Paul: Welcome to episode 58, with my guest Dr. Jessica Zucker. I’m Paul Gilmartin. This is the Mental Illness Happy Hour, an hour of honesty about all the battles in our heads. From medically diagnosed conditions to everyday compulsive negative thinking, feelings of dissatisfaction, disconnection, inadequacy, and that vague sinking feeling that the world is passing us by. You give us an hour, we’ll give you a hot ladle of awkward and icky. This show is not meant to be a substitute for professional counseling. Think of it less as the doctor’s office, and more of a waiting room that hopefully doesn’t suck.
Before we get to the interview with Dr. Zucker, a couple of notes: the website for the show is mentalpod.com. We’ve got a new survey up on there about babysitters and boys, which is actually a subject we cover on the podcast today.
Today’s podcast is, it’s kind of, it’s very interesting, it’s… I’m very anxious about putting it up for many different reasons. It’s… We cover a bunch of different stuff. We cover questions that people have about therapists, and Dr. Zucker helps answer a lot of those questions: the pitfalls of finding a therapist, tips for finding a good one, what to look for in a therapist… We talked to her about her upcoming book where she works with women who were or are currently in pornography and talking about their sexuality and their childhoods and stuff like that. We answer a letter from a woman who experienced severe post-partum depression, and that is one of Dr. Zucker’s areas of expertise, so we get some good insight into that and how women can find different ways, when they’re feeling stressed out as mothers, to get a little bit more peace in their lives.
And then the interview turns to — I don’t know how to explain this — me, I guess. It turns… I don’t want to give the whole thing away, but I get some emails form listeners who say ‘When are we going to hear your story?’ and they want to know more about it. Well, if you’re interested in that, this is definitely an episode you want to listen to all the way through. I wasn’t quite prepared to talk about it, and I had a feeling it might come up, but it was really a — these last ten days have been really painful and in many ways ultimately good, but really, really scary and I’m feeling very nervous right now about putting this, that portion of the episode up. I go back and forth and back and forth, but my instinct kind of tells me that I should put it up, so I’m putting it up, and I really hope, [laughs] I hope I don’t regret it.
I think that’s it for the — Oh! Please sign up for the newsletter. There’s a link to it on the website and… what’s the other thing I wanted to say, oh, take the surveys. Please take the surveys. Check out the forum. Check out all the stuff that there is on the website — Oh! I know what I wanted to say! Our soldier that we’re taking up a collection to fly in, Burt the soldier, we have raised enough money! We got about $400 from listeners and that should cover his hotel and his airfare, and I want to thank Randall and Sean Kathleen, who are helping with the airfare and the hotel, so — and if we wind up having more money left over than we use, we’ll put it aside in a little fund for the next person that decide to fly in. And hopefully that’s ok with you guys that donated money. If it’s not, email me and I’ll send you your Paypal donation back.
All right. Let’s kick it off with a survey respondent. This guy’s name is Matt, and this is from the Shame and Secrets Survey. Matt’s straight, he’s in his twenties, was raised in a stable and safe environment, has never been sexually abused.
Deepest darkest thoughts: “Whenever I’m in public, I have homicidal fantasies about complete strangers. Pushing people into traffic, slamming their heads into a brick wall, etc. I’m a very gentle person. Never even been in a fist-fight. But I can’t help but think about what I could do to another person’s life.”
What are the sexual fantasies most powerful to you?: “Being tied up, tortured, and taken advantage of.”
Would you ever tell a partner or close friend this? He writes “No. I think she would freak out.”
What are your deepest darkest secrets? Things you have done or things that have been done to you: he writes “When a kid at my high school died, I pretended to be very close to him despite not knowing him, making up stories and spending the day with grief counselors just to get out of a math test.”
Do these secrets and thought generate any particular feelings about yourself? He writes “No. And that’s what bothers me even more. I could not care less.”
Paul: I’m here with Dr. Jessica Zucker. She’s a clinical psychologist specializing in women’s health, with a focus on peri-natal and post-partum mood disorders, transitions in motherhood, and early parent-child attachment. She earned her Master’s degree at New York University in Public Health with a focus on international reproductive issues, and that led to working for the Harvard School of Public Health. After several years of international public health work focused on maternal issues, Dr. Zucker pursued a Master’s degree in Psychology and Human Development at Harvard University — Never heard of that, is that a good school? —
Paul: with the aim of shifting her work from a global perspective to a more interpersonal focus. In her clinical practice, she merges her expertise in reproductive health and post-partum psychology. Dr. Zucker’s research on female identity development came to fruition in her award-winning dissertation while completing her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. She’s a published writer and a contributor to the Huffington Post, and PBS’s This Emotional Life. She’s currently working on her first book about mother-daughter relationships and issues surrounding the body. Do women have issues about bodies in this country?
Jessica: They don’t. It’s really interesting —
Paul: Yeah, I think it’s going to be a waste —
Jessica: They all feel so great about themselves, it’s so beautiful. —
Paul: Yeah. Well, that’s going straight to the bargain bin.
Paul: Thank you so much for being willing to come on and do this. I was… The way I found Jessica — is it ok if I call you Jessica?
Jessica: Of course. Please.
Paul: The way I found Jessica was… I had been sending emails out to therapists, like, occasionally I’ll get an email from a therapist saying ‘I like the show. I think it’s helpful. I’ve suggested it to patients’ or things like that. And so I always write ‘em back and say ‘Thank you, I’m very flattered. Would you ever be interested in being interviewed?’ And some of them are interested in coming on in the future, they’ve got too much going on right now, but I noticed you were following me on Twitter and that you were local, so I asked you if you would be willing to come do this. And you said ‘yes’ and I was very excited and am very excited, so that’s —
Jessica: Thank you. So happy to participate. This is such a great forum, so helpful for people.
