This is the true story of a young mother’s journey through postpartum depression:
Today is World Mental Health Day. On this day last year I was going to work to see people who were struggling with mental illness. I had little personal insight into what it was actually like. Fast forward one year on. I have seen it from the other side. And it is harder and darker and more terrifying than I could ever have imagined. But there is hope and a future to hold on to. This is my story.
I am a psychiatrist. I am trained in ‘what-to-ask-people-who-might-be-depressed’. I have studied lists of symptoms and screening tools and questionnaires. I have even done exams. But in clinical practice I often come up against the fact that people’s actual feelings and real-life experiences aren’t as easy to articulate and as clear-cut as the textbooks would have you believe. I never truly appreciated the depths of the chasm of a depressive illness until I abseiled right into it, scarily quickly and unexpectedly.
It started last November, 2 weeks after my second baby was born. I began to despair. I cried, and cried and cried until my eyes were blurry. I felt sick and I didn’t want to eat. I couldn’t shake the feeling of guilt. I didn’t want my baby anymore. I didn’t want to be a mother anymore.
At the time I remember wondering: what is wrong with me? I am a coper! I haven’t had a difficult pregnancy. My labour was straightforward and my baby is healthy. I wasn’t like this last time. Why do I feel like this now?
It’s because I have two children. It’s because I’m tired. It’s because I have a second-degree tear and the healing is slow. It’s because “Breast is Best” but I’m bottle feeding. It’s because when I sit in the stinging salty bath to wash my sutures the milk that my baby can’t have drips into the water like tears. It’s because I stopped breastfeeding and no matter how much I force myself to carry/wear/be close to my baby, I’m never going to produce the same amount of oxytocin. It’s because I ended up back in hospital 8 days post-partum with severe abdominal pain and I sat in the assessment room surrounded by the “breast is best” posters, silently sobbing, my chest tight because of the milk and the dread and the despair. It’s because it wasn’t meant to be like this; I had decided that this baby will be different, easier, better; there will be no lactose intolerance or reflux or weeping or gnashing of teeth; there will be no trauma and failure to thrive and screaming; there will be no auditory hallucinations secondary to sleep deprivation. It’s because I am genetically predisposed to depression; I’ve seen my strong mum weakened by it, I know her tears and her tablets. It’s because my body is exhausted, my brain is exhausted and my neurotransmitters are depleted. It’s because I am ill. It’s because I have postnatal depression.
Depression; when you feel exhausted and yet unable to “sleep when baby sleeps” like everyone keeps telling you. And when you do snatch some sleep your dreams are vivid and disturbing. You feel hungry and then the thought of eating makes you feel sick. The colour starts to drain from the world around you. You feel anxious and exhausted after attempting to be sociable for 5 minutes in the day. Behind your smile and pleasantries lie a thousand achingly awful thoughts. When you venture out to the supermarket to get nappies it is like being in some sort of weird bad dream world, and you feel panicky and hot and surreal and you just want to run away from it all and crawl into a dark hole and never ever come out. When you see your baby you feel guilty, numb, regretful, inept, a failure. You lock your tears in the toilet so that your 4 year old won’t see them. When you wake up in the morning you cannot face the world and it takes all of your strength just to persuade your aching body to get out of bed. When you hear your baby cry, you want to run away or freeze and you feel useless, rubbish, incapable, hateful. You can’t stop crying and you do not even know why you are crying anyway. Your heart and stomach and brain and soul feel dull and sore and washed out and numb and aching and hopeless all at once. You are overwhelmed with shame and guilt and crippled by it all. You feel alone, in the dark, hopeless, worthless. And you wish there was no baby at all.
If you feel like this, please please hear this: there is hope.
Despite what your brain is telling you, it is NOT because you are a joke, or you are a rubbish mother, or incapable or useless. And your children DO NOT deserve a better mother. And, despite how you feel right now, it WOULD NOT have been better if your baby hadn’t been born at all, or if you were no longer around.
There is hope.
You ARE a good person; you CAN get through this. This too shall pass… but you will need help and support, and it is an illness which needs treating (just like diabetes needs insulin, and high blood pressure needs antihypertensives). Go to your GP, read about it online, tell someone how you feel. You can get better.
It took me 48 hours to pluck up the courage to take my first dose of antidepressants. My head was full of all sorts of lies: “you’re such a fraud”, “you’ve seen depressed people in hospital, you’re not that bad”, “you just need more sleep”, “you’re a rubbish mum, tablets won’t help with that”, “you know how these tablets work – they’ll change your brain chemistry and you’ll not be able to think straight”, “you don’t really need them, give it another few weeks”, “what a joke! You’re supposed to look after depressed people, not be depressed yourself!”. After I took the first dose actually nothing happened. I didn’t get better or worse. And as the weeks went by, nothing dramatic happened, except that my brain gradually stopped lying to me, and I started to feel tiny flickers of love for my children again. I can pinpoint the day when I noticed that I felt better. I could see in glorious technicolour instead of sepia, and I felt love and hope again. It’s taken me nearly a year to feel ‘normal’ again, but I have gained insights into how my patients actually feel that will stay with me forever.
Today is world mental health day. Postpartum depression can happen to any mother. Today we declare that there is absolutely no shame in talking about how we feel, in sharing our pain and fears and exhaustion and guilt. Because 1 in 4 of us knows how it feels.
And because no matter how low we get, there is ALWAYS hope. You are not alone in this.
If you are looking for help in dealing with depression:
Samaritans: 116 123
Thanks to Rebekah Stobart for her courage to share her story and for the beautiful photo, that speaks into the pain and the hope of many mothers in situations like this.
Please share this post if you know anyone who would benefit. What questions does this raise for you?