D-MER: The Breastfeeding Disorder That Makes You Miserable

A few weeks after bringing my third child home from the hospital, things felt like they were starting to become routine. She hadn’t been a great nurser up until then, and I’d dreaded feeding her, but I was determined to do it. We found a position she liked, and she nursed that way exclusively no matter how sore I was, but we were finally doing it, I thought.

I remember the day everything changed so clearly. It’s burned into my memory forever. It was a Saturday morning. The baby was rocking in her swing. The twins were playing on the carpet. I was reading a book, an amazing luxury. And suddenly, I couldn’t breathe. My vision blurred, a rushing sound filled my ears, and it felt like I my whole body was trembling. I dropped my Kindle and screamed.

My husband rushed to my side while I hyperventilated and cried, with no answer to give as he yelled, “What’s happening? What’s wrong?” And then, as suddenly as quickly as it had come over me, the feeling was gone. I was shaky and weak and confused, my mouth was dry, and I felt like I’d just gotten off the world’s fastest roller coaster, but I was okay. Before I could say any of that, my milk let down.

“I think I had a panic attack,” I said, and then I nursed the baby.

A few hours later, it happened again. I was in the kitchen this time, and I dropped the plate of food in my hands. I didn’t scream this time; instead, I collapsed onto the floor, sobbing. My husband came running again, and again, the feeling passed and the familiar feeling of my milk letting down followed.

By the end of the weekend, I’d had a dozen panic attacks, each lasting only a minute or so, each followed by a letdown. I had no clue what was happening.

It took months for me to learn what was going on. I’d become so depressed, it bordered on suicidal, and even though my daughter was only nursing a few times a day, the panic attacks lasted longer. But my supply was fine, and my daughter wouldn’t take a bottle, so I went on nursing.

I was suffering from an incredibly severe case of a condition called D-MER (dysphoric milk ejection reflex).

Most of the time breastfeeding makes people feel happy, and that’s what it should do. What happens in a healthy letdown is this: The lactating brain produces prolactin, which it releases at the same time as oxytocin. Oxytocin usually makes you feel happy and loved, and that helps you bond with the baby. You feel affection and satisfaction and contentment, and most of all, love. It’s a feeling most nursing mothers are familiar with. It’s the feeling I had when I nursed my twins only a few years earlier.

Dopamine inhibits prolactin though. With too much dopamine present, prolactin can’t reach levels high enough to cause a letdown, and that means the lactating brain reduces the amount of dopamine it produces. Low dopamine levels can cause anxiety, confusion, attention deficits, fatigue, and depression. And oxytocin isn’t a one-sided hormone. In levels too high, it can cause fear.

This can start a nasty chemical and emotional spiral. First, the lack of dopamine causes anxiety and confusion. Then, due to high amounts of oxytocin, the brain holds onto this memory, strengthening the panic reaction to those feelings during the next letdown. The drop in dopamine causes anxiety and confusion, now recalling short-term fear memories, and oxytocin causes the ensuing feelings to register deeply in short-term memory, and so on.

Most cases of D-MER are mild: feelings of unease with nursing, of confusion or emotional discomfort. But some, like mine, can be debilitating.

It’s not known how common D-MER is. It has only been medically recognized for a few years, but while research is limited, it’s moving fast. Already, so much more is known about this condition than when I suffered from it in 2012. And the biggest difference is that now there are actually treatments.

When I was suffering, nobody knew if it was safe to prescribe medications for me. Nobody knew if they would help, or why. The best advice medical professionals had to give was, “Now that you know what it is, you don’t have to feel like you’re crazy,” which was nice but did nothing to stop the panic attacks. Their most common advice was, “Stop nursing.”

Feeding my twins had never given me the problems I had with my third, and I couldn’t imagine giving up simply because I was unhappy. For five months, I struggled without having a clue what was wrong with me. I nursed another four months after I had a name for it, but having a name isn’t the same as having a treatment. I thought I had to suffer to give my daughter the best nutrition. I thought that breastfeeding a second time had made me go insane, and I would have to wait out nursing my daughter to regain my sanity.

Now I know D-MER is not a psychiatric disorder. It’s a hormonal imbalance, and one that can be corrected with medication. People suffering from D-MER don’t have to “wait it out. They can get help immediately. They can continue nursing their babies, literally without fear.

If you suffer from D-MER, don’t hesitate to talk to your doctor. As D-MER is still so new in medical literature, your doctor might not know about it yet, but that’s okay. Just because it’s new, that doesn’t mean it’s not real. Bring some articles about D-MER, and tell your doctor to look it up if they don’t know much about it. It’s rising rapidly in visibility, and it’s not nearly as hard to learn about it now as it was back in 2012.

You don’t need to be experiencing severe D-MER, like me, to get help. Nobody should have to feel miserable and confused while feeding their child. Nobody should have to sacrifice their emotional help to do what they believe is best for their child.

Measles Cases Are Cropping Up Again. Just Vaccinate Your Damn Kids, Please.

