Michelle Anastasio-Festi is a wife and doting mom to her son Ethan. She is also an entrepreneur that founded CT Virtual Assistance and PUSH Publicity. She is also an activist for Postpartum Depression, serving on two committees for Postpartum Support International’s CT Chapter helping moms navigate the challenges of perinatal and postpartum mood disorders.
by Michelle Anastasio-Festi
Despite the heartbreak my husband and I experienced trying to conceive, when the egg donor was successful it was a surprisingly stress-free pregnancy. The ultrasound revealed a healthy little boy and we fell in love immediately. I prepared for the birth; bought supplies, aromatherapy, even a delivery gown for those first precious photos. I wanted to do it naturally. I knew it would be painful, but I didn’t want to miss such a powerful and positive experience.
That’s not how it went though.
When my labor started, we rushed excitedly to the hospital. I refused the epidural initially but after ten hours when the pain worsened, I finally relented. But it didn’t work.
They tried twice but I was still in agony. And when the anesthesiologist ignored me to inform my husband that I just couldn’t tolerate pain well, everything changed.
This wasn’t a joyful or positive moment anymore. Nobody was listening or speaking to me. I was ignored, deemed an inconvenience.
It was 22 hours before anyone noticed my labor wasn’t progressing. Then I was induced. The pain ripped me apart and still there was no progression. It took another 30 hours until eventually I was noticed (after begging for a c-section) and when they finally took me to surgery. I was cut open, tugged and pulled from every direction and when they discovered my beautiful tiny son, the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck and arm.
Feelings of helplessness turned to fury and then numbness. I started to disassociate from myself, from this body that was left to suffer for 52 hours. I felt more like I was watching than living.
And I felt cheated.
Not cheated of a natural birth, I know issues happen, but robbed of being treated like a person when I needed help the most.
My anxiety became unbearable and my blood pressure soared. After the birth, I had to return back to the same hospital on multiple occasions for other health reasons due to complications from my labor.
In this desperate state of psychological and physical trauma, my body stopped producing milk and my sons hungry screams were increasing my already unbearable anxiety. I spent the next weeks afraid, angry, overwhelmed, depressed, judged; terrified of being alone, especially with my son. The pressure was overwhelming. After endless arguments with my husband, I realized I needed actual outside help.
My OB gyn referred me to a psychiatrist, who gave me two prescriptions and promised results after a month. And it worked.
I found peace and energy. I became supermom; productive and positive, fulfilling my roles as mother and wife and I was killing it. Then the darkness would roll back in with all the impact of a tornado.
It got worse and worse.
I began to feel my depression affecting those around me and started wondering if they’d be happier without me.
This is what led to my stay in a psychiatric hospital.
I’ll never forget the distress echoing through those empty hallways. A woman talking to herself. A man screaming ‘Get me out of here!’ over and over. This was a million miles away from the nursery I’d so lovingly decorated. Instead I was surrounded by fear and desperation.
They gave me a third prescription and every day I paced the corridor crying. The only window at the end of the corridor overlooked a cemetery, a bleak view for the patients who wanted to end their lives before they arrived. I was finally diagnosed with PPD and PTSD.
With PPD, some days you feel fine and then the wave hits and you’re drowning again. The hospital caught me on my good days and then discharged me stating I wasn’t that bad. I begged them not to. Once again, I was ignored and pleading for help.
I was in and out of four hospitals over 6 months. Begging for the help didn’t work and after each superficial evaluation, the PPD and PTSD came back worse.
This was my darkest hour. I wanted to end it. I felt like a burden. I slept all day. I cried all day. I had no self-care. I didn’t eat. I lost 30lbs and feared being around my son, feeling unable to fully care for him.
I was fighting though. I kept reaching out, calling the National Suicide Prevention Hotline for reassurance that my family wouldn’t be better off without me. I kept a mood journal, documenting my medication and moods every day hoping for improvement. I became obsessed with it and it was my last tiny effort of control in a world that was spinning out of control. I left no detail undocumented and discovered that my mood fluctuated with my monthly hormonal cycle. This led me to an OB near Greenwich Connecticut, who worked with hormonal treatments.
