A personal account: postnatal depression.
If you’re anything like me, before I had my first baby, I used my time during pregnancy to read up on everything I needed to know about having a baby. I signed up to an email that gave me a week-by-week update on my baby’s development; I researched prams and car seats and bought matching furniture for the nursery; and I attended antenatal classes to learn all could about the impending birth.
What I didn’t consider at all during my pregnancy was the emotional upheaval I was about to experience once I’d given birth. I had everything materialistic in place for our new arrival, but had given no thought to how I’d actually feel when I became a mother. I certainly never gave any consideration towards how my mental health would be affected, which in hindsight was a mistake, because I subsequently developed severe post-natal depression, a wretched illness which left me suicidal, frightened, overwhelmed and feeling nothing towards my baby.
In a sense, I was one of the ‘lucky’ mothers to develop post-natal depression. I’d had a traumatic birth, which left me feeling incredibly anxious and distant from my son post-birth (not that I knew what anxiety was back then). I’d mentioned this to a midwife visiting me at home - she’d suggested that I might be developing post-natal depression and that she would be keeping an eye on me. And then the unthinkable happened – my nine-day old son collapsed with an undiagnosed heart condition. Against the odds, he survived, but our lengthy stint in intensive care, and seeing my baby undergo lifesaving heart surgery after we’d been told we’d be likely to lose him, made my fragile mental state even worse. As we were discharged, the ward psychiatrist gave me a list of symptoms to look out for and told me he’d referred me to my local perinatal mental health service ‘just in case’.
Six weeks later, when the adrenaline wore off, the depression came crashing down on me. It was so heavy, so severe, I could hardly breathe. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t sleep. The sense of dread in my stomach left me terrified and disorientated, and I couldn’t stop crying. Not just crying though – more like powerful sobs that tore through my entire body. At one point I remember crying so hard that I thought I was going to die, right there, on the floor of my baby boy’s nursery.
From what I know now of post-natal depression however, yes, I was lucky. My depression was so severe that there was little doubt of what it was, and that I needed help. I also had a ‘cause’ – people weren’t surprised I got post-natal depression ‘after everything I’d been through’. I didn’t have to carry the shame of being a depressed mum struggling with her baby with ‘no reason’ to be unhappy.
Sadly, many new mums without my ‘cause’, but who also develop post-natal depression are too ashamed to tell anyone how they feel. They worry about what people will say when they admit to not enjoying motherhood, or bonding with their baby. Society tells us that motherhood is a blissful time, which is why, this Post Natal Depression Awareness Week (15 – 21 November 2015), we need to be dispelling some of the myths that make mums feel too ashamed to admit they are struggling. We need people to understand that this is an illness, as bona fide as any other illness, and that it isn’t our fault. There shouldn’t be any shame in having post-natal depression.
One of the biggest myths around post-natal depression is that we can somehow prevent how we are feeling, and that we should be able to snap out of it. We can’t. It’s an illness, and just like you can’t talk yourself out of cancer or heart disease, you can’t talk yourself out of a mental illness. (Believe me, if we could, we would.)
Another myth is that there should be an obvious cause of post-natal depression. Mums who have a good birth, a healthy baby, a supportive family, and a baby that sleeps well still get post-natal depression. It doesn’t discriminate. You either get it or you don’t. And if you don’t, you’re lucky.
You’re also not a bad mother if you get post-natal depression. You may feel like the worst mother in the world, but believe me, suffering from this hideous illness and still getting up to face each day to care for your baby is one of the bravest things you will ever do.
There are lots of myths around taking anti-depressants for post-natal illness. For me, they worked wonders. I even took them when I was breastfeeding. Yes, that’s perfectly possible if you follow medical advice and there have been no ill effects to either me or my baby.
It’s also important to note, however, that anti-depressants aren’t a quick fix. Post-natal depression isn’t like the flu – you don’t have it for a couple of weeks and get better. It’s a cruel illness that can take months, or even years, to recover from. In many cases, what the medication does is make you more capable of functioning every day, but the actual recovery takes a long time. Friends and family often think you’ve have made a full recovery when the obvious symptoms have settled, but this isn’t the case, and this often leads to mums trying to put a ‘brave face on it’ because to the outside they look like they’re coping.
Finally, post-natal depression isn’t just post-natal depression. It’s the term we use, but actually, perinatal mental illness (the ‘proper’ term) includes antenatal anxiety and/or depression, post-natal depression and/or anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and post-natal psychosis. In fact, many cases of post-natal depression start with intense anxiety, so don’t think that you’re not ill just before you’re not crying all the time.
In fact, just like the illness can be different for every mum, the symptoms can also vary, which is why it can be difficult to spot. One of the big symptoms to look out for is actually anxiety. What does this look like when you’ve had a baby? Try the following:
- · You can’t sleep. Either you can’t fall asleep, or you can’t stay asleep. This is a biggie. If you can’t sleep, and you’re exhausted from having a baby, it’s a warning bell that something isn’t right.
- · You’re obsessive. Obsessing about sleep times? Feeding times? Keeping to routines? Keeping the house immaculate? Routinely checking things over and over? That’s anxiety’s voice in your head.
- · You’re avoiding things. I used to make sure I was out of the house by 9am every day. I didn’t realise at the time that I was avoiding being at home and being alone with my baby. Some mums may find the opposite, and be too frightened to leave the house because they don’t feel like they can cope.
- · You dread night time. You can’t sleep, so you worry about the baby waking. You lie there waiting, in the darkness, your heart pounding and your mind racing. No wonder night time terrifies you.
Depression-like symptoms to look out for also include feeling hopeless, sad, tearful and/or overwhelmed. You may feel like you don’t love your baby, fantasise about harming yourself or the baby, or that you want someone take your baby away.
So, from one mum with perinatal mental illness to another, what’s my advice? It would be that is if you recognise any of these symptoms in yourself (or someone else), seek help as soon as possible. Talk to your GP and ask for a mental health plan. This entitles you to up to 10 discounted sessions with a psychologist if you feel you would benefit from a talking therapy (I did!). If you have private health cover, you can also ask for a referral to the Brisbane Centre for Post Natal Disorders at Belmont Hospital. I was treated at this wonderful facility and credit them for my recovery.
You can also benefit from seeking support from mums who have experienced post-natal illness themselves. Peach Tree is a Brisbane charity run entirely by mums where you can meet other parents experiencing perinatal mental illness in a warm, friendly and non-judgemental environment. Sharing your thoughts with other mums who are in a similar situation can really help you to feel less isolated and alone and I’ve made life long friendships with some of the mums I’ve met on my journey.
Hayley Carter is a writer, mum to two boys and two-time survivor of perinatal illness
Peach Tree is hosting a fundraising Vintage Gala on 21st November from 7pm – 11pm. Includes a sit-down dinner & drinks, live jazz music and silent auction. $140 per person – book online www.trybooking.com/155944
Peach Tree – tel: 0487 756 633