When your world implodes

Two weeks ago I was fired from my position as Managing Director for The Seagull Project.

I had only been back in the job for less than 3 months and came back in early October to a very stressed staff on the verge of quitting. I spent most of the first few weeks back just having conversations trying to convince people to stay. I had a killer team and didn’t want to lose an ounce of the talent I had procured. After I patched those holes, convincing people of the potential we had ahead and how we just had to power through to February when we could rebuild, I had to cancel our major fundraiser. Attention had been paid to another fundraising effort against the strategy I had created before I left. Then, my first board meeting was canceled because most of the board was suddenly unavailable 48 hours before the meeting, so we had no container to discuss the implications and plans for what to do next with this fundraising hole.

The first meeting I finally had with the board was in early December and it involved giving some hard news about the state of our finances. In that meeting, we did some serious reconnoitering of the budget, readjusted revenue goals, and walked out with a plan for how to fundraise with major donors and secure loans for our revenue shortfall.

The rest of December passed with a lot of other fires to put out. Prior to my coming on board, decisions were made that turned out to have serious ramifications for us. No one had adequately researched how to actually carry out some of these things, so when time came to implement them, we were lacking in some major pieces. These pieces affected our negotiations with the actors’ union and how we dealt with payroll. I had to talk another staff member off a ledge after delivering some hard news because without them we would have come to a complete standstill. We started rehearsals behind the eight ball, but everyone was getting paid and we had patched yet more holes. I was so proud of my team for continuing to plod forward solve all the crazy problems we were encountering.

Next we had some problems with our fiscal sponsor around instructions that they admit were unclear. It resulted in a delay in a funds transfer and we ended up having some bounced checks. Calling someone to tell them not to deposit a check is about the least fun thing to do. It’s even worse when they say the already have and we all hang out in limbo to see what happens next.

All of this came to a head the weekend of Christmas when no one was available and everything was delayed because of office closures and holiday gatherings.

I came to the January board meeting and outlined all the problems we had experienced and how we had solved them and what we needed next to move forward. It was a chaotic meeting where we were missing a board member for the whole meeting (who no one had spoken to in a while) and another for half the meeting. The meeting was contentious. We didn’t have board meeting minutes to reference previous decisions, we were all stressed with all the operational things that landed, plus we had the usual chaos of the holidays. I left feeling tense but like we had tangible steps to try and solve some problems.

The next evening I was fired. The exact details of the day are not important. The bottom line is I was fired without warning and without an opportunity to correct behavior, behavior that I don’t even know about since no specifics were given to me about what I did wrong. This was counter to the culture I had created among the staff where everyone was given many chances to find the job that worked for them. We were all learning and volunteers, so what good would it have done to berate someone and maybe lose a willing team member in the process?

I was sad about being fired, but also relieved. I told my staff and the conversations over the next 4 days went something like this:

Staff: What the fuck?

Me: Yes.

Staff: I am so angry I don’t have words.

Me: I understand.

Staff: I’m leaving.

Me: Ok.

Two staff members resigned immediately, one resigned effective the end of January, and as of this writing six are not planning to continue after this production. Of the 14 person staff, that leaves five people.

The exodus, overt or covert, was gratifying to parts of me. I spent a week just being numb, enjoying my new time with my baby. Before I was fired, my day would largely consist of  having to figure out how to feed Ronan and keep him entertained so I could get on the phone or answer emails or respond to texts all day. Did I mention this job was unpaid? Yeah. I was missing valuable time with my baby for an unpaid position.

Now I could spend time just making faces at him. The day after I was fired, we got home from an outing and after I changed his diaper, we just laid in bed together, talking to each other and snuggling.

I posted about it on Facebook the Friday after it happened. I received 5 job offers within 2 days. All were paid. It boosted my confidence that I had desirable skills and was a worthwhile person to work with. Because I don’t know why I was fired, I couldn’t do any productive self-reflection or even if the decision was justified.

