As I type this, I’m now 25 weeks into marching alongside my scary monster, a once-imagined situation that I’d framed in my mind as “the most frightening thing in the world.” I’m not talking about public speaking or spiders or failure or the dark. I’m referring to a condition that many millions of women welcome and yearn for: pregnancy. Please don’t misread this- I’m elated to become a mom, and I consider my good fortune at conceiving naturally at this point in my life nothing short of a miracle. However, the concept of being pregnant has always terrified me. Whenever my husband and I discussed our options for potentially starting a family, including fertility treatment, I usually came to the somewhat illogical conclusion that I’d been dealt my hand of cards- which included a history of depression and less than fabulous hormonal wiring- for good reason, and one of those reasons was that I simply wasn’t meant to be a parent. As I mentioned in my last blog post, that line of thinking was never a huge deal for me, and I knew that I could be fulfilled as a person with or without children.
Since week 8, my “scary monster of pregnancy” has been all too real, beginning with a solid two months of morning sickness that rekindled some of my worst hangover memories and made me question my own inner strength. Regularly hugging the toilet bowl at 3am was hard; harder still was feeling like I was constantly letting people down because I couldn’t get out of bed some days, or worrying that my own physical and mental state might be causing harm to my baby. While the millions of pregnancy blogs all seem to view the second trimester as a golden and bliss-filled time, around week 14 I slammed into a steel wall of what appears to be antenatal depression, marked by persistent insomnia, obsessive thinking, and extreme irritability. Although an estimated 20 percent of pregnant women contend with antenatal depression, I didn’t even know it was a “thing” until I began investigating what the heck was going on with me- we only seem to talk about the postnatal kind. To compound matters, I became unable to look at myself in the mirror without feeling repulsed, which unfortunately continues to this day- quite an interesting conundrum for someone who regularly preaches self-love and works with women on their own journeys through body dysmorphia.
But, it’s not only my own head that’s been doing me in. The public commentary is also surprising.
“You’re pregnant!” some random guy exclaimed to me at the gym last week, as if I hadn’t noticed. “Shouldn’t you be sitting down? Can’t exercise like that hurt the baby?” He openly and persistently doubted the expertise of both me and my doctor.
“A 10kg weight gain at this point in your pregnancy is a bit high. We’ll monitor it and do a test for diabetes later on,” the nurse said to me during a routine check. This is definitely not something a health fanatic wants to hear.
And, let’s not forget the various folks who decided to take a guess on the baby’s gender, based entirely on an old wives tale that a woman who’s become ugly must be having a boy…. or a girl... depending on your cultural lens. Yes, a few people actually said this to me.
In the parallel pink cloud universe that seems to have a particularly strong presence in Singapore, pregnancy is touted as a lady’s time to magically float and glow from one high tea luncheon to another- in luxurious silk kaftans, of course. “Cherish every moment!” they say. “Enjoy your pregnancy!” I don’t think it serves anyone to pretend that we all blossom beautifully in our ripening when the reality is often anything but.
Thankfully, I tend to hang around some seriously awesome and refreshingly honest women who, rather than shaming me for expressing this unpopular narrative, were willing to open up about their own conflicted pregnancy experiences, doubts and fears, or at least just listen to mine without judgement.
As a coach and behavioral health professional and with their moral support, I can confidently (albeit very self-consciously) admit that after seven years of feeling mentally rock solid the majority of the time, I am no longer at that place since becoming pregnant, thanks in part to some pretty major hormonal shifts. What was beyond a doubt some of the happiest news of my life has also morphed into an anxiety-riddled roller coaster ride, and I’ve not yet figured out a way to quell the resulting cognitive cacophany. From a recovery perspective, I recognize this as an “emotional relapse.” In other words, I’m not thinking about drinking or restricting food again to deal with an uncomfortable state of being, but some of my emotions and behaviors are in line with what led me into addiction in the first place. No matter how long someone has abstained from their destructive behavior(s) of choice, whether it’s binge eating, pill popping or excessive drinking, most people in recovery will experience emotional relapses at various points in their lives, particularly during high stress situations or periods of great change. The signs of an emotional relapse include:
- Rigidity and inflexibility
- Isolating oneself
- Rejecting intimacy and love
- Poor eating habits
- Shame and blame
- Black and white thinking
- Mood swings
- Ruminating and living in the past
- Refusing to seek help
Whether simply the side effects of a rough pregnancy or something more, I know that for myself and the people I work with, this potent psychological cocktail is nothing to mess around with. So, as I prepare for the third trimester, I’m assessing what I’ve been doing to support myself through this emotional relapse and life challenge. Here’s how I’m getting through my first big emotional relapse in nearly a decade while tackling antenatal depression head on:
- I’m not hiding. As hard as it’s been to be honest about my own experience of pregnancy in the face of so many myths and expectations, I’ve committed to speaking my truth. When I’m not ok, I say so. When I’m feeling really down, I do my very best to reach out to someone I trust. And, although it’s exceptionally tough for a person who works in the behavioral health sector to admit to their own weaknesses and rough patches, the fact of the matter is that coaches, counsellors, psychologists and other “helping” professionals can be particularly prone to depression, anxiety and addiction-related issues. The related sensitivity and experience is what brings so many of us into the field in the first place. Consider this- nearly 50% of practicing NHS psychologists in the UK currently have depression. We’re all human, bottom line.
- I’m practicing RADICAL self-care. Radical self-care means saying “no” to anything and everything that totally stresses me out. It means making a pampering date with myself at least a few times a week, whether for a manicure, massage, physiotherapy or shopping for new bras. It means journaling and drawing and curling up with a good novel instead of focusing on an achievement-based “to do” list. It means forgiving myself for engaging in harsh self-talk and negative thoughts, instead of identifying with them. And, it means staying away from people who may be toxic for me at this time.
- I’m fighting the urge to isolate by keeping the lines of communication open and asking for help when I need it. I knew the importance of being honest with my obstetric doctor about my personal history, and as a result I’ve been seeing a therapist every few weeks who specializes in pregnancy and fertility-related issues, including anxiety and antenatal depression. I also have a small yet strong support network of friends who I can trust and I’ve been making it a point to reach out to some of them, whether it’s just a text, a brunch, or a tea date at my place.
- I’m making exercise and good nutrition a top priority. While I actually don’t feel like working out or eating much, I’ve been getting in at least 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week and I also eat between 2,200 and 2,400 calories daily consisting of healthy fats, complex carbohydrates and lean proteins. Despite the urge, I’m not bingeing on junk food because I know that the sugar crash won’t help my mood. When the cravings come, I’ve got some good snacks on hand, like sliced banana drizzled with honey and nut butter. Having a workout buddy I can lean on- usually my husband or Roz- has helped immensely during this time.
- I’m taking a long sabbatical from social media. Uploading this blog will be the first time I’ve logged onto social media in over two weeks, and after it’s been published I’ll unplug again until the end of October. I’ve been using HootSuite to pre-upload posts for Tangram Wellness, and have it set up so that I’m not able to view anyone else’s feeds- it’s a fantastic tool! Social media can easily bring up a slew of negative emotions for people, as well as serving as a crutch or addiction when the going gets tough, which only compounds the problem. I advise many of my clients to curb their social media use, particularly if they find themselves comparing their own experience to that of others, and I’m taking my own advice here.
I share this blog post in part for every woman who has experienced a less than stellar pregnancy, and for the millions in recovery who will go through an emotional relapse at some point in their lives. As the saying goes, "we are only as sick as our secrets." We free ourselves and others when we each speak our truth as women, as parents, as individuals in recovery, and as helping professionals.
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