When You Learn How Important Self-Advocacy Is

In the last twenty years, off and on, with my frenemies, Anxiety & Depression, I have learned quite a bit about living a life with Mental Illness. My first twelve years were in secret, keeping my mouth shut on anything relating to the words melancholy, empty, sad. I was told to hide, told that the stigma would ruin any chance of a career for me, would isolate me and make me feel even more lonely than I already did. I was ashamed that my differences made me plague-worthy. Who wants to be friends with a psycho?!

Eventually, I got fed up… or I should say, extremely deeply depressed. I couldn’t hide it anymore. My Postpartum Depression and Anxiety brought on my first step in becoming free of this stigma… I had to admit my illnesses to someone aside from my family. I had to tell my boss. I had no idea what would happen, if I would be let go for some stupid made up reason to hide the real dismissal of me being crazy. I had no other option though, I was hospitalized and in turn could not do the work I took home to do during my maternity leave.

I then started to tell some friends and upon seeing their genuine compassionate reactions, I realized not everyone believed the stigma behind having a Mental Illness diagnosis. It was from this point, about a decade ago, when I decided to screw the stigma and advocate.

Advocacy is defined as, “the act of pleading for, supporting, or recommending,” by dictonary.com. I dove right in, starting with Mental Illnesses that most were unaware existed, Postpartum Depression and Anxiety. I immersed myself joining up with a non-profit I found on Facebook one day. I bonded with fellow mothers who experienced similar events. Some of them proudly declared their stories while others still felt the need to hide. It was an amazing feeling to not feel alone.

By doing this I began to tell my story to anyone at any given moment. It didn’t matter if they never inquired about my illnesses. I wanted to get my story out there. I wanted to be a voice, a voice that was heard when many others were still so afraid to speak up. This was my main form of Advocacy. I told my stories and frankly couldn’t care less if someone responded negatively which was very rare. I rose up to the challenge of becoming a symbol of someone who could be successful and who lived with Mental Illnesses.

These last few years, I began to learn about Self Advocacy, the need to fight for my own care. This is not always easy to do especially when your own care involves a brain imbalance and what I like to call “thinking imperfections”. In the beginning, I even wondered who would trust me to create my own care plan… after all, that required someone with a healthy brain, not someone who was mentally ill. Now I don’t care. Majority of the time, I am in my right mind and can decide things for myself. But this was not always the case.

Three years ago, things changed. I quickly went from a stable human being to one having a psychotic break. There was no point in creating a Self-Advocacy plan at that time because the change was so rapid I could barely recognize it. One moment I could coherently tell my husband I needed to go to the hospital’s inpatient psychiatric unit, the next, I was in the fetal position scratching my head repeatedly crying for the rapid thoughts to leave me, that it hurt too much. It frightened my husband, my parents and my daughter who was 8 at the time. More importantly, in my lucid moments, it scared the shit out of me.

It was after this last episode with Major Depressive Disorder that I became extremely involved in Self-Advocacy. I needed to be. I knew how my body felt, what my brain was telling me, how the meds were working. When I needed a different type of therapy, I searched for the therapist. I worked together with my psychiatrist at the time in weaning off two of my medications. I made sure my doctors and my therapist were aware of each other. I began to practice Mindfulness and really took notice at how my body felt. There were no secrets anymore, no hiding.

And now, once again, I am advocating for myself. In the last 2 years 9 months, I have been through 4 psychiatrists/APRN’s at the same psychiatric group. They all left for some reason. The first, who saw me through my worst, left to have a baby and never came back. The second I saw once and then he retired. The third who aided me in my weaning and worked with me on medication changes left to become a head for an addiction facility. The last… I saw her once in July, just sent a letter explaining that she returned to work far too early when she had her first child and was now pregnant with her second. She decided to leave the end of the December. I was due to see her in January.

What to do, what to do? As I am waiting for my next assignment, whether it be a psychiatrist or psychiatric APRN, I am researching my other options because well, starting a 5th doctor in 3 years is kind of annoying. With my track record, the 5th is bound to up and leave too. There must be other psychiatric groups out there. Sad thing is, I am only down to seeing them twice a year just for prescriptions. I know for emergency purposes, my primary care physician would write a script for me. Problem is, my Anxiety has been worse these last couple of months and I foresee an additional medication being prescribed. As much as I like my PCP, I need someone who specializes in Psychiatry.

Self-Advocacy is a process that can be very time consuming and mentally and physically draining. When it comes down to it though, it needs to rank high in the self-care process. The only person who is going to care as much about your care and health, is you. What I have realized is that having a Self-Advocacy Care Plan is also a necessity. This can be used when you know you are not mentally stable. It is a list of things for your spouse, parents, or even a special friend to tell the doctors when you can’t. It allows them to advocate for you the way you would want to advocate for yourself.

