Breathe in and breathe out. It’s taken me four years to write this. Four years of painful memories, shame and embarrassment. Now, I’ve decided to share my story in the hope that it will help people going through what I went through, that it will help others have compassion and understanding towards people going through this and that it will help those affected by mental illness to have hope that things will get better.
Throughout my life I have been a ‘normal’ child, ‘normal’ teenager with the usual ups, downs and challenges, and ‘normal’ young adult. Aside from a period of my life dealing with eating disorders I’d always been in the category of those young, fit and healthy.
I conceived my first child through the miracle of IVF, a process that was an emotional roller coaster but one which I got through with strength and resilience. When I discovered I was pregnant with my first child I was understandably over the moon and filled with joy. I spent nine months feeling like I was on top of the world, looking forward to my new life as a mum, yearning to meet my little boy. I couldn’t wait to be a mum.
My beautiful and healthy baby boy was born in May 2014. Nothing could have been any more perfect. I had a healthy baby boy, a beautiful husband, a supportive family. Everything was JUST PERFECT. I took my baby boy home and he was just beautiful. I spent the first few weeks tending to his every need.
As a new mum I was, of course, nervous and anxious about whether I was doing the right thing and just trying to keep this baby alive(!) but inside I knew I was doing a great job. The high achiever in me just knew that everything was going to plan and I was a great mother.
And then, it all changed. I started to lose myself. Things started spinning out of control. I couldn’t stop it. I couldn’t control it. It overtook me. I literally thought I was DYING.
It all came on so fast, it felt like a truck hit me. Out of nowhere I developed extreme anxiety. Anxiety over everything and anxiety over nothing. I was anxious about whether my baby was sleeping too long or too short. I was anxious simply about being alive.
The worst of the anxiety was around sleep. I would spend all day anxious about whether I was going to get any sleep that night and it wasn’t because of whether I would get any sleep due to the baby. It was anxiety over whether my body and mind would let me fall asleep. This anxiety was not just mental. In fact, the mental aspect of it was the easiest. The hardest was the physical.
My anxiety manifested in such a demonic physical way that I literally felt like I had a fire raging within me. It felt like I was burning alive. There were many times it was so bad I literally thought my body was breaking down and that I was in fact dying. I couldn’t stop it. I couldn’t control it. I had a fire raging and burning inside.
At night is when I struggled the most. Nights were dead still and quiet. The whole house asleep including the baby. Everyone was asleep. Everyone, except me. It was the middle of winter and I lay in bed in my summer nighty and I was tossing and turning. My legs wouldn’t stop moving. My arms were flapping. I felt like I was having convulsions. I was sweating profusely. My heart beating a million miles an hour. My internal fire raging uncontrollably. That’s when the sobbing started. Again, I literally felt like I was physically dying. Like my mind and body were shutting down. Every minute felt like an eternity. I tried and tried but with these physical symptoms I simply couldn’t fall asleep. Not even for a minute. Nights felt like an eternity.
After five days and nights like this I was out of control. I was beside myself. I hadn’t slept a minute. I was in physical pain and felt like I was being tortured. My baby was perfect. Happy, healthy and picture perfect. There was nothing wrong with my baby. There was nothing wrong with my relationship with my baby. There was just something wrong with me.
At that point, I was sobbing uncontrollably. The depression had well and truly set in. As my baby slept I was frantically going over in my head ways to end it all. I was desperate to end my life. I felt like my mind and body had been taken over by demons and the only way to stop it was to end my life. My biggest fear, however, was being unsuccessful and spending the rest of my life as a burden to my family. But, nevertheless I became obsessed with ending it all. Everywhere I turned, I was having visions of how it might happen. Everywhere I looked, I was dying and I couldn’t stop it.
At that point, I sought help.
I went to see my doctor I remember sitting in the waiting room impatiently, unable to sit still. My eyes darting from side to side. My eyes eagerly awaiting the doctor to call my name all whilst the fire raged within. I knew what I wanted. I wanted help. But not the kind you’re thinking of. I didn’t believe anything could help me but one thing.
When the doctor called me in I begged him to give me medication that would end it all for me. I was sobbing uncontrollably, hysterical with fear and anxiety. I was out of control and I was literally on my hands and knees begging for the only end I thought possible. The doctor, of course, didn’t accede to my concerns. He was extremely concerned for my wellbeing.