Vaccinate your kids.

No, seriously, vaccinate your kids. Don’t throw your woo at me. I’m heartily sick of people reading a little bit of science, misinterpreting it, and putting us all at risk for diseases we should have wiped out ages ago. Like measles, which the U.S. had 70 cases of last year, 188 cases the year before that, and a whopping 667 cases in 2014. And yes, the majority of people who contracted the disease were unvaccinated.

The MMR vaccine protects your child against not only measles but also mumps and rubella. Mumps, an often painful virus that affects the salivary glands, can be spread year-round. In January, a mumps outbreak hit Colorado, with 24 of the 26 reported cases in the Denver metro area alone, and infections are expected rise. Washington State is also reporting a rise in mumps

The CDC counted approximately 20,000 pertussis (whooping cough) cases in 2015 — and pertussis often goes unreported, so those numbers are likely far, far higher. Children can’t be vaccinated for pertussis until 3 months of age. Before that time, they are perilously vulnerable, which is why 1,970 of those 20,000 cases reported in 2015 were children under 6 months old. In total, six people died, three of them children under the age of 1. All because everyone won’t get jabbed. And by “everyone,” I mean your kids — specifically.

Don’t tell me that the aluminum in the vaccines will give them Alzheimer’s. According to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), the amount of aluminum in a vaccine is “similar to that found in a liter of infant formula.” Smug about your breastfeeding? Don’t be. Breastfed infants still ingest 7 milligrams of aluminum in their first six months of life, compared to the 4.4 mg they get from vaccines. You don’t fret that your milk is going to give your kids an incurable brain disease.

Then there’s the formaldehyde. Horrors! Except the amount of formaldehyde in a vaccine is less than the amount circulating in your infant’s body. Five times less, at least. Moreover, CHOP explains that formaldehyde necessary for human metabolism. The dosage amount is what makes formaldehyde poisonous, and this dose is too low to do anything to precious Moonbeam and Starshyne.

Don’t say that we give too many vaccines at once, and you suspect that may cause, well, if not autism, then maybe some developmental delays and ADHD. Don’t say that we give too many vaccines now. Thirty years ago, we vaccinated against eight diseases, according to CHOP’s Vaccine Education Center. There were a little more than 3,000 bacterial and viral proteins in those vaccines. Now we vax against 14 diseases, and those use only 150 immunological components. So your child gets fewer antigens introduced to their system than you did as a child, not more.

Don’t tell me that your decision not to vax has no effect on other people, either. First of all, there’s a thing called herd immunity. Basically, if a certain number of people are are immune to a disease, the disease will go away. That’s how we killed polio. That’s why we don’t have diphtheria outbreaks every winter. Herd immunity protects those who can’t get vaccinated, including, in many cases, the pregnant and the newborn, the immunocompromised and the allergic. So when you refuse to vaccinate little Timmy, you compromise community immunity and make it more likely that others will get sick. That includes little babies and elderly people — people who could die from the same sickness that just inconveniences you, babies like 1-month-old Riley Hughes in the video below, who passed away after he contracted whooping cough.

(Trigger Warning: Critically Ill Infant)

And don’t hide behind the banner of free choice. You make a medical decision for your child, a decision you think is best for them. That’s your right as a parent. But that decision has consequences — real consequences — for the health of the community around them. I understand that you’re scared of side effects. But the chance of side effects far outweighs the good you do by vaccinating. It’s your civic responsibility to help your community, and that means getting shot up with antigens that will save you from sickness. My kids don’t like getting shots. They cry. I tell my oldest that he’s being a hero; he’s helping to keep not only himself healthy, but also other people. If he had a choice, he wouldn’t get jabbed. But he doesn’t understand that his free choice pales in comparison to the public health benefits of mass vaccination.

Don’t tell me vaccines didn’t kill polio in the United States. Don’t tell me it didn’t eradicate smallpox or diphtheria. Don’t use the old “better sanitation and medication” argument. Those things will help mitigate the mortality rate of a disease, but they won’t magically make it disappear. Only a population substantially immune to the disease — the threshold for community immunity varies — will make a disease go away.

So just vaccinate. Just do it. Yes, your child will cry and be uncomfortable. Yes, you’ll worry about side effects, but it’s almost 100% likely your kid will experience nothing but a fever. My kid was the 1 in 1,000 who broke out in a measles-like rash in response to an MMR vax. He still got the rest of his shots. That’s because immunization isn’t just best for your child. Immunization is best for your community. And you don’t live in a bubble. You have a solemn responsibility to the very young and very old, to the cancer patient, to the immunocompromised. Don’t mess it up. Vaccinate. 

I Am The Reluctant Owner Of A FUPA Now, And 7 Other Postpartum Body Changes

I knew that pregnancy would put my body through a lot of changes (read: some really weird shit). Growing a human takes a lot of work, so it makes sense that pregnant people are a mess.

