Maternal Mental Health

MMHM: Breaking Away from the Stigma by Ronda Williams

Sebastian, who I and others affectionately call Bash, came on July 19, 2014. His projected due date was November 13, 2014. My son’s premature delivery was the starting point for some deep realizations that I had yet to come to terms with. When my son came, I battled with myself. I battled with his father. I even battled with my precious baby, crying and pleading, asking why he would come at such an early stage. Initially, I saw the way I felt, and my reactions, as normal. Which was partly true, but that didn’t explain the excessive anger, random outbursts, excessive alcohol use and prolonged crying spells for things that would have otherwise been considered minute.

How the Stigma Shaped Me

Growing up in a family that went to church at least 3 days a week, doing anything with your problems other than “praying about it” was considered taboo. Tell someone that you are struggling? NO. Go see a therapist? Yea, right. Even though deep down I knew that something wasn’t right, I knew that if I admitted it out my mouth then the backlash would be far worse than anything that I could possibly be feeling in that moment. At least, that’s how I felt.

Mental health, or anything related to it, was not something that was spoken about in our house or even in our small community. If I was crying, I would get looked at sideways and be told to “man up” even though, well, I wasn’t a man. Got a problem? Pray about it. Read the Bible. What would Jesus do? Just insert any cliché church quote that you have ever heard. Now I am not against the Christian faith or relying on God to answer prayers and performing miracles. What I struggled with was establishing practical strategies for getting through some really tough situations. Give me something that I can do right now that will help me get through this moment of emotional overwhelm. Yes, I prayed. I prayed A LOT. After I was done praying and I was still worried about my son, is it because I didn’t believe that God was going to fix it? Or was I just a mother who had absolutely no control over her child’s health and wanted nothing more for him to just be okay?

In most black households, it was forbidden that you speak about your problems with anybody outside of your immediate family. I think the Vegas rule originated in the black community. “What happens in this house stays in this house.” Jesus is the only one you report to about anything that is going on within your family.

Having Bash led me to understand mental health from an entirely different perspective. Before, I saw mental health as this distant theoretical orientation that could never affect me. “That’s a white people thing.” “Black people don’t get depressed.” I heard that so much growing up that I adopted it as my own idea and didn’t realize that I was setting myself up to block my own healing process.

The mindset that depression couldn’t possibly happen to me, prevented me from identifying the warning signs and being proactive about getting the help that I needed.

My precious 1lb 6oz baby arrives. Confused. Frustrated. Scared. Angry. Ashamed. Don’t forget the GUILT! All of these emotions festered and brewed with nowhere for them to go. As soon as they took my baby to transfer him to a hospital that could accommodate him, I CRIED. I cried for the next 4 months. Who am I kidding, the following year was filled with a slew of emotions. The first week was the easiest. But that was because I didn’t realize the severity of what his stay in the hospital would entail.

There were times where I wanted to call my mom or my sister and just cry.

However, I knew that wouldn’t be “acceptable” or I would get some response that would just leave me feeling worse than when I initially called. There were times where I would try to open that emotional door and let out a cry for help, but I was just expected to “keep the faith” and not feel the way I did.

Looking back, I realized that it wasn’t so much the expectation of how I should have handled the situation. It was more so the way that I was programmed to respond and what was considered the norm for my family dynamic.

With no healthy form of release, I inevitably turned to what I was familiar with; alcohol. Then comes the realization that this was not my first bout with depression. There was a period of time in college where I drank for a consecutive 3-week stint after my dad lost his battle to cancer.

In typical black families when tragedy strikes it brings everyone closer together; temporarily. We would do constant check ins, phone calls and heartfelt messages for about a week or so. Once the sting of the loss began to fade and reality hit that this was the new normal, the calls and messages become fewer and further between. So, what do you do with those residual feelings? Sadness and grief don’t subside just because time has lapsed.

So, what did I, a sophomore in college, do to cope? I drank! I remember the instant gratification that alcohol gave me. I became carefree and forgot about the reality of my grief. I became addicted to that feeling so much that every day after class I repeated the drinking routine. I made excuses for my drinking because I felt that I at least tried to be responsible. “Finish your homework before you start drinking” was a rule that was established amongst me and my friends. The drinks got stronger. My tolerance became higher. Inevitably that meant more alcohol, more frequently. At least, in my broken thought process it did.

I never sought real help to process the grief. The only reason my drinking slowed down was because I saw the effects of my excessive alcohol use. My work was slacking, my anger was growing more intense and my friendships were starting to become strained. I slowly began to understand that what I was doing was not for my benefit or for anyone around me.

Let’s fast forward five years. You can only imagine the things that happened over that period of time and the unhealthy coping skills that I developed. I hadn’t done the necessary work to process my father’s death so there were some lingering feelings that came up everyone once in a while as it related to his passing, especially around holidays and birthdays. Bash making his unexpected debut, by itself, was almost unbearable to even comprehend what was happening. No healthy coping tools. No outlet. Then what happens? I revert back to what I once knew and what was comfortable for me; more alcohol.

After a long day of work, I would rush to the hospital, on the other side of town from where I lived, to spend time with my baby boy before I had to go back home and get ready to do it all over again the next day. Did I mention that I went back to work after a week of having Bash? I never took a break. As soon as I was discharged from the hospital, which was the next day after giving birth, I was insistent on going to the hospital to be with my baby. For 4 and a half long months, I would continue the same routine of visiting him after work. I would hold him. I did skin to skin. I breastfed. Whatever it took to get my son home faster. None of what I did made the time go by faster. Was it helpful and necessary? Yes. I never missed a beat. If I wasn’t at the hospital, I was calling. If I wasn’t calling, I was crying and worried about what was happening to my son. I would cry at the most inopportune times. I lashed out. I withdrew. I partied. Drinking became a constant and a norm. I even contemplated suicide several times. I did everything that the me now would stop and question if the me then was okay.