Paul: Thanks. Thanks. So, I’m wondering where the best place to start is. Jessica and I were talking before we started rolling. I was just kind of letting her know what I’m going through right now, and letting her know that if certain topics come up, I might get a little emotional and I didn’t want to freak her out. And so then we started talking about what the issues were and stuff like that.
Jessica: Not much freaks me out.
Paul: Ok. Well, that’s good to know. But, y’know, this is our first time meeting together, and because you’re not my therapist, I don’t want to make this the Paul hour.
Paul: Although I certainly do want to deal with some of the stuff that I’m alluding to, if not at some point today, someplace further down the road.
Jessica: Yeah —
Paul: Basically, I want to get your advice for free.
Jessica: Exactly, yeah. I’m happy to just give it all away for free.
Jessica: Yeah, but I mean I’m sure your story is relatable to so many different people, depending on what we’re talking about, so, feel free to use it as a therapy hour [laughs].
Paul: Thank you. That’s really nice and generous of you. Let’s start with an email that I got from a listener who is looking for a therapist, and she wants to know — this woman was turned off whenever a therapist of hers would share a personal experience, she found that to be a real turn-off and selfish. Is there a fine line between what is helpful and what is unacceptable in a therapist sharing any part of their life?
Jessica: I think so. I mean, and again though, it’s incredibly individual what people are looking for in a therapist, so it’s sort of hard to generalize, but yeah, I mean, when a therapist is kind of a little too generous in reflecting on their own experience with a patient or a client, it can really be a turn-off. But for other people, they want to feel that the therapist can relate, or they want to feel that the therapist is accessible. So again, it’s — I would just follow your gut feeling. If it feels like way too much information, then it is.
Paul: What if they share what they think are good quick pick numbers for lotto?
Jessica: [laughs] Then go with it! Take it to the closest Seven Eleven.
Paul: [laughs] Yeah. Well, I go to see psychics, so that’s why I mentioned that.
If somebody’s going to look for a therapist, what are some positive signs in looking for a therapist, in that first meeting?
Jessica: I usually tell people who come to see me — I mean, it can be as specific as feeling comfortable in the space, so I mean, people come to the first appointment with a lot of feeling, whether they’re going through a crisis or they’ve been to ten therapists that were disappointing or they haven’t been to therapy ever or it’s been ten years, whatever. Pulling up, parking, the building, the waiting room, all of that impacts the experience. So, again, I would just really sort of take note of how you’re feeling in your body, your mind, your heart as you enter the space — and notice, too, though that some of, y’know… one can feel quite critical of every particular thing that’s going on in the environment when they’re feeling anxious about opening up. So the first appointment may not say everything about who the therapist is or what the potential relationship could be.
Paul: Would there be a number of visits you think you should give a therapist before you decide you’re going to keep seeing them or not keep seeing them?
Jessica: I think that’s a really important question. Again, for everybody it would be different. But I think —
Paul: Would it half dozen be a fair —
Jessica: Oh, yeah. I mean, for me, I think I would trust my gut on the first or second or third visit. If it feels like there’s a flow, there’s a resonance — I mean, again, someone could just show up and feel that the therapist wasn’t sort of put together well enough, or was too attractive for them, or didn’t like the way that they, y’know, sipped their tea. I mean, it’s so —
Paul: How about they do crossword puzzles?
Jessica: [laughs] Yeah, I mean, I usually like to eat a big meal while people are talking and opening up about their childhood, but, y’know, that’s just me.
Paul: [laughs] So, if you’re going to see a therapist and you find that you’ve seen them a couple of times —
Paul: — but you’re afraid to divulge certain pieces of information — because I get a lot of emails from listeners who have no problem divulging that information to me, but they can’t do it to their therapist, which is very flattering to me, but kind of makes me sad because it’s like, you’re paying this person.
Jessica: That’s right.
Paul: Would you have any tips for them to break through that fear and share the secret that they’re willing to go to their grave with?
Jessica: Yeah, that’s a hugely important question, and it’s incredibly common that people don’t share every single detail of their lives with their therapists. And you’re right, I mean, for me it’s baffling because people are paying a lot of money and sort of investing their time and energy into this, so you would think, like, why would you not just share it all? But the intimacy and the risk that’s being taken in sharing one’s full self is enormous.
Paul: What is the — I’m just going to move your mike a little bit closer…
Jessica: So —
Paul: What is the risk when it’s a therapist? I mean, what could go wrong?
Jessica: Well, the risk is being fully known. And when people don’t have positive experiences of emotional intimacy in their families or otherwise, they still, they want so badly, we all want so badly to be liked and loved. And so the deepest, darkest fear, I guess, is if we reveal all, the therapist who will judge us, or the therapist who will see us in a light that we don’t want to be seen in.
Paul: Have you ever known of a therapist to outwardly judge their patient?
Jessica: I think that, well, —
Paul: I mean that if —
Jessica: Outwardly judge? I mean —
Paul: If they said, y’know, I’m currently beating my wife and —
Paul: — y’know having sex with my kids. I can see the therapist saying I have to call the authorities, y’know, this is —
Paul: But they probably wouldn’t even use judgmental terms. They would just say you’re very sick right now and you’re dangerous, you’re a —
Paul: You’re dangerous to people around you, but there’s probably even a bit of compassion from the therapist —
Paul: — because they know that that person is —
Paul: Is suffering, and if they’re in therapy, they’re there because they don’t want to be that person.
Jessica: That’s right. I mean, that’s my hope, but again, I think that people need to trust their gut if they do feel inherently judged on some level. Again, it may be their own history that’s informing that experience, but the therapist should be making, should be thinking very critically about what’s happening, but in a compassionate way —
Jessica: Y’know, that’s the —
Paul: The first time I went to see a therapist, it was a female therapist and she was attractive, and it was kind of hard for me to talk about any sexual issues or fantasies that I had in my head. Because I didn’t want to appear unattractive. Y’know, the —
Paul: What — I want to try to get across to the listener how not big of a deal your sexual fantasies are to a therapist. Can you talk about that?
