The UK’s first Maternal Mental Health week started yesterday, and in support of opening up the conversations we should be having as new mums and as friends of new mums, I wanted to share my story again.
My first brush with formal mental health support was as a 21 year old with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I was the only witness to my then-fiancee being stabbed by men trying to break into our car outside our home and the situation completely traumatised me. My GP diagnosed me with PTSD with a side order of depression and anxiety (yay! the party duo), and I had counselling for six weeks to help me get over the experience.
My issues at that time unsurprisingly revolved around my personal safety: I refused to travel to and from work alone, would have panic attacks in busy supermarkets and was a fan of lying awake at night listening to worrying noises that didn’t exist.
Fast forward three years and Elfie was born. I found it difficult to cope with the transition to motherhood but told myself I was experiencing what every mum goes through. A health visitor encouraged me to talk to my GP about the fact I felt I was struggling – having given birth at 24 the baby world felt more foreign than China – and I was prescribed antidepressants. A couple of days later Elfie was diagnosed with her genetic disease and in all the effort of coping with this news and the subsequent fallout, my antidepressants and struggles were soon forgotten about.
Not long after Elfie was diagnosed we re-located 70 miles away, and falling pregnant a few months later meant I never re-visited either my feelings about becoming a new mum or the ordeal I’d gone through as a mother of a very poorly baby.
Suppressing these feelings meant things got a lot more hectic when Hux came along. Looking back, I can’t believe some of the experiences I went through when he was a new baby. I truly thought I was going mad, with no interest in cleaning – either myself or the house – which for a beauty-obsessed house proud woman like me was completely out of character. I hated going outside and would only do so if it was absolutely necessary, shuffling in to Tesco to buy essential milk before beating a quick retreat to the sanctuary of my home. I became completely paranoid, again of my personal safety, only this time I had two babies to protect which meant the anxiety was doubled.
At the time I lived in a big echoey barn conversion: me, the babies and an almost-always absent husband. So worried was I that the ‘baddies’ would break into my home, that I would set up booby traps around the house on all the doors. In the light-filled space this was a lot – 5 sets of French doors, then front and back doors, too. I’d prop an ironing board in front of one door, put a buggy in front of another. Anything that would make it harder for a burglar to get into our home, I did it. My house was a veritable obstacle course, the crystal maze of village homes. As crazy as I felt, any intruder would have to have Olympic-level gymnastic skills to get around the traps I set for them.
On one memorable night I remember lying in bed, convinced someone had somehow broken in and was hiding under my mattress. I was frozen in the same spot for three hours, hardly breathing yet clutching a can of hairspray – I’d read online this was a very effective weapon for women who spent time alone.
On another occasion I called the police in tears, convulsing in panic at the four men I had spotted outside my house, certain they were casing the place in a plot to break in. A very lovely Police Support Officer attended, kindly asking the 14 year olds on BMXs I was in hysterics over to re-locate to the park rather than my cul-de-sac before coming inside to coax me out of my hiding place in the corner of my pitch black bedroom to hold my hand and tell me it was OK to be scared when you had a new baby.
I don’t remember much from those days and that’s what upsets me the most. I didn’t feel anything for a really long time, no joy, no warmth, no happiness. I remember being scared, anxious and alone, sleeping at every available opportunity to escape. Between Elfie’s illness and me feeling like I was going a bit mad, the pleasure from the early years of my children’s lives were taken from me, and that’s something I’ll never get back.
When Hux neared 6 months old a worried Health Visitor expressed concern and whisked me in to see a GP the day she saw me. I remember being more honest this time, knowing something had gone very wrong and I needed help. I remember crying a lot and saying “I can’t do it any more” – because I couldn’t, I didn’t want to.
I was diagnosed with post-natal depression and again anxiety, prescribed Fluexotine – Prozac – referred to the mental health team at my local hospital and felt like a fully fledged loony. Something I felt almost proud of at the time, knowing that meant I had taken the first step to getting better.
There’s no doubt the fact I was alone for so many of those early days and long nights of motherhood heavily contributed to my post-natal depression. Motherhood can be an incredibly isolating experience: especially for new mums, when your life suddenly changes beyond recognition while everyone around you continues as they were. Sleep deprivation, of which mums usually suffer the brunt, also takes a huge toll on your mental wellbeing, alongside the huge amount of hormones coursing through your body (especially when breastfeeding).
Despite the impact this loneliness had on my mental health at the time, I credit my divorce with changing the course of my Post-Natal Depression. Single motherhood with such young babies gave me something to fight for, knowing I couldn’t live off child support and tax credits, that I had to pull myself together to earn a living. My children’s dad looking after them a defined once a fortnight meant I no longer felt abandoned, and removing that disappointment helped me find strength to move forwards and find happiness.
Having to step up to work to pay off debts I was left with and build a new life with a newborn baby and one year old made me realise I was capable and had much to offer the children in the new life I was starting as a single mum.
Looking at how far I’ve come from my place of anxiety and Post-Natal Depression makes me feel very proud. Mental Health issues don’t discriminate, they don’t care who you are or what you do or where you live: my situation could happen to anyone, and I certainly never believed it would happen to me. In the times where I felt my very worst I almost felt like that was it for life, that I was in a place of slight madness I would never return from.
I felt like I was perpetually drowning with no chance of being saved.
It’s something I think never leaves you, and the lessons I learned have become unforgettable. I’m so much more aware of the importance of my own mental wellbeing but of those around me, too. I look at the photographs of my children from this time and my mind boggles at how I could feel anything other than unbridled joy at being their mum, but that’s what Post-Natal Depression does to you. It sucks the happiness from your life like a Dementor.
I now know how important it is to take care of yourself when you’re experiencing challenges in your life. At times of heightened emotions – house moves, upheavals, breakups – it’s important to take note of how you’re feeling, to treat your physical and mental health with kid gloves. Think of how mindful you are of your children’s wellbeing around big life changes, such as new schools or bereavements. It’s important to offer yourself the same care, to give yourself whatever it takes to make you feel looked after: an early night, a long bath, a movie and a bar of chocolate.
I also can’t overstate the tonic of speaking to someone who understands your own quirk of mental health if you’re going through a rocky patch, whether that’s a friend, a husband or a family member. The hardest thing to do when it comes to mental health is talk about it, which is a big fat sod’s law as this is the thing that helps the most. But as the saying goes, a problem shared is a problem halved, and it’s never more the case than when you’re offloading your sadness or worries onto an understanding friend. I have mine, who can always be relied on to respond appropriately when I say to her “you know what? Today was a right shitter”, and within minutes of uttering those words out loud the world is a happier place.
I don’t write this to be congratulated on coming out the other side of my mental health struggles, or to be applauded for the successes I’ve had despite them. I write this because when I was in my darkest moments of new motherhood I felt so damn alone and I shouldn’t have. I write this because I felt I had everything I’d ever wanted in the world, and if I was still feeling as terrible as I did, what was the point? I write this because I believe opening up this conversation about maternal mental health is so difficult for us, and it shouldn’t be. I write this because we need to talk about it – heck, if you’ve recognised yourself in this, I’m here to talk to you.
I’ve written this because you need to know it gets better, and life is too precious to throw away in a Dementor-induced void of unhappiness.
You can follow this weeks’ activities on the Perinatal Mental Health Partnership Facebook page.