This is Part 3 in a 3 part series about postpartum mental health. Part 1 can be found here.
I wouldn’t have considered holistic mental health treatment if I’d believed there was any other way.
But after twenty years of struggling with depression and the severe distress that I experienced postpartum, I had become desperate for help.
I knew conventional medicine didn’t have the answer because I had tried all their interventions and only gotten worse.
In the 18 months since I’d given birth, I’d been to half a dozen mental health facilities, cycled on and off countless psychiatric medications, and been given a laundry list of diagnoses.
I was barely surviving. Overmedicated. Suicidal. And rapidly gaining weight. In the 18 months after giving birth, I gained nearly 50lbs.
Despite my intense suffering, my heart began whispering to me, “What if there’s another way?”
I had to find out.
I entered a holistic treatment center, not knowing what to expect.
The first thing I noticed was the food. Every meal consisted of whole, unprocessed foods. There was no sugar, dairy, soy, gluten, or caffeine in the diet.
I had learned a few years earlier that artificial sweeteners made me physically ill. I had never considered the rest of my diet might have an impact on my mental health.
While initially, I didn’t understand why the diet eliminated these foods, I was thankful for the focus on nutrition. As sick as I was, I immediately noticed that the diet improved my symptoms — all of them.
This caused me to question. I’d been in over a dozen different mental health facilities throughout my life. Even the ones I went to for my eating disorder had never suggested the food I was eating could be contributing to my symptoms. I wondered why.
In fact, I’d heard the opposite. I was told NOT to worry about what I ate, and that it didn’t matter at all. It was consistently said to me that depression, anxiety, and addiction were genetic disorders. Diseases. Signs of a broken brain. Now I was starting to question if any of that was true.
In the past, the treatment I had received consisted of sitting in therapy groups, but things were different at The Center. We spent our days nourishing our bodies with nutritious food, gentle exercises, and activities designed to heal our bodies. Sauna therapy, acupuncture, massage therapy, yoga, and meditation were a few of the available options.
I didn’t know if any of these things would help me overcome a lifetime of mental health struggles, but I enjoyed caring for my body in this new way.
Unlike conventional treatments, this felt good.
How did I not know treatment like this existed?
Before suggesting any new treatments for the severe depression I’d been experiencing postpartum, they ordered numerous lab tests. This, too, surprised me. None of my other doctors had done this. Why not? Blood tests aren’t complicated or expensive, so why with the intensity of my struggles had none of the providers I’d seen taken the time to see if there might be an underlying medical condition causing my symptoms?
They also consulted a holistic psychiatrist who specialized in female hormones and postpartum health. She spent some time with me and said I had symptoms of untreated postpartum depression. She recommended more labs to confirm her diagnosis. She also suggested a healing protocol to help correct the underlying hormonal imbalance.
She was right. Every lab came back the way she said it would.
For eighteen months, I’d been told I was “severely mentally ill.” It turns out I was actually physically sick.
Here’s what was causing my “severe mental illness:”
1. Hormone imbalance- I was depleted in several vital hormones, while other hormone levels were more than twice the normal levels.
2. Mismanaged thyroid treatment- despite knowing I had a thyroid condition, the treatment I’d been receiving wasn’t keeping my thyroid levels in the normal range.
3. Gluten intolerance- Later, I was diagnosed with Celiac disease. Removing gluten from my diet dramatically reduced my depression and anxiety – in only a few days!
4. Medication side effects- All the symptoms that weren’t addressed by the above actions disappeared as I began tapering off medications.
During this time, the doctor at The Center used a method called the “Prozac-taper” to get me off the Cymbalta. I had never heard of this and was scared it wouldn’t work- but it did. Once I was off the Cymbalta, my life improved. The constant suicidal thoughts that came on when I started the medication were gone.
For the first time since my son was born, I had hope.
I’m forever thankful for the professionals who took the time to correctly diagnose and treat me during this time. They saved my life. Improving after decades of intense struggle was a shock. My curiosity intensified. How is it that as a master’s level Social Worker and mental health patient that I didn’t know treatment like this existed?
I continued reading and researching everything I could find. The more I learned, the more I questioned. The more I questioned, the more I discovered that there was an entirely different way to view and treat mental illness than what I’d been told my whole life.
When it came time for me to leave The Center, I still had a long way to go. I had accomplished my goal of getting off Cymbalta, but I was still struggling.
With the correct diagnosis and treatment, I was getting better. But healing years of poor mental and physical health does not happen overnight. In addition to the underlying physical conditions I had, many of my unhealed emotional wounds were surfacing.
Psychiatric medications are powerful at numbing pain. If I’m honest, that’s part of why I willingly took so many. Choosing to come off medication was like ripping the bandage off an open wound.