I am currently putting mine together.

I Will Not Hide Anymore: A Letter To The Non-Believer

To The Non-Believer,

 

If I passed you on the street, would you be able to identify that I am not ‘normal’? Would you cringe and slither away from me?  Would you see me as different, weak, an attention seeker?

 

For years, I stayed hidden because of people like you. Taught to fear my diagnoses. Shh, don’t tell anyone.  I believed it.  I played into the stigma.  I did it for protection of what you might say or do.  I feared losing friends, family members, even career opportunities.

 

And then one day I said “Fuck it!”

 

It just became too difficult to hide, too shameful, too guilty. And why should I feel that way?  To hide from you and your posse?  On this particular day, many years ago, I stood up proud and said, “I have Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder.”  I would hide no more.

 

And you laughed because to you, these illnesses did not exist, do not exist. To you I was weak, finding life’s normal stressors to hard.  To you I was seeking attention, because you thought I felt ignored.  It never once crossed your mind to believe me because hey, you can’t see these illnesses so why the heck would they actually be real?!

 

It didn’t matter that there were other invisible illnesses that you can’t see but believed were real. It didn’t matter that I was someone you knew for decades.  It didn’t matter that a fifth of the population would be diagnosed with a mental illness.  To you and your fellow Non-Believers, I was making it up.  It was all in my head.

 

All in my head. Yes, in a way it is.  My head contains my brain.  Mental illnesses are disorders of the, what?  Yes, the brain.  The brain, the thing that controls everything in your body.  It tells your heart to pump blood.  It tells your stomach to digest food and make energy.  How could we believe that it could turn against us?!

 

But it can.

 

It distorts my thinking, makes me believe I am a loser, unwanted, undeserving of anyone’s love and kindness. It tells me my friends and family can’t stand me anymore.  And in some cases, it makes me ponder hurting myself or if life is even worth living anymore.  Do you know what that is like?  To fully hate yourself, everything about you, everything you were taught at a young age made you the cool unique person you are?  No, can’t be real, right?  And then more emotions creep in, more lies that Depression makes me believe… the guilt and shame to any wrong doing I thought I did.

 

I can’t wish these thoughts away. Oh, how my life would be so much easier if I could.  I would gladly take one day of a horrible depressive funk if I was guaranteed I would wake up wonderful the next day. Stay positive, you say.  One of many phrases that are far easier said than done.  Then you throw out remarks such as grow up, man up, snap out of it.  You call me selfish for thinking about self harm and suicide because obviously, to your Non-Believer clan, I am only thinking of myself in this situation.  You think I am blocking what others may think or feel if I inflicted harm on myself.  The problem is, you have never been there, have never been in that position of just yearning to shut the racing thoughts and emotions from your brain, of wanting to not feel like an empty void.

 

Oh, and the lack of physical symptoms… I laugh. My anxiety causes so many.  Where to begin?  Shortness of breath, heart palpitations, extreme nausea, dizziness, insomnia.  In extreme cases, full blown panic attacks that feeling like I am dying from a heart attack, vomiting, constant muscle tension and hours of rocking back and forth.  You tell me meditate, go for a walk and my favorite, hug your child.  Not bad suggestions, but when I am tensed up in the fetal position, unable to speak, trying to scratch my hair out, these suggestions are not going to happen.

 

And then the hospitalizations. You wonder why our government needs to focus so much resources into Mental Health facilities.  You think my two brief stays were a wasted of time and money.  Yes, of course they were… I so wanted to almost bankrupt my family to pay for these stays.  That was my desire, can’t you tell?!  My response to you now is we do not have enough resources for people like me.  There are not enough inpatient and outpatient facilities.  There is not enough coverage through insurance for psychiatrist visits, therapist visits and medication.  And there isn’t enough because of you Non-Believers and the stigma you place on my population.

 

You call me a Millennial with the way I am “overreacting”. Life is hard, you say.  Stop being so weak, you say.  Everything will not be handed to you on a silver platter, you say.  It doesn’t matter that I was clearly born on the tail end of Generation X or that my parents raised me to be a hard-working person.  You laugh it off thinking somewhere in my childhood they fucked me up.  You would be sadly mistaken.  Except for a genetic link, my parents taught me to be respectful, loving and a go-getter.  They always told me not to expect everything in my future career because we all are easily replaceable.  They taught me that working hard got you to where you wanted to be.  You know, all the same things your parents taught you.

 

And now, I am angry, so, so fucking angry. Angry that this is still an issue, that many people who are diagnosed still feel they must hide, that they would be seen as weak or a freak if they went for help.  I am angry that so many people have taken their lives thinking that was the only way out because of you Non-Believers.  Just furious, even at myself, that I thought I had to stay silent.