To this day I’ve no idea how I got there; driving in a torrid sea of disassociation, barely functioning but refusing to sink. He tested my hormone levels and prescribed supplements to readdress my imbalance. It was expensive but worth it.
My psychiatrist wasn’t interested though. He disbelieved hormones could affect a woman’s emotions in such a way; treating it like a joke. He told me I had treatment resistant depress (TRD) and referred me to expensive Ketamine treatments or electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Scared to death of both, I declined.
Meanwhile, hormone supplements were making headlines in terms of treatments for PMADs. The supplements took time to work and during my final hospital stay, my husband and I realized it months for me to break down, it could realistically take months (or more) to get better. I needed a longer treatment program.
This is when things started to improve.
I checked into a treatment program for people struggling with mental health issues. I lived in residence off campus from the clinic with other women struggling with similar issues. The clinic was nearby and my husband and son visited on weekends. The clinic became my second home. I felt in control there too; cooking, dressing and caring for myself. Something I hadn’t done in the past six months. I was expected to attend clinic every day and I was treated like a human being. And despite my initial reluctance, there I could focus 100% on myself.
Every day was group therapy, CBT, DBT, life skills and trauma groups. Doctors monitored me and a life coach supported me through meltdowns. The staff collaborated with their treatment. I felt positive and supported. Finally, I was listened to. Nobody talked over my head or ignored my pleas for help. I was healing, and I took notice of it.
I continued writing in my journal, adding what I learned in clinic and what I could practice alone. I found yoga, meditated nightly and developed what I call my “Toolkit for Life”. A bag of tricks that would later get me through difficult moments that came my way. I basically learned how to switch the channel.
When the healing began, I’d spend weekends at home, knowing I could return to the clinic anytime if it got too much. I began to live in the moment, forcing myself to stay in the here and now. And I began to feel like myself again.
I discovered that PPD is complex. Medication helps, but it’s only part of the picture. I now understand mental health better. I made friendships in the clinic, shared the healing journey with other patients and aided other women fighting through depression. These women need to be heard and supported and it felt good to help. This is what led me to joining Postpartum Support International’s local chapter and I joined the local committee.
It’s coming on twelve months and I’m a different person. Life is simpler, I’ve changed habits that have not served me well, and the word “No” is a full sentence in my vocabulary. I’ve let go of guilt, shame and judgement. I’m stronger now and more successful in both my personal and professional life. It’s been a blessing in disguise.
If anything, my message is this: Don’t be afraid to seek help. Don’t feel shame or guilt. I still attend therapy at the clinic and still feel it’s like a second home. Sometimes it may not feel like you’re strong enough, but you are. You’re not alone. Hold onto hope and keep fighting for the help you need. You do have a future and it’s going to be beautiful.
PSI-CT Wants you to Know: Thank You Michelle, for sharing your journey! Friends, Perinatal Depression, Mood and Anxiety Disorders (PMADs) occur in 1 in 7 women and 1 in 10 men. Birth Trauma is a risk factor for both PMADs and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). You aren’t alone, not to blame, and with support you will feel yourself again.
We at PSI-CT want parents to know that there are many journeys, each with their unique challenges to parenthood. As we work to increase awareness of the many ways one can need “a village”, we invite you to share your journey, which may have resulted in an experience of a PMAD (Perinatal Mood/Anxiety Disorder). Have you sought out for help in a support group or other resources available to you and within our community? If so, we want to hear from you.
