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PREGNANCY, DEPRESSION & EMOTIONAL RELAPSE: HERE’S HOW I’M DEALING WITH IT

Exposure therapy at work? Or, a good friend who coaxed a belly pic and smile out of me? A bit of both... Week 25, 12kg's gained so far, and today was a good day. 

Exposure therapy at work? Or, a good friend who coaxed a belly pic and smile out of me? A bit of both... Week 25, 12kg's gained so far, and today was a good day. 

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.

Yep. All the feels in the world for this. 

Yep. All the feels in the world for this. 

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:

  • Anxiety
  • Intolerance
  • Rigidity and inflexibility
  • Isolating oneself
  • Insomnia
  • 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:                                          

And, once in a while radical self-care means sitting on a beach when you're supposed to be at a conference.

And, once in a while radical self-care means sitting on a beach when you're supposed to be at a conference.

  • 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. 

Thanks for reading! If you feel like this post would help someone you know, please share it. If you have a question or comment, leave it below or email me directly at aimee@tangramwellness.com

- Aimee

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Why We Self-Sabotage… and How to Stop

Artist: Tigran Tsitoghdzyan

Artist: Tigran Tsitoghdzyan

Self-sabotage is perhaps the most common factor leading to the derailment of a person’s goals, and yet, we generally fail to see this core issue at the center of our disappointment. A personal trainer might think, “oh well, she just didn’t want it bad enough” while a yo-yo dieter may say to herself, “I’m big boned and diabetic- might as well give up on being fit.” A woman with a binge drinking disorder might think, “it’s been a stressful day at work. I need to take the edge off,” while her partner may silently mutter, “if she wants to kill herself, that’s her business.” By taking the messes we make in our lives at face value, we're able to avoid the sharp yet temporary pain that comes with deeper investigation. Unfortunately, this perpetuates further sabotage; we eventually find ourselves neck deep in our own unsettling muck. 

So, what exactly is self-sabotage? 

Self-sabotage is the act of confirming the worst beliefs you have about yourself, beliefs that are often imposed on you by an external source at a time when you were not yet prepared to think independently. Self-sabotage is rooted in a legacy of self-hatred passed down through generations, like an ancient poison recipe, or a customary curse. It’s the echo of an elementary school teacher who screams, “what are you, stupid?” because that is what her great aunt taught her about herself. It’s the memory of a narcissistic mother who defined you as “nothing,” or the imprint of a schoolyard bully who, after punching you into the lawn, goes home to a father who does the same to him. What’s most compelling about self-sabotage is that even though it can decimate our lives, it has absolutely nothing to do with us. In fact, its seeds may have been planted hundreds of years before we were born.

Why do we self-sabotage?

We sabotage ourselves because we take what we perceive to be “wrong” with us so personally. We believe deep down that our “failures” are what define us and that we’re destined to be less than what we once hoped we’d become. Whether it’s regaining all the weight back, picking up the bottle after swearing off alcohol yet again, allowing that bully at work to undermine our success, or failing to ask for what we need and desire, our self-sabotage is a message to the world about how we see ourselves: Less than. Unworthy. Undeserving of help. Unable to have a voice in our own lives. Beyond redemption.

We sabotage ourselves because self-imposed isolation seems like the safest path. We act out the traumas of our distant past as if we’re still small, unprotected, disempowered. Whether it’s wrapping our bodies with a flesh-coat of extra kilograms to repel and dissuade, or numbing ourselves with booze in our bedrooms to avoid meeting the day, or tucking our inborn talents within the darkest parts of us to avoid potential criticism, our self-sabotage lets others know that we’re off limits: Undesirable. Untouchable. Repulsive. Undeserving of love. Unable to steer our own ship. Beyond protection.