Then about a week later I hit a major slump. My postpartum depression had been relatively well managed, but this pushed it from “mild and managed” to “major episode.” I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t thinking clearly. I was addressing Ronan’s needs but would start crying for no discernible reason.

I scheduled an emergency session with my therapist. We sorted some things out, largely that if this position had been paid I would have an easily winnable wrongful termination lawsuit on my hands.

Now all I’m left with is unanswered questions AND a sense of relief. This job was hard to do even before I was a new mom dealing with PPD. I was contacted multiple times while on maternity leave to return because of how things were falling apart. Given the outcry to my firing, I can see that decisions made by the board are largely based in emotion, not logic or what is actually best for the company or the people who work within it. Now my days are more loose and I can focus on things I enjoy, like my sweet, sweet baby boy.

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But open loops are tough for the human brain. It’s like having an itch you can’t quite scratch, but isn’t so awful you seek out a corner to wiggle against. The catalytic action of the firing and the subsequent depression episode just suck. I get indignant and wonder if this kind of suffering is what my boss wanted when he fired me.

For now, I work to keep my health on track. I’ve started and joined lots of online communities, I get out of the house every day, I’m back to working out almost every day, and I do my best to focus on what brings me joy and reduces my suffering. I’m lucky that this is the worst I have to deal with. The pending quality of all that is happening with our political system gives me a huge sense of unease, but at least, for now, I have a roof over my head, food in my belly, and a happy, healthy family that offers me home and hope when I need it.

PPD Check In

Yesterday the little nugget turned 6 months. Some moms would say, “Oh my goodness it went by so fast!” but to me it felt exactly like 6 months. Some days dragged by so slowly, and some just were over in a blink.

Given that I’m halfway through the first year I wanted to stop and take stock of how my PPD is doing.

The previous symptoms I experienced were anxiety attacks, trouble sleeping, my appetite being all over the place, a disinterest in activities I used to enjoy like working out, a hard time focusing, and anxiety about leaving the house.

My anxiety attacks have completely disappeared. My biggest anxiety producing moments are very specific, like how to manage a work phone call in the 20 minutes before nap time. Largely my co-workers are chill about the noise or realize that I may just have to go, or I just don’t time things then. Amazingly, the world turns.

I still have a very hard time sleeping. Work has been rough, y’all. There has been a lot of stress as my theatre company finally starts rehearsal for our upcoming production of The Cherry Orchard. We had several huge problems coalesce at once and I spent a lot of nights awake at 3am and having a hard time going back to sleep. I’ve started integrating meditation again, which really helps. I know whenever I read that I think something like, “Sure it does. Weirdo hippie pushing your meditation.” But the truth is IT DOES. I use the Calm app and do a 10 minute meditation right before bed. I realize in hindsight that while this would have been a smart piece of prevention early on, my brain was so gooey from having a baby and being so sleep-deprived that I didn’t think I could possibly find 10 minutes to meditate. I would plan to do it while pumping, but it’s hard for me to get to a zen state when my boobs are being tugged on. So now I do it right before bed and that tends to help.

My appetite is still all over the place, but I think that’s largely because of breastfeeding, not PPD. Some days I have “hollow leg days” where no food is enough. And some days I eat what is probably a normal amount for when I wasn’t breastfeeding. I’m now trying to focus on getting good, nutritious food into my body. I was relying too much on ice cream to get me through the longer days, but now I’m turning back to finding veggie-heavy meals so I can get better nutrition. The cycle is pretty clear that if I drink enough water, eat well, and move a little, I sleep better, which in turn allows me the brainspace and energy to eat well, drink enough water, and move a little.

I’ve joined Stroller Strides, which is just hilarious to me. I was a hardcore gym bunny before I got pregnant. I would workout 5-6 days a week and do a combo of strength training, dance, walking, yoga, and high intensity interval training. Now I aim to get to stroller strides once a week and consider it a cherry if I can get an extra walk or something else in.

I still have some anxiety about leaving the house, but for the most part once we’re out, we’re fine. It takes a lot of mental checklists to get us out the door. It’s a lot to hold in my head and I get a little overwhelmed with the prospect of what could happen if I forget bottles or diapers (both of which have happened…and we totally survived).