If you are interested in submitting a blog post or narrative essay for consideration on our website, please review/follow our submission guidelines below and then submit your piece to Sharon at email@example.com. We look forward to hearing from you!
by Michele Lovetri
It was in my third trimester when my OBGYN asked me, “So how are you doing emotionally?,” and I remember my answer being, “I’m doing great!” Why wouldn’t I be? I had been rocking a twin pregnancy, these kiddos were growing beautifully, my hormones were high and my emotions even higher. I was excited for this new chapter and felt ready for this transition. My doctor advised me that I was twice as susceptible to Postpartum Depression (PPD) and Postpartum Anxiety (PPA) due to having a multiples pregnancy and wanted to ensure I had support once I was home. I thought “Of course I had support. My husband and I are a good team, and we have family who will come if we need it, but we will be fine”. I carried these little guys to my 37 week scheduled C-section. Despite my history of anxiety I was always an independent, strong woman, so I would be “ok”. I had this!
Day two in the hospital came around and I noticed I had a hard time sleeping and my heart felt as if it was racing. I was anxious, but I chalked it up to the whirlwind of giving birth and the ignorance of new motherhood. We slept the boys in the nursery each night and each morning I would be excited to see them. Yet I felt nothing when they were wheeled into my room. I felt void of emotion. When I showered and looked down, I didn’t recognize my own body. This huge amount of skin just there with no life in it, like I felt about myself.
I found myself sitting on the side of the bed just staring out into the parking lot. I didn’t know why and lost track of time. All of a sudden I didn’t know who I was, what to do, where to go and what to say. I just wanted to cry and felt so lost. I wanted someone so desperately to find me. I remember thinking to myself, “What am I doing?! What are we doing?!”
That night I looked at my husband and said, “I feel like I want to come out of my skin and that I’m going to have a panic attack.” I was drowning, completely suffocated in feelings of terror, sadness, loneliness, and despair. My husband called the nurse’s station but did not get an answer so he physically went for help. Soon nurses and doctors were rushing in. I told them my pain, the lump in my throat growing by the second. I remember telling the psychiatrist, “Please know I do not want to hurt myself and I do not want to hurt my children.” I remember I was gripping the blankets so tightly, terrified of every single minute.
We made it home two days later. I was numb. All I could do was cry hysterically. It just came and took hold with an unbelievable grasp. “How could I bring these babies into the world and not feel anything for them? How could I do this?” Their crying made me cry even more and sent my anxiety spinning. I remember one of my sons was in his Rock-n-Play and had a bowel movement and all I wanted to do was leave him there. I didn’t care if I changed him or if he got changed at all. I wanted nothing to do with this new life, nothing to do with my sons. “How could this be my life?” I didn’t want this. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.
A few days later we had their first pediatric appointment. My sister had visited the night before and thankfully helped pack their diaper bag because I could not figure out how to pack it, nor did I want to. I didn’t care to learn; I didn’t care if the boys had what they needed. I didn’t care about anything. At the appointment I ran into an empty exam room to cry. I needed an escape, but I couldn’t escape myself no matter where I ran. But I wanted children didn’t I? This was what we worked so hard to achieve wasn’t it? For me, this was postpartum depression and this was postpartum anxiety.
I remember this night vividly. My sister thought that maybe doing skin to skin, which I didn’t get to do in the hospital due to complications from the anesthesia, would help me connect to my boys. Again I felt nothing and I hated myself for it. I didn’t even want to hold my own kids. I screamed for my husband and sister to “get them off of me!”. I was in hell mentally and physically.
My mother-in-law came over one day shortly after this photo and we all went on a walk around the neighborhood. The anxiety that set in was consuming. Getting them ready? Leaving the house? It was too much. I forced myself out the door and spent the entire walk cringing inside, counting the seconds until we returned home, which suddenly seemed like a safe place.
I knew I could not go on like this, it was life or death. I was desperate; screaming for help. I would have done anything to be able to crawl out of the hell hole of my mind and body. I needed someone to say to me, “I have been there. You are not alone.” I reached out to a counselor and sought out therapy. I reached out to every mom I knew, and to my surprise, my friends’ network supported me. Moms who I had never met reached out to send me support!
