Shae O'Brien is an English teacher, writer, wife, and mother to three beautiful girls. She takes life with a grain of salt and two spoonfuls of sugar! Please be sure to follow her on www.facebook.com/catholicmamablog.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

So You Think You Can Judge? Understanding Mental Illness

During the show So You Think You Can Dance, Nigel Lythgoe (@dizzyfeet) discussed the death of two loved ones by suicide as an act of "stupidity". While I am a huge fan of both Nigel and the show, I am once again finding myself face to face with the ignorance of our society toward mental illness. Apparently, I am not the only one who was offended by his remarks.

First, I will be keeping Nigel in my prayers for his recently loss. I have no doubt that to him, someone who loved two people deeply and still lost them to a suffering he couldn't possibly understand, it did feel like stupidity that they didn't just come to him or appreciate the love surrounding them or choose life. I'm sure to the loved ones left mourning, the anger and confusion that comes with such tragedy connects to words like "stupidity". I do not blame him for his grief or words spoken out of that grief. 

I do, however, wish he hadn't expressed such ignorance (even out of grief) to a nationwide audience. Mental illness is a serious issue. People do not become depressed because they are not smart enough to be happy. They do not contemplate suicide because they are ignorant of their blessings or the support around them. Mental illness is a disease that attacks the rationale of the mind. As cancer slowly breaks down your body, so depression does with one's mental state. Without proper diagnosis, therapy, medication, and educated support (and sadly, sometimes even despite these forms of treatment), mental illness can continue to debilitate one's sanity until they can no longer rationalize their existence. 

I would like to let that sink in for a moment. What if you literally could not think of a single reason why it would be important for you to exist? How easy would it be to live, believing those you love only suffer by the burden of your existence? If you have never suffered from mental illness then this may sound like an exaggeration. I wish I could say it was. Suicide does not occur because someone is too stupid to choose life or too selfish to stick around for their loved ones or not strong enough in their faith to recognize God's blessings. It happens because disease has taken one's rationality and left them completely alone. 

Nigel chose to respond to the backlash on twitter with the following statement:

I am so disheartened by his choice to further endorse such ignorant stigmas about mental illness, and I hope others will speak up about what mental illness really is and combat attitudes like this far and wide. We have ice bucket challenges for those suffering from ALS, an entire month of NFL wearing pink for those dying from breast cancer, yet mental illness is still receiving no more than an eye roll and a "stop being stupid and selfish". This needs to end, or suicide will continue to seem like the only option--after all, who wants someone so stupid and selfish to stick around anyway?

Please be careful how you choose your words. Those who suffer from mental illness need you--they need you educated, willing to help, and ready to empathize. Your support works best when the judgment is left behind. 

If you are suffering from depression or contemplating suicide, please know that you are not alone, you are loved, and there is support for you. Call the national suicide prevention hotline and talk to someone now: 1-800-273-8255

God bless. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Why Walsh is Wrong about Robin Williams and Depression

I am still in a state of shock and grief over the loss of Robin Williams. As depression is a disease that runs in my family, hearing of someone choosing death while suffering from mental illness strikes a sorrowful chord within me. 

I have appreciated the heartfelt goodbyes from others who share in this loss. It helps ease the pain to know I am not alone. There was one post though that caught me off guard by a man named Matt Walsh (you may read it here), and I feel it needs to be addressed. So, below are some quotes from his post and my responses to them.

"Your suicide doesn’t happen to you; it doesn’t attack you like cancer or descend upon you like a tornado. It is a decision made by an individual. A bad decision. Always a bad decision."

Mr. Walsh simplifies the concepts of suicide and depression early on in his post. By simply calling suicide "a bad decision" that "doesn't happen to you", it negates the understanding of depression and other psychological illnesses and their effects on the human condition. Suicide is never a decision we would want a loved one to make. It is important though to understand that the rationality of a diseased mind is unlike a healthy one. It is not a decision made clearly or in a sane state of mind. It is a decision made while one is under attack by depression.

"Can we tell our friend to step away from the ledge after we just spoke so glowingly of Robin Williams’ newfound “peace” and “freedom”? This is too important a subject to be careless about. We want to say nice things, I realize, but it isn’t nice to lie about suicide."


Mr. Walsh may have meant that question rhetorically, but I will answer it now. Yes! We can tell our friend to step off the ledge after (even moments after) posting on Facebook that we hope or believe Robin Williams has found peace and freedom.