What I wasn’t prepared for were all the strange things that happened to my body after the baby. Here is just some of the weirdness your postpartum body experiences:

The Dreaded FUPA

“FUPA” is an acronym for “fat upper pubic area.” It’s the last of our pregnant belly that, like the last guest at a party, just doesn’t realize it’s time to go. You may have also heard it referred to as a “pooch” or “muffin top.” Call it what you will, this “flesh fanny pack” is the reason that Spanx became a billion-dollar empire.

An Ass That Won’t Quit — Until One Day, It Does

I was never a person who gained weight in my ass, until after I had kids. It got bigger and bigger and bigger, until one morning I woke up and found it had mysteriously vanished during the night. Ever since The Great Deflation, it’s had another skin flap that hangs at the bottom — my ass now has an ass of its own.

The Acne of a 13-Year-Old Boy

What in the actual fuck? Who would have thought I’d be complaining about wrinkles and acne? It came back with pregnancy and just never went away.

Random Hair Growth

As if it’s not enough to have to shave my legs and tweeze my eyebrows, I now have to try to remember every random black hair that has sprouted somewhere on my body. I don’t get much sleep these days, so I have to use a trick to remember where they are: geography. To the north, there are two wilderness hairs up in Montana (aka my chin), looking down on the other hairs below. There’s one weird one hanging out in Maine (aka my shoulder). A hair in Colorado and one in Nebraska (aka my nips). And let’s agree never to talk about what’s going on down in Mexico.

Apocalyptic Periods

Every month, I’m 98% sure the world is coming to an end.

A Metabolism That Works in Reverse

Remember when you could manage your weight by eating not too badly and exercising regularly? After two kids, I have to work out just to gain less weight. And if I even so much as think about eating a chocolate muffin, I get back fat.

A Bladder That’s Never Satisfied

There are a lot of things I took for granted before I had kids: shopping alone, doing anything alone, and a bladder that functioned normally. I used to be able to sit through an entire movie without having to leave once. Now I have to go at least twice. And god forbid I laugh, or sneeze, or cough at any point in between.

Boobs That Hate Each Other

I used to think my “girls” were twins. But now I know they’re sisters — sisters who hate each other with the fire of a thousand suns. As far as I can tell, they got into some kind of argument when I was breastfeeding because they haven’t wanted anything to do with each other since. One wants to be a hermit and sulk under my arm, while the other is headed south to chat with its new BFF: my belly button.

So to all the pregnant ladies out there lamenting about your body changes, I understand. It sucks. But once you’ve had the baby, things only get weirder. And I’d rather have a full preggo belly than the sad, saggy FUPA.

Get Your Damn Hands Off My Diet Coke, And Worry About Your Own Bad Habits

Anyone with a Diet Coke addiction understands criticism. I’m not a Diet Coke fan myself, but I have been known to drink between 1 and a million cans of Coke Zero in a day, so I feel comfortable saying that people need to stop telling me everything from “That stuff causes cancer,” to “That stuff rots your teeth,” to “That stuff is turning you into a super villain.” I’ve never actually heard the last one, but it’s just a matter of time before it happens, because the fact is, most of their arguments are outlandish and flat out bogus.

I’m not sure what is up with people’s preoccupation with judging me for drinking diet soda, but I must admit that ever since I made the sacrificial 30-something transition from real soda to diet soda, I’ve faced a surprising amount of criticism that I have a difficult time arguing against outside of offering up my middle finger.

I have to assume that those of you diet soda drinkers out there reading this are facing my same issue, and to you, I offer a collection of arguments for the consumption of Diet Coke compiled by Yvette d’Entremont and published on The Outline.  It’s a pretty comprehensive list of diet soda arguments, and d’Entremont attempts to debunk them for the sake of getting Diet Coke naysayers off her back.

For example, she explains that there is only anecdotal evidence to support the theory that Diet Coke deadens your taste buds. This is an argument I’ve heard for years, and if it were true, I’d be eating ghost peppers like they’re Cap’n Crunch at this point. According to d’Entremont, “As for the claim that Diet Coke ‘deadens’ your tastebuds, only a handful of things actually kill your tastebuds or cause changes to your ability to taste. Oral diseases and certain types of medicines are known tastebud killers. But the main cause of tastebud demise is time.”

And of course, there’s the argument that Diet Coke causes cancer. According to d’Entremont, “[t]he sweetener in Diet Coke, aspartame (also marketed as Nutrasweet® and Equal®) is one of the most extensively studied chemicals that’s ever been approved for the food supply. No link has ever been established between aspartame and cancer.” You might be thinking these are alternative facts, but the National Cancer Institute is here to assuage your fears: “Questions about artificial sweeteners and cancer arose when early studies showed that cyclamate in combination with saccharin caused bladder cancer in laboratory animals. However, results from subsequent carcinogenicity studies (studies that examine whether a substance can cause cancer) of these sweeteners have not provided clear evidence of an association with cancer in humans. Similarly, studies of other FDA-approved sweeteners have not demonstrated clear evidence of an association with cancer in humans.”