I think I’m doing better. I’ll do other check ins as things develop, for better or worse. Hopefully better.

Mild PPD

When I first met with my doula, Kim, I told her that I wanted her to be on the lookout for signs of postpartum mood disorders after I gave birth. PPMDs include postpartum depression, made famous by celebrities like Brooke Shields, and postpartum anxiety, less discussed and diagnosed, but also frequently co-morbid with PPD.

I had never had a mood disorder, but I have a very long history of mental illness in my extended family. At one point my whole immediate family was on antidepressants. For me, it was because I had heard about its appetite-suppressing side effect and wanted to lose weight. I told my family’s psychiatrist about that and he wrote me a prescription, no questions asked. I took the pills for a year until I realized I wasn’t losing weight and any appetite suppression was me willing myself not to eat rather than true appetite suppression.

There was something about pregnancy that was making me feel a bit unhinged despite the lack of true mood disorder in my personal medical history.

Prior to getting pregnant, I underwent a seriously rigorous graduate program. I got my degree in Organizational Development, which had a big basis in humanistic and organizational psychology. I got this degree alongside a cohort getting a Master’s to become therapists, so there was a lot of internal “work” and soul-searching to find what events and situations would cause us to be triggered (getting inappropriately emotionally involved in a situation and losing the ability to help clients because of internal trauma).

As a result of all this internal work, I walked away feeling emotionally wrung out. I could process feelings quickly and went from crying all the damn time to crying only when digging deeply into childhood traumas with my therapist. I could identify what was problematic for me emotionally and quickly address it so I could stay present in the moment with clients or friends.

When I got pregnant, I felt like my ability to emotionally regulate got waylaid. I was still processing feelings well and swiftly, but I occasionally had outbursts of crying that didn’t have a root reason. Lots of people brushed this off as typical pregnant woman stuff, but I was unwilling to accept this as a justification for how I was feeling. I knew hormonal moodiness from my teenage years and this didn’t quite feel like that.

Giving birth to my son was very different than I had anticipated. There was a long hospital stay that ended in me being induced 5 weeks before my due date. The birth was not traumatic in the sense that I wasn’t listened to or had an experience largely different from what I wanted. It was traumatic in that we walked out the hospital without our son, as he had to be in the NICU for anther week and a half, and had to make the massive adjustments that come with parenthood a full month before we thought we would have to. I don’t know if that month would have actually changed how we dealt with parenthood, but it felt like a world of difference at the time.

We brought Ronan home when he was 10 days old, just over 5 1/2 lbs. The first few 6 weeks were totally typical of what you hear about parenting a newborn. Lots of funny sleep patterns, staying at home a lot while our little preterm baby’s immune system caught up to him, and doing all we could to keep him and us comfortable. It was a miserably hot summer and recovering from childbirth and pregnancy in a house that was 80* was not comfortable.

After 6 weeks, I had my first taste of a day at home without my husband’s help. I managed ok in that my son was still alive at the end of the day, but I was stressed and started to understand why a lot of moms need a glass of wine at the end of the day. My drug of choice was ice cream and so I ended the day with my husband, Andy, with a milkshake in one hand. “Ended the day” is a hysterical phrase to me because with a newborn there is no real end of the day. It’s all a constant cycle of eat, sleep, soothe, diapers, etc.

When Ronan was 10 weeks old, Andy went back to work. The week before he was scheduled to start I was reliably having a meltdown at 4p every day. It would usually come as I was tending to some menial task like a diaper change and I would start to  anticipate his return to work and the long stretch of hours ahead of me with just my son. I found I would stand in his nursery tears welling in my eyes, my heart rate picking up, and a feeling of hopelessness as I thought about my life being an endless cycle of bottles, diapers, and an inconsolable baby.

Ronan was prone to fits of crying. Not colic, just 15-30 minutes of eardrum-rattling wailing. Usually the poor kid was uncomfortable because of his immature digestive system no knowing how to pass gas or poop. This is when I would panic even more. Usually I could rock him for about 10 minutes before I would need to pass him off to Andy, who could hold him, despite the screaming, until it stopped.