This is because the disease of depression (and other psychological conditions) prevents a human being from being completely free. The disease attacks one's rational ability to think thoughts or make decisions of free will as God intended. It is a lie to suggest suicide is simply a "bad decision", instead of an action made by a disease-ridden mind that has lost control of rationality. 

So it is not careless to admit someone is now free from the disease that plagued him or her for a lifetime. It also does not take away our right (and duty) to reach out to our loved ones and remind them that our lives would be diminished by the loss of their light. Acknowledging the struggle that causes suicide and begging loved ones to choose life are not mutually exclusive. 

"Depression is a mental affliction, yes, but also spiritual. That isn’t to say that a depressed person is evil or weak, just that his depression is deeper and more profound than a simple matter of disproportioned brain chemicals."

This statement seemed to receive the most backlash, and I understand why. Mr. Walsh assumes, even though he speaks of his own past with depression, that a psychological disease of "disproportioned brain chemicals" is viewed as "a simple matter" by our society. The fact that he feels the need to add to the definition of this medical condition in order to make it "deeper and more profound" only shows a lack of truly understanding this disease on his part. 

Stating that this condition comes from a chemical imbalance isn't simplifying anything--it's just saying what creates the condition. Does this condition cause mental affliction? Yes. Does it cause spiritual affliction? Often it can. But IS the disease a mental or spiritual affliction? No. Those afflictions are symptoms of the disease, not the definition of it. 

"We tend to look for the easiest answers. It makes us feel better to say that depression is only a disease and that there is no will and choice in suicide, as if a person who kills themselves is as much a victim as someone who succumbs to leukemia."

At this point I would like to mention that I recently found out that Matt Walsh is a Catholic. I say this because I would like to address this belief from a Catholic perspective, as I worry that such a well known Catholic could influence the public's view of our Church in a negative way if it is not clarified. 

No one, not even the Catholic Church, says that depression is a disease because it "makes us feel better". We say that depression is a disease because--and I want to be very clear on this--depression IS a disease. 

Many people wrongly assume that the Catholic Church believes that anyone who commits suicide automatically goes to hell. This is untrue. While the Church does recognize that the act of suicide is "contrary to the love of the living God" (Catechism 2281), it also recognizes the following:

Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide. (Catechism 2282, paragraph 2)

This brings attention to the fact that psychological conditions prevent a person from acting in a completely rational or sane mindset. The Church doesn't include this statement to make anyone feel better, but to recognize the severity of psychological disturbances and how they can affect an otherwise rational person's state of mind.

"But I don’t understand how theists, who acknowledge the existence of the soul, think they can draw some clear line of distinction between the body and the soul, and declare unequivocally that depression is rooted in one but not the other. This is a radically materialist view now shared by millions of spiritualist people."

This statement is frustrating because it assumes quite a bit about one's faith. I'm not sure where Mr. Walsh believes our soul resides in the body, but I don't think that having a wholistic view of body and soul--that the two are completely intertwined instead of one residing in the other--makes one "materialistic" in their faith. It is simply a different perspective of how God formed us in our creation. 

"To act like death by suicide is exactly analogous to death by malaria or heart failure is to steal hope from the suicidal person. We think we are comforting him, but in fact we are convincing him that he is powerless."

I found this quote particularly interesting because I happen to come from a family that suffers from addiction. If you have ever gone to an AA/NA/Al-Anon meeting, then you know that the first step of the infamous 12 Steps is this: 
  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable. 
This is said specifically to address the fact that unlike any other "choice" an addict makes in his or her life, a "choice" regarding the addiction is fueled by the disease. It does not mean someone did not make a choice to drink, it simply means that the choice to drink was inhibited by one's diseased mind. It brings understanding to the rationality of the mind behind the action. This actually gives hope rather than stealing it. There is a relief in finally being enlightened to the fact that you don't have these thoughts or make these choices because you are a bad person, but because you suffer from a disease that debilitates your mental state of health. If an addict overdoses, the report states exactly that--but the fact that the addict overdosed because of his addiction shines a light on the addict's mental health at the time. 

"Second, we can debate medication dosages and psychotherapy treatments, but, in the end, joy is the only thing that defeats depression."