One of the most profound statements that was said to me was, “Love grows.” I quickly realized that I didn’t know these tiny people in my life yet they depended on me for their survival. “Love grows” helped me come to terms with the fact that they were getting to know me and I was getting to know them.
With help I worked through the depression but the anxiety remained and surfaced quickly. It’s true, “Love grows”, and as the weeks went on I found myself more happily immersed in motherhood. Then the thoughts began to rob me again, slowly yet fiercely. I manifested dangerous scenarios that held me back from breathing. Thoughts that something horrible was going to happen to me, and thoughts of harm coming to my boys. This is postpartum anxiety and depression. It has a name and it is so very real.
It has been a very long 3 years but I am learning to find gratitude in the journey. Oddly I feel lucky that I was able to identify with what was happening to me. While at first I didn’t know it was postpartum anxiety, I knew that what I was feeling could not have been normal. Yet something that could set in just two days after giving birth is still discussed so little.
I continue to struggle with anxiety every day, but I feel prepared with tools to help “the new me.” That is not the case for so many women. Women are suffering, women are silently crying out. You may ask why I’m sharing this. I need other women to know they truly are not alone. That their thoughts and feelings have run thru the minds and bodies of many. That we get it. We are with you. We are you. We hear you and we see you. There is a light at the end of the tunnel and we need to work together, we must unite to make that tunnel passable. We need to keep this conversation going because PPD and PPA care must become a larger part of our prenatal care and by sharing our hard journeys, I truly believe we save lives.
PSI-CT Wants you to Know:
Thank You Michele, for sharing your motherhood journey! Friends, Perinatal Depression, Perinatal Anxiety and other Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders (PMADs) occur in 1 in 7 women and 1 in 10 men. Michele had risk factors which alerted her doctor: a twin pregnancy and fertility challenges. You aren’t alone, not to blame, and with support you will feel yourself again.
Paid Family & Medical Leave has finally come to Connecticut, only awaiting Governor Lamont’s signature (he has promised to sign)! PSI-CT has been advocating for this important safety net before we were even a chapter, (just in-utero if you will) as the Connecticut Alliance for Perinatal Mental Health, when we sent a photo similar to the one above to the Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund (CWEALF)‘s Campaign for Paid Medical Leave!
PSI-CT members have advocated for this legislation by providing testimony, sending letters to the Hartford Courant, providing photos such as the above, and showing up for “lobby days” at the state capitol to personally talk with representatives. Our founding values are to provide support for Connecticut families by increasing awareness, education, and advocacy for the prevention and treatment of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.
Here are two accounts of PSI-CT advocates experiences at the state capitol:
“When I first arrived at the capitol the day the Senate debated and voted on this legislation, I was struck by my reactions as I entered the building. I wasn’t surprised that there was security as my bag was checked and I “patted down” myself in front of a security guard. I was surprised by my feeling of intimidation as I walked in freely, wondering why no one was asking what I was doing there. I quickly thought “that is silly-this is your house”, and was embarrassed that I had not been there since my kids toured in elementary school. Democracy depends on active informed citizens speaking up, yet I have only a handful of times lifted the phone, much less showed up at the capitol. I realized that while I had unconsciously believed “I don’t know enough”, democracy can’t survive if we don’t put effort into being informed and realize that we don’t have to know every detail in order to speak up to those who represent us. It was my first time to do so in person, but won’t be my last.” Sharon Thomason, Ph.D pictured above with Carol Williams.
Last year I went with my son (who was 5 at the time) to lobby for paid family leave. The staff ft CWEALF was amazing and provided us with talking points and encouragement. I lobbied my State Representative, Michelle Cook, who is a supporter of paid family leave. She was happy to hear from a constituent and my son was happy to meet “the person who makes the laws.” It was an educational experience for him to see the State Capitol and the LOB and to learn about how we can influence public policy. As a social worker who does mainly clinical work, it was a reminder that it’s necessary for social workers to also be involved in the macro side of social work, as we have a keen understanding of how public policy impacts citizens. Amy Rodriguez, LCSW, son Gaitan pictured above
We need a dedicated leader of the advocacy work group on the communications committee! If you have interest in making a real difference for Connecticut’s perinatal families, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org! WE WANT YOU!