D’Entremont goes on to debunk the purported links between depression and diet soda, tooth decay and diet soda, and diabetes and diet soda. And while I will admit that some of the sources in this article are not always 100% rock solid, she uses several government and university studies to build a pretty good case for those of you seeking fodder for the next time some judgmental assclown with a water bottle and organic deodorant tries to tell you all the dangers of your favorite beverage.

Because the fact is, you are an adult, and if you feel like consuming large amounts of artificial sweetener to get through the day, that’s up to you. Furthermore, if everything people have told me about diet soda were true, by now I’d be toothless, boneless, tasteless, depressed, and lumpy with cancer cells. However, I still have a full mouth of healthy teeth, strong bones, and good taste buds. And for the record, I’m also cancer-free. While writing this article I drank two cans of Coke Zero, and I’m actually happier now than when I started.

Frankly, I don’t need anyone’s passive-aggressive BS for indulging in a simple pleasure. As a working parent, Coke Zero tastes like I no longer want to park my minivan and run into the woods, and the last thing I need is judgment. I don’t really want to argue. I just want to drink my frosty zero-calorie beverage without someone telling me I’m killing myself. But that just never seems to happen, so now, at least, I have something to argue about if I feel up to it. I have a few facts in my back pocket that, if needed, I can shove in a co-worker’s smug face in the hope that they will go about their business, so I can go back to finishing that last sip of sweet, sweet Coke Zero.

And now watch as the comment section fills up with people telling me that soda will kill me and rot my teeth. 

How My Daughter’s Question About My Size Inspired Me To Take Back My Health

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been heavier.

It’s not that I was ever unhealthy, I was just built bigger. I always tried my best not to care, but it bothered me immensely. And then my daughter was born.

I weighed over 200 pounds and wore a size 16. The idea of being plus-sized scared me. I imagined a life of not being able to keep up with my daughter once she was on the move. I imagined having to wear unfashionable clothes from plus-sized stores (I now know plus-sized stores sell very fashionable clothing). I imagined my husband thinking I was gross and society shunning me.

So I worked out, and I ate healthy. Before I knew it, I was down to 165 pounds on a 5-foot-6-inch frame. I was stronger than all of my friends, I was more flexible, and I could outrun them. I loved being fit, and I loved eating healthy.

So what happened?

Over the past three years, I’ve slowly gained weight again. My muscles are weak. My body is stiff. I feel sluggish and tired. Worst of all, I can’t keep up with my daughter, who’s now 7 years old.

And she notices. She questions it. She wants to know why I’m so much bigger than Dad. She wants to know why my stomach is so squishy. She’s curious about the dimples on my thighs. She asks about my stretch marks. And the truth is my stomach has always been soft, I’ve always had cellulite and stretch marks, and I’ve never cared. But now that I’m heavier than I’ve ever been, even after my daughter was born, these things bother me, and I don’t know how to explain them to my daughter when she asks.

How do I explain that over the years, the stress of work, college, and raising a family has caused me to neglect myself? How do I explain that I’m too tired to work out in the evenings? That I don’t have the time to eat healthier? That those are really all just excuses?

And what about the worst question of all: “Why are you fat, Mommy?”

A question she asks without meaning to sound hurtful. The word “fat” isn’t a bad word in our house; we don’t judge or criticize people about their bodies, and I refuse to put myself down in front of her. But I’m sure, at some point, she must have heard me refer to myself as fat because I believe I am. I am a person who has fat on their body and quite a bit of it.

But the question remains: Why am I fat?

Do I tell her this is what happens when you eat too much junk food? When you choose to binge-watch TV instead of going for a jog? That when you’re stressed out or depressed, all you can do is eat and watch movies? Do I tell her my genetics are simply against me in the weight department?

Well, no, because these are my problems — problems that a 7-year-old shouldn’t have to deal with. And I wouldn’t want her to believe that all overweight people are simply unhealthy like I’ve been.

However, her 7-year-old curiosity has lead me to think about these questions myself. I know why I’ve gained weight. I know that I’m not happy with being out of shape. It’s no longer about physical appearance but about the way I feel, and let’s face it: I feel like crap.

Her questions have also inspired questions of my own: How do I get back in shape? What needs to change? What do I need to do?

And the thing is, I know the answers. Now it’s just time to implement them so I can set a good example for my daughter, so I can live a healthy life, so I can keep up with her on the playground and finally feel good again.

I know it sounds like I’m being hard on myself, but the reality is I don’t care about my size and physical appearance nearly as much as my health. With a family history of diabetes, cancer, heart attacks, and brain aneurisms, I know it’s important that I take care of myself so that I can carry those good habits with me as I get older and become at higher risk for these genetic health problems.

And also that I teach my daughter to care for herself too.