 

But, I am silent no more.  I will continue to advocate for my community and myself.  I will tell my story.  I will not let the stigma become me again.  And, I will not wish you to experience the hell I have even though that might ‘turn you’.  The internal suffering and the suffering of your loved ones because they can’t help is too much for anyone.

 

Sincerely,

 

Stephanie Paige

A Mental Illness Survivor & Advocate

 

 

When False Information On A Meme Makes You Angry…

Originally posted on Stigmama on Tuesday, June 20th:

The other day on Facebook I came across a meme… actually calling it a meme is too nice. I came across a shitty ad that basically told me and others that are Mentally Ill and medicated that we are now drug addicts. While addiction is a Mental Illness, I have not been diagnosed with it. I am a long time Depressive and Anxiety-ridden Mom that will fully disclose any part of my history because people need to know what it is really like to be Mentally Ill.

When I saw this, I was outraged, furious, and this was at 10am on a weekday morning in my cubicle at work:

What made this worse, was this was the pinned post in this group ‘The Free Thought Project’. My blood was boiling. I wanted to break something. Instead I decided to use this as an oppurtunity to educate.

I have seen many versions of this ad before (see below) consciously telling people that medication is evil and while I find them offensive, it didn’t hit me as hard as saying I now have a “lifelong addiction”:

                                        

Is medication shit… well I will flat out admit I wish I didn’t have to take it but comparing it to the stuff that would be on my daughter’s diaper years and years ago is a bit much.

Nature as an antidepressant… I agree wholeheartedly that nature is very rewarding.  I am an avid walker and hiker (and snowshoe-er in the cold winter months).  I love being outside.  After a hike, I usually find myself rejuvenated, feeling alive and most importantly happy.  A hike or a walk outside at lunch can ‘turn my frown upside down’.  There are just a couple of things wrong with this statement:  Nature does not have the same effect on everyone and when you are severely Depressed, it ain’t going to work, trust me, I’ve been there.

Being an Alpha personality, a control freak, a perfectionist, I will fully admit that I hated being on meds.  I couldn’t fathom the idea that a little pill (or four) controlled me.  I was only ‘normal’ because of them.  I thought I could get better without them.  I was wrong… very very wrong.

The first time I was prescribed medication was shortly after my 18th birthday.  It came in the form of a half white and half aqua capsule known as Prozac.  I was quickly told not to tell anyone I was taking it.  This was after I held a case cutter I stole from work to my wrist debating whether I should live or die.  This event, I was also told, to not speak of.  Ah, you got to love the stigma associated with being Mentally Ill.  Because of this, I thought medication was wrong, bad, sinful.  How stupid of me.

It wasn’t until my recent episode of Major Depressive Disorder and Severe Anxiety almost three years ago, that while getting better I finally said “Screw it!”  I didn’t care who knew.  If I had a megaphone, I would probably be screaming it.  There is nothing wrong with being medicated.  I really should create (or order if it exists) a shirt that reads: “Medicated & Proud Of It”.

These people that create these offensive and naïve memes have no idea what it is really like to live with these conditions.  Because it is invisible it doesn’t actually exist.  Because there is no official blood test or genetic test, we all must be making it up.  It is all in our heads… why yes, it is.  Because of a lack of Serotonin, something produced in my brain (i.e. my head) I live daily with two severe illnesses.  I am not making it up.  Who would make up paying monthly for medications, weekly psychiatrist & therapy appointments, being hospitalized, becoming severely delusional, considering hurting or killing yourself?!  Yes, I totally want all of this!

But we live in a society that believes Mental Illness is not on the same level as a Physical Illness.  It is okay if you take lifelong medications for illnesses such as Diabetes, Multiple Sclerosis, Lupus, and Cancer and that is not seen as an addiction.  Why is it okay for them but not for people like me?  Why am I considered ‘an addict’?  Why am I ‘faking it’?  I wonder if there was a real test that proved a Mental Illness diagnosis if these views would change.

I have weaned off medications a handful of times.  It can happen.  I lived 4 years med free before I entered into my 6th Major Depressive Episode.  Once on medication again, I took a hard look at my husband, my daughter, and my parents and told myself I didn’t want to see them suffer anymore.  I didn’t want to suffer anymore.  I decided then and there to never ever go off my antidepressant.  Lexapro and I will remain the best of friends.  I am not ashamed of my med.  Without it, I would be in a very dark place or not here at all.

To ‘The Free Thought Project’, research more on what is truth and what is fiction.  I don’t care if you lean liberal or conservative.  The Mentally Ill are a large population and by posting this, you are making us want to hide more.  Because of this, many people will stay silent.  Because of this, many people will not get the help they need.  Because of this thinking, more deaths by suicide will occur.  Remember that old adage “Stop and think before you speak”?  It would have come in handy here.

