Posted by: Heather Coleman | April 1, 2012

HAWMC Day One: To the Future of Healthy Moms

Heather Coleman Ignite DC

Heather Coleman speaks at Ignite DC with her presentation, "Help!"

My true journey to find my own mental health began in a very unique way. I suffered a postpartum psychotic episode four months after my daughter, Lily, was born in 2008. The full story of that event can be read on Postpartum Progress. But the journey really did begin that fateful day. I had to basically relearn how to take care of myself in the initial days after my breakdown. I had some time to do it. I spent five days hospitalized in the Psychiatric Institute of Washington.  The first page of the journal I was asked to keep during my stay reads, “I think I am here because I have been too stubborn to ask for help. Why have I been too stubborn? Because I think it means that I am weak, when that isn’t true. It shows that I am human and it takes strength to admit you need help and ask for it.”

As mothers we try to do it all. Whether we stay at home with our children or venture back to full-time jobs. We try to be everything to everybody. At least I know I did. Becoming a mother changes everything. You have to restructure how you spend your time and what your entire life revolves around. And there are times when YOU get pushed to the background. What I’ve learned over the past four years is that, YOU and I need to make time for ourselves and we need to know when and how to ask for help. It doesn’t make us any less of a good mother and it may actually make US better mothers because WE will be healthier, happier, and more present for our children and our families.

The first major step in my journey to recovery was sharing my story as a guest blogger on Postpartum Progress, an amazing resource for moms (and dads) who have experienced postpartum depression, psychosis, or any variety of anxiety or mood disorders during and after pregnancy. After that I was able to talk about the experience more readily with friends and family members, and even strangers at times, mainly on a one-on-one basis. Katherine Stone, of Postpartum Progress, named me one of her top 10 PPD writers of 2010. The dam broke with that award. I proudly and openly shared that badge of honor on my Facebook wall and then began sharing my guest blog post publicly, no longer using my first name only to tell my story.

A year later I came across an event called Ignite DC which allows potential speakers to submit an abstract on a topic of their choice in order to present  20 slides in exactly 5 minutes. I thought, “Why not?” Why shouldn’t the topic of postpartum psychosis, and my experience with it, be shared with a wider audience, but in a positive light vs. the negative light that is so often shared by the media? I decided I would use the angle of HELP and how important it was in my life and how I thought it could be important in the lives of others. I worked with several friends, mostly writers and editors, to perfect the narrative I wanted to share. It was a daunting task to fit within the 20 slide rule, knowing they would rotate automatically every 15 seconds whether I was ready or not. I chose to only use photographs for the slides, so that the words I spoke would resonate more with the audience. The night of the presentation came and I listened to the recording of my speech on my phone one last time as I drove into D.C. As the 16 speakers gathered on stage for last minute instructions, I clutched a one page cheat sheet, until an acquaintance of mine, who I now consider a good friend, told me not to use it. She said that I knew the speech and to trust myself if it was a personal story. She was right, oh so right. I opened with the question, “How many of you would stop your cars if you saw a naked woman running on the side of the road?” and the crowd got quiet as a few hands were raised. As I ended the speech, the crowd stood to their feet and I received a partial standing ovation. I barely remember getting off the stage, receiving a couple much needed hugs from friends, before I took my seat and burst into tears. The whole experience of sharing my story was extremely cathartic for me. It was a turning point in my journey. A line from my speech went something like this, “I want to OWN this mental illness, so that it doesn’t own me.” That night I OWNED it! In front of nearly 300 people. I received so many positive comments and was amazed at how many people began sharing their own stories or family member’s stories of mental illness. Once I showed my own vulnerability, they felt comfortable to be vulnerable with me. We had a common bond. It was such a healing moment on my journey to mental health.

In the future, when this “health time capsule” post is read, I hope that so much more is understood about women’s health and especially postpartum depression and psychosis. I hope  these health issues are resolved before events like mine happen, but if not, then I hope women like me know that they are not alone. I hope they know it is OK to ask for help. And I really hope they reach out to others and share their stories, even if it is only with one other person because, as Maya Angelou so poignantly stated, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

To learn more about the Health Activist Writer’s Month Challenge, visit the WEGO Health Blog.

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