As I set out on my journey toward better health, I’m grateful for all of the people in my life — friends, family, my daughter, and so many others — who help motivate and inspire me to take care of myself and remind me of my worth no matter what size I am.

Can The ‘Detox’ Craze Be Over Now? Please.

You may take a stroll through the grocery store or pharmacy and feel as though you are being bombarded with potions, pills, and drinks that promise to detoxify you, which could have a domino effect and remind you that you should also be purging the toxic people and relationships from your life. Oh, and don’t forget to throw out any items that do not bring you joy and live in a tiny hut as a minimalist. Before you know it, you feel like you are a walking Super Polluter who needs to detoxify your entire life and unload a million tons of baggage.

If you haven’t tried the Master Cleanse diet, the queen of all detox diets, I am sure you have heard of it: You chug a quart of salt water in the morning; drink a mixture of water, lemon juice, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper throughout the day (no, you may not have a side of pancakes); and finish with a nice laxative tea in the evening. You do this for 10 days. Ten fucking days.

While this is supposed to rid your body of toxins, restore your energy, and help with chronic conditions, according to Harvard Health, “There are no data on this particular diet in the medical literature. But many studies have shown that fasts and extremely low-calorie diets invariably lower the body’s basal metabolic rate as it struggles to conserve energy. Once the dieter resumes normal eating, rapid weight gain follows. Much of the weight loss achieved through this diet results from fluid loss related to extremely low carbohydrate intake and frequent bowel movements or diarrhea produced by salt water and laxative tea. When the dieter resumes normal fluid intake, this weight is quickly regained.”

In other words, you are going to suffer for 10 days, feel like a sloth, hate everyone who dares to eat real food in your presence, and as soon as you start eating and drinking again (something we are born to do), you will gain all the weight back and shit yourself. How fun.

Harvard Health also weighs in on the risks of this cleanse and they are high: “The diet is lacking in protein, fatty acids, and other essential nutrients. Carbohydrates supply all the calories — an extremely low 600. The daily laxative regimen can cause dehydration, deplete electrolytes, and impair normal bowel function. It can also disrupt the native intestinal flora, microorganisms that perform useful digestive functions. A person who goes on this diet repeatedly may run the risk of developing metabolic acidosis, a disruption of the body’s acid-base balance, which results in excessive acidity in the blood. Severe metabolic acidosis can lead to coma and death.”

So, if you are trying to detoxify yourself through a cleanse, you are actually creating long-lasting damage. Yes, there are gentler ways to rid the toxins from your body, like supplements and various drinks, but studies lack evidence that they even work. The word “detoxify” has become so overused that many of us let out exasperated sighs and roll our eyes into our brain whenever we see it mentioned as a selling point for another multilevel marketing shake or your Instagram-celebrity-endorsed tea.

The good news is you don’t have to go through such lengths to get the squeaky-clean feeling you are longing for. Practice moderation, not deprivation. The human body knows how to defend itself against everything it is exposed to. While our kidneys and skin are able to filter some toxins, our liver is the real MVP. The liver has a two-phase process used to break down chemicals and toxins. And in order to work properly and rid the body naturally of toxins, we must feed it the proper nutrients like fruits, vegetables, and animal protein, as well as getting enough sleep, water, and exercise. Eating fried and processed food, sugar, and corn syrup sparingly is also key as they make it harder for your organs to cleanse naturally. Once you start taking a little extra care about what you put in your body, you have a well-oiled machine without the unnecessary measures.

If you are kicking yourself because this detoxification shit is really confusing, and you want to punch Bob because he brought chocolate donuts to work during your cleanse, and you don’t know how you are going to not kill him, just know your body is cleaning itself on its own. And as long as your are not existing solely on a convenience store diet, your detoxifying organs will be doing all the work for you without the help of pills or cleanses. Some bonuses are you may drop some weight, you won’t be running to the shitter every five minutes, your self-cleaning organs will be functioning at an optimal level, and most importantly, you won’t kill Bob. So stop it. Now. This detox thing has gone to far.

I Started Running At 39, And Now I Can’t Live Without It

The first time I felt pain while running was the fall of ’88. After going through puberty, eighth-grade gym class was not something I enjoyed. My spindly body that used to be able to cut through air while running on the playground was gone, long gone. I felt the weight of my full hips and breasts with every step around the track, and I decided that day I would never be a runner, not on purpose anyway.

I didn’t play sports in high school (because running), but sometimes after high school my girlfriends and I would pull on our cute Spandex and dash around downtown, our high ponytails bouncing in unison until we hit a wall — usually after a mile or so. And by “sometimes,” I think we did this three times in six years and would visit the local Dairy Bar afterwards for a hot fudge sundae, which was the only reason I would join in. I still thought running sucked the big one, but I did it for the ice cream and conversation.

During college, I walked a lot and taught step aerobics, but running was never thrown into the mix because I believed something that is just not true: You are either born a runner or you are not, and I certainly was not.