I would troubleshoot about what I would do when he wasn’t around and had to acknowledge that sometimes I would just have to stomach my crying baby.

I had a session with my therapist around that time and told her about my daily crying jags and new ennui over the major shift in my life. I told her I was nervous about snapping one day. I didn’t know what that meant exactly, but whatever it was I didn’t want to do it. She told me to keep an eye on it and to schedule a follow up with her soon.

I got screened for PPD at each of my postpartum appointments, which were held at 1 week postpartum to assess my blood pressure, 5 weeks postpartum when I had some strange spotting, and 6 weeks postpartum for the normal 6-week follow up. Nothing was noteworthy to me, nurses, or my OB, but, again, something seemed up. I had a hard time finding the words to describe the feeling of off-ness I had without causing my concern to be brushed off as typical new mom stuff.

About a month ago I met with my therapist when Ronan was 14 weeks. I described the continued off-ness, the anxiety, and, a new symptom, being unable to go back to sleep after middle of the night feedings. Ronan was waking 2-4 times a night. My husband and I would alternate who would tend to him and I found that when it was my turn, despite being exhausted I would lay in bed, toss and turn, and think about nothing of great consequence, just couldn’t fall back asleep. I had a migraine at one point from the lack of sleep, which is tricky when you have an infant to care for at the same time.

“I think I have some sort of postpartum depression,” I said. “Though it’s not nearly as bad as what I read about. I don’t want to harm myself or Ronan. I just feel a little crazy all the time and really tired. More than what I should be feeling from lack of sleep.”

“I think you may be right,” she said. “I think you have some mild postpartum depression. Let’s figure it out.”

1 in 7 women experience PPD. These are the women who often have the more severe symptoms that don’t fit into the narrative of new mom anxiety or hormones.

How many have a milder form of PPD like I do but receive no acknowledgement for their suffering? We hear a lot of moms describe the feeling of losing themselves; their sense of self disappears as they reorient around this new being. It is the starkest shift that will ever happen in a woman’s life, and we think we have a sense of what “normal” looks like. “Normal” is feeling overwhelmed, undersupported, untethered, and anxious. But, I find it hard that despite these words describing what is “normal,” we don’t react to them with more mobilization. Have we normalized a woman’s sense of disconnect after childbirth? What sort of sexism would you call that where women’s experiences of overwhelm and anxiety is considered “normal” and ok? I feel that if any woman expresses these feelings (ever, not just postpartum) she should be met with resources for support and care, not a brush off as that being “normal.”

I’m a resilient and resourceful woman. I have a loving and supportive husband and a gracious and caring family and friends who are family. If I had these feelings even with all of this, what do women with less experience?

I also have an amazing amount of self-awareness, yet despite my description of feeling off, it wasn’t until I said out loud “I think I have postpartum depression” that someone finally took notice.

Since declaring that, I’ve made some adjustments. My diet and exercise habits have shifted and I routinely lay down for a cat nap every day while my son is sleeping. I wouldn’t do this before for fear I’d miss him waking up, but I lay down with the intention of closing my eyes for 20 minutes, often on the couch next to the swing in naps in, knowing that if he needs me he’ll let me know. I also meditate (almost) daily, even if just for 5 minutes. I make it a priority to take a shower. And, my personal favorite, I keep the sink clear of dishes. I think my mental state is appropriately reflected in my kitchen.

But it took a few weeks of concerted troubleshooting to figure this out. Troubleshooting with an infant sucks. There’s no space for self-reflection and with PPD I found that I felt I needed to do laundry more than sit and take a breath. Now, we affectionately call our laundry basket “the second closet” and I feel better, though not fully recovered.

I know that at some point I will feel fully in myself again, probably when a full night of sleep comes along again. Until then, I rely heavily on this new label to remind me that I can’t help my son unless I help myself and take extra permission to slow down even more than having a new baby requires.