When Wendy Isnardi published her book, I had to read it. I love reading books in this genre: books written by real women in the perinatal mental health advocacy community. I love the real life stories about women putting themselves out there kicking the perinatal mental illness stigma! (You can read my review of Ivy Shih Leung’s book here and Walker Karraa’s interview with Ivy here.)
Wendy’s story is unique in this genre as she suffered from both postpartum depression and postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Her story is especially relevant as she shows us the birth world and the maternal mental health world are truly related. The first woman-to-woman contact in her community who had the appropriate resources for her situation was her Lamaze instructor. Her story illustrates how childbirth educators might very well be the first contact with the right referrals for perinatal mood disorders. It was fortunate her Lamaze instructor had the appropriate contacts for Wendy when she needed them.
Today, Wendy still successfully manages OCD. OCD can be difficult to treat as it requires a great deal of strength, diligence and commitment to successfully manage. It’s tough and you gotta be tough to beat it.
Her storytelling is the in-your-face, no-holds-barred style of her native Brooklyn and her current residence, Long Island (where I was born and raised, so I can relate!). She calls her absent, estranged biological father “the sperm donor” and her ever-present, ever-strong mother her “hero, ” and her step-father her “true father.” She lived through several moves until she credits her mother and her real father with giving her the gift of a stable home life.
Wendy lived through stressful years of a dating and marriage to a person who abused substances and cleared out their back accounts. She tells of her painful feelings of failure as she divorced and then filed for bankruptcy.
Wendy then met her true love, Joey, her husband. She tells us that all her life, she was labeled a “worrier.” But, no one really identified her peculiarities, such as a need to line up lipsticks by the correct color, and her need to collect lots of types of things, like makeup brushes, as symptomatic of OCD. In general, her life and the OCD symptoms she manifested were manageable before childbirth.
But Wendy’s OCD worsened when she became pregnant with her first daughter, Madison. It is well known that a woman with a history of mental illness (diagnosed or undiagnosed) is at risk for a perinatal mental illness.
Emotionally, she says she was a “bundle of nerves.” She tells us she obsessively searched the web for pregnancy information and obsessed about all the health messages. The messages were everywhere! Don’t eat tuna, don’t eat cold cuts, don’t wear high heels, don’t stand in front of a microwave, don’t eat maraschino cherries, the baby will get brain damage, etc. And, as Wendy says, everyone has an (unsolicited) opinion for a pregnant woman!
Wendy experienced a tough pregnancy physically, too. She suffered from excruciating constipation during pregnancy.
And Wendy’s birth experience was traumatic. She had a very frightening emergency cesarean section. Wendy actually saw her own “insides” all pulled out of her in a mirror during the surgery. Her husband told her he was afraid he was going to lose her.
Then, we segue to her being at home with her baby daughter, Madison. And the worsening of the terrible unrelenting anxiety and depression so debilitating that she became unable to care for her baby. She was afraid to be alone. Her obsessive fears and scary thoughts took over her life. She had paralyzing obsessive thoughts about bacteria in the baby bottles, about medication accidentally being dumped into the baby bottles. She quickly became afraid to be left alone with her baby. Her emotional state impacted the whole family; her husband and mother had to take shifts, so she wouldn’t be alone.
What makes Wendy’s story so unique and riveting is her willingness to describe in excruciating detail her unrelenting “scary thoughts;” the debilitating thoughts that women with postpartum anxiety and OCD experience.
She now knows, and shares with us, that those scary thoughts were just thoughts, and were not precursors to harmful action. She says she knows she would never actually have harmed her baby, but the thoughts she was having terrified her. She couldn’t stop them and they were dark thoughts. She didn’t understand what they were all about. Her distress and fear were real.
During all of this, Wendy is feeling depressed and lost. But, by a happy coincidence, she meets her Lamaze instructor at a craft fair. Her Lamaze instructor recognizes she needs help and gives her a referral to a professional licensed therapist. Wendy calls her immediately and starts to see her that week. She begins therapy, and gets set up with a psychiatrist who prescribes medication.
But Wendy still had a long and scary road. Her healing process began, but it was a long fight, not for the faint of heart.
Wendy found professional help and then she also found peer support at the Postpartum Resource Center of New York, which is a non-profit agency dedicated to helping women and their families survive their ordeals with depression during pregnancy and depression following the birth of their children. She began to immediately get involved at the center, volunteering there, along with her husband and her mother.
Wendy shares with us that her scary thoughts and obsessions included bloody thoughts and fears about her husband’s gun (even thought Joey is a police officer who knows gun safety and appropriately locks it up). Other obsessive thoughts were frightening bloody thoughts about escalators and her all-consuming bloody terrors of the shark tanks when she visited the Seaquarium.
It is important to note here that her scary thoughts were just that — terrifying thoughts — not precursors to action, not full-blown delusions. She never lost touch with reality and right and wrong. Wendy had frightening thoughts but she knew she would not hurt her baby.
Wendy’s story is riveting as she sought help and never stopped fighting. She was able to fight through to a successful healing process. She moved on to help others, have another child and a fulfilled, successful life.
Come back next week to read my interview with author Wendy Isnardi.
Kathy Morelli, LPC, has a professional marriage and family counseling practice with a focus on pregnancy, birth, postpartum and trauma in Wayne, NJ. Kathy also offers phone consultations and web-based courses. She has a long-term interest in mindbody therapies and is trained in shiatsu, acupressure and Reiki. She writes and speaks on birth comfort measures and perinatal mental health and has appeared at various universities and conferences across the country. She writes on perinatal mental health for Lamaze’s Science & Sensibility, is a board member of Prevention and Treatment of Traumatic Childbirth (PATTCh) and is one of Postpartum Support International’s (PSI) Virtual Volunteers. Visit her at birthtouch.com and kathymorelli.com