After Bash was discharged, I was happy to have him home but constantly worried that something bad was still looming in the distance. He came home on oxygen and eventually went back to the hospital after a month, due to Respiratory Syncytical Virus (RSV). This virus directly affects the lungs so him being on oxygen only caused him to struggle more with his breathing. That was a 2 month stay that time. The cycle continued. We had a few more hospital stays, each shorter than the last. But then his therapies started. He was getting physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy at about 8 months. That lasted until he was almost 3 years of age.

It took a few more years before I really sought the help that I needed. And by then, the damage was done, and the recovery would be harder than anything that I could have ever imagined.

My Epiphany

At the beginning of 2018, I fell into a deep depression. Negative thoughts were constantly racing through my mind. I beat myself up daily about what happened to my baby. You couldn’t tell me that it was out of my control because I still felt like I was to blame for his prematurity and for him having to be in the hospital for so long even though the doctors couldn’t really explain what happened.

I was nearing the end of my master’s program in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and if anybody knows what a master’s counseling program requires of you, then you could understand the timing of this onset. That was the point where I questioned everything that I was doing. I was almost finished, and I remember on the last webinar crying to my professor about how I didn’t think that I wanted to be a counselor anymore; which was true, and still is to this day. At that time, however, I hadn’t fully explored what that meant. It didn’t mean that I didn’t want to help people, or I didn’t want to be in the mental health field. It meant that I wanted to do something bigger than therapy. And to me, that was wellness. Little did I know that my breakdown was preparing me for that path.

For about 8 months, I became a recluse. I would go to work, pick up Bash, come home and lay in the bed crying while Bash was in the living room watching TV. I withdrew from my friends, from my family, and refused to answer the phone unless it was an emergency. I even turned the ringer off so I wouldn’t hear it.

With some logic still intact, I didn’t want to repeat the same bad habits from the first several times that I struggled mentally. So, I cut myself off from drinking and any other forms of escape that I had used in the past. I had to face this trauma head on, or it was going to continue to haunt me and I knew that wasn’t a path that I wanted to go down again. The pain of all of the unresolved hurt was so insufferable that I, once again, contemplated what would happen if I ended my life. I thought long and hard and was very close to making an irreversible decision. I imagined my son growing up without me and knowing that his mom “left” him, and I couldn’t bear to go through with it.

One day, something clicked, and I realized that I had to take control of my mental health. Especially becoming a therapist, I knew that I could not do an adequate job if I had not myself gone through the healing process. Even with my career choice, the stigma still lingered in the back of my mind. Therapy was not my first choice. I started reading different books and listening to podcasts, watched Youtube and referred to so many other “self help” resources. Hey Fran Hey was HUGE in my recovery. I began to incorporate a lot of the information that she would put out on The Friendzone podcast and it stuck. I was mediating constantly. I started doing yoga and playing around with different essential oils that naturally altered my mood.

This newfound journey jumpstarted my research in understanding what was going on with me, which led me to become intrigued with brain function as it relates to mental health and the body itself. I realized how connected our brain and bodies were just by the food that we eat, the things that we listen to and what we watch. I became more aware of myself and what I allowed in my space and it created a major shift within myself, in my friendships and in my relationships.

I did see a therapist for about 2 sessions and although it was insightful, I did not feel at the time that she was able to give me what I needed to continue my healing. She opened the door to some other issues that I was able to become more aware of and work through on my own or with another therapist.

Caveat: Finding a therapist is similar to dating. You look around, you go on a few dates (in this case a session or 2), then you go home and think about if you feel like the date (session) went well. If it didn’t, you move on. If it did, then you go on another date until you feel like the relationship is coming to an end. You might have to lay on a few couches before you find “the one.”

The Importance of Self Care

Now I have realized how important self-care and daily check ins are. Establishing some type of daily or even weekly practice that can help to maintain some type of mental and emotional balance is imperative! I cannot stress it enough; especially while trying to navigate the struggles that we as moms face on a daily basis.

I will leave you with my top self-care activities that you might be able to begin incorporating in your own self-care routine.

Journaling!!

I have a different journal for everyday of the year! Ok, I’m exaggerating but I have several journals that I use for various thoughts, feelings and ideas. I lost count.

Meditation.

I like to take time at the beginning of the day to set my intentions, read a devotion and start my day off on a positive not. This way I am able to control the first moments before I step out into the world and my mood is already set despite what might be facing me throughout the day. I also take some quiet time at the end of the day to wind down and do a self-check and audit my emotions from the day. (I also journal during this time and document my feelings in case anything might be off). The Insight Timer is my go-to app for this!

Yoga

I like to start my day off with a nice Yoga with Adriene session and it really gets my mind and body ready to start the day. She also has some great routines for nighttime to help with sleep quality.

Hot baths

These have come fewer and further between for me but when I do get a chance, it feels AMAZING! Check out my post I did a while back about my ACV and pink Himalayan salt baths.

Reading

Depending on what you read, this can be considered a form of escape. However, I like to read about subjects that can help with understanding myself and the world around me even better.

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What does self care look like for you on a daily basis?

Ronda Williams is the creator of Melanin Mom, which is a blog that was established to be a voice and community for other mothers of color, who struggle to understand their own mental health as it relates to raising tiny humans, while still trying to maintain their own identity. Ronda has a 5-year-old son named Sebastian who was the inspiration behind it all. She is an LPC-Intern, providing CBT-based interventions to clients with severe psychosis. She is working, learning and growing to be able to focus solely on holistic wellness in an effort to provide services, tools and resources to like-minded individuals in an effort to maintain and continue their healing process.

You can also find her on Instagram & Twitter @_melaninmom

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