This is a tough post to write. Tougher than most others I’ve written during the two years I’ve kept this blog – mainly because it’s dealing with something that, if I’m honest, I haven’t totally accepted myself. I’m in a strange kind of limbo where this topic is concerned, because I never went to the doctor, and so was never officially diagnosed with postnatal depression – mostly due to fear of judgement because of being a young parent – but, if we go by the checklist the doctors use in post-partum checkups, there’s no denying that I had PND. I’ve come to the conclusion that if I’m going to keep calling myself an honest blogger, I have to be honest about every bit of parenting – even the bits I’d rather forget. There’s still such a taboo around postnatal depression, and in staying silent, I’ve just been letting the taboo continue. Inspired by people sharing their stories for World Mental Health Day, I’m ready to share mine.
My struggles started during pregnancy. Not many people are aware of the existence of antenatal depression and anxiety, and neither was I. About halfway through my pregnancy, I started feeling very depressed – there was no other word for it. Some of my blog posts at the time quite clearly reflect that, in hindsight, and I think Daf noticed it too. He was just too polite to say anything – or worried that I’d react badly, which I probably would have done. It’s easy to write off antenatal depression as just hormones, or fear about the new baby coming, but mine went slightly beyond that. On several occasions I broke down crying; almost screaming over the slightest thing. I was terrified of everything around me, having intense nightmares that kept me awake at night and even started having arguments with Daf over nothing. We’d never argued in the past – and now I was starting fights over nothing every day. Most of the time Daf would just take it – on the rare occasion he did argue back, I’d have something close to a panic attack, screaming at him to stop shouting at me.
It was a crazy time, and how Daf coped with it, I’ll never know.
I was far too scared to tell the midwife about it. I had a lovely midwife, and thankfully saw the same one for every appointment, but I still didn’t feel like I could approach her about this. It wasn’t that I worried she’d be dismissive – I was terrified that she’d assume I couldn’t cope, and would involve social services. I’d seen enough horror stories about social services swooping in and stealing children from depressed mums (and please, trust me, they ARE just horror stories – there’s a high profile case in the media at the moment that highlights that they can make terrible mistakes, but for the most part, they are just there to help, so please don’t let that sotp you seeking help if you feel you may have postnatal or antenatal depression and anxiety). I was certain that if I even expressed the slightest doubt in my abilities, a social worker would be waiting at the hospital to pluck my baby from my arms as soon as he or she was born.
So I “dealt” with it. Except I didn’t. I just pushed through as best I could; distracting myself with university, and taking up as many hobbies as possible to keep myself busy. Knitting, loom bands – anything that would keep my mind as busy as possible, to stop me from turning everything into a catastrophe. For a while, it worked, and I reached the end of the pregnancy in a fairly positive mood.
After SB was born, the baby blues hit me, but they didn’t just feel like ‘blues’. I’d just had to stop trying to breastfeed, and was feeling like a total failure over that, and despite trying to put on a brave face and wanting nothing more than to be able to just enjoy my new baby and be happy, but I felt a crushing pressure on my chest, and everything was tinged with sadness.
I was convinced I wouldn’t be able to cope. I put the sleeplessness down to having a new baby, and wrote off my anxieties, telling myself that every parent worries about their child. Looking back, I know that these weren’t normal worries. ‘Normal’ parents don’t wake up every morning, surprised that their baby didn’t die in the night. I had convinced myself that I’d wake to find her dead in her moses basket – cot death took over my life, and I was convinced that as I’d been unable to breastfeed, she would die and it would all be my fault.
I still shudder thinking about it. It was such a dark time for me, and the reactions of everyone around me didn’t help. People around me told me how lucky I was, that I must have been unable to stop smiling over how beautiful she is, that it was such a blissful time – and my mind was in turmoil, convinced that my beautiful baby girl wouldn’t survive another night. I was having difficulties with someone from university, who had developed an agenda against me, and I was convinced that they and their family would find out where I lived and come and try to take SB away from me. I refused to leave the house, locking myself away and burying myself in caring for SB. There are long gaps in my blog during her first summer – primarily because I had convinced myself that no-one cared what I had to say. No-one wanted to read my blog, and people thought I was a terrible mum.