I believed this until I was 35 and saw a beautiful woman running down the street after wrestling my kindergartner and his tantruming younger siblings into the car after pickup time. She wore black running tights, and her stride was effortless. She kept her pace as she floated up a steep hill, and as I slowed down while passing her in the comfort of my warm SUV, her smile was convincing. She loved running. She looked glorious. I looked down at the temperature display in my car which told me it was 2 degrees outside. She looked so free and crazy. I wanted to be free and crazy too. I will be a runner someday, I told myself.

My crazy didn’t come until a few years later, a month after my 39th birthday to be exact. My kids were older and no longer as physically demanding. They were in school full-time, and one day I finally decided to just start running. I didn’t just want to; I had to. I was slower than a sloth scratching his left ass cheek, but I didn’t give a damn. I wanted to prove myself wrong, I wanted to kick my own ass. I would do this.

When I was done, I felt depleted and filled up all at the same time. You might want to punch me for saying this, but it was the start of a life change, a mind change, a soul change. It was something I had needed to do for a while. I just didn’t realize it because I wasn’t ready, and I didn’t believe I could. I just had to wait until the time was right. The time was right because I had decided to do it for me, because I loved myself and my body, not because I hated my reflection in the mirror.

I haven’t stopped running since that day.

Now that my kids are older, I wake early some mornings, pull on my running clothes, and stand on my front porch and watch the sunrise while the rest of my family sleeps. Only for a minute though. I greet the morning by running toward it. And when I am done with my daily ceremony, it is easier for me to get caught up in the daily chaos because I know what I have waiting for me the next day; some time just for me to be free, lost in my own thoughts. No anxiety, no to-do list, nobody calling my name.

So if you are in the trenches with your kids, with life, and really want to get out there and bike, run, ski, or do something that makes you feel crazy and free, give yourself time, and trust that you will find “your thing” that you just can’t live without. And don’t sit there and say you can’t or it is too hard, because you can do it.

You know how I know? Because you are raising children, and trust me, once you do that, you can do anything.

If You Are Going To Tickle Your Kids, There Needs To Be Some Ground Rules

Beware: Tickling isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

I was on the phone with my friend Elizabeth when I heard her 9-month old daughter Poppy screeching in the background.

“Ooooh!” I winced. “Is Poppy okay?”

“She’s not crying. She’s laughing!” Elizabeth explained. “Greg’s playing Tickle Monster with her.”

Oh, no! Not Tickle Monster! I thought, my heart racing. “Are you sure she loves it?” I asked gingerly.

“Yes! Why?” she replied in a way that said, This better be good.

“Well,” I started, “just because a baby’s laughing doesn’t mean they’re necessarily enjoying…”

“Are you serious? Believe me, she loves being tickled,” she said. “Anyway, I gotta get going.”

Click.

Shit!

I was sorry I’d said something, but at the same time I thought, How could I not have? You can’t tickle a helpless baby, for God’s sake!

Like many people, Greg and Elizabeth took Poppy’s giggles at face value. That’s the problem with tickling. It causes the same physiological reactions as humor — i.e., laughter, goose bumps, and convulsive muscle contractions — which means we can look like we’re having the time of our lives while suffering, sometimes greatly.

In the New York Times article
 “Anatomy of a Tickle Is Serious Business
 at the Research Lab,” evolutionary biologist Richard Alexander explains, 
“[T]icklish laughter is not the happy phenomenon that many have assumed it to be […] A child can be transformed from 
laughter into tears by going the tiniest 
bit too far […] [Tickling] does not create
 a pleasurable feeling — just the outward
 appearance of one.”

Historically, many cultures capitalized on tickling’s ability to cause pain. For instance, during the Han Dynasty, Chinese tickle torture was the punishment of choice for nobility because it caused sufficient suffering while leaving no marks. And in Ancient Rome, offenders were tied up, their feet soaked in salt, and then goats would have at them with their tongues. More recently, I read a harrowing account of a Nazi torturing a Jewish prisoner by tickling him with a feather.

But today, it seems we’ve somehow managed to deceive ourselves into thinking tickling doesn’t have a dark side. Yet, I’ve heard plenty of personal accounts from people who shared with me their traumatic childhood experiences:

“I hated and feared being tickled as a child and still do. It reminds me of gasping for my breath while being suffocated and unable to communicate.”

“My mother always tickled me even if I said stop. It was so frustrating because I wanted to show her that I was having fun with her, but I felt powerless and controlled.”

“I loved being tickled to a point, but several people would ignore my clear requests to stop. Gasping and pinned, it would often end in a panic attack for me that left me crying and running away to calls of ‘I didn’t hurt you! Don’t be such a baby!’”

“Even though I’d yell ‘Stop!’ my dad just never got that I meant it. So, finally when I was 13, while struggling, I broke his finger! That’s when his tickling finally ended for good.”

I wonder if parents routinely ignore their children’s pleas to stop because they’re genuinely deceived by their kids’ laughter or if they’re willfully duped. It seems as if we’ve come to use tickling like it’s a magic button that will change our kids’ moods or the way they’re feeling about us, for the better.