To all my fellow people with Mental Illness, please do not hide.  Do not believe a word of this absurdity.  There is help.  A walk in the woods can help, but it is not a cure.  It will not help as much as therapy and medication.  Remember:

 

Hi, My Name Is Not “Sophia’s Mom”

I was not given the name “Sophia’s Mom” at birth.  How would my parents know all those years ago that I would go on to have a beautiful daughter and name her Sophia.  I am sure they had hopes and dreams for grandchildren, but exact details as the sex and name of the child could not be foreseen in the stars.  After the birth of my daughter though, my name has gone from “Stephanie” to “Sophia’s Mom”.  When introducing myself to her friends’ parents, I always say, “Hi, I am Stephanie, Sophia’s Mother.”

And yet, almost 99% of the time when introduced at school events, or to other friends, I am always referred to as “Sophia’s Mom”.  

But I am so much more.

Being Sophia’s mother is just one piece of me and it is a major important piece of me.  Having a child changes your life.  You are no longer responsible for yourself, you are now responsible for another human being.  I would be foolish to say that being her mother was not significant.  She is one of the reasons my heart beats.  She is one of my strengths.  She is this beautiful human being.  And I love being her mother.

But I am so much more.

I didn’t grow up thinking my career would be ‘Mother’.  I played house and had baby dolls and that was a dream of mine.  But, I was taught to have more aspirations.  My mother stayed at home until I, her youngest, was six.  Then she returned to work.  Her having a career taught me that I could have one of my own.  I did not have to rely on my future spouse for income.  I could earn my own money.

When I decided Architecture would be my schtick at six years of age, I dove into the career head on, even as a young child.  I would build any Lego set I could get my hands on.  The sets progressed in size and complexity as I aged.  In high school, I took drafting classes and started to design houses.  Instead of Teen Vogue, I would buy house plan magazines.  In college, I majored in Architecture and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Architecture.  Since graduation 15 years ago (wow, I’m old), I have worked in my field for several architects and now for a prominent furniture retailer & interior design studio.  I am not just “Sophia’s Mom”, I am also a “Project Manager/Architectural Services”.

Not every title is positive though.  Since teenager-hood, I have been a diagnosed Depressive.  Through the years, I gained the title of Generalized Anxiety Disorder and PTSD.  At my daughter’s birth, I had the titles of Postpartum Depression and Postpartum Anxiety.  I am Mentally Ill.  While most see these as negative, I have turned this into a positive.  I served as a Warrior Mom Ambassador and Climb Leader for the former Postpartum Progress.  I am an Ambassador for PatientsLikeMe.com.  I stand up to the stigma of Mental Illness and contribute not only to my blog, but online to The Mighty and Stigma Fighters.  I have contributed to three different books concerning Mental Illness, Stigma Fighters Anthologies II & III and A Dark Secret: Real Women Share Their Trials And Triumphs Of Their Battle With Maternal Mental Health Illness.  I am not only “Sophia’s Mom”, I am also a “Mental Health Advocate & Mental Health Author”.

While being a mother, I knew once Sophia started school, that I wanted to be known in that school for a reason most parents would not imagine.  I wanted the teachers and staff to know who I was in case my child was a trouble maker, which thankfully she never turned out to be.  I also wanted to be aware of what was going on in the school so I joined PTO.  First I was just your typical PTO member, then I became Treasurer.  For the last three years, I served in this position and will relinquish it once the school year ends and my daughter graduated elementary school in three weeks.  I have grown close to the staff and will miss them as they have always been nice and considerate to my daughter and myself.  I was not only “Sophia’s Mom”, I was “PTO Treasurer”.

What I am saying is we as moms are so much more than mothers.  You have likes and dislikes, hobbies and other things you are interested in.  Aside from all that I mentioned above, I am a daughter, sister and loyal friend.  I love to garden, to hike, to exercise.  I like hanging out with my friends painting or enjoying a nice meal.  We need to remember that being a mother is a part of us, a huge part, but not the only piece.  The next time I am introduced as “Sophia’s Mom”, do not be shocked if I correct you and say:

“Yes, I am Sophia’s Mom, but I am Stephanie Paige.”

I Support: My Response To Recent Events

I didn’t know what ‘white privilege’ was until I attended the Warrior Mom Conference in Boston, MA in July of 2015.  I have been living in a suburban bubble for the last twenty plus years.  Before that I grew up in the melting pot that is New York City.  I had friends of all races, ethnicities and religions.  A lot changes when you are removed from that pot.  Suburbia rarely houses those that are not white.  In my suburban high school, minorities made up, maybe, 10% of our population.  But I digress… At this conference, there was a presentation on privilege and it reopened my eyes.  I learned so much that day and yet had so much more to learn.

