My Mental Health Journey and 3 Things You Can Do to Navigate Your Own

[Warning!: Discussion of sexual assault and obstetric violence]

My Story

As a child I was always different and in our society being different is unfortunately seen as an affront to normative (that is to say, White supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal, anti-Black, xenophobic, anti-queer, anti-difference) society. While I realized quite young that being different would make my life harder, I never wanted to be “normal,” whatever that was. I liked being the Black girl who wore her feelings on her shoulders, who daydreamed often, and who sat in the front of class. I liked being the Black girl who saw “god” not in the pulpit but rather in the sacred exchanges at my auntie and grandma’s kitchen tables. I liked being the Black girl who loved to read. As a young Black woman raised largely by a working class single Black mother, reading was my journeying, my ability to travel to places where I could imagine a life of love and joy. And, I liked being a dark-skinned Black girl. While other Black girls, who had internalized anti-Black racism, called me “coco crisp” and “black monkey” and suggested that being Black and intelligent was an oxymoron, I embraced the fullness of my Black girlish self. So, though their bullying definitely left scars, I was always sad that they didn’t see themselves as smart and capable, too. 

And, yet, my defiance, my simple and yet radical insistence on being myself, came at a cost. I was bullied throughout my adolescent and teen years, and having no father figure, I became the prey of both adolescent men and boys. It was Christmas Eve the first time my uncle touched me. I was only maybe ten or eleven at the time. I had always been the outcast in my family. I was, as my family made very clear, the “child-out-of-wedlock.” So, while some of my aunts and cousins turned their noses up at me and my father was usually nowhere to be found, my uncle took a special interest. Little did I know he had an ulterior motive. So, on this holiday evening when we were stringing lights on my grandmother’s house, he played a game of sorts. I had one of those flannel shirts on with the pocket in the front. Laughing, he put his hand in my pocket grabbing at my pubescent breast, asking playfully, “what’s in your pocket?” Shocked and dismayed, I said simply, “nothing.” And, that’s how it began and went on for several years until I got the courage to tell my mother about the abuse.  I still don’t like Christmas. That moment changed everything for me. 

 So, by the time, I was thirteen I was deeply depressed and constantly struggling with suicidal ideations. But, I never really wanted to die. I just didn’t want to live in a world where it felt so painful just to be me. I went through years of counseling and therapy. And, continued to experience sexual assault, including rape, by boyfriends and seeming friends, who were all too willing to prey on my vulnerabilities. I was looking for love and acceptance in all the wrong places, but I did not understand that yet. I was a doctoral student when I joined a women’s sexual assault group and that began to help me turn a corner and reclaim my power. Connecting with other women who had experienced sexual trauma helped me to feel a sense of community and solidarity I really needed. I also had begun to travel. This time it wasn’t simply in the pages of books. I traveled to South Africa,  Ghana, and Benin, and in these African ancestral lands I found a sense of home. What I had been looking for all these years, I experienced in the daily interactions at the market, the conversations over a shared meal,  and the joyous communal celebration at gatherings. For the first time, I felt fully alive, and also fully human. It’s an astonishing thing to be in a place where my Blackness, my melanated existence, was and is the norm. 

So, by the time I met my current husband, I had turned over a new leaf in my life. I was finding love and joy within myself. And yet, when my husband and I began to plan for having a family, I was still terrified. Because of the stigma attached to mental health, I feared I was unfit to be a parent. I feared my trauma would overcome my desire to love and nurture. I feared that I would fall back into a deep depression. I knew at that point as I know now that mental health is a continual journey. There is no destination to be reached. It’s an ongoing process of finding and re-finding balance. So, despite my fears, I knew I had to keep living. 

My Birth Journey 

I had my first child when I was a doctoral student. And, it was hard. My birth was traumatic. I experienced what at the time I had no words for but today I understand as obstetric rape. During my labor and delivery, a nurse who I had never met, who never introduced herself, and who never even spoke to me, came into my birthing room and inserted her hand into my vagina. I did not fully understand informed consent at the time but I knew what she was doing, what was being dismissed as a mere cervical check, was wrong. I was in a birthing pool at the time, and as a sexual assault survivor I was already uncomfortable with feeling so naked and exposed. I was mortified but with the surges coming one after the other I was not in any condition to speak, let alone voice my outrage. So, in the aftermath of my son’s birth, those familiar feelings of sheer terror and a deep sense being violated haunted me. I did eventually report the assault to the hospital, but as far as I know nothing was done. I could not even identify the nurse who’d assaulted me. 