We sabotage ourselves because we have no other means to cope with discomfort. We internalize our stress and we refuse to accept that unpleasant emotions are a natural part of each person’s existence. Whether it’s compulsively running on the treadmill for two hours every night after work, drinking to blackout after a fight with a lover, or mindlessly bingeing on chips in an effort to stop ruminating, our self-sabotage announces that we prefer “numb” as our default setting, that we’re not interested in intimacy or vulnerability or growth. We strive to be robotic. Unfeeling. Detached. Perfect. Undeserving of closeness. Unwilling to celebrate our common bond. Beyond humanity.

Artist: Andre Gelpe, Christine au Mirior, 1976

Artist: Andre Gelpe, Christine au Mirior, 1976

Self-Sabotage can manifest as:

  • Overeating
  • Undereating or restricting food
  • Abusing alcohol or drugs
  • Ruining solid, healthy relationships
  • Remaining in toxic relationships
  • Attracting people with personality disorders
  • Gravitating toward violent, abusive people
  • Neglecting your mental health needs
  • Failing to see a doctor for physical health concerns
  • Quitting a fitness or weight loss plan
  • Spending too much money
  • Staying in a job you hate
  • Trying to copy someone else's path
  • Doing what seems easy over what seems right
  • Saying “yes” when you mean “no”
  • People pleasing
  • Ignoring messages from your body
  • Ignoring callings from your soul
  • Refusing help, even though you may need it
  • Numbing out in any way possible
  • Neglecting your gifts and talents
  • Downplaying your abilities
  • Not asking for what you need
  • Not asking for what you want
  • Self-harm, cutting
  • Harming others, emotionally or physically
  • Getting into legal trouble
  • Cheating on your spouse
  • Signing up to a race and not accomplishing it
  • Overcommitting
  • Setting yourself up for failure
  • Constantly putting others needs before one's own

How can we stop self-sabotaging?

Artists: Vogue Italia by Paolo Roversi, September 2011

Artists: Vogue Italia by Paolo Roversi, September 2011

Remember what I’d written on accepting beliefs about ourselves that aren’t really our own? In order to overcome self-sabotage, we have to take our power back- power that we’d handed over to external forces a long time ago. Taking our power back means owning every decision we make, and developing a deeper consciousness about our actions. We can no longer place the blame for our behavior or perceived failings on someone else. We must commit to being responsible for what happens in our lives.

The beginning of a journey to return to our truest selves can often seem daunting, if not impossible. We’re no longer sure what we want, or how to measure our progress, or if we’re telling the truth to ourselves. At this point, it’s helpful to enlist a group or individual who can reliably act as both mirror and guide, providing you with a way to strengthen your awareness. Consciousness, like anything else, is a muscle that must be trained. If we don’t know how to do the training, how can we expect to see results? Refusing to self-sabotage means ASKING FOR HELP where you need it.

When we’re ready to stop self-sabotaging, we’re ready to accept the natural process of things, not as big chunks of achievement that we take on with all our might, but as small and reasonable steps toward change that allow us to build and learn as we grow. We no longer say, “even though I haven’t moved from the couch in a month, I’m going to run a marathon this April.” Instead we say, “I’m signing up for the 5km at the end of the year and I’m going to find someone qualified to help me with my training.” We no longer think about writing the next great novel in the span of a week. We focus instead on producing a steady and comfortable word count each day.

Leaving self-sabotage behind means abandoning our rigidity. We don't insist on having things exactly as we think they should be, and we honor the beauty inherent in a world that unfolds unpredictably with the ebbs and flows of seasons. The perfectionism we once held dear is seen merely as an obstacle to our creativity, an unwelcome roadblock in our yearning for exploration. We are open to the full experience of life- the beautiful and the cringeworthy, the depressing and the divine. We seek to see in color now, rather than in black and white. We commit to self-partnering in the moment, no longer looking to dead relics for our identity and worth.

How have you self-sabotaged in your life? What do you attribute to pulling you out of it? Leave your thoughts in the comments section- I'd love to hear from you. If you think this post would help someone else on the journey, please share it. 


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