Jessica: Well, but again, I — there’s a lot to risk there.
Jessica: So, being fully known or sort of even just naming it yourself can be shaming. Right, so again, you’re paying top dollar, or you’re opting to be in therapy or wanting to explore you’re deepest, darkest stuff, but you have no idea if this person is secretly or outwardly judging you. But again, you’ve got to just hope for the best and go for it, right.
Paul: Right. And I guess my point was: these people are professionals, and they’ve heard so much more than you think that they’ve heard. They’ve studied cases in school, they’ve heard dozens if not hundreds of people before you with similar things, probably a lot darker than what you’re sharing.
Jessica. Yes. Yes, I mean, people have heard millions of stories and read so many cases, but also fantasy is fantasy.
Jessica: So, the hope is that a therapist can really hold the breadth and depth of personal experience. So even something again that seems so dark to one person may not in any way phase the therapist at all.
Paul: Right. Well, I can tell you the first time I kind of unloaded what I was thinking and feeling to my therapist, and she didn’t bat an eye, and told me how normal it was. The relief that I felt —
Paul: — was indescribable. It was, I felt joy, really pure joy for the first time in my life. To have somebody look at me and say ‘You’re not a bad person for what you think. You’ve been through some stuff and this is your mind’s way of coping with these things. Let’s talk about what you’ve been through.’ —
Paul: — ‘That’s what’s important.’ Because a lot of people think that they’re going to go into therapy, and they’re there for the therapist to tell them whether of not they’re a bad person.
Jessica: Or they’re looking, they think that the therapist is going to dole out advice, but I always reiterate that the main sort of thrust of therapy is to understand why we are who we are. And just to make meaning of our lives. That’s not exactly, it’s not this sort of binary ‘Am I good or bad?’ or ‘Is this good or bad?’ or ‘My parents, should I never speak to them again, or should I talk to them every day?’ It’s not necessarily about any of those kinds of constructs. It’s way deeper and more complicated and more interesting.
Paul: And often, I think that’s why we need therapy, because it’s so grey and —
Paul: — not clear-cut. And as I’ve said many times on this podcast, that’s the stuff that really fucks with us and if stuff is being — I don’t know if perpetrated is too strong of a word — but if there are sick dynamics in our family of origin, my hunch is the majority of them operate in that grey area so that the person perpetrating them won’t be called on it.
Jessica: Yeah, I mean, ideally if people are going to therapy consistently enough, that dynamic may eventually get played out within the therapeutic situation and therefore may be healed in a very different way than it could have ever been with the original family members.
Paul: Can you be more specific about that, can you give me an example?
Jessica: Meaning, so, y’know, for example you could end up having a lot of feelings for your therapist, but again it may be so informed by your previous care-giving experiences and so hopefully, though, the therapist can really sort of show up for that, hold it, and explore it in a moment-to-moment basis. So we’re not just looking back, but we’re talking about the relationship that exists right here, right now.
So, going back to what you asked before, partly I think the reason why people are feeling like they can write to you and not tell their therapist is because it is not an ongoing relationship.
Paul: And they don’t have to see me face-to-face.
Jessica: Exactly. It’s in writing.
Jessica: And so there’s an anonymity about it that’s very different than sitting together and having to have that experience of ‘Did the therapist just look away? Does she now think I’m less attractive, more attractive? Does she think I’m smart? Does she…’ any of that.
Paul: Right. I remember the one session I had with my therapist, and I can’t remember how the subject came up, I’m sure I brought it up, but I basically said that I had feelings for her. And I said, y’know, I made it clear “I’m not trying to pick you up. I’m just describing what is happening right now” because —
Paul: — when you see a therapist of the opposite sex, or if you’re gay, of the same sex, and you have never really experienced true intimacy and non-judgmental compassion, when you experience that for the first time, it is so intensely powerful. It —
Jessica: It’s transformative.
Paul: It’s transformative. And, so she asked me to talk about it. And so, I talked about it and it was embarrassing, and exciting at the same time. Because I was basically telling her what my fantasy was, of what would play out with us. And she was just nodding, y’know, and being extremely professional but it felt good to get that out because it was one of the first lessons to me that your shame can be shared with other people in a way that’s safe. Your —
Jessica: And can then evolve into something that does not include shame.
Paul: Yes. And —
Jessica: So there’s a normalizing process. Like, how would you not feel that way in her presence?
Paul: Right. And by the time I finished therapy with her and I hugged her and said good-bye, that feeling of wanting to be with her sexually was almost gone, and it felt different. So it was almost like this, these bubbles come up and out of you, and your therapist is there just kind of to guide them and pop them.
Jessica: Yeah. And again, to join you in it, though. I think to sort of, for you to feel less alone within the murkiness of the waters of life, it is incredibly transformative, and so intimate, like nothing else.
Paul: So incredibly intimate. And I think it can really lay a good foundation for being intimate with your partner and your friends. Because for a lot of people, they’ve never experienced that safety. They grew up in households where information and vulnerability were used as weapons —
Paul: — not things to being you closer together. And when you get into a support group, or you make friends that you can share your fears and your shames with each other, that is a bond that is really, really special, and really therapeutic and healing. There’s nothing like getting off the phone with a friend after just spilling your guts and knowing that they don’t judge you —
Paul: — because they’ve spilled their guts to you before.
Paul: But a lot of people don’t have that outlet, and so it just…
Jessica: No, it’s true, and actually something that you just made me think of, though, I mean, what I want to reiterate is that the consistency, though, of therapy is key. So people can, y’know, I think that people want the relief sometimes of being in therapy, and talking about their stuff, and feeling felt, feeling understood, and then pop out. And they don’t, kind of, they can’t integrate the benefit unless there is some sort of consistency, because that’s, well that’s what all the research says, but also because you just think about it in terms of going to the gym, for example. If you go once a month, what’s the point of going? So there’s something about the regularity and revisiting yourself and sitting with all these feelings, exploring different things with the same person, that makes such a difference.