It was a bloodbath of emotional pain.
I knew healing would require shedding everything I believed about myself and embracing a new paradigm of mental health. The only problem was I lived in a world where I was the “identified patient.” I didn’t think I could return home and get well. I was starting to believe I could heal, but I wasn’t strong enough to stand up to the doctors, professionals, and loved ones who insisted I needed conventional treatments.
So my husband and I decided to move away from our hometown in hopes a fresh start would give me a better chance to heal.
Things didn’t get better right away. They felt worse. Fortunately, while I was at The Center, I’d met a woman who I refer to as my teacher. While I was healing physically, I was also learning new ways to heal emotionally.
For years I’d believed that if I spent enough time in therapy “processing” old hurts and traumas, I could heal them. I once had a therapist tell me the only way to overcome my PTSD was to retell my trauma story repeatedly until it was “boring.” This had the unfortunate consequence of retraumatizing me and creating more emotional dysregulation.
I can see how much of the therapy I participated in made me worse (though not all of it, therapy can be beneficial). It reinforced the idea I was broken and needed someone to fix me. But with my teacher, I was learning a different way. She was teaching me mindfulness, self-compassion, and the healing power of learning to live in the present moment.
I had prayed for a new life, and now one was being offered to me.
But I couldn’t fully embrace it.
All the voices from my past haunted me. Years of believing I was broken and trying different combinations of medications. Years of studying psychology in school. Years of reinforced beliefs that mental health disorders are “chronic, relapsing conditions that cannot be cured – only managed.”
I’d spent my life looking for the answers outside of me. Now it was suggested they were actually within me. I was overwhelmed.
I had, in many ways, built my life around my brokenness. Choosing to heal would require standing up to the systems that had kept me sick. Despite the fact past treatments hadn’t helped me, the risk of rejection felt huge.
What if I was wrong? What if I didn’t get better? During this time, I received painful messages from others. One friend said, “I doubt you will make it a year.”
Still, despite all my fear, my heart continued to whisper, “What if there is another way?” I had to know the answer.
I continued working with my teacher, but I struggled to embrace her teachings. I also stopped following the healing protocols I’d been given at The Center.
During this period of searching and questioning, a lot happened. I got another severe infection and was prescribed a medication that led to my first suicide attempt. The shame I felt afterward nearly crippled me.
My will to live was strong. But medications can override human will. This attempt scared me, and as a result, I left my husband and son and moved back home with my parents.
I returned home to the same systems that hadn’t helped me before. They didn’t help this time either.
Looking back, I can see why moving back home was necessary. It allowed me to finally understand that despite the love and concern my community had for me, they could not help me. And this, though hard to accept, was a gift.
It was the most painful year of my life. Much like a caterpillar has to dissolve into a pile of goo before it can become a beautiful butterfly, I was on the verge of my transformation.
I just couldn’t see it.
Nearly a year after first entering the holistic treatment center, it didn’t appear I was doing much better than when I began. In many ways, I felt worse. The emotional pain was intense.
And when it seemed like I could not bear the pain of being me anymore, I was finally ready to walk away from everyone and everything that said I could not get better and follow the whisper of my heart.
My desire to choose me finally outweighed my fear.
I returned home to my husband and son and never looked back.
I embraced everything I’d learned about healing. I committed to my healing diet. I worked intensely with my teacher. I took a vow to treat myself with kindness and compassion.
I entered my cocoon, and I let my old self dissolve.
And when I reemerged, no one could believe the transformation that had taken place.
I healed. And I discovered the truth about me- I was never “broken.”
The same miraculous process that allows butterflies to emerge from cocoons had transformed my life. I was no longer the same woman.
It was as if I had been reborn. And years later, I continue to experience this gift of healing.
It would be impossible for me to fit all the details of my healing into one blog (or even three).
While my initial transformation was profound, I’ve continued to discover deeper layers of physical and emotional healing. Healing is a journey.
Life keeps bringing me opportunities to review the same lessons. In many ways, choosing to tell my story is similar to the decision to embrace my healing. It feels risky to embrace my truth and tell my story.
But the same question remains: will I choose to follow my own heart?
And my heart’s desire is freedom. For myself and for everyone who believes they are broken.
This is my life’s work.
The mental health system can be a tough place to get help. That’s not to say it is impossible. There are many good people working in the field. I’m fortunate to have found some of them.
Still, I’ve chosen not to work in the traditional mental health system as I once did. Instead, I want my story to serve as an example of what’s possible.
I believe new paradigms of mental health are emerging, and I’m here as an example of what’s possible in that new paradigm.
No one is broken.
You can heal.
And if I can be of service to you in any way, please let me know.