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Francesca's Mental Health Journey

By Francesca Jaffe

Every year I spend a lot of time thinking and reflecting on Mental Health Awareness Month.  Honestly, I think of my mental health every month of the year, but in May it really comes to its forefront.  I’ve had many personal experiences with certain mental health conditions in my adult life and I think one of the things that has really helped me feel more at peace with it is reading other peoples’ stories of similar experiences.  Facts don’t lie: there is still a stigma that is attached to mental health conditions in people of all ages.  I think by being transparent about our experiences, it can hopefully put that stigma to bed.

Our family at Thanksgiving the same year of our egg retrieval. I was barely functioning and trying to put on a brave face so we could keep the traditions going for our kids.

For most of my adult life I’ve dealt with anxiety in some form.  The funny thing (or not so funny thing) is that I didn’t really start to realize it was true anxiety until after I became a mom.  I’ve been very fortunate to be able to have two children naturally, however, each time has come with a new set of anxiety that has weighed on me heavily.  What I truly did not expect was how this would all manifest when we tried to get pregnant with a third child.

After trying for a long time, I was classified as having “secondary infertility” which meant it was time to look into IVF as an option to add to our family.  My husband and I both accepted this in time and decided to begin the process.  I’ll be honest, I went into it naively.  I knew it would be physically and emotionally exhausting, but I truly did not anticipate how severely it would impact my mental health.

After my egg retrieval (and completing the many rounds of hormonal medications), I dealt with some medical complications.  This, in turn, caused what I would say was the scariest mental health episode I’ve ever had to face.  I started suffering panic attacks during my work day- some in which my husband would have to come to my job and pick me up.  After some time, I realized the panic and crippling anxiety were only getting worse.  I was having multiple panic attacks a week paired with days on end where just getting out of bed frightened me to my very core.  

I tried a lot of the “tried and true” techniques during these very intense episodes: deep breathing, sensory focusing- I tried it all.  At the end of the day, however, I felt trapped in this anxiety and couldn’t break free from it.  It became so severe that I had to take medical leave from work.  Between the fertility drugs, the medical complications from the retrieval, and trying to balance work and parenting, my brain could no longer manage it all.  It’s hard to explain how frightening it all was- often people think it’s an embellishment.  You can rest assured that none of this is embellished, although I wish I could say it is.  I wish I could say it’s all just a story.  

I took time off of work to really get better.  I spent a lot of time in therapy (and still do), and have found a medication that really helps to get this all under control.  These things take time, though.  There is no “magic pill” that takes your anxiety away.  It takes patience, awareness, a good support system, and a really good therapist! 

I can safely say I’m on the other side of all of it now.  We’ve been able to successfully become pregnant through IVF after I took the time to receive the appropriate help for my panic and anxiety disorder.  Do I still have anxious episodes? Yes, all of the time!  Am I better equipped to work through them? Absolutely.  What I want to say to everyone reading this is something that my therapist had kept reminding me when I was truly at my worst: this is not your forever.  When you’re in the thick of it, it feels like it will never end.  I am here to say that it does.  It takes time and it takes work, but by prioritizing mental health and working with the right people, there is an end in sight.

My most recent picture, 8 months pregnant, finally having made it to the other side of the dark tunnel,  feeling in control of my mental health!

I’d like to leave you with this.  Mental Health Awareness Month is a great way to acknowledge that illnesses exist beyond the physical.  It’s a great way to help people to learn how to take care of their mental health, but we shouldn’t just use May to get that message out.  The stigma behind mental health conditions needs to be erased so that more people are willing to get the help they truly need.  Don’t be afraid to speak up about your experiences and what has helped you through them.  If you know of a person who struggles, give them the space to talk comfortably.  Let’s eradicate the shame that often comes with mental health conditions.  By being more transparent, you could truly be saving someone’s life. 


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