Healing Depression and Guilt with Skills for Happiness

By Yael Saar

Pregnant womanEvery mother has her ups and downs. The ups are exhilarating, while the downs can be excruciating. My particular downs involved severe postpartum depression and a suicide attempt that thankfully failed. This was followed by six years of practice being an emotional detective, explorer, and experimenter. I've been seeking joy in motherhood, and examining the barriers to joy. For me, trying to fight and pretend my negative emotions away were the worst offenders. It helped to accept that motherhood was hard, and even that learning what to do instead of fighting was hard. Who wants to embrace all that guilt and struggle? Besides, words like acceptance and surrender gave me the creeps.

After a lot of emotional learning, I began to reframe my emotional "stuff." I tried and used many healing modalities, and with time, integrated the aspects that worked for me into a framework that I've come to call Permission-Based Healing. It allows me to drop trying to embrace my struggles (yuck!) or fight them (ouch!), because when I allow the struggles to exist, when I no longer see them as proof of failure, I can disarm them.

Meeting myself with compassion is a skill — which means it can be developed and strengthened. My Permission-Based Healing is a set of emotional tools for disarming depression, anxiety and guilt and validating what's hard while seeking and savoring the joys of motherhood.

I needed to acquire these tools because skills for happiness are not taught in school. Neither are skills for motherhood. In a culture of perfectionism, we're supposed to just "naturally" know all that. No wonder motherhood kicks our behinds.

Before we had kids, we had lives. We had jobs, projects, trajectories. We wrote papers, reports, campaigns. We were good at things. We looked good in our work clothes.

Then we got pregnant. Then we had little people depending on us for their very lives! Now we spend our days in sweatpants, worrying about putting food into them and cleaning up their poop.

All the skills that allow women of our generation to climb ladders, run races, get tenure, or break through glass ceilings are almost useless in life post-bundle-of-joy. (I should mention that I have not actually done any of these things, so if neither have you, all this still applies.)

You can do all the research in the world and not find a way to make a colicky baby stop crying. You can't negotiate with sleep. You can bring a child to water, but you can't make him drink, no matter how dehydrated he is. And that glass ceiling might be easier to break than the resolve of an angry toddler.

We are so busted.

No wonder so many women have a hard time postpartum. We were forcefully evicted from our loft on "I'm-so-good-at-this Avenue" and our new dwelling is a tent at "What-the-fig Alley," and it's pouring rain.

When all the skills we're used to relying on fail us, our identities go through an earthquake. Our self-esteem plummets, while our hormones go berserk. Postpartum depression and anxiety are perfectly natural reactions. How does anybody go through an identity earthquake and hormonal storms, while sleep, rest, and privacy are taken out of the equation, with her mental health intact?

So we break down. We struggle; of course we do. And we think it's our fault, but it isn't.

Even if you manage to avoid depression, good luck avoiding guilt.

Motherhood hurts a lot more than it has to — but struggle is not failure. There's an opportunity here: The breakdown of everything that worked so far forces us to learn new skills. It's not easy, it's not fun, but it's necessary; and, thankfully, it's also possible.

Motherhood (and life) will always include discomforts and pains, but the suffering can be greatly reduced. Not by fighting what is, but by learning the skills that bring ease to what is, when what is hurts.

In my experience, healing depression and guilt means:

• Recognizing that you are not the only freak in town who is struggling.

• Finding a community where you can talk and normalize your struggles.

• Seeking qualified mental health and medical care providers with whom you feel comfortable talking openly.

• Harnessing and harvesting guilt: guilt is not going to disappear, so let's disarm it and learn from it.

• Learning kinder self-talk.

• Allowing playfulness and silliness, and if you have a kooky side, perhaps letting it shine.

There is a lot more to all this, of course. You can delve deeper on these web pages:

• Check out my UnGuilt Trip classes, structured learning environments for developing and integrating these skills: www.ppdtojoy.com/unguilt-trip/.

• Chat with other mothers on the free PPD SpeakEasy support phone chat (coming up on Tuesday, Oct. 11 — this chat happens on the second Tuesday of each month): www.ppdtojoy.com/support/speakeasy-call/.

• Meet other moms at the free Ithaca support group meetings: www.ppdtojoy.com/support/ithaca/.

• Explore Permission-Based Healing: www.ppdtojoy.com/permission-based-healing/.

• Finally, here's a 5-minute video called "Not the Only Freak in Town," which I created to help mothers explain PPD to others: www.ppdtojoy.com/tough-convo/.

May the Joy be with you.

Yael Saar, a postpartum depression survivor and a mother of two, leads local support groups for mothers, teaches classes locally and online, and offers private self-kindness lessons over the phone or via Skype. Free support group details are at www.ppdtojoy.com/support/ithaca. Yael will lead a free class, "An Introduction to The UnGuilt Trip," at GreenStar on Wednesday, October 5, 7 - 8:15 pm.

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