I am white, there is no denying it.  My skin doesn’t tan unless it gets severely burned first.  I need to look like a relative of a lobster to show any color other than fair.  This gives me one of the highest privileges.  I grew up Middle Class and remain in that category.  I come from a loving family with parents who are still happily married.  I attended college.  I am privileged.  In certain ways, I do feel the sting of societal beliefs.  I am Jewish and with that comes a boat load of history of Anti-Semitism.  In recent weeks, it comes with bomb threats to JCCs (Jewish Community Centers) and destruction of Jewish cemeteries.  I am also a person with two diagnosed Mental Illnesses currently.  This label has negative assumptions associated with it and in the present day, a huge stigma and a belief that I am a danger to society.  But, I am privileged.  No denying that.
This weekend shit went down in an organization I volunteer my time to, an organization I wish existed when I had just had my daughter, Postpartum Progress Inc.  While I do not have the whole story, the women hurt by this organization are my friends and women of color.  The CEO and founder of this organization said and did something she shouldn’t have that was racist in nature.  While the intent may not have been, we must always think of how others may react.  I do not agree with what was said and done.  As a white woman, I can’t fully understand the damage that occurred.  All I know is that many of my friends, who I met through this organization, and love dearly, were hurt.  I hurt because they are hurt.  As an Empath, I yearn to feel their pain in full so that I can completely understand.  The comments said and actions done (or not done), I thought, was only the beginning of the true nature of the leadership in this organization.
But I was wrong.
Over the weekend, former board members have come forward with stories of “Remember so-and-so, and that she left, want to know why?”.  This battle with women of color has been going on for 2 years and the reaction in the last two years from the leadership of this organization has been to keep it quiet, hushed, on the down low.  They left on mutual terms, that is what was told to the Warrior Mom community, all of us volunteers.
My heart is broken.  I feel like I need to pick a side even though I do not technically have to.  I support my friends who were hurt.  These women gave so much of their time, roughly 20 hours a week, and were only paid minimum wage for five of those hours.  They gave their energy, their love and pieces of their heart to women of all races, ethnicities, religions & sexual orientations.  They only made you feel wanted and respected.  They deserve the same in return.  I will always remain loyal to them for that.  
Where does this leave me with my work with Postpartum Progress, Inc?  
I for one want to help women with their struggles with Postpartum Mental Illness, but there are other organizations.  My heart is telling me to leave PPI.  The Leadership has covered up too much over the last two years which makes you wonder what else is being hidden from us Ambassadors and Climb Leaders.  I just can’t support them anymore.  Yesterday, I wore my Warrior Mom fleece and felt disgusted.  I want to toss my Postpartum Progress travel mug even though it is my best insulated travel mug.  I have lost the motivation to help them.  I just cannot stand behind someone and something, that while trying to ‘help’ women of color, has in turn been hurting them for years now.
That said, I am truly glad I found PPI back in 2014 because through it, I discovered this amazing community of women who just want to help each other.  We just want other women to know they are not alone.  We will still support them whether under PPI or another organization.  I will still advocate for Maternal Mental Health.
With that said, I hereby use this post to submit my formal resignation as a Warrior Mom Ambassador and Climb Leader for Postpartum Progress, Inc.
With love to ALL moms,
Stephanie

Can I Call Myself An Author?

I have always dreamt of being a published Author.  Writing has always been a huge part of who I am.  I remember writing imagination filled stories since elementary school.  In junior high, I expanded to poetry, the easiest form of writing to express myself.  I was even in the Creative Writing talent as my school was for the ‘Gifted & Talented’.  In college, I took a poetry class and threw in some laughter on a poem about bowling that symbolized sex (might post that one day).  I’ve been published in school anthologies with both stories and poetry.

But, can I label myself an author if I haven’t actually published a book of my own?

Dictionary.com defines “Author” as:

  1. a person who writes a novel, poem, essay, etc.; the composer of a literary work, as distinguished from a compiler, translator, editor, or copyist.
  2. the literary production or productions of a writer:
    to find a passage in an author.
  3. the maker of anything; creator; originator:
    the author of a new tax plan.
  4. Computers. the writer of a software program, especially a hypertext or multimedia application.

I definitely fit the mold of #1, yet calling myself “Author” doesn’t feel right.  I guess it stems from learning all those years ago, that to be a real Author, you had to be published.  Published.  What constitutes ‘being published’?  As stated before, I was ‘published’ in anthologies put out by the Creative Writing talent at my junior high.  I was ‘published’ in an anthology in high school.  Do these count?  Only a marginal amount of people will ever read them.  And while I still possess all of these works, I highly doubt they exist beyond my possession anymore.