Paul: Yeah. I believe that it’s important to go to therapy when you feel like going to therapy, but it’s even more important in my opinion to go to therapy when you don’t feel like going to therapy.
Jessica: Yeah, I often tell people, y’know, people say “How will I know when I’m done with therapy?” And I sort of don’t know what to say to that, because I think that people think that once their problems are quote-unquote ‘solved’ that they don’t need to be in a therapeutic relationship. But that might be a perfect time to continue. When you’re feeling good, there’s something wonderful about sort of just having that flow with this person who knows all of the sadness in your life, to also be able to share in the joys and the beauty.
Paul: Yeah, because a lot of times, too, I think the joy and the beauty is so new —
Paul: — you may not know how to handle it. You, it may induce a type of —
Paul: — anxiety, or even mania where you’re over-sharing how exciting. Like when I first started taking meds and realized, ‘Oh, this is how normal people feel. They don’t feel grey and flat all the time. They smile naturally.’ I wanted to tell the world about it, and it was kind of like almost a year of mania that I probably should have been in therapy at that time, because it was it’s own kind of addiction.
Jessica: That’s interesting. So, what do you mean though, like, you were so high and wanted to share kind of the jubilance and —
Jessica: — inform people about how life can be better?
Paul: Yeah, but it was coming from a place that was very kind of narcissistic, because I wanted everybody to know just how — I couldn’t stop talking about myself, because I felt so good. It was like this spaceship had landed, that was new to me, and I just wanted to go “Hey! Have you ever seen this spaceship?” And it was, I would imagine, annoying to a lot of people.
Jessica: I mean, from a therapeutic standpoint, if I put that hat on though, it’s very boyish. Meaning like, you would un to your mommy and say “Look! I just learned how to tie my shoe!” I mean, there’s something to beautiful about how excited you were, and how… and there’s something heart-breaking about how, y’know, new it was for you to see that the world wasn’t to grey, and so blank and blah, y’know?
Paul: Yeah. And a lot of people that have never gotten out of that depression, it’s their normal, they don’t have anything to compare it to.
Paul: And that’s why I think it’s so important to go to therapy, because you may not even know that you’re depressed. You may not even know that you’re full of shame. —
Paul: — Or that your relationship with one of your parents or siblings was incredibly inappropriate and damaging.
Jessica: That’s true. I mean, you sort of just integrate that into your psyche and your personhood, so how would you know, if you’re not around other types of people who are healthier or who can bring perspective. It’s true, you stay loyal to what you know.
Paul: Yeah. One of the things that I’m struck by, and I feeling we’ll be talking a lot about this in the future, is this dynamic where a child has, or a young adult has something happen to them that is very tragic sexually. Maybe not even necessarily very tragic; something that is, where there is, some time type of power is being taken away from them. And it then becomes a sexual fantasy —
Paul: — to them that’s very confusing. Women being raped and having an orgasm. Boys being given a bath beyond an appropriate age by a baby-sitter or their mother, and they get an erection. I mean, I’ve even read on message boards stories of baby-sitters masturbating young boys while giving them a bath, and thinking that it’s ok because the boy enjoys it. And that child then grows up with this deep, dark fantasy and they don’t understand, they think that they’re a bad person and that, they don’t realize that something was fused into their sexuality that had to do with power —
Paul: — and that there’s a coping mechanism there at work.
Jessica: Oh, for sure. I mean, I think partly why it becomes a fantasy is because then, in the fantasy often times the person who was raped is saying “yes”. They can redo or undo what they couldn’t, y’know, that which they didn’t have power over when they were so little.
Jessica: So, in my dissertation research I interview 20 women who work in pornography as actors, and some of them revealed that same kind of fantasy, that same story. It’s like, now they like to do on camera what was done to them at a time when they just had no power, and no words.
Paul: So, when they have that —
Paul: — fantasy then, can that ever be reversed? Can it ever be lessened? Can it be, how do they —
Jessica: Well, they’re trying to work it through. Is that what you mean?
Paul: Yes. How does that happen, and what does the end result look like?
Jessica: I mean I guess, yeah, it’s a tricky question, but I think it can of course get worked through, if it’s being talked about in a consulting room. So again back to the importance of therapy.
Paul: Not a video.
Jessica: [laughs] Well, there too, y’know. So you can do both, —
Paul: But, but —
Jessica: — if you want to be in porn. But if you, as long as you’re in therapy as well, it’s ok.
Paul: Right. But do you honestly think a person going into porn is ever going to get some type of healing or relief from that trauma?
Jessica: I think that working in porn is not necessarily a form of abuse they way a lot of people see it. I think that pornography is an incredibly important sort of psychological study in itself and that’s kind of why I took it on, and that’s going to be my book. But no, if they’re only looking at their stuff or working out their stuff through the sexual experience on camera, no, that will not undo or redo any childhood traumas, no way. No because they’re not, I mean, to play something out doesn’t heal you, it actually just prolongs the complication, I think.
Paul: It kind of feeds it.
Jessica: It does. So we’d start with the why. Why now? What’s been happening in your life? What happened in your early life? How do you feel about yourself, your body, sexually? And what about emotional intimacy? Because, y’know, sex gets used in all these different interesting ways, and a lot of it is really sort of masking so much of what’s happening deep in the crevices of our hearts right? So if she’s now wanting monogamy, why now? And I would like to get to know her in a deeper sort of way. Has she ever seen anything that looks remotely like what she’s going after, at this point? So, with her relationship with her mother, was there, did they talk about sex? Was she honored as a girl, as a developing woman? And same with her father, of course.
Paul: And have you ever seen an instance where somebody who was in that profession is able to then enjoy monogamy and intimacy and not feel that damage?
