start to listen to it on the outside. Strangely, I'm grateful for my mental health challenges. It tuned me in to my own self-derision. And it wasn't until I owned that voice as the unmet needs of my unhappy, wounded, little girl self that it went away. I was able to respond to my dark thoughts in the same way that Thich Nhat Hanh says we respond to an infant's cry—we don't push the baby away, but pull it to our breast, coo at it, calm it, pacify it, and seek to meet its needs. In time, that little hurt baby starts to grow up and integrate back.
When we learn to listen to our symptoms, when we ask it, "What's your message for me?" that we begin to heal, that we move out of victimhood and into empowerment. That's the silver-lining, and the opportunity, of mental illness—it's showing us what's preventing us from waking up, and how to overcome it.
A Love Story
Once there were two lovers, so entwined, so intimate, so unified, that there was no distinction between them. They were one in body, mind, and soul. But when Brahman, the great Hindu GOD, uttered the word "Ohm," it's vibration spread throughout all time and space and caused these lovers to separate, becoming two distinct beings: Shiva (the masculine aspect) and Kundalini Shakti (the feminine aspect).
These two lovers did not forget the bliss of non-duality, however, and craved it in the depths of their soul. They ached to be reunited with their mate to experience wholeness once again. Kundalini Shakti came to reside in the sacrum, at the root chakra, at the base of the spine, while Shiva came to reside in the crown at the top of the head. They were separated by an entire universe, it seemed, on either end of the backbone galaxy.
But Kundalini Shakti would not be kept from her lover. As soon as she was awakened, she eagerly set out in search of Shiva, traveling up the spine until joining with him in spiritual ecstasy.
Does this story feel familiar? It's the universal story, like Adam & Eve, Yin & Yang, the Hero Twins, or Mother Earth & Father Time. It's the story of duality.
This Hindu creation myth is my favorite lens through which to view PPD and PPA. Childbirth is the greatest manifestation of kundalini energy, of feminine creation, and it arouses this energy out of slumber. For some women, this can feel intensely blissful. For most, however, it can feel overwhelming, threatening, vulnerable, unsettling, even terrifying—particularly if you weren't prepared for it. In fact, many of the well-documented symptoms of kundalini awakening are remarkably similar to symptoms of childbirth, such as mood swings, anxiety, depression, or mania.
As I delved deeper, I learned more of Kundalini Shakti's persona, described as fierce, fiery, temperamental, and powerful. Essentially, she doesn't let anything stop her from reaching her goal. And in this story, unity with Shiva is her goal.
So, what if you're someone like me who had lived a whole lifetime of suppressing emotional trauma, collecting baggage, and holding onto everything very tightly? Well, all of that "stuff" got stored somewhere in between my root and crown chakras, barricading the pathway that Kundalini Shakti would need to travel. Upon giving birth, Kundalini Shakti woke up, and in order to find her way to my crown she pushed that junk up into my face, forcing me to SEE and DEAL with it.
This was revelatory! Instead of feeling victimized by my postpartum depression or confused by my surfacing past trauma, I was able to view it through an entirely different lens. My femininity woke up. She came like an uncontrollable wild fire, burning and purging acres of suppressed “stuff” from my soul. The flames burned violently and I could hold nothing back: childhood traumas, suppressed grief and rage, profound insecurities, and intense feelings of loneliness and isolation. But eventually, the tears slowed, the fires that had burned so fiercely died down, and a sense of supreme lightness replaced it. Wildfires are ferocious, but they clear away the dead, rotting debris and make way for a whole new forest of growth.
I was unprepared in every way for my awakening. Why? Because I spent an entire lifetime suppressing. If you’ve ever seen a wildfire burning, hot and out of control, what always fills the sky overhead? Thick, black smoke. And it often takes a great deal of time for the skies to clear even after the fires have died away. Those black plumes of smoke are what you see hanging over so many postpartum women, as their forest fire burns and purges their “old” self in order to make way for the “new.”
Going out of my mind and up in smoke was the best thing that ever happened to me. I didn't need saving, I just needed context. I needed to know that my symptoms were a byproduct of my spiritual maturation.
Puberty for Mothers
When my mother started her period she thought she was dying. No one had ever told her to expect blood to come out of her vagina, so when it did she assumed the worst. Fast forward to my menarche—at least I had attended a puberty class for girls at my school where I was given a little kit and told what to expect. When my period arrived I wasn't necessarily excited but I knew it was normal. Recently, my only daughter experienced her menarche. I did my best as her mother to not only teach her the anatomy of her body but to treat her experience as a rite of passage into womanhood. We had a special date night where we watched the new Disney movie, "Turning Red," ate sushi, talked in the sauna, learned about moon cycles, talked about hidden seasons in the hormonal cycle, and even covered some basic sex-ed facts. She received a gift package not only with her period supplies but also emotional support and comfort items, like an herbal yoni steam blend, a belly salve for cramps, tea, bath bombs, organic dark chocolate, and a calendar for period tracking. Look how far we've come in only three generations of parenting! Look how my daughter's sexual puberty contrasted to my mother's.
I submit that entering motherhood is a pubescence of its own kind, what Dana Raphael calls matresence I like to call spiritual puberty. If no one has prepared you for spiritual puberty, you may very well think you're dying, losing yourself, and going out of your mind. What if there were classes, mentors, guides, community supporters, and educators who helped you understand spiritual puberty before it happened and were there to support you while it was happening? How different would your matresence be? Context is power. And finding purpose in the madness—acknowledging that this massive upheaval in your life is part of your maturation—changes the experience entirely.
It begs the question—can motherhood be pathologized?
Bhava Birth is that class that prepares your for matresence. And my private mentoring aims to help clients explore their postpartum symptoms from several vantage points, from both East and West, because they offer different strengths, different hope, and different strategies. They complete each other.
When we see a woman standing at the precipice, ready to jump, we must get her to a safe place through whatever interventions are necessary: therapy, somatic release, community support, nourishment, medication, and more. We must be witness to her undoing, stabilize her chrysalis, and prepare her runway. Then—after all of that integration—the next time she's on the ledge it will be because she's ready to fly, not jump.