I was a secondary drama teacher before I became a mother. My life was ruled by bells, structure and control. Things were ordered, familiar and predictable. The complete opposite of becoming a mother!
I gave birth to my beautiful son Alexander in November 2011. I was 31. His birth was wonderful, uneventful and I recovered really well. We were discharged in a few days and on the first night at home I could not get him to settle. I had to rush to the bathroom to be sick. That was the first indicator that all wasn't well with me, but it was another 4 months before things really came unstuck.
I had suffered with anxiety and depression before my son was born, however, it was never diagnosed or treated. I had been having panic attacks since I was 17, but managed to complete high school, a degree, start a career, maintain relationships and get married. But I never felt peaceful. There was always an unsettled feeling. When my son arrived, my world was turned upside down. I felt lost, incompetent, and exhausted. My son was not a great sleeper and I just kept hoping that "when he sleeps better, I will feel better". When he was about 4 months old, his sleeping pattern changed, and our settling techniques no longer worked. I became increasingly anxious. I couldn't sleep, I lost my appetite. I shut off from the world. I took my son to a day stay sleep centre, and cried the whole time I was there. I saw a social worker who suggested I had postnatal depression and anxiety. She referred me to a counsellor and I went to see my GP, who prescribed antidepressants. But by then, it was too late.
Panic attacks happened every morning. I started to resent my son. I wished I hadn't had him. I thought about hurting him. That was the last straw for me. I ate nothing, couldn't breastfeed anymore. My husband had to take time off work to care for our son while I couldn't get out of bed. I was paralysed, racked with guilt, fear and anxiety. I thought about suicide. My mother and sister had to get me out of bed to shower. They tried to tempt me with my favourite foods, favourite movies. Anything to help me. It wasn't enough. Even with all the support I had, a loving and supportive husband and family, the illness was too powerful. Eventually, under the advice of PANDA and my GP, my husband convinced me to go with him to emergency. I couldn't stop crying. I saw a psychiatrist who had me admitted to a Mother Baby Unit.
I felt relieved when I was admitted to the unit. I couldn't go home and continue as I was. It was very hard to admit I was so unwell. I felt like a failure. I felt trapped, like I would never be happy or carefree again. I stayed at the unit with my son for 3 weeks, where I was medicated, and received counselling. After the three weeks I was ready to go home, and start again.
It was a long road, but with support from my clinical psychologist, medication, my husband, family and friends, I slowly felt better, more confident and relaxed. The time between bad days was longer and longer. I felt well enough to consider another child. We fell pregnant immediately. I panicked. I regretted the choice. I was fearful of struggling again. Antenatal depression is awful. Guilt is awful. Then at 27 weeks my unborn babe was diagnosed with Congenital Heart