As someone who has suffered from depression, and whose loved ones also have suffered from various mental conditions, I can only sigh at such an incredibly ignorant statement. I wonder if this is what Mr. Walsh meant by "there are important truths we can take from the suicide of a rich and powerful man..." Perhaps that money and power may be able to buy the best medicine and treatments, but it can't buy joy? So this must mean that medicine and treatments can't fix depression--only joy can?

Mr. Walsh suggested that those who didn't have a spiritual mindset oversimplified the disease of depression. Sadly, this statement shows that the person simplifying the condition is him. His statement of joy being the only remedy or hero would by default mean that Robin Williams (and any other person who suffers from depression) just didn't have enough joy in his life. It takes an incredible amount of judgment to assume that a person did not have enough joy to save him. This implies that Robin's wife and children were not enough. This implies that there was more they could have done or been to provide a right amount of joy to defeat his disease. This must be the case since he stated "The two [joy and depression] cannot coexist."

This places a weight of blame on loved ones of the depressed. This also places a burden of finding joy on the depressed themselves. A disease is something out of our control. Therefore, we cannot simply force ourselves to feel joy. And what is scarrier is the thought that some people suffering from this disease may try to fake joy in order to defeat depression, feeling like failures (or making their loved ones feel like failures) if they ever admit they cannot overcome the weight of depression on their lives. 

In the end, there is one thing I do agree with Mr. Walsh on, so I'll end with one last quote:

"If you are thinking about suicide, don’t keep it inside. Tell someone.
Never give up the fight.
There is always hope."

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

NFP for the Disbelieving Spouse

Natural Family Planning (NFP) is an effective way to avoid pregnancy. It is also a choice that promotes spiritual, emotional, and physical health by learning about and working with the body God created for you. But what do you do if you don't believe in the need for NFP?

The story usually goes something like this: Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. The word soulmate is often used. Vows are made to love one another completely as they are. Then it's happily ever after until...sometimes it is a conversion to Catholicism, sometimes simply a deepening of spiritual faith, but something changed in the story and now you are being asked to support something you don't think is necessary to prevent a sin you don't believe exists.

The truth is that many Catholics don't practice NFP. (I'm sure at this point you are wishing you were one of them.) Yet that doesn't make the Catholic Teaching suddenly disappear or become less important.  The Catholic Church is very clear on the "why" of NFP, which you have probably heard of as being "open to life". NFP allows for that by not creating barriers in the form of hormonal manipulation of the body or artificial blocks that prevent the sperm from entering the vagina. Oh, and of course not purposefully letting those sperm get loose via any act other than vaginal intercourse.

Have I already ruined any and all interest you had in sex? Believe me, I get it.

Perhaps you feel like this teaching is ancient and the Church needs to modernize its views. Perhaps you are offended that God would judge you for enjoying marriage, when you've been a faithful spouse and upheld your marital duties. Perhaps you've had a chance to watch NFP in action--via your wife's stress and worry--and don't think this is worth it. 

My guess is you are reading this because you haven't been able to convince your spouse to just give up Natural Family Planning or you're trying to figure out how to live in this world of NFP. The fact that you are reading this actually shows a level of character, commitment, and care for your marriage that any woman should be grateful to find in her husband. So, what can you do to support your wife, even if you don't necessarily agree with this method? Here are a few ideas...

1) Take a class with your spouse.

There are Natural Family Planning classes for every method out there. Most of them are taught in person, but if that doesn't suit your schedule then online classes are also readily available. There are many benefits of taking a class with your spouse. 
  • You will actually know what she is talking about. 
  • You will learn to understand the scientific aspects of NFP, not just the religious conviction behind it. 
  • You will be able to initiate sex again (because you'll finally be able to read a chart). 
  • You will show your wife that you love her completely--even the beliefs of hers that you may not agree with. 
There are some forms of intimacy that don't require being naked, and standing by your spouse with an open mind is one of them.

2) Jump in completely and follow the rules 100%.

I understand the feeling of disagreement with some (or all) of Church teaching. It can be incredibly frustrating to initiate intimacy, complete it in a way that is against Catholic teaching (but left you, and maybe even wife, fulfilled), only to see the look of guilt linger in your spouse's eyes until her next visit to confession. I strongly urge you to try a different route then. Instead of getting angry at the Church for creating rules that you may feel are "unnatural" to follow, try offering yourself fully to the convictions of your wife. Even try to be MORE convicted than her! When she begins to act frustrated during a time when it's not advisable to be intimate, write her a love letter reminding her that you love her for all that she is and that she is worth waiting for. If you know you're in for a long bout of abstinence, come up with activities that encourage other forms of intimacy (trying something new together, taking a class, attending church, etc.). Remember that the more you show support, the more you can see what NFP is like at its best--its best being when spouses commit to it TOGETHER.