I write this blog.  Starting in 2015, I created my blog, Rising From The Ashes, and still keep it active (although switching platforms from Blogger to WordPress).  I bought my own website to make it official.  I try to publish a post at least once a week.  I have contributed to other blogs, sharing my work several times with The Mighty, Stigma Fighters & Postpartum Progress.

I have been published as a Contributing Author (note my use of the word Contributing as I was one of many) in Stigma Fighters Anthology II and A Dark Secret… both books helping to tear down the stigma associated with Mental Illness and Maternal Mental Illness.

But I haven’t published a book of my own yet and now I am questioning if I want to anymore.

I want to share my life with the world to help others like me.  I want men, women, and teens to know they are not alone in there Mental Health struggles. I want to give them a voice. And while I have started my memoir, my book, to do this, I’m beginning to wonder if I have to complete it because…

Am I not doing this already?  Advocating for those who feel they need to remain silent.  Have I not been sharing my story piece by piece through this blog, on The Mighty and on Stigma Fighters? Was it not published in 2 compilations of stigma breaking books?

It comes down to time.  I just don’t have the time to finish this book right now or in the near future.  I don’t have time to actively contribute to The Mighty and Stigma Fighters if I even attempt to finish my book.  Time is something I cannot buy extra of.  Working full time, being active on my daughter’s school’s PTO, advocating.  Nightly, I am left deciding if I have time to breathe or read my book for 20 minutes (the book usually wins out).

If I do not finish my book, am I still an Author?

Have I still made a longtime dream of mine come true?

I think the answer may lie in the grin on my face below.

I am Stephanie Paige, Author & Advocate.

I’ve Always Wanted To Be An Architect… And Other Shit 

I remember my first Lego set.  I was six and my family had just gotten back to my Aunt & Uncle’s house from the mall.  I am not sure why I wanted this set so badly, but I begged, I pleaded, and now it was lying on the floor of the bedroom I was sitting in.  It was a medieval boat that came with two men in helmets.  I stared at it in awe.  Could I build this?  At six?

I worked hard on it but sure enough, I completed it.  I stared at it in amazement thinking, Wow, I built this!

This teeny-tiny itty-bitty Lego set started it all.  I wanted to become an Architect.  I made a major life decision at the respectable age of 6.

Through the years, I challenged myself.  The sets got bigger and my time to build them got shorter.  I would follow the directions, quickly erect the Lego building, look at it with pure elation and then take it apart.  At this point, I would be my own creations.  I was, after all, a budding Architect!

As I became a teen, I shifted from Legos to hand drawings.  I would draw floor plans just for fun.  Soon, I developed into drawing the front elevations of houses.  I received several home plan books and computer programs for my birthday and holidays.  I even received a drafting table.  Yes, this is definitely what I wanted to do.

In the fall of 1998, I started the 4 year Bachelor of Science in Architecture degree at the University of Maryland.  I was on my way.  For the next few years, I lived in the Architecture building, taking a particular interest in my Architectural History courses.  I became fascinated with buildings, mainly homes, from the Colonial and Federal time periods.  I graduated in May of 2002 and after a month started my career in Architecture.

But, I was far from my desire to be a licensed Architect.  I kept my work records and when the time came, I began to study for the exams.  7 exams at over $200 each.  I took my first exam when my daughter was 2.  I anxiously waited for my results.  The day finally came…

…FAIL.

I was heartbroken.  I was also in the midst of my 5th episode with Major Depressive Disorder.  I decided to take a break and wait for my daughter to get a bit older.  After all, the 5 year rolling clock didn’t start until you passed one of the exams.

1 year after I failed the first exam, I took a different one.  I felt confident going in.  I felt happy when I left.  I felt defeated when the results came…

…FAIL.

The word ‘fail’ and the fact that I am an Alpha with perfectionist tendencies, didn’t ease this situation.  I decided then and there, I was done taking exams until I had the money to pay for the review courses and the exams.

Years went by.  My job growth continued, although minimally.  I began to really think about my career.  Would being licensed make a difference?  At that point, no.  My pay would not increase.  My responsibilities would not increase.  Why spend the money?  Just so I could put ‘Architect’ after my name?

A few years ago, I was struggling with my career.  Where I was working was affecting my Mental Health greatly.  It was not a healthy place for me anymore.  So I once again thought about the question:

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Suddenly, the answer was no longer Architect.  I had become increasingly interested in hiking and nature.  Being outside rejuvenates my soul.  Researching, I realized that maybe a career in Forestry, like becoming a Park Ranger would be for me.  Lacking funds to go get a degree in it, I decided to start small and take a Certificate Course in Forest & Wildlife Conservation.  Most of the material intrigued me.  And then reality set in… there were very little, if any, paying positions in the Northeast, and we were not moving.

Next up in line, a Groupon became available to become a Certified Personal Trainer.  I studied and miraculously passed the exam (an exam that most of its material was not covered in the books the course came with).  To this day, I am still certified.  To this day, I have not used it.