Sharon Voyer Lavigne MS, LGC is the Coordinator of MotherToBaby CT, an instructor at UCONN Health School of Medicine, is a founder of PSI-CT, and has served as both Treasurer and Vice President. She has numerous publications in the field of teratology and performed countless numbers of outreach educational services to the general public and health care providers.
You have gotten your mental health in check. You have been going to therapy regularly and have finally found a medication regimen that works well for you. You are feeling better than you have in years both physically and mentally. Now you are ready to consider starting a family. Will you need to stop your current medications or switch to alternatives you have had no personal experience with beforehand? Will your providers be supportive?
Will you be well during pregnancy and the dreaded post-partum period?
So many questions. So much concern. What should you do first?
Well take a deep breath and let’s walk through the process.
1- Make a preconception physical appointment with your OB/GYN provider to discuss medial health and preparation for pregnancy and also to review your medications in person. Discuss with them any concerns you may have about getting pregnant and being in treatment during and after pregnancy. You will get a sense for how comfortable or uncomfortable they are with caring for you on or off medications. If you do not feel supported, you may wish to search out a new provider that is a better fit in your case.
2- Plan on your next visit with your prescribing psychiatric provider to discuss pregnancy and review mediation and potential suggested alternative or additional medications. Just like with the OB provider, you will want to get a feel for how supportive they can and will be during this process. If they seem uncomfortable, you can reach out to the PSI Warm line for a referral for a therapist or prescribing provider that has been trained in treating women during pregnancy and the post-partum phase of life. (800)- 944-4773.
3- Reach out by phone (866- 626-6847), email (email@example.com) or go to http://www.mothertobaby.org for the most up to date reproductive data on our current regimen of medication and any possible alternatives. You can gather information on use while trying to become pregnant, use during pregnancy and any data on use while breastfeeding your baby. Each woman is given and individual risk assessment which includes risk versus benefits of medication treatment and the service is FREE.
4- Review results from MotherToBaby with your OB/GYN and psychiatric provider.
Now that you have consulted with your providers and come to an agreed upon medication regimen that will provide you with the best symptom relief and the least risk to a baby, you can get started on prenatal vitamins and any other recommendations made by your OB/GYN. Plan to stay in therapy and have regular visits with all your providers to give you the best chance at staying well throughout the process.
Please check these out!
We are excited to share with you that our hope and vision of having an online provider directory of perinatal mental health specialized clinicians is becoming a reality…our parent organization, Postpartum Support International (PSI) has developed the online infrastructure for this directory- National Perinatal Mental Health Provider Directory.
There are categories for healthcare providers, mental health professionals, support groups and affiliated professions. Applicants are reviewed before approval, and need to meet the following criteria: A professional perinatal mental health provider in good standing with state licensing standards, who has completed specialized training in perinatal mental health, such as PSI’s 2-day Certificate training, the 2020 Mom/PSI Webinar Certificate Course, or other specialized perinatal mental health trainings.
Listing your practice in this directory is free. While it is worthwhile and important to be a member of PSI or a state chapter of PSI, this is not a requirement for your listing. The only requirement is specialized training in perinatal mental health.
Please be reminded that if you are a facilitator of a free perinatal support group, please contact Annie Keating Scherer, PSI CT Support Groups Committee Chair to get your group listing on our website. Connecticut perinatal support groups are listed at www.psictchapter.com
We will officially launch the online provider directory once we have an adequate number of providers so that mothers, fathers, loved ones, providers and PSI Coordinators conducting a search feels hopeful in finding at least once resource in their community. If you have received training in Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders, we would like to invite you to list your practice in the PSI Provider Directory.