3) Talk to someone about your struggles with NFP (WHO IS NOT YOUR SPOUSE).

I know, I know. I just spent the last two ideas talking about the importance of communication with your wife. Here's the thing though: When your wife is facing the anxiety of deciphering charts and symptoms and your respond with frustration and resentment, it serves no one. If NFP a struggle sometimes? Yes. Does it mean we have to place our struggle on the shoulders of the person we love most? No. Talk to a priest (and argue with one if you need to...they went to school for that.) Talk to your NFP instructor. Join an online support group for those who practice NFP. Make friends at church or through your NFP classes who can hold you accountable or share in your trying times. It is ok not to like NFP at all times, as most couples struggle together at some point. It is just important that NFP doesn't become husband vs. wife, but instead is a daily journey of husband and wife walking together.

If you've made it this far, then I applaud you. Choosing to be there for your spouse takes unconditional love. Remember that the intimacy of marriage doesn't begin or end in the bedroom, but it can be found there--whether or not sex is involved at the end of any given day. 

God bless you.

**NOTE: It is not always the husband who finds himself in a position of disagreement with NFP. These ideas could also work for a wife trying to support her husband's convictions toward NFP. This post is in no way trying to suggest that this is a problem only men face, and any spouse who is willing to try NFP to support his or her spouse's beliefs is a wonderful one.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The First 24 Hours of Breastfeeding

A friend of mine sent me a message asking about breastfeeding this morning. She is less than 24 hours into her breastfeeding journey, and I am so proud of her already! (By the way, congratulations on your beautiful baby girl!) I started my breastfeeding journey on August 4th, 2011, and my friend's message suddenly got me thinking back to my first experiences as a new mother and milk maker. I was so excited, nervous, and downright naive about what breastfeeding entailed and how to be successful at it. Truth be told, those first 24 hours were a huge wake up call to me! So, to assist my friend in this new and beautiful part of motherhood, and to help any moms-to-be or brand new mommies out there, I decided to make a list of things to know for those first glorious (sleepless) hours of breastfeeding...

Learning to breastfeed is NOT the most natural thing in the world. 

Oh yes, breastfeeding is natural. You hear all the pro-BFing advocates out there talking about "breast is best" and "it's the most natural thing in the world since the beginning of time!" I get that. But LEARNING to breastfeed is a process. If it comes naturally to you, it is a miracle of God. If it doesn't, please don't freak out! You are in the majority here. It is important to remember that while your body was made for this, you've still never done it before. Also, it is the first thing (EVER!) that your baby will learn how to do. That's kind of a big deal. So, take a deep breath. It is ok if it takes time, help, and practice. Don't feel like a failure if your first thought is more "Oh God, this hurts like heck!" than "Thank you God for this miracle of life." It's a learning process.

Get the Latch right! 

This is a great follow up to number one because, frankly, nobody mentions the technical term "latch" until the baby is already rooting for food. Once you do learn what it is, you realize that in order to correct said infant, you'd have to somehow UNlatch him or her and RElatch. And if you are anything like I was, then you truly believe it would be better for baby to stay on there sucking incorrectly than to go through the pain of latching ever again. Trust me when I say, you want to get the latch right. I did not get the latch right. I pretended it didn't hurt. I was afraid of each feeding because of the pain. And because I didn't fix the latch, my nipples bruised and bled, and my breastfeeding experience was something I feared and resented for the first two days. You want to get that latch right, and if you don't know how then request a Lactation Consultant immediately. (Yes, I do mean the moment you realize you need one.) But once you do have the latch right, please know...

Yes, it is supposed to hurt. 