Jessica: I haven’t seen that, because all of the women that I interviewed were, y’know, sort of actively in porn. Although some of the women that I talked to considered themselves in monogamous relationships, but they look at their day job as a job —
Paul: I see.
Jessica: — so that sex is what they do during the day. It’s not a relationship and it doesn’t mean anything to them, and they seem to report that their boyfriends felt ok about that. In, y’know, this is just a couple of instances, of course, but…
Paul: That seems — horrible phrase, but — that seems hard to swallow [laughs]
Jessica: [laughs] Well, if you swallow it in a certain kind of glass, you get more money, so…
Paul: Yeah. Oh my god. Yeah, I couldn’t imagine what that would be like. Y’know, to me, being an alcoholic, to me that would be like, y’know, I’m an alcoholic, but I have to go taste wine for a living, and rinse it around in my mouth and spit it out. I’m not going to drink it but it would just seem like such a dangerous job.
Jessica: Well, but they, I don’t think, I mean none of the women I spoke with considered themselves sex addicts. So it’s not that same kind of analogy that you’re using in terms of like a slippery slope into addiction.
Paul: I see.
Jessica: I think it’s this cut-off-ness that they — My concern is a lot of these women aren’t sort of embodied. So they’re using their bodies as objects, but they’re not sort of aware of what’s actually happening from the inside out.
Paul: Right. I gotcha. I guess I was just assuming that anybody that does porn, there’s sex addiction there.
Jessica: Oh, no. Definitely, I mean, I wouldn’t think so. I think more consumers of porn or watchers of porn, the audience might be more sex addicted than the women that work within it.
Paul: One of your specialties is talking about depression in women, and I forwarded a couple of emails to you. Is there one in particular that you would like to talk about?
Jessica: Yeah, I think it would be important to get into the one about post-partum depression. If you, do you…?
Paul: Sure. This one is from a woman named Andrea, and she writes: “In every single episode” — she talks about the podcast, and she says — “In every single episode there’s one thing I can relate to. I just finished listening to the episode with Beth Littleford, which has compelled me to email you. I’m also a mom who went through post-partum depression. My story is a bit different from hers. My husband and I were married for five months when we decided to pull the goalie” — Oh, I remember this one, because she’s Canadian — “and try for a child. I thought it would take while, but the first time, we scored and got pregnant. I was devastated and in shock, my husband was over the moon, and nine months later my beautiful baby daughter arrived.
“My first thought was ‘that’s my baby,’ and second was ‘holy mother of fuck, did I just have a baby?!?’ No emotion really, other than panic and shock. You would think as I was lying on an operating table, I might have clued into what was about to happen. Intellectually, I knew; I am not a dumb woman. Emotionally, I had no clue what was going on. I didn’t love her. Actually, she felt like a foreign being from the first minute I saw her. But I knew I was responsible for her. I didn’t sleep at all. I refused to hold her at first until my husband laid her on me. I as so desperate, I asked my mom to stay with me 24/7 in the hospital. If I would drift off for a minute, my first question would was ‘Is she still breathing ok? Well, did she stop at all?’
“It was a fucking disaster. For five months I was crazy. I should’ve been locked up. Raging, slamming doors so hard they came off the hinges, throwing breakables from the third floor of our home to the main level just because I was frustrated. I threw food, I screamed, I physically shook with anger. My concentration was gone. I cried for no reason. I isolated myself. I hated my husband. I wanted to drink myself to death. Every night, I would look at 40oz of vodka in our cupboard and talk myself in and out of getting blotto and taking as many Tylenol 3 as I could. I never slept more than one hour at a time in over five months.
“Everyone around my was so happy about this baby, and would say ‘Oh, you are just tired. Take a break. You need to get out with the baby. Walk the baby. You just need this, and you just need that. Everything will get better at sex weeks, just wait.’ The day it was six weeks, I felt so shitty and betrayed, because that was when I realizes I was living my new normal, and my old life would never be back. I was a mom. A mom! What the fuck have I done? What have I gotten myself into here?
“Fortunately, I live in Canada. Our community sends a nurse to your home to check on you 24 hours after you get home, to check out that all is good, etc. My nurse was Elaine. She called but was away, and did I need anything? I sobbed on the phone with herm and she gave me all the emergency numbers, and said that she would be coming over in two days. She stayed all morning. I saw her once a week for the first six. She referred me to a PPD“ — post-partum depression — “support group, and those nurses came by to talk with me. All I wanted to do was sleep. They recommended I go and try it out. I told them I would go only after they offered free transportation, child-care, and snacks. I only had to commit to going three times. It was not a drop-in. They expected me there for a minimum three weeks in a row.
“I went, sighed, ate cookies, was angry because I could barely stay awake and wanted to go home. I tried to listen to the others, but in my mind I was telling myself ‘You do not belong here. These women are nuts. They are insane.’ Why the fuck was I here? I didn’t want to go back, and tried every way to get out of it. But in the end it was a nice day and the treats were good, so what the hell?
“This time I heard when the other women said ‘hello.’ They remembered my name. One saved me a spot. Wait a minute. Am I not in a room with a bunch of self-absorbed, complaining egomaniacs? Then I listened. Everyone gets a turn to share. In most of what they talked about, I could relate to something, and I cried the whole time. It clicked. I need to be here. I declined to talk that time.
“The third week I was looking forward to going. I forgot that I had decided to leave or stay after this week. They asked me first this time if I wanted to share. I spoke, and I cried so much. I told them my thoughts at week one and week two, and how I felt so guilty and shameful. Five of the eight of us felt the same when they started.
“I went every week for ten months. The PPD support group literally saved my life. I went to my doctor and got medical help, and started meds, which made a huge difference. I began to love my child, and I fell in love with her. My smile came back. I laughed sometimes. I wasn’t cured, but it was a great start. They set me up with a therapist when it was time to return to work. I still see her today, five years later.
