When Belinda Mountain asked if I would write a guest post for her blog, Making Mountains (one of my favourite, favourite mommy blogs – I read every article!), I had a lot of ideas. In the end, I decided to write a piece on postnatal depression and anxiety.
It took a long time to write, as I wanted it to be personal and true, without being overly dramatic. I also knew I’d be putting this very personal experience into a very public space. This wasn’t just an account typed quickly into a Facebook forum, soon forgotten about amongst all the other questions and comments. No. Belinda’s blog has a well-established readership, and between her social media following and mine, we would drive even more traffic to the post.
Eeesh. Yes, it felt quite strange publishing these details online. I am quite a private person when it comes to these things. But it is because of what I’ve experienced that I feel it is so important that we start talking about mental illness. I feel more strongly about this than I do about my own privacy.
When Belinda published the post, the responses reaffirmed this for me. Some people left public comments; some messaged me privately:
- Hi Kels – you’re brave and wonderful. I am actually crying with relief… xxx Can’t say much now, hot tears 🙁 🙁
- You are so so not alone.
- I have read your blog post three times now. I wanted to say how 1) brave you are – not only for sharing your story of PND with the world (I know it’s not easy), but for just being damn brave. 2) it was wonderfully written and it shocked me, because as friend with many moms you ‘forget’ about the mother – it is always the ‘how is the baby?’ and ‘they are so cute’; it then turns to ‘how are you coping?’ and not really listening because the baby is just too adorable. So yeah, that’s pretty much what I wanted to say.
- Well done on the courage to tell and own your truth lady- very inspiring!
- Your honesty is empowering and inspiring.
- I went through the same thing and felt so alone at the time, you are very brave to write about it.
- I read your blog. I take my hat off to you and salute your bravery. We all have dark parts that we hide from the world, and I can only hope to ever be as brave and honest as you were.
I was struck by how many people used words like ‘brave’ to describe my account. This is exactly why I decided to do this – because it shouldn’t have to be brave. It shouldn’t be a surprise to hear that someone you know experienced this.
We need to talk about this more. It’s important.
Here’s the piece:
I grew up around mental illness. I’ve lived in a house where visitors weren’t allowed because socialising was too hard. I’ve played along with hallucinations to get a relative to calm down (the worst one: worms coming out of the skin). I’ve hidden sharp objects and strong medication from self-harming, suicidal family members before.
So I knew that postnatal depression and/or anxiety may be a risk for me, genetically. But when I was pregnant and getting all those PND/PPD flyers thrown at me during antenatal classes and doctor’s appointments and clinic open days, I thought that my family history would actually make things easier: unlike someone unfamiliar with mental illness, I knew the signs, the symptoms. I would be able to recognise it. Surely.
That’s not what happened.
There were days, months into motherhood, when I would still just cry and cry and cry. On those days, I admitted that I needed help. But then the next day, I’d feel a bit better and I wasn’t crying uncontrollably, so getting help didn’t seem … justified. I was used to seeing the extreme side of mental illness, you see. I didn’t think what I was experiencing was bad enough to seek treatment.
But it was pretty bad actually, and I only realised how bad when I started feeling better. In the beginning, I chalked a lot of what I felt up to exhaustion. The sleep deprivation was pretty intense, and I’d underestimated the physical recovery that even a natural birth would require. As the months rolled on, I measured my mental health by how much I was crying or not crying, but it went much deeper than that: the sadness was intermittent; the anxiety and anger were what affected me every day.
I was paralysed with worry. Everything was so hard. Too hard. I entered survival mode. I carried on with work and I socialised when I had commitments, but the thought of going out filled me with dread. There were just too many things to think about, to worry about.
I was also hyper-vigilant and felt immense pressure to do things ‘right’. My anxiety about everything meant I had thought through every little, tiny detail about how best to change a nappy, pick a baby outfit, pack the cupboard, run through the bath routine … I was surviving through systems. If anyone else deviated from what I had worked out as ‘the best way’ (in my mind, also the only way) to do things, I would get upset and angry. And I wasn’t just a little cross. I was so often filled with rage – a hot rage that boiled up and shook inside me – over something small and stupid, like my husband dressing the baby in a different outfit than I’d planned. I tried to control it and I didn’t always explode with fury, but I still reacted by being cold and mean.
I didn’t recognise myself. I believe I am an inherently kind, fair person, and mom-me was a horrible mess – a shell of my former self; it felt like there was no me left. One morning, I told a friend that I didn’t know how to be a mom and also be a wife, friend, and business owner. I couldn’t do it. Motherhood had swallowed me up and spat out a person whose sole drive was to get through the day without falling apart. That’s all there was for me. That had become my life.
Thankfully, I did start to feel better and I did start to enjoy motherhood. And I even started enjoying other parts of my life again. The past few months have felt like the whole world has opened up to me again, where before I was stuck behind a glass window, looking out in wonder and bewilderment.
So how do you get yourself or your loved one out from behind that sheet of glass? Here’s my quick guide:
- If you know your wife/daughter/daughter-in-law/sister/friend is battling, call up a counsellor and/or doctor, put her in the car and take her to the appointment. Honestly, while I was often oblivious to just how bad things had become, there were days when I did recognise that I needed help but I still didn’t follow through because it was too hard for me to do it myself. As independent as I am, what I needed was someone to take control of the situation and take care of me.
- If you’re wondering if what you’re experiencing is legitimately bad enough to seek treatment, it probably is. I spent a lot of time googling ‘postnatal depression signs’ and seeing how many symptoms I could tick off. The fact is that the way this illness presents itself is different for everyone. You are allowed to ask for help. No medical professional is going to tell you to go back home because what you’re experiencing isn’t badenough. If you think something is wrong, it probably is.
So many people don’t speak about these things. Sometimes it’s stigma. Sometimes it’s just that it’s not really anyone else’s business. And I agree – it isn’t. But I also think it’s important that we start to talk about it more … so we know we’re not alone, so we know how to help each other, so we know how to help ourselves.