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 bad enough. 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.
Huge thanks to Kelly for sharing her story with us – PND and Anxiety happen to so many of us and the more we talk about it, the better.
Kelly Norwood-Young is a editor, writer and business owner, as well as a newbie blogger (go check out her lovely blog called Mom de plume). Here she is with her gorgeous son, Reid.