“There’s a lot more to my story. A lot. I will break it down it down in points:
“I was raped at 16 when I was a virgin. I repressed this for 16 years. The accused are two boys from my neighborhood and went to my school. It was a horrible trauma that changed me from my core. But I told no one. No one. My father is an alcoholic, my mother suffers from mental illness, I trusted no one.
“I had a second baby, who I love and adore with all my heart.
“Been through every type of treatment for severe depression, including major depressive episodes, social anxiety, and PTSD. Also I now get intense, very serious spontaneous migraines. Last year I experienced a full-on mental, emotional, physical, intellectual break-down. I could no longer work. My marriage was at a breaking point. I wanted to kill myself, but I couldn’t because I couldn’t leave my girls.
“This is a little sampling of one part of my story. I just thought I would share. In my journey to wellness, I have met so many people who have chosen not to have kids because of mental illness, and a lot of them regret that choice. Also, for anyone who is a parent and is overwhelmed, exhausted, tired of being sick, and sick and tired, feels like life as bee on pause, maybe lost themselves and don’t know who they are, you are not alone. It is ok to talk about it. It is ok if your family doesn’t understand. And it is ok if your friends or spouse just think you are complaining. They don’t understand. Get help. Contact local agencies to help with funding. In Ontario, Canada, anyone with a child under six is entitled to free therapy” — I think she’s just fucking rubbing it in right now —
Jessica: I know, I want to move there. What’s going on?
Paul: And that’s basically the gist of her letter.
Jessica: She is brave.
Paul: Brave, and beautiful, and, god I, that —
Jessica: The courage. And the experience that she’s been through. I mean, look, one in four, one in five women experience some sort of post-partum mood disorder or that’s what’s been reported. So, of course people are under-reporting. Post-partum depression is serious and unfortunately it’s not taken seriously. Women are expected to be perfect. Women themselves want to be perfect. Family members, friends, community, TV, media, whatever, is telling us that it’s supposed to be this glowing, joyous, wonderful transition in our lives. And for so many women, it’s not. And there’s such a range of post-partum mood disorders. From her email, it sounds like she was suffering in a major way, and I’m glad that she got on medication, and she’s lucky that in that country nurses come over. If only we had that here.
People cannot necessarily get through the experience without support. Not meaning that they’re necessarily going to hurt themselves, but the depression can just go on and on, as you know. I mean, depression in general is something that needs to be treated and taken seriously.
Paul: What I liked, too, about her letter, was it highlights the need, sometimes, to treat the issue on more than one plane. —
Paul: — For her, it was a chemical imbalance that needed to be treated with meds, but there was also an emotional component, where she needed to open up and talk about that stuff.
Jessica: Yeah, I mean, the thing that make post-partum depression so different from depression, there’s this enormous expectation in your lap, that you are now responsible for this human life. So, you kinda can’t be depressed too long. And you feel so guilty about the depression. You feel anxious about the depression. And so, yeah, it’s so multi-layered, and multi-platformed because the guilt that comes along with —
Paul: I can’t imagine.
Jessica: — feeling shitty. It’s one thing to be depressed, and not have a kid. You can maybe lay around, and just kind of get through, maybe. But with a child that needs you —
Paul: And everybody telling you how blessed you are.
Jessica: How cute the baby is, how blessed you are, how come you’re not just skipping in the street? And so many women are feeling regretful, and talk about shame!
Paul: And anxiety!
Paul: That I’ve got at least 18 more years of overwhelming responsibility —
Jessica: [laughs] Yeah.
Paul: — while I like I’m getting nothing back. That’s got to be crushing.
Jessica: Yeah. Yeah, I mean I think that the sort of experience of one’s own childhood tends to rush in, whether that takes place during pregnancy, during the actual birth experience, or post, it happens. And so people kind of don’t have a choice at that point whether or not they look at their own childhood history.
Paul: So, often times the pregnancy can be a trigger to —
Jessica: Completely. And in all different directions. In beautiful ways about their own, their mom’s tales about being pregnant with them. Hopefully some of those stories are wonderful, but to the other end of the spectrum as well. Y’know, having memories of being young and under-cared for, under-nourished, neglected, abused, whatever the case may be.
Paul: Yeah. The, Theresa Strasser’s episode, which is definitely one of the favourites, she talks about after she had her baby, and her mother was visiting, that it triggered all her memories of being neglected as a child. And her mother was on top of it, saying “We’re not meant to be mothers,” so she felt this intense anxiety that she was going to repeat the cycle of it, and it made her want to die.
Jessica: It’s so deep. The beauty is again if people reach out and get help, and just say to themselves, ‘you know what? I’m worth it. And I don’t know what the hell is going on, but I need to find out.’ We will make mistakes as parents, of course, but the hope is that we make better ones, we make different ones, and they’re better informed. I mean, so at least by looking back at her own experience and sort of having her mom reignite the memory gives her, then, hopefully the opportunity to dive into it, and rearrange things so that her child doesn’t have that same experience.
Paul: Yeah, my hope is too, that people listening to this know that it’s incredibly common. Just because people aren’t talking about it, doesn’t mean it’s abnormal.
Jessica: Well, and I just, I find it befuddling because people are talking about it, but people aren’t talking about it at all. It’s sort of like, people don’t talk about miscarriage, people don’t talk about infertility, people don’t talk about reproductive technologies, but we are talking about it.
Paul: People don’t talk about the Kardashians. Oh wait.—
Paul: —They do.
Jessica: They do. Reality TV.
Paul: So what would, are there some warning signs that you might need to get help, from once you’re impregnated, to y’know, when the baby’s in its first year?
Jessica: Well, some pre-disposing factors that people should be aware of, y’know. So if people, let’s say were abused in childhood they may be more predisposed to depression. If they have a history of PMS, a history of depression in the family, bipolar. Obviously, if there are major struggles within the relationship going into having a child, it really sort of can weaken the environment when the baby arrives. And so, again though, the hormonal shifts plus sleep deprivation, that’s just a mess, for everybody.
