Updated: Dec 2, 2020
During pregnancy and postpartum, we often feel like we're "going out of our mind," dealing with surging hormones, lack of sleep, dietary issues, lack of support, low energy, etc. I used to think that Postpartum Depression (PPD) or Postpartum Anxiety (PPA) were just unfortunate byproducts of motherhood, that they were the unavoidable cost of bearing children.
But what if "going out of our mind" is actually an incredible opportunity? I know, I
know--in our Western culture, going crazy is not something to aspire to.
Or is it?
Did you know that in some--what our culture has deemed--"primitive" cultures, going "out of your mind" is a sign that something sacred is occurring? In fact, when someone begins to show signs of being "out of their mind" they enter the ranks of shaman, guru, wise woman, healer, visionary, and seer (watch this TedTalk with Phil Borges called: Psychosis or Spiritual Awakening for more on that!).
Spiritual awakening doesn't occur in our minds. That's why we have to step OUT of our mind in order to spiritually mature, to realize our fullest potential.
My own spiritual awakening has occurred hand in hand with healing from my own mental illnesses: from genetic inheritance, my childhood, and my childbirth experiences. I was raised by a verbally and emotionally abusive addict father with undiagnosed mental illness that wreaked havoc on his children, his wife, his colleagues, and anyone that came into his circle. 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 profound insecurity, poor self-esteem/body image, never letting myself cry, denying that I was a woman (likely as a result of my father's specific addictions and misogyny), and social anxiety. On multiple occasions I recall being in a social setting--like a birthday party, a sleepover, or hanging out with friends--where the room and everyone around me would start to fade into grey, and I felt as if I was falling down into a dark tunnel. Suddenly my heart was racing, and I couldn't breathe very well, and this heavy anvil was on my heart pulling me deeper and deeper down.
Then there was the voice that said to me, "Nobody wants you here. You could disappear and no one would notice."
By college age, I managed to pull myself out of that slump, sought different forms of therapy that helped me cope more effectively, began to experience a healthier kind of social life, and my self-esteem greatly improved. But then, upon the birth of my first child, at age 23, my mental health plunged. I collapsed, feeling as infantile and helpless as the baby in my arms. How was I supposed to care for her? Who was going to care for me? How was I supposed to help her grow up into a well-adjusted, secure, confident adult, when I didn'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.
When my oldest was around 5 or 6 years old (more babies had joined the family in that time), I started to make sense of my life, and to see the connections between my childhood, my mental health symptoms, and my childbirth experiences. 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--for the better. I didn't fully understand how, at first, but I felt lighter, freer, and more in my body than I had ever been before. It was as if all the messiness, the blubbering, the raging, the falling to pieces was my chrysalis. Caterpillars, after all, turn into a mushy-stew before their elements recombine into a winged creature of flight. And for the first time in my life, I was craving lift off!
That was the beginning of my 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, my purpose, my soul-drive. It opened up wells of empathy within me. I wanted to share what I'd learned! I wanted to help others navigate their way through the mushy-stew, so they could get on with flying already!
And one of the most effective ways that I have found to help women discover their own power of flight is to help them get out from under their mental health diagnoses. We are not victims of our mental illness. A diagnosis isn't--or shouldn't--feel like a millstone tied around our necks. A diagnosis is not the end of the road or the final destination, but rather it's the door we walk through to find out what's on the other side. A diagnosis, after all, is a classification of symptoms, but it doesn't tell us much about the root cause. PPD is a diagnosis that describes feelings of lethargy, difficulty bonding with baby, withdrawing from loved ones, excessive crying, etc. And yet, the root causes are manifold. Chronic depression is partially caused by too-low levels of serotonin. Okay, so what's causing those levels to be low, and what are we going to do about it?
I teach my clients that a diagnosis is the beginning, an entry point into deeper layers of discovery. 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 where it comes from.
The Yellow Wallpaper
An excellent 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 the walls plastered with ancient peeling yellow wallpaper that grows progressively more animated and ghoulish as her confinement continues.
In time, the wallpaper takes on characteristics of a women trapped in the wall, coming to represent the postpartum mother's fractured psyche. The woman she described as trying to escape from the wallpaper was actually herself seeking to escape: from the room, from her station in life, and perhaps even from her patriarchal culture. The wallpaper (representing the woman's mental illness) was the only one helping her, sitting with her, listening to her, watching over her. In the end, it showed her exactly what she needed--to free herself. Those symptoms were her advocate, and her way back to sanity (if only those closest to her had understood that).
When our voice is silenced, when no one is listening to us, when we have no one advocating for us, when we're told our instincts are wrong and to "trust the experts," when we're left alone--like this woman was in the story--we dissociate, we fracture. It's as if our own consciousness has the answers, and so it goes OUTSIDE of us (quite literally OUT of our minds), to flag us down, waving its hands in the air, speaking in different voices than our own...and for what? To get our attention. To helps us find our way back. To help us 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. My voice? The one that told me over and over again that no one would notice if I disappeared? I finally took ownership of it. I said, "these are my thoughts, so what am I gonna do about it?" I realized there was no-one outside of me telling me how unloveable I was. I was feeding myself those lies, based on misinterpretations and subliminal programming in my early childhood. I felt unwanted everywhere I went, because I never wanted myself. I felt everyone's professed love for me was never enough to make me feel whole, because I couldn't love myself.
Thankfully, that overpowering voice got my attention, just like the wallpaper got the attention of our tormented heroine. Our psyche doesn't give up so easily, you see, and it finds a way to restore wholeness, going to extremes 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." I'm grateful for my mental illness. It tuned me in to my own self-derision. And it wasn't until I owned that voice as a piece of my own fractured self, the Hyde to my Jekyll, that it went away, because I finally heard it, listened to it, nurtured it, and allowed it to integrate back into me.
When we learn to listen to our symptoms, when we ask it, "What's your message for me? Why have you come here? How can I help you, and you help 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, and the top of the head. They were separated by an entire universe, it seemed, on either end of the chakra 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? That's because it's the universal story, like Adam & Eve, Yin & Yang, the Hero Twins, or Mother Earth & Father Time. It's the story of duality.
It sounds pretty esoteric, and yet it has real-life practical application. 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. 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--somewhere in between my root and crown chakras, barricading the pathway that Kundalini Shakti would need to travel.
So upon giving birth, Kundalini Shakti woke up, and in order to find her way to my crown, she had a lot of junk to clear out, and it 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, I was able to view it through an entirely different lens. My femininity was waking 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, suppressing, 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. Then I would have trusted them, leaned into them, maybe even been grateful for them like I am now.
We don’t need to fear mental illnesses like PPD or PPA. If it comes, you now know that it's your chrysalis, your yellow wallpaper, and your forest fire. You are undergoing the deepest soul-cleansing work imaginable. Don't wish it to stop. Don't try to make it go away. Lean into it. Let yourself unravel and be completely remade.
My approach to mentoring women through PPD and PPA is certainly unorthodox in Western culture, and yet it works so harmoniously with it. You can be on medications, or be seeing your therapist or counselor, and still come work with me. I help my 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. This is why medication matters. And once we get her to that safe place, and she "meets" her diagnosis on a first-name basis, that's when the exciting work begins. We can't leave her in that safe, numb, albeit safe space forever. We want her to eventually move back into vulnerability, where she can feel the full range of human emotions, to come alive, to thrive.
If you are going out of your mind, consider it an opportunity for profound introspection. You're moving out of your head, and into your emotions--that's where the real healing work takes place.
So its perfect. You're perfect. You're exactly where you need to be.