I remember being in a room with my daughter and a bunch of her 5-year-old friends. They were all sitting around a table intently coloring when one of the dads walked in. No one noticed. So he came up behind his daughter and wiggled his fingers in her armpit. Grimacing, she pulled away. I’m working! she seemed to be saying. Nonetheless, he did it again.

“Stop it!” she groaned.

“What? Relax!” he said defensively. “I’m just tickling you. Be nice.”

My guess is that he was searching for a sign that his daughter was happy to see him. And it seems as if his daughter was as happy about the way he went about it as I would be if I was working at my computer and someone randomly started tickling me. Annoying, at best!

I’d be remiss if I failed to mention that tickling is one of the means used by sexual predators to groom their victims. Psychotherapist Tracy Lamperti explains how sexual predators do this:

“Gateways to the victim, […] [are] successive, thought-out strategies used by a perpetrator with the victim and/or the family in order to facilitate their being able to carry out the acts of sexual abuse on the child with the highest probability of being able to do it without getting caught. While not all adults who tickle children are paving the way to sexually abuse them, tickling is a good example of the grooming process. When trust can be won over and defenses can be disarmed, the offender is then able to have their way with the child. With the example of tickling, the perpetrator is able to publicly and/or privately tickle just a little bit. The act is carried out cheerfully and playfully. In this ‘controlled experiment’ the offender is able to see if anyone is going to set a limit, ‘Oh, Uncle John, we have a no tickling rule in our family. Stop tickling Sam.’”

Of course, no one wants to think about this. But every time we respect our child’s “No” or “Stop!”, whether they’ve said it explicitly or via their body language, we help them learn that it’s their body and their right to decide what happens to it. This will serve them well when they are dating.

As the great psychologist Alice Miller wrote, “If children have been accustomed from the start to having their world respected, they will have no trouble later in life recognizing disrespect […] and will rebel against it on their own.”

Am I saying never tickle your kids? No! I know some kids love it. I think we can tickle responsibly. Here are my guidelines:

1. If a child is too young to talk, don’t tickle them. Better safe than sorry.

2. Before tickling, ask. While it takes away the element of surprise, you can be playful about it.

3. Come up with a signal that means “Stop” if they’re laughing too hard to speak.

Excerpted from ParentSpeak: What’s Wrong with How We Talk to Our Children–and What to Say Instead (Workman Publishing). Copyright © 2016.

No Booze For Me Anymore, But Pass The Diet Coke

Obligatory black yoga pants, check. Hair color with an intentionally dark root so that you don’t always notice the regrowth, check. A house full of sticky and screaming children, check. Mommy’s special juice in her favorite wine glass…hmm…something’s missing.

I don’t drink. Not a drop. Not a sip. Not ever. I realize that sounds crazy to a lot of people. And before you judge me because you think that I am on some holier than thou power trip, trust me, I’m not. I have no interest in completely abolishing alcohol in an effort to take the world back to the days of prohibition. Put simply, alcohol and I just don’t mix.

There was a time in my 20s when I drank a lot and was probably a lot of fun. I don’t remember much of that, though. I drank for hours on end, smoked enough cigarettes to give several people cancer, and swiped my credit card round after round, tipping generously without a care. I spent many weekend days so hungover that I could barely get out of bed, but would gladly have a little hair of the dog and do it all over again.

There was even a night when my mother found me passed out in the basement and matter-of-factly announced, “Well, she has finally done it. Your sister drank herself to death!” Not dead at all, I awoke and proceeded to eat the cheeseburger that I dropped on my chest when I passed out. Kind of funny, but really, it’s sad. I was spiraling out of control, quickly.

I wasn’t addicted to alcohol. I never woke up with the urge to drink. I didn’t need to have booze to function. I just drank too much. One beer turned into two, which turned into six and a buzz that I really enjoyed. I am not downplaying alcoholism or the seriousness of addiction. It exists and is the cause of unbelievable heartache for so many. For me, binge-drinking was a habit, that had I not quit, I am sure would have become a deadly addiction.

Thankfully, my story doesn’t end with me getting arrested, or killing an innocent family while driving under the influence, or even falling down a flight of stairs and breaking bones — all things that I would have totally deserved for the careless way that I acted.

Instead, I got pregnant and never touched a cocktail or cigarette again. Like many women, those two pink lines meant cutting off my vices for the remainder of my pregnancy. I had every intention of picking it all right back up once the baby was born, except that I never did.

At first, the reason I didn’t drink was because I really didn’t want to smoke, two things that went hand in hand. But the longer I went without alcohol, the more I realized that I was better off without it. I was a better wife and mother and friend. There were no hangovers, there was no extra weight from too many beers and stops at fast food hotspots, my skin looked better and I felt better. I am seven and a half years sober and happy. I am happy without alcohol.