Jessica: And then when she reported there that she slept, what, I think she said an hour a day, there’s something going on. Because it’s of course within the range of normal to be worried that your child isn’t breathing, is breathing, isn’t rolling over, or is rolling over, whatever the sort of obsessive worries can keep you up at night. But to not sleep means something, there’s an agitated depression or agitated anxiety that’s going on that really needs to be addressed. And like I said, the depression won’t go away on its own. So, some people may be able to talk it through in therapy, and may not need meds, but the combo can be really beneficial for some people.
Paul: And I would imagine what makes it so confusing and difficult, too, is you don’t know what is the natural stress of being a mom and —
Paul: —what is your post-partum depression.
Jessica: That’s right. When you feel like an alternate version of yourself, and you don’t experience at least some moments of reprieve, or joy, or the old you, in a day, and it goes on for days — so there’s a, sort of this kind of time period that’s normal, quote-unquote ‘normal’ post-partum blues. Like, three to four weeks; that’s to be expected. You have no idea what’s going on, your body’s changed, your hormones are flying, you’re not sleeping. So everybody is bound to feel pretty crazed during that initial period, and people start to, y’know, therapists and psychiatrists become a little bit more concerned when it goes past four weeks. So that’s when you start to think, ‘Ok, am I still not sleeping? Am I still feeling like I regret this? Do I want to die? Do I wish my baby wasn’t here?’ These dark, shameful feelings and thoughts that people have, that’s a good time to get help.
Paul: Good, good. I want to read another email that I got from a woman named Kay, and she has a couple of questions. The first one is, she writes, “My best friend is a mother of two; going to college, and taking care of both kids, a four-month old and a four-year old, mostly on her own. Her husband works in the mountains doing electrician work. She has started to have issues with anxiety after a lifetime without mental health problems. My question is, how does she find sanity when there is nearly zero time for herself, and how does she convince her husband to lift a finger to help her when he comes back tired from the mountains? Are the working class doomed to misery?”
Well, my answer might be right. I don’t know if it’s on or not, but her husband’s working in the mountains. Should he switch to working in rolling hills?
Jessica: [laughs] Or laurel canyon, for that matter.
Paul: [laughs] Yeah, laurel canyon… Well, can she, because one of the things in your specialty is helping to find ways for women to ease tension.
Paul: Can you talk about some ways that —
Jessica: I mean, I think this brings up a really important point about resources, and so what I tell most of my patients is, y’know, being resourced inside and out: huge, vital, foundational. Amazing for your baby to experience you being present. The quality of the interaction is way more important than the quantity of time that you spend with your child. So if you’re feeling good and grounded with your child two hours a day, and the other hours of the day you’re off at work, but feeling fulfilled and happy to be away from your baby, great. So, but —
Paul: So it’s ok to be happy to be away from your baby as a mom.
Jessica: Oh, it’s incredibly important to know that the balance is key. I think that the pressure to be around your baby 24/7 is remarkable. I mean there’s just no way that people can go from being child-less to being with the child full-time without feeling bored or anxious or overwhelmed or under-stimulated or whatever. But her email brings up a good point about class issues. So when I say ‘resourced outside’ what I meant was if you can have help, so that you can even go on a walk by yourself or see a friend or whatever makes you feel sort of joyous or more like your old self. Money is sort of key in that regard, but of course there’s, hopefully there’s some family, if they’re helpful. And if money is an issue and therapy doesn’t feel affordable, there are always clinics or sliding-scale institutes, hopefully in the area, where she can be talking about these issues.
Paul: What’s the best way to try to find that if you’re — and even aside from women’s issues and pregnancy —
Paul: —I get so many emails from people that are in a horrible place, but they can’t afford therapy.
Paul: What should they do?
Jessica: That’s the thing I always tell people when they say ‘I can’t afford to see you in your Beverly Hills whatever,’ that’s fine and totally understandable, and there are clinics everywhere. I mean, I guess I haven’t been to Antarctica, but I don’t know what’s going on there therapeutically, but —
Paul: It’s good, but it’s not heated. Which is really an oversight.
Jessica: [laughs] Even in the offices?
Paul: [laughs] Yeah.
Jessica: It’s freezing.
Paul: Nobody talks beyond their time, though, which is nice.
Jessica: [laughs] So, yeah, I mean, look, I mean here in LA there are places that slide down to $5 a session. So—
Paul: How do you find them though?
Jessica: I mean, I would say Google ‘low-fee therapy’ and the name of your city, or ‘therapy’ and the name of your city, and the clinics should come up. Or ‘clinics’ and the name of your city.
Paul: But the word ‘clinic’ and ‘low-fee’ would be a good —
Jessica: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s a good starting point, and hopefully you just ask around. I mean, you can ask your medical doctor, any other practitioners who work in the field or hopefully friends or family might know about these places, but there is no getting around therapy. If people want it, it’s there.
Paul: That’s good to know. That’s really good to know.
Jessica: Yeah, so I feel like sometimes people are using money as way to sort of bypass it, but it’s just not, that’s not the case. And these clinics, often times it’s excited students of the field who they’ll be seeing at this lower rate, and those people could be just as poised and passionate about the work as somebody who’s seasoned.
Paul: Yeah. That’s really good to know. I hope that gives some people out there hope that are feeling like they’re stuck and that there isn’t — because that’s another dynamic, that is just more gasoline on the fire, is then when you feel hopeless, and there’s no reason to feel that way.
Jessica: Well, I think another important point that she brings up in the previous email about sort of when family and friends contribute to your shame, or making you feel that you shouldn’t feel the way that you feel, or deny that there’s a problem going on. That is incredibly sad. And so that becomes another hurdle to get somebody into the therapeutic room.
