Today marks the six year anniversary of the day mental illness came charging into my life. Sure I dealt with some anxiety in college, but nothing and I mean NOTHING prepared me for the postpartum psychotic episode I experienced on the afternoon of October 3rd, 2008.
This breakdown caused me to get out of my car on I-295 near the Washington DC line, strip off all of my clothes, and run naked in the breakdown lane. I was on a bridge and although I don’t think I contemplated jumping, I believed I needed to be baptized and was heading towards the water. It was a very scary and dark time in my life, but what has transpired in the six years since then reflects a strength I didn’t realize that I had within me and an amazing community of love and support that I was able to draw upon.
This journey has shown me the type of person I truly am and the person I hope to be for my children. But today, I want look back at the past six years and share with you some milestones along the way, some ups, some downs, in you get a real picture and a better understanding of mental illness. I want others to know that they are not alone. There is life after a diagnosis of mental illness. And it is a very good life.
I haven’t shared this publicly before, but in 2011 I put in a FOIA request with the Washington Metropolitan Police Department to obtain the 911 calls that were made on my behalf that day. One in particular stood out because of it’s length and because it involved what I refer to as my Good Samaritans, James and his sister, from Richmond, Virginia. At about 1:20 you can hear my voice saying, “kill me now”, followed by “You were right, I was wrong.” I thought I had to die in order to save the world and believed I was talking to God.
2009: The Year of Lost Memories and My Slow Recovery
The year is fuzzy to me. I feel as though I lost a lot of memories from my daughter, Lily’s, first year of life because I was still recovering from this extreme experience. I had to quit breastfeeding, much earlier than I planned and that seemed like yet another loss. It’s sad to me, but mostly I’m extremely grateful that I’m still here! At first I was scared to share my experience with anyone outside my closest friends and family. I was embarrassed that I had lost control of myself and done such outrageous things. I had lost trust in myself and if you can’t trust yourself, who can you trust? I do remember parts of the initial hospital stay at the Psychiatric Institute of Washington and my biggest fear: losing my sense of humor. Luckily that remained and was a big help in my recovery. Eventually I was able to find humor in a very traumatic experience. Although this was a low point for me, it was only up from there.
2010: The Year I Found Katherine Stone and Postpartum Progress
In early 2010 after some Googling of postpartum psychosis and postpartum depression, I came across an invaluable resource, a blog called Postpartum Progress founded by Katherine Stone. I had written my story down to the best of my memory shortly after getting out of the hospital, but had yet to share it with anyone. Reading about Katherine’s own personal experience with postpartum mood disorders gave me courage and hope. I realized how very lucky I was to be alive and that I wanted other women to know that they weren’t alone. I contacted Katherine and she agreed to post my story and only use my first name (at my request). On February 3rd, 2010, Naked on the Side of the Road: One Mother’s Story of Postpartum Psychosis went live. I was overwhelmed by the response. Almost every comment made me cry for one reason or another. At the end of that year, Katherine named me one of the Top 10 PPD Writers of 2010. This was a turning point for me.
2011: Ignite and the Search for My Good Samaritans Begins
After receiving the award from Katherine Stone, I made the decision to share my blog post and story more publicly on Facebook and Twitter. And then I decided to do something even bigger. I submitted an application to participate in Ignite DC #6 and got accepted! I received help from several friends and even a couple acquaintances to revise the piece I had written. I practiced and practiced and then the big night finally arrived. Exactly one year after sharing my blog post, I took the stage at Town Danceboutique in Washington, DC and delivered my very personal speech titled Help! When I stepped off stage, I was greeted by a couple friends with open arms for supportive hugs and I broke into cathartic tears. This was another stepping stone on my journey to recovery and needed to be done. I tried to capture all of the comments I could from Facebook and Twitter with reactions to my performance. Again I was moved to tears by the support and love that came back to me by sharing my story.
Later that year, I was connected through a mutual friend to Washington Post reporter, Tom Jackman, and he wrote a piece about my search for my Good Samaritans, in From naked on the highway to thankful postpartum survivor. I started a Facebook page, titled Help Me Find the People That Saved My Life and Say Thank You in hopes of actually reconnecting with my Good Samaritans, James and his sister, and thanking them for saving my life. I would also ask them what prompted them to stop when so many others kept on driving by me.
2012 and 2013: Blogging for Health Activist Writer’s Month Challenge (HAWMC)
The next couple of years I continued my search for my Good Samaritans and also participated in WEGO Health’s Health Activist Writer’s Month Challenge or HAWMC on my personal blog (see the archives to read the old posts). This process was also very cathartic and writing about my experience in different ways helped me to understand it better and I grew even stronger. I was getting braver each day and soon it would become very apparent what I was preparing myself for.
2014: The Year I Climbed Out of the Darkness and Said “This Is My Brave”
My blogging and Ignite speech lead an amazing woman named Jennifer Marshall to find me. She too had suffered from postpartum psychosis and eventually she had the idea that it was really important for those of us that had experienced mental illness to be brave and share our stories. She wanted us to share these stories through spoken word, music, personal essays, pretty much any way that we could. So she created a show called This Is My Brave and held auditions. Of course, I had to do it. I was selected and on May 18, 2014, I presented my personal essay, titled simply, Naked along with 14 other brave individuals.
Jennifer Marshall also helped organized a Climb Out of the Darkness walk to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Postpartum Progress. I joined her group and was proud to help other Warrior Moms raise over $165,000 to battle postpartum mood disorders. I was able to reflect on how instrumental that blog and Katherine Stone had been in getting me to a better place and encouraging me to use my voice. You never know how you can affect someone else’s life and help them, just by sharing your story.
Help, such an important little word. I wrote the following passage in a journal while I was in the psychiatric ward, just two days after my psychotic episode:
“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 I am weak–when that isn’t true–it shows I am human and it takes strength to admit you need help and ask for it. Here I am thinking I don’t need to be here, I don’t belong, but I probably do need it at this moment in time to help me get better. Not sure what better means–calmer, more balanced, able to ask for help when I need it, able to reach out to others that I don’t know and help them.”
Even if I never find James or the other Good Samaritans that stopped that day, I’m hoping the journey itself will have meaning for me. I think that every time I share this story, it is an opportunity to help other women and their families because it shows that there is help out there and you can recover from traumatic experiences and live with mental illness. I have a very fulfilling life these days. I work full-time in marketing/communications, enjoy spending time with my two amazing children (now ages 8 and 6) and my anchor through all of this has been my husband, Keith.
I enjoy my life as much as possible today because I understand how fragile it is and I’m grateful.