My choices are certainly not the same as most people my age, but they work for me. I still go to happy hour, but now I have a Diet Coke. I no longer have to explain that, “No, I am not pregnant — again!” I don’t care if people drink around me. I cast no aspersions on their behavior. If they can wake up and make it through the day without feeling like hell, God bless them. I cannot. My friends know that this is who I am. And no longer do they have to ask themselves, “God! She must be drunk, or is she just crazy?” Now, they know.

Please Vaccinate: Your Unvaccinated Children Could Kill My Child

Some people hold the opinion that if your children are immunized, it doesn’t matter if others choose not to vaccinate.

This is my son.

Courtney Ballard

In this picture, he’s wearing his first Halloween costume. A nurse in the pediatric cardiac intensive care unit at MUSC gave it to him. He has born with a massive heart defect, and wouldn’t have lived long enough to wear this costume if not for the incredible work by the neonatologists and critical care providers at Palmetto Health Baptist who realized that something was wrong and got him into intensive care even before his mother had been able to touch him.

In the hours after his birth, he was transported to MUSC where he was stabilized and prepared for open heart surgery.

There aren’t many pictures of him for the next six months. He and my wife were in quarantine for that time, unable to visit family and friends unless they also isolated themselves. I spent the next six months having no physical contact with any person outside my home, scrubbing myself with antibiotic soaps several times a day, and maintaining strict cleanliness standards to avoid getting sick myself or bringing any pathogens into our home. When I got home at night, I stripped in a makeshift cleanroom, then showered and donned clean clothes before I could have any contact with my wife and son. After I had showered, the bathroom was disinfected again, just in case.

My son was medically fragile during this period, and had I come in contact with someone infected with a preventable disease, and taken it home to him, I hate to think how I may have reacted.

This is us, some time later.

Courtney Ballard

Although he has been relatively healthy, he is never completely safe. He had to have another open heart surgery when he was 11 months old, followed by another — albeit shorter — quarantine period.

Things were okay for a while, almost boring, really, but when he was 7 years old, he developed a minor infection. Most children would have fought it off with no problem, but for my son, this was the result:

Courtney Ballard

After weeks of fevers, chills, lethargy, and fear, he was finally diagnosed with bacterial endocarditis: the minor infection — which for most kids would have been cleared up in a day or two of rest — had settled into the scar tissue around his heart. He’d been in the hospital for a week before this picture was taken and was only able to go home after having this peripherally inserted central catheter line placed, and only then because his mother had sufficient medical training, and we had proven ourselves capable of maintaining quarantine. He spent another few weeks getting injections at home and was so sick during this period that he was granted a Wish by the Make-A-Wish foundation.

A minor infection — that doctors determined was probably due to a loose tooth that had hung on longer than normal and bled a bit, and that any normal child would have fought off with ease — almost killed my son.

My son’s heart condition requires ongoing maintenance. As he grows, the parts of his heart that have been replaced don’t grow with him. A few years after his brush with death, it was time for his pulmonary valve to be replaced. The plan was to insert a balloon catheter into the valve, inflate it to stretch the valve out, then place a stent with a new synthetic valve in it. This is us getting an MRI so the doctors could see what they were about to do.

Courtney Ballard

Notice that we’re both grinning? Everyone was in a good mood. Everyone was having fun. We were doing our best to calm the nerves of that scared little boy under the sheet. He’d been dreading this surgery for months and we were just — at this point — trying to keep him sane. We were doing a pretty good job, right up until the results of the MRI came back.

Damage from the infection meant that, instead of a relatively minor procedure, my son was going to have to have a full-blown open-heart surgery. He would have to be sedated, his heart stopped, his chest cut open, his ribs spread apart. His heart would be cut open, a part of it cut off, and a new part sewn on. He was old enough to understand all of this. You can imagine how heavily it weighed on us.

Of course, we went back into quarantine. Had I come into contact with someone carrying a communicable disease during the run-up to the surgery, had I brought it home to him or to his mother, the results could have been unthinkable. He was tired, weak. His circulation had gotten so poor that he was exhausted most of the time, and he wouldn’t have been able to fight off a serious illness.

Luckily, we kept him healthy. This is him when he came home from the last surgery.

Courtney Ballard

That’s his sister, happy to have him home. I wish I could remember what prompted this fit of laughter. I do remember him being sore afterward. The scar is quite impressive.

Why do I say all this? How does it relate to someone else’s decision to vaccinate or not?

Well, some kids — like my son — can’t take the chance. Even though he’s had all his normal vaccinations and then some, there’s always the chance that one of them will fail. There’s always the chance that even if the vaccines don’t fail, that if he does come in contact with these deadly, preventable diseases, he might not be strong enough to fight them off — he almost died from a loose tooth. He relies on the effect of a vaccinated population to prevent these diseases from reaching him in the first place.

This is not a hypothetical. This is not statistics. This is a child, who relies on medical science to keep him alive.

My child.

My son.

Vaccinate.

This post originally appeared on Quora.