Paul: Yeah. Her second question was “How do I know I’m progressing in therapy? I feel like my therapist is complimenting me too much. Is this a real problem?”
Jessica: [laughs] Well, that’s interesting. If the compliments, or the feedback, hopefully it’s feedback, if it feels authentic and genuine it may be that this patient sort of has difficulty taking in someone being loving, or caring, or noting their progress, or their insightfulness.
Paul: What if the therapist is saying, “Who’s a good girl?”
Paul: Is that inappropriate?
Jessica: That might be just a tad inappropriate.
Paul: “Who’s my good girl? Who’s got her big pants on?”
Jessica: [laughs] It’s so nebulous, how do we know when we’re progressing? I think it’s about, sort of sometimes when you feel the worst is when you’re making the best progress, and sometimes when you feel the best nothing’s happening. It’s not an answerable question, really. It’s just about, it’s immeasurable, and to know that it’s a process, I think that, like, when people just need to put on their seatbelt and go into the ride, hopefully with their arms outstretched.
Paul: And I think it’s totally normal to be suspicious of compliments coming from a therapist —
Paul: — because I’ve felt that way when my therapist would say, y’know, “You’re too hard on yourself” —
Jessica: Is that a compliment?
Paul: Well, because what she was saying was…
Jessica: ‘Don’t be so hard on yourself.’
Jessica: ‘You don’t need to be —‘
Paul: Yes. ‘You don’t need to be. These things you think about yourself aren’t true.’ And it was —
Jessica: But that’s a really important, again, comment on what she’s observing you’re doing to yourself. So you’re sort of like wrapping your childhood back around on yourself and doing to yourself probably what a parent has done.
Jessica: And so she’s saying ‘What’s the big deal here?’
Jessica: ‘Why are you now hurting yourself in ways you don’t need to anymore?’
Paul: One of the things that my mom used to do to me, one of the sick dynamics is she would build up, usually in a way that crossed some type of boundary, y’know. The words she would use towards me would be kind of of a sexual nature, or the touching would be of a sexual nature. Touching my ass or calling me so damned cute or handsome or whatever. And she would say all these compliments to me and then at the end she would squeeze my face and through gritted teeth and a smile, she would say, “But you’re rotten. You’re rotten to the core.”
Jessica: [pause] That’s a recipe for lifelong confusion, I would say.
Paul: Yeah. So it’s —
Paul: — hard to take a compliment when —
Jessica: Yeah. Well, when you think then that something evil is about to happen.
Jessica: Right. So that when good is paired with bad, and bad is paired with good, you never know who to trust. You can’t trust yourself. That’s incredibly intense.
Paul: Well then maybe now would be a good time for me to bring up what we had started talking about earlier. Before we were rolling, I was telling Jessica that, depending on what questions we answered, and what emails we talked about, I might get a little bit emotional. And because this is our first time meeting and talking, I didn’t want to freak you out, and I didn’t want you to think ‘Oh my god, what have I gotten myself into?’ And you assured me that that was ok —
Paul: — and I said that I had this kind of break-through, very painful break-through about seven or eight days ago, when I was finally able to really call what my mom did to me sexually abusive, and emotionally abusive, and incestuous, y’know. There was never any actual sex between us. There was never any manipulating of genitalia—
Jessica: [at the same time] genitalia.
Paul: — or anything like that. But there was an onslaught, a constant onslaught of her trying to violate boundaries. Barging into the bathroom when I was in there. Taking my temperature rectally until I was eight years old. When I was 12, and I’ve shared this before, finding a reason to give me a bath that seemed unnecessary and made me want to put a bathing suit on. But I didn’t, and then got excited, and felt dirty about, and thought it was my fault and thought I was bad. And as I look back at all these things throughout my life — and there’s a lot more I could list. Her calling me on the phone as an adult and saying, “Hello Mr. Gilmartin. This is Mrs. Gilmartin.” Grabbing my ass until I made her stop when I was 24 years old, and the therapist pointed out that it was inappropriate.
I looked at this fantasy that I has always had as a child: being on a playground, and an older girl coming up and comforting me. And me just being able to wrap my arms around her and cry. And it was literally the strongest impulse I had as a child. And I never knew what it was about. Y’know, as I got into therapy, I realized, Oh! It was me wanting to be mothered. It was me wanting to have a mother. But I never knew what the crying exactly was about, and what it was that I would want to say. And after I was able to say, last week after consulting a lot of friends, especially female friends, especially mothers who pointed out to me that that was not appropriate, what she did. That was —
Jessica: No. She was using you, and exploiting you.
Paul: And so I was, I went to my wife and I asked for a hug, and I just started crying, and the words came out: “I didn’t deserve it. She tricked me. She used me. —”
Paul: —“And it really hurts.” And I cried, probably the most intense tears I have ever cried. Now here’s the fucked up part, is my brain keeps going back and forth, telling me I’m exaggerating —
Jessica: Yes. Of course.
Paul: — I’m making it up —
Paul: —I’m going to hurt my mom if I don’t go back and help her move into her retirement home in five days. I’m going to let my brother down. He’s going to have to do it — I mean, she’s got movers, but y’know, I planned this trip before I had this —
Paul: — kind of breakdown last week—
Jessica: Well, the timing then seems uncanny, then, right?
Paul: I guess I never thought about that.
Jessica: Yeah. There’s something important there.
Paul: So, what would you… I know you’re going to say it’s ok for me to not go back home…
Jessica: I would say even more strongly than that, and again because I’m not you’re therapist, I can’t, I’m saying it in this particular way. I don’t know if I would say it like this in a therapy situation, but I would say, if you had a son, how would you help protect him from a woman like this, or from engaging any further with somebody like this? And treat yourself then in that way. The problem is that we become adults, and we don’t know how to kind of, I guess, quote-unquote ‘parent’ ourselves. So that means,