Squash the Stigma, Raise the Vibration

Hi everyone! It has been a while since I posted. In November, I gave birth to my first baby. A beautiful baby girl named Riley. I have been quite busy, and as the cliché goes, my life has changed so much and my priorities are completely re-aligned to caring for my now 6-month old.

I really wanted to get a blog post out for Mental Health Awareness month, and though we are at the end of the month of May, I am grateful I decided to do this. It is great to dedicate a month to awareness, but I think we should talk about mental health 365 days a year, hence this blog!

If there’s one thing I am passionate about, its mental health awareness. I restructured my whole life around being able to help people gain tools and reduce suffering from the mind and it’s changing states. This is one of my most favorite topics. I really thought about what to write about, knowing I would only have about 20-minutes to shoot this blog post out as Riley naps. Here it goes, I hope you find it to be empowering and helpful.

Since having Riley, I have learned a lot. Not just about how to take care of a baby, or balance my tasks.  I have learned that there is still very much a stigma around mental health struggles. I have learned that the western medical system will be pretty quick to let you slip through the cracks and that getting help can be much harder than you would think.

I went off all of my psychiatric medications almost two years ago in preparation for little Riley. I wanted to see if I could be medication free, for the first time in my life.  I wanted to see if I could grow a fetus medication free and then breastfeed a baby medication free. I was lucky that during my pregnancy my mental health was very stable. I had spare time for self care rituals and got plenty of exercise, sunshine, and love. My husband and I were so overjoyed to meet our bundle and I would describe my pregnancy as a very healing time in my life.

I was terrified of losing my mind once I gave birth. People would mention Postpartum Depression to me often, and even my OBGYN urged me to get on medication before I delivered to avoid slipping into a dark depression. If I felt so good, why would I start taking drugs? That seemed like a band-aid without a wound to me.  I tried to prepare as best I could for the postpartum period, I even wrote letters to myself to read on days where I felt lost or totally overwhelmed. But, just like you will hear more times than you care to when you are pregnant, “you can never really be prepared to be a parent.” The chronic sleep deprivation, the physical pains, the loneliness, and the temporary loss of self are hard to really prepare for. Don’t get me wrong, I love being a mom, but I am being fully transparent so as to paint a very clear picture for my readers.

You show up for your 6-week postpartum appointment, excited to see your doctor since the birth and possibly be cleared for exercise. Your arms ache from carrying the car seat across the parking lot, your dark circles are an accent that matches nicely with a required face mask that’s making it hard to breathe. The receptionist has you fill out a brief questionnaire to screen for postpartum depression. You see the doctor, he clears you for sex and “running a marathon” (mine literally said that jokingly…no thanks my pelvic floor cannot handle that yet), he touches on your mood and asks if you feel like harming the baby or yourself, and then just like that, you’re dismissed. Time to take patient #15 of the day. Cheerio, good luck at home. Bye-bye.

I am telling this story with a certain tone because it isn’t the first experience like this that I have had. And countless other women have shared similar experiences with me. The medical system has a bad habit of treating us like statistics and research criteria. But we are not that. We are individuals coming to the table with a host of different lifestyle factors. We need more depth. We need to be listened to as people and not as statistics. This is why I was drawn so intensely to the field of Yoga Therapy where we take a whole-person approach and take all lifestyle factors into account so that we can really guide the patient towards healing and wholeness (yoga therapy plug, YOU BETCHA!)

My entire life (well from age eight and on) I was in therapy and psychiatry. I am now very picky when it comes to choosing a therapist. I have had two fabulous therapists in my life (probably out of 10). The first fabulous therapist I had was when I was just graduating college, and the second was when I moved to Philly to pursue yoga therapy school (shout out to Dr. Susan Matour you literally changed my life). I think therapy is WONDERFUL! But as I just outlined, I have had 2/10 that have truly helped me. The first one that seemed to be very helpful was when I was 22 years old. I had been in and out of therapy 14 years prior. It’s hard to find the right match, but it’s even harder for most people to afford. The best therapists I have seen have been out of network and cost me about $150 per visit. That is far too pricey for the general public and honestly, at this stage in my life, unaffordable. I think this is a major reason people slip through the cracks and it is two-pronged:

1. Good help is hard to find 2. Good help is expensive.

But it shouldn’t be inaccessible. In my personal experience, most therapists that I saw sounded like mono-toned robots and asked me too many questions instead of teaching or educating valuable tools to use in the moment to change my brain. This is also why I love yoga so much, it promotes neuroplasticity to change the brain and eventually heal the trauma, bad habits, negative thinking patterns, etc. (more yoga plugs because why not).