This is when I was admitted to hospital. Fortunately, I was able to take my baby with me and we ended up at the mother and baby unit at King Edward Memorial Hospital.
Although disheveled and broken down I suddenly developed an ounce of hope. That hope came in the form of sleep. I had in place a protocol that included anti-anxiety medication and medication to make me sleep. You have no idea the relief it gave me to do what people take for granted – to be able to sleep. It did not stop the anxiety and depression I was struggling with during the daytime, but it gave me a break at night. It put an end to the torturous nights. But I was still struggling.
The care I received from the doctors and nurses at the mother and baby unit was amazing. I felt truly supported. However, I still wasn’t in a good place, mind or body. All day I would sob and cry. I felt deep pain, anxiety and sadness. The fire was still raging within, burning me alive. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t feel any joy or enjoy life. I couldn’t understand why I kept seeing myself dying. Dying everywhere.
My life was picture perfect. My baby was perfect. I loved my baby. I was doing a great job as a mum. I knew all this. I saw all this with my eyes but I couldn’t feel any of the joy I could see. I couldn’t feel any happiness. I just felt utter despair and sadness. All I kept thinking was “What is wrong with me?”. At that point I truly felt like my brain was broken. Just like people have heart attacks or kidney failure, I felt that my brain was failing. I felt deep hopelessness.
After consultations with the psychiatrists I was prescribed anti-depressant after anti-depressant. They were trying to find the medication that would help me. That would help me feel normal again. But week after week, nothing was working. I was not feeling better. If anything I was feeling worse. The despair and hopelessness were getting worse. I was further harboring a fear that there was nothing that would ‘fix’ me and I would be stuck in this state forever. These feelings developed into psychosis. I was delusional. I was of the view that my illness and me visualising death everywhere was my new normal and I couldn’t be treated.
I would meet other ladies who came through the mother and baby unit and I would see them recover and be discharged. Over and over again I saw this pattern with women coming and going. And I just kept thinking, “what is wrong with me, why can’t they fix me?”. I felt like I just couldn’t get a break.
This process of trial and error lasted several long weeks. And after two or three months of this I was at my wit’s end. I felt completely and utterly broken. At that point, my doctor suggested something that felt drastic; electro-convulsive therapy (ECT). I didn’t understand – I thought this was something you just saw in old movies, some form of barbaric treatment. But to be honest, at that point, I didn’t care. I had to try something, anything, as life in this state was torture.
As it was explained to me, ECT basically involves putting a person under sedation, attaching electrodes to the head and sending electric impulses through the body. To be honest, I didn’t understand how this could work in making me better, but I was willing to give it a go. I was desperate. Over the next several weeks, a few times a week, I got up, was taken to a nearby hospital and underwent ECT treatment. At first, I felt no different. I still feared I would be stuck in this state forever.
But then, a miracle. After a few weeks of ECT therapy, I literally woke up one day and I felt like the fog had lifted. I could see clearly. I saw the world in a fresh light. I looked at my smiling baby and I felt joy. I smiled at my baby. I wasn’t crying. Heck, for the first time in months, I didn't even feel like crying. I felt happy and I hadn’t experienced the feeling of happiness for months. I felt normal. Words cannot describe the elation I was feeling at that point. This was the first time since coming down with depression and anxiety that I actually recognised that I had an illness. That I had an illness that was treatable. My fears of being broken forever were gone. This was the first time I knew that I was going to be ok. I felt like I had just gotten a second chance at life.
I continued ‘maintenance’ ECT for some time and am still medicated to date. However, I have been and am fine. It’s been a long road to recovery and for years after I recovered I still couldn’t drive in the suburb in which the mother and baby unit is located without having a deep knot in my stomach. But, I recovered and I am normal.
I enjoy life. I am grateful to be alive and I am so grateful to the medical team that supported me, guided me, were my shoulder to cry on and who believed in me, believing that I would get better. I tear up when I write this as I still can’t believe the low I got to. A low where I truly and wholly thought I only had one way out. Oh, how wrong I was. Life is beautiful and I am so glad I am here to experience it. And to top it all off, I had another baby and I was completely fine. I was petrified I would go through it all again with my second child, but I didn’t.
I hope this story gives hope to others. Hope that postnatal depression and anxiety is an illness. It’s an illness for which you need help and support, through which it is possible to make a full recovery. Life can be beautiful again even after illness.
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