Why?  I changed jobs.  I found a job that still uses my knowledge in Architecture that I enjoy.  Is it my passion?…

…No.

I feel like we stress deciding a career so early in life.  Of course, I made the decision even earlier than necessary.  I graduated college when I was 22, but one had to declare a major by the end of sophomore year.  I look at my daughter now, and can’t even believe that in less than 10 years, she will have to decide what she wants to do with the rest of her life.  How can we decide so young with so little knowledge and experience on what life really is?  She is already starting to decide.  So far she has narrowed it down to Fashion Designer, Illustrator, and Teacher  (Fashionista dropped off the list a couple of years ago).  These are her current passions, but when she is my age (a few years shy of the big 4-0) will she still feel that way?  I don’t.

If I could turn back time (someone send me a Time Turner from the Harry Potter world), I would change my major, knowing what I would endure in the years to come.  Becoming an Architect would fade away.  After suffering severely with Postpartum Depression and Anxiety and with Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder, advocacy is my new passion.  I only want to help others to not suffer the way I have and to get better.  I want others to know they are not alone.  I want to be one of the many people to break down the stigma wall, block by block.  If money were not an issue, I would go back to school now.  I would get a degree in Mental Health Counseling.  I would become a Mental Health Counselor.  Since money does not grow on trees, I will do what I can, maybe one day going back to school.

For now, I am an Architectural Project Manager who advocates for Mental Health and Maternal Mental Health through my writing. And, I am content this way.

November 16th… How Far I’ve Come

It’s been a decade, 10 years, and still on this date every year I think about it, the day I admitted myself into the hospital for severe Postpartum Depression and Anxiety.  Every year I would cry.  The last few years, I got angry.  None of the years did I listen to my therapists (last and current) and actually focus on how far I’ve come instead of how forgone I was.  I focused too much on “Why me?” or “It isn’t fair” all the while knowing life isn’t fair.  I didn’t grow up in some naive protective bubble.  

Many tears have dripped down my cheeks.  I stir up memories of having a panic attack in the ER.  I visualize the days, even weeks, leading up to this moment.  I never wanted to experience this.  I never wanted to hate my daughter.  I never wanted to contemplate running away.  I never wanted to think of myself as unworthy, a disgrace.  I never wanted to cause pain to my husband and parents.  I did though and I carried all that guilt, that blame, that shame, with me on this day for the last 10 years.
The anger I had toward myself would revisit me on this date every year.  The anger I had because I was given this experience set in only the last year.  The anger that because of the Postpartum Depression and Anxiety, the dream of a larger family ceased to exist.  I would no longer have my two, three, four kids I planned I would since childhood.  The anger that because I suffered this, I missed a typical postpartum experience… being that doting mother who adored being around her baby, rocking her, singing to her.  The anger that I missed almost 2 weeks of her life because I was in the hospital.
 
This year, though, I think it is finally time for a change.  Time to not dwell so much back to that moment in time.  Time to sit with the thoughts and feelings for only 10 minutes max and move on.  Time to focus on the good that came from my experience:
 
1)  I got the help I so desperately needed… even if I couldn’t see it at the time.  I’ve dwelled on the lost time, the hate I had for myself and this little baby that took away my life.  But, where would I be if I never went into the hospital?  Would I have run away, contemplated suicide, or worse, took my life like so many other women?  With the hospital stay, I got to focus on getting myself better and I did.
 
2)  My daughter and I have a great relationship.  Years I agonized the fact that because I missed two weeks of her life we would never have a tight bond  or she would use that time lost against me.  I also worried that she would despise me for once hating her.  None of the above happened.  In fact, she appreciates my honesty and knows how much I love her now (to infinity and beyond, forever & always).
 
3)  I am not alone as I thought.  Ten years ago resources in this area were limited.  The hospital, my psychiatrist and therapist were not trained to deal with a focus on postpartum.  The internet was not what it is now with social media and information.  I thought I was alone.  Feeling alone is the worst thing to ever feel.  The isolation, the lack of hope.  Turns out, there is a whole community of us who have experienced Postpartum Illnesses.
 
4)  I get to help and advocate for others.  Once I discovered this community, I wanted to give back.  I wanted to let others know they were not alone and they should never feel like they were.  I wanted to be a friendly ear, a warm hug, a trustworthy soul.  I became a voice for thousands of others who fear(ed) speaking up.
 
After 10 years, I am finally focusing on how far I have come!

