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A Healthy Mom
Becoming a parent helped me open up to therapy
Erica Harrigan

I have always been moody: I go from feeling happy to being angry one minute and depressed the next. I had a very painful childhood, and I’ve been diagnosed with two common disorders called bipolar and borderline personality disorder.

When I was 12, I was put in a mental hospital for about a year after I tried to stab my foster mother. I was treated for clinical depression with different kinds of medicine and had to see a psychotherapist weekly.

The treatment was helpful, and I started having fewer manic episodes. I felt happier and thought I had resolved or made a breakthrough with my negative thinking by attending therapy on a regular basis and taking my medication as prescribed. When I left the hospital, I felt like I was cured and like my life was back to normal. But it didn’t last.

Bailing Out

After that, I continued going to therapy, but not on a regular basis. Every time my therapist came close to helping me change my negative ways, I’d stop going. I would shut down, especially when I was getting close to talking about my abandonment issues that came from being neglected and abused.

I had talked about these issues when I was in the hospital, but it was OK then because I felt safe there. I didn’t feel safe attending outpatient treatment because it seemed like the therapists were always bailing out before you had time to bond. I always got the interns or externs that would leave after a couple of sessions together. Then I would have to meet with a new therapist—open up to a complete stranger—only to find out that they would be leaving me as well.

But I was also purposely sabotaging my treatment because I was scared of change. Whenever I felt either angry or depressed I’d get frustrated and quit, but by doing that I didn’t give the therapist a chance to fully help me. I would do the same thing when it came to taking medication. That’s why it took so long to find the right medication to help me manage my illness.

Everything Changed

Then, when I was 21, everything changed. I went to Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx to get checked out because I was having stomach pains. I was shocked to find out that I was pregnant.

I didn’t know if I should keep the baby. Could I balance being a mother and getting treatment for my illness at the same time?

I talked it over with Michael, my boyfriend. We decided to keep the baby and raise the child together while I tried to get the proper treatment. We decided that if we balanced our time efficiently and worked as a team, we would be able to care for the baby just fine.

I felt anxious knowing that I wouldn’t be able to take any meds. Psychiatric medications can cause serious damage to the baby’s brain. Some mentally ill mothers take meds without their babies being harmed, but it’s not guaranteed the baby will be OK. I was not going to take the risk.

Day Treatment

image by Edwin Yang

But attending therapy once a week wasn’t enough for me. I was feeling unreasonable and my moods were all over the place. I caught on to my sudden ups and downs and I walked myself into the psych ER until I was stable enough to leave. At the ER, they checked the baby’s heart to ensure that the substantial stress I was feeling didn’t harm the baby. After about five visits to the psych ER in a month (I’d stay just long enough to calm me down, never more than 12 hours), the doctors suggested I seek more treatment.

Before, I would have turned down their suggestion, but this time I accepted it. I wanted to be mentally fit to care for my daughter. I talked it over with the hospital’s social worker, and she suggested that I sign up for day treatment services at the hospital since I was already getting checkups there.

I started going to Jacobi’s day treatment center in the sixth month of my pregnancy. The program staff gives newcomers a three-day trial to check the place out. After the first day, I stopped having doubts.

I had done day treatment before, but I’d never been to a program with a family-type setting. Everybody there supports each other.

The program was better, but the change was also in me when I found out I was becoming a mother. Before, I didn’t care about staying healthy mentally. But now I wanted to be a good mother. I knew I needed the proper treatment to help me gain control over my mental outbursts.

Like Family

Since I have been attending the program regularly, I’ve been expressing myself more freely and slowly seeing a positive change. I attend groups on social skills to deal with my anxiety, psychotherapy to deal with my relationship issues and communicating, and art therapy to express my emotions creatively. I also do other groups such as journaling, poetry, and a group just for women.

My current treatment feels different from the kind of therapy I have done in the past because now I have a variety of groups to attend and different methods to work out my issues. The one thing I like best is the peer-to-peer relationships. Everyone is helping one another through their battles with mental illness and to me we are all like family. The work I am doing there has helped me to uncover a lot of deep insights about myself. I discovered so much about myself in a short time.

As soon as I had the baby, I wanted to go back to the program, but my therapist kept telling me to take some time off. I had a lot of anxiety about missing the program, and the first few weeks at home were nerve-wracking. Michael did a lot of the caretaking, and it was a relief to get rest and heal, but I was worried and bored.

For the first few months it was hard for me to bond with little Emma. I wanted to continue with my treatment, and I felt like the baby was holding me back from being able to attend my program. After three months of begging my therapist to return to treatment, she finally said, “OK, go back.” Going to the program gives me that safe and secure feeling, and I come home re-energized. I can bond with Emma better.

A Better Place

I started out with my normal individual 45-minute sessions with my therapist, then attended the groups program twice a week and now I’m up to three days a week. It’s been challenging to care for a baby that needs so much love and attention; it reminds me that I didn’t have much love or attention growing up. There is still some fear that if I slip up child welfare will come knocking at my door.

But I’ve been dealing with the challenges by talking it over with my therapist, whom I adore and respect. She helps me understand that making sure my baby is in good health comes first and everything else follows. The more I show love and attention to my baby, the more I feel loved. If I attend to her needs as a mother is expected to do, she will feel more satisfaction and she won’t end up like me, habitually dissatisfied.

I still do feel extreme now and then, but my love for my daughter outweighs my depression. So now when I am feeling depressed I seek help from staff and peers in my program. I’m in a better place with treatment now than I’ve ever been because of my love for my daughter. Now that I’m a mother, I’m taking care of both of us.

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