I know now that this had a profound impact on my postpartum experience. I struggled for months to breastfeed (even despite getting assistance from lactation specialists at the hospital). It left me feeling depressed. I was exhausted, stressed, and beginning to mentally unravel and so my husband, who was always supportive, said, “maybe it’s time to bottle feed instead.” I felt crushed but I saw what was happening to me and I knew he was right. But, I wasn’t quite ready to give up. So, after going to numerous appointments with lactation specialists at the hospital where I gave birth, I finally decided to find my own lactation consultant. I found a woman in my area who did house calls, and I booked her right away. She came to my home and as we chatted in my bedroom we got my son latched and I could feel the difference this time. I went on to breastfed for nearly three years and also breastfed my second child for two and a half. So, I learned some important lessons from my experiences both in life and in birth. 

  1. Self-Advocate

If you aren’t getting the support you need, keep asking and searching. I definitely learned to educate myself and to keep asking for what I needed. So once I got the support I needed with lactation, I was able to decrease my anxiety, get more rest and sleep, and be a more confident parent. 

Recent studies have shown that 1 in 3 pregnant people experience anxiety. Furthermore, 1 in 3 birthing people who experience anxiety during pregnancy will go on to continue to experience anxiety during the postpartum period. Studies have also shown a strong correlation between postpartum anxiety and postpartum depression (PPD), so much so that 2 out of 3 birthing people who suffer from postpartum depression also are dealing with a postpartum anxiety disorder. [1] Moreover, depression and anxiety can impact non-gestational parents, too. But, it doesn’t have to be this way. There are resources to support you.

  1. Get Help

Find a therapist if you are struggling with past trauma and/or recurrent and intrusive thoughts. Consult a full-spectrum or postpartum doula if you want help navigating the transition of pregnancy, parenthood, or loss. Craft and lean on the village you need not just for birth but for parenthood. It’s okay and necessary to ask for help. 

  1. Prioritize Mental Self-Care

Self-care isn’t just bubble baths and massages. It’s checking in with yourself and doing the mental work to release your stress, fears, and anxieties. 

Take out time to just breathe. In many cultures, our breath is understood as our literal life force. Studies have shown that just connecting to and awareness of the breath can change our brain and our response to stress. [2]

Take a hypnobirthing course. Having gone through the trauma of my first birth, I at least knew what I didn’t know. I had taken a childbirth education class the first time but I didn’t end up having the tools I needed to tune into my body during labor or the information I needed to make critical decisions about my birth experience. So, I began searching for something that could help me feel more calm and confident, but also provide education. I searched and I found hypnobirthing. And, it transformed my life. I finally felt like I understood my body and I gained the education and mental tools to connect with my body and my baby in pregnancy, birth, and far beyond. 

Mental health is an ongoing journey but if we self-advocate, get help, and prioritize our mental self-care, we can find a way out of despair. We can find joy. 

[1] Rados SN, Tadina M, and Radoslav H. Anxiety During Pregnancy and Postpartum: Course, Predictors, and Comorbidity with Postpartum Depression. Acta Clin Croatica. 2018; 57 (1): 39-51; Correia LL, Linhares MBM. Maternal anxiety in the pre- and postnatal period: a literature review.Rev Lat Am Enfermagem. 2007;15(4):677–83; Stuart S, Couser G, Schilder K, O’Hara M, Gorman L. Postpartum anxiety and depression: onset and comorbidity in a community sample. J Nerv Ment Dis. 1998;186(7):420–4; Grant KA, McMahon C, Austin MP. Maternal anxiety during the transition to parenthood: a prospective study. J Affect Disord. 2008; 108:101–11.

[2] Richard P. Brow, MD  and Patricia Gerbarg, MD. The Healing Power of the Breath: Simple Techniques to Reduce Stress and Anxiety, Enhance Concentration, and Balance Your Emotions. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 2012.

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