Finding My Purpose In Life…

For as long as I could remember, I always wanted to be a mother.  I was drawn to my friends’ younger siblings.  I loved to coo at babies I saw.  I even transformed the bottom of my tiny closet into a “crib” for my two baby dolls.  I couldn’t wait to feel that love, a love between a mother and her child, this time from the view of being the Mommy.  At that young age, motherhood was my focus in life and I would be blessed almost two decades later with the birth of my daughter.
At six, with the purchase of my first Lego set (a tiny Viking boat), I suddenly had another desire in life… I wanted to build.  I loved sitting there for hours building Lego sets.  First I would follow the step by step instructions included with the set and then I would let my imagination run wild.  During many trips to see my aunt and uncle, I would admire the houses we would pass, studying details and running through my head how to build them with my Legos.  The building desire soon morphed with my love of houses.  I now wanted to become an architect.

A career was always a desired purpose in life for me.  Watching my mother work, I was brought up with a sense of equality, that a woman could support her family just as much as a man.  A woman’s role was not solely being confined to being a housewife.  I studied hard in college with many overnighters spent hunched over my drafting table drawing (or in some cases snoring with my head on my pillow taking a nap).  I wanted so badly to become a talented architect, rising to the same levels of Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Michael Graves.  I wanted to see designs I created built and enjoyed by people.  I knew that that was my purpose in life… to be a famous architect and a mother.  I would be able to succeed in both.  Nothing could stop me.

At least that is what I thought…

I was well on my way to obtaining all my necessary hours of experience to be able to sit for my exams to become a licensed architect.  With the birth of my daughter, I was sidetracked from this goal while I struggled for almost a year with Severe Postpartum Depression and Anxiety.  When my baby girl reached age 2, I was back on track and was now able to sit for the seven exams that would give me my other purpose.  I once again studied, but was interrupted many times that when I received my results with the word “FAIL” on it, I was not shocked.  Okay, I would detour my plans for a few more years when my daughter was not so dependent on her Mommy.  Still working full time and taking care of her proved a challenge with carving out niches of time to study harder.  Different exam, a few years later, results… FAIL.

I am not happy with the word “fail”.  I am an Alpha that very much strives to give 100% on everything I do.  I sat and thought about this “purpose” in life.  How important was it to me now to see the word “architect” after my name?  Would it increase my salary at the moment?  Would I really be famous?  Is that what I really wanted now?  After many weeks thinking about this and discussing it with my husband, my family and my therapist, I realized that becoming a licensed architect was no longer a purpose in life.

I knew I wanted more though, more than being a Mommy.

I flip-flopped on certain “purposes” for the next few years.  First, I wanted to take my love of nature and become a Park Ranger.  I wanted to teach people about the outdoor world.  I took a certificate course through Penn Foster on Forestry – Wildlife Conservation.  I was fascinated by the things I learned but after researching more, I realized that getting paid to be a Park Ranger was nearly impossible on the East Coast and relocating wasn’t an option.  Next up, I took my love of exercise and decided I would become a Certified Personal Trainer.  Purchasing a Groupon, I did just that.  I barely passed the proctored exam but obtained my certification and although my purpose of owning my own gym and teaching women to love their bodies was lost when I succumbed to another episode of Major Depressive Disorder, I have still kept this certification active.  I realize though, this is not my purpose in life.

With decades of therapy under my belt, I began to play therapist to myself on this topic… What is your purpose in life Stephanie?  What do you want to accomplish?  What in your mind will give meaning to your life?  Answering these questions gave me that awkward puzzled look that you try to prevent your face from making when you are given the question, “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” at an interview.  Luckily, I was not put on the spot sitting in front of an interviewer as it was only me, myself and I.

I analyzed all my aspirations up to then… becoming a mother, creating buildings people needed and could enjoy, helping people enjoy nature, helping people love their bodies and realized that all these aspirations centered around helping or nurturing people.  What could I do with that that would not require going back to school because this lady did not have the money for that.  The light bulb moment happened after a friend of mine published her first book.  I always loved to write since childhood.  Writing was an outlet for me during my Depressive episodes.  I felt that if I wrote about my experiences with Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder, I would be able to help those people who were too scared to speak up, who needed someone to tell them that they are not alone, that they do not need to see the stigma as a threat.

I started my blog focusing on my 20+ years struggling with these illnesses and then decided to do more.  I began to document my journey for a future book.  I became a Climb Co-Leader and a Warrior Mom Ambassador for Postpartum Progress Inc.  I submitted several articles to Stigma Fighters and The Mighty online.  I have been published in two collaborations focused on Mental Illness, Stigma Fighters Anthology II and A Dark Secret.  In a few years, I hope to have my book published and I hope to become a Certified Peer Specialist.  I have become a Mental Health and Maternal Mental Health Advocate.  

This, this, is my purpose in life.  Helping others.  As I help my daughter with her homework, help a struggling mother find someone who has been through what she has been through, or help others shed the shame of their Mental Illness diagnosis, I know, this is what I was put here to do.