I can’t count the times I had to call Daf home from work because I was mid-breakdown, SB was crying and I didn’t know how to help. There were periods where I felt truly suicidal, and convinced myself that Daf and SB would be miles better off without me, and they could find someone who – in my own words – “wasn’t crazy, and would be a better mum” to SB. I was taking propranalol for migraine prophylaxis, but it is sometimes prescribed for anxiety too. If I missed a dose or two, it had a noticeable difference – the lowest point of all came after I missed a week’s worth of propranalol and locked myself in the bathroom after a tiny argument with Daf over nothing in particular. I searched for something; anything to hurt myself with – my mind had gone blank, and all I wanted to do was end it and make it easier for Daf to move on and find a better mum for SB. In hindsight I feel sad that I let it get so far, and that my memories of SB’s early days are somewhat tainted with the memories of how poorly I was, but once I’d accepted that was it – I wasn’t a bad mum, and I wasn’t crazy, I was just poorly – things started to improve.
I never did go to the doctor about it, though. It’s easy to mask postnatal depression. I’m a theatre student – I was able to act happy around everyone. Daf was the only person I wasn’t afraid to show my feelings to. I bluffed my way through the PND questionnaire at my six week check, plastering on a smile and insisting that I had no sleep disturbance, no decreased interest in anything, no feelings of low self-worth. It’s easy to do, and I thought it was vital – I was so certain that I would lose my baby. Looking back, I realise that was the PND speaking – no social worker would take a baby away from its mother because she asks for help with anxiety or depression. Asking for help is the most important thing you can do.
I got through it as SB got older, and Daf helped a lot. We started recognising the signs and diffusing arguments before they started, distracting myself with hobbies, working on my self worth and Daf would talk me through when I did feel low. I still have anxiety now, but not to anywhere near the extent I did before – but I don’t feel depressed. I’m lucky though – I very nearly didn’t get through it. It makes me worry about having more children – will I be more suspectible to postnatal depression again?
I’m prepared, though. I’ve come up with coping strategies. One of the biggest catalysts was not being able to breastfeed. Next time, I am going to give colostrum only. The second I start to struggle, that’s it. I’ll give formula, with no guilt and no “I wish”. SB has thrived on formula, and any future children will do the same if necessary. I will refuse to be guilt-tripped or told I am failing my child – I will be doing the best for my child, by giving them a healthy, present mother rather than burning myself out.
Most importantly? If I feel that dark cloud again, I’ll seek help. It’s tough to say to any first time mother, particularly a young one, that you have to tell someone if you’re struggling. It can feel like everybody is waiting to see you fail, and admitting you need help feels like failure – but it isn’t. Having a support network around you makes you less likely to fail, and is the best thing you can do for yourself and your baby.
I don’t look back on SB’s early times with guilt or sadness. That would just be likely to push me back towards depression. I focus on the good times we did have, and I am thankful for the moments of sunshine that made the darker times more bearable. SB really is a little ray of sunshine, keeping me going and giving me something to push on and fight for. I refuse to regret one moment of her life – instead, I focus on being healthy right now, and staying healthy in the future. One day, I want to help others do the same. Support for young mothers is patchy in most areas, particularly if you’re too old to be a teenage mother, but are still considered ‘too young’ to have children. We need more resources and more support, less judgement and more safe encouragement, so that young mums feel able to come forwards and talk about their depression and anxiety, and receive help and support without fear of losing their child, or unwanted involvement from outside agencies. Sometimes, it takes medication and counselling to overcome postnatal depression, and if that is what is needed, that is what should be given. Sometimes, it just takes someone to listen and to be there. Right now, it’s hard to find that – my hope on World Mental Health Day is that some day soon, that will change.