The Stigma:

I was always fortunate to have a childhood full of friends, laughter, and creativity, but it was not easy being a child with mental health issues. It was very taboo and some parents prohibited their children from having sleepovers with me. Maybe they thought their child could catch Obsessive Compulsive Disorder like the common cold?

I’ll never forget how my next door neighbor growing up told my mom I needed an exorcism when my mom told her about my recent diagnosis. Don’t we all wish a simple exorcism would take away all our pain (LOL)? My parents were so involved and so eager to help me. In the early 2000’s there wasn’t much to try other than psychotherapy and hospitalizations, but they did it all. My mom made it clear that they would do whatever it took to help me feel better. I think that’s one of the main reasons I survived. I had parents who held space for my meltdowns and listened hard to me and never gave up. Thank you Mom & Dad, if it weren’t for you I’m not sure I’d be here today. Knowing you have unwavering and non-judgemental support is HUGE!

I was teased in school and called “psycho” more times than I can count. The administration often saw me as a behavioral issue and I was often misunderstood. Many teachers struggled to understand me. Because of a few behavioral issues in school, I was slapped with a Bipolar Disorder diagnosis, which years later, I would learn was not the case. I spent years of my life thinking I was bipolar when I was in fact not. This is another issue with the mental health world. So often, professionals see the need to label a patient as a diagnosis, versus taking other factors into account like: situational factors, gut issues, autoimmune disorders, nutrient deficiencies, MTHFR mutation, the list goes on and on…

I was hospitalized when I was eight for suicidal thoughts and attempts to harm myself. I stayed on the top floor of the Children’s Hospital with no visitors. My roommate was violent so I had to sleep in a hallway on a mattress. I wet the bed every night out of fear. There was a white padded room where they would put patients who were “having an episode.” I would eat my Dole peaches in the morning under fluorescent lights by myself and watch Batman on the TV, take my prescribed mystery medication, and attend the therapy sessions trying my best to keep to myself. I had to pee and poop with the door open and I still can’t stand the smell of hotel towels because it reminds me of that experience. Again, I was eight years old. That protocol really did wonders for my mental health….(NOT). I am not sure what my parents paid for that 2-week stay, but it was sold to them by my psychiatrist as their “only hope” for a child exhibiting symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and possibly Schizophrenia (I heard the F word in Peter Pan). Fast forward to many years of psychiatric drugs with awful symptoms, more suicidal ideation, and anxiety so bad my brain felt like it was on fire (Brain on Fire is a great read, by the way). These are examples of how the system failed me.

My healing has been a lifelong journey, but it took incredible support from family, dedication to finding a good therapist, and constant work and self-study to get to where I am today. Yoga entered my life in 2014 and accelerated the healing process. Finding a connection to my higher self and gaining tools to stay balanced and grounded have made a night and day difference for me. Also, learning that I am not a diagnosis, but so much more than that. I spent extensive time working through faulty belief systems that kept me stuck in negative thinking patterns and suffering. I still have to work on them from time to time. A huge factor in my healing was also putting meaning behind my pain and finding a lesson in it all. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have these circumstances, but every one should have access to them.