I know people have told you that if you do it right it will feel right...Well, they're wrong. It is normal for it to hurt at first, and by "at first" I mean the first month or so (maybe longer). Your nipples were created for this, but just like any part of your body, it takes time for them to get used to this kind of work. So, the most important thing you can do is care for your nipples. My hospital gave me lanolin cream, which worked great for me. I simply covered my nipples in it after each feeding and let them air dry. Ask your nurse or lactation consultant for some nipple care products. Keep your hospital robe unbuttoned, and don't be afraid to fan your nipples or ask your helper to blow on them a little if it helps the pain. If you plan to have a lot of visitors in the hospital, you may either let your freak flag fly or ask them to come back after you've had a chance to air them out. It does indeed make a huge difference between tender nipples and dry, cracked, bleeding ones.

Also, breastfeeding in the first few days or weeks will cause contractions or cramping in your uterus. This is normal, so don't worry, but do prepared to deal with that extra little experience as well. 

It takes days for your milk to come in. 

Many women immediately succumb to the idea of supplementing (giving baby formula) during the first 24 hours because of a fear of "lack of production". I am here to assure you, most women's milk takes days to come in. When your baby is born, your breasts immediately begin to produce colostrum, which is a super drink packed with newborn nutrients. It doesn't seem like you make a lot, and the reason for this is that your baby has an itty, bitty, newborn stomach that doesn't require quantity but quality. Don't be frustrated if it takes a few days for your milk to arrive. If baby sucks it, milk will come.

Even if baby can't latch, you can still feed. 

There are a variety of reasons baby may be unable to feed directly from you. You may have gone into labor prematurely, and your little one may need to stay in NICU. Your baby may be like mine was and have jaundice, requiring him or her to stay under UV rays all day. Your milk may take longer to come in than expected. Your baby may also be tongue tied (yes, that's an actual term) and have difficulty latching. This does not mean you cannot breastfeed. It does mean that you may need to become best friends with your breast pump. Don't have one, you say? No worries! Hospitals have them and can bring one to your room for you to pump milk and feed it to baby via tube or curved syringe if needed. (Ask your nurse or pediatrician how it would be best to go about feeding little one.) Breast pumps are not the real thing, so you may feel like you produce less when pumping, which is ok. Just pump as much as baby would eat (about every couple hours), and ask your hospital for assistance in refrigerating or freezing your supply. 

Sleep will from now on be replaced by many many naps. 

This is true for all mothers, but even more so for breastfeeding mothers. This is because if a baby is formula feeding, then a helper could feed him or her while you get a somewhat normal stretch of sleep. But as a breastfeeding mama, your milk can only be offered by you. So, you will feel exhausted and barely sane. It is important that if you have a helper (spouse, family member, friend), you let them take on as much of the other stuff as you can. If baby needs a diaper change, let them do it. If visitors need hosting, let them do it. Your job is to recover from delivering an entire human being and to learn how to feed said human being. Period. (And snuggle and adore said human being, too, of course.)

There is more than one position to feed in.

This one really blew my mind the first day. I assumed Hollywood had really taught me everything I need to know about breastfeeding. Cradle baby in arms, slip out breast gracefully and without nip showing, and baby will magically begin to eat. Hollywood was wrong. 

As it turns out, there are many positions, and your baby may latch better and eat longer in one over the other. Take the time to try different positions out and see what works best for your comfort and theirs. In most cases it will make breastfeeding easier and more successful for you and baby.

Pillows! Pillows! Pillows!

When you first hold that precious little bundle of joy, you stare in awe at how tiny your baby is! But after a good 30 minute feeding, you begin to feel just how heavy six pounds and 11 ounces can really be. If you do not already have a Boppy or Breast Friend pillow, you can have your helper pick one up for you to have when you get home. Until then, do not be afraid to ask for a plethora of pillows to stack up around you to make breastfeeding more comfortable. Note that in the picture above, every mother has a pillow. I used two! This takes the pressure (both literally and figuratively) off of you holding the baby, and refocuses it where it belongs--on learning to feed your little one.

So, after learning all of this, you may wonder why you weren't told about the hardship and horror of breastfeeding before you started. The truth is, most mothers don't remember this part. Yes, it hurt at first. Yes, it caused tears and stress and doubt. But the part that matters, the part that mothers do remember, is that it was worth it. I am currently breastfeeding my third daughter, and because I work this requires the added stress of pumping, but I never thought about not doing it. (Ok, maybe once at 3am when I'd been up for 24 hours straight I thought about it once.) There is something so incredible about the miracle of breastfeeding. Not all mothers get the opportunity to do it. If you can, be grateful. And if this is what you want, stick with it. There is nothing in the world quite like it.