So, as a postpartum mom when I began to feel a little low, a little lost some days, I realized it was not postpartum depression but grief. We aren’t taught to grieve and its not talked about AT ALL. It’s ok to grieve your old self, a life you once had, its ok to feel all of your emotions instead of feeling shame for feeling those emotions. The medical system has a way of stigmatizing PPD which can make a mother feel shame for feeling low in the first place. Am I a lesser mom because I crave my old life sometimes? Absolutely not. I am human. We are all just trying to handle change in our own ways. But as I say in almost every post, when we attach to change, we suffer. I learn this lesson again and again, and again. I want to be very clear that I am NOT against medication. Medication can be life altering and so helpful for some people. I may end up going back on medication some day, especially during major life changes and I would not feel ashamed or defeated if I did. For anxiety and depression, I see medication as a temporary boost until things level out. Obviously medication is lifesaving in many circumstances and I am grateful for all of the research and information available. I have had negative experiences with psychiatrists as my last one told me I had a disease and would never be able to be off of medication. When I tried to look for a new psychiatrist, I was turned down by two different practices because I was not on medication but had a history of diagnosis’s like depression and OCD. I was so confused. Isn’t that the ultimate goal of psychiatry? I had worked extensively in therapy, yoga, nutrition, all so that I would be comfortable being medication free, yet I could not even get an appointment. These types of experiences have led me to advocate for myself and seek out the right types of help for me. Since I lean towards a more holistic approach, I found it very helpful to see a psychiatric nurse practitioner who does not push medication, but is still there as a support should I need one.

The Solution:
If I had the answer to solving the mental health crisis then I would be a millionaire! No, but in all seriousness, the solution I am speaking of is the solution to the stigma. More than ever in our society we need more community, we need to share more, we need to connect more. And I am not talking about connecting on social media. Social media has been shown to make people feel more alone. I am talking about in person, out loud, sharing and understanding and listening. A sense of community has really made a difference in my life. I joined an anxiety group in 2014. I was the youngest person in the group but hearing everyone else’s daily struggles made mine seem less scary. I felt understood, heard, and normal. 

I read Sarah Wilson’s “First, we Make the Beast Beautiful” a few years ago and I loved how she portrayed her life with mental illness. She has wonderful statistics about how anxious and depressed people are typically more creative, sensitive, add intelligent. If you think about it from an energetic perspective, people who are anxious typically feel way more deeply than others. They are usually incredible empaths which makes them wonderful healers and creators.

I love this quote from An Unquiet Mind:

“It is, at the end of the day, the individual moments of restlessness, of bleakness, of strong persuasions and maddened enthusiasms, that inform one’s life, change the nature and direction of one’s work, and give full meaning and color to one’s love and friendships.”

I love how Sarah Wilson talks about accepting her anxiety and changing states of emotions rather than constantly trying to fix it. It is healthy and normal to cycle through a variety of emotions, negative and positive, but our culture puts so much emphasis on happiness, which is manmade if you ask me. Joy is achieved when you are at peace with who you are underneath all of the material things. But happiness is sold to us by advertisements and Netflix shows. People feel stressed to feel sad rather than just sitting with the sadness and allowing it to pass. 
I could type all day, but the baby has woken up twice since I started this blog. So I will get to my point. May was mental health awareness month. I thought about this post all month long. The suicide rates are high, there is a need for mental health awareness now more than ever. It’s starts with you. How do you approach your own mental health? Do you allow yourself to feel your emotions and understand your belief systems? Do you examine your shadow self and try to work on changing your mindset so that you feel more joy in your life? Yoga is a great place to start! Yoga gives you the opportunity to quiet the mind so that that you can let the body heal and connect with the real you. The you behind all of the chatter and thoughts.

I hope that we can make progress towards how we approach mental health as a society. I think there is a lot of hope with the newer generations who seem to be much more comfortable talking about their emotions and much more accepting overall. I hope inpatient psychiatry can start to evolve and come out of this 1950’s idea of patients needing to be locked up and contained, but instead listened to and truly helped. If you know someone who is struggling, listen to them with your whole body and let them know they are not alone. A wonderful resource that I will offer is a podcast I recently listened to on Mind Body Green. It is an interview with Dr. Caroline Leaf who talks about “mind management” and how we need to work our brains just like our bodies in a gym. She also talks about depression as being too many toxic thoughts. Check it out: https://feeds.megaphone.fm/the-mindbodygreen-podcast. I think just listening to content like this is a major step in understanding more about mental health.

I will be hosting my first workshop back since maternity leave with my mother on June 21st. If you live in Northern Virginia feel free to sign up for some lovely yoga and sound healing! https://www.eventbrite.com/e/summer-solstice-yoga-tickets-156362178485

I wish you all love, light, peace, and strength to keep moving forward. Keep doing the work and showing up for yourself and others. Keep being a light.

With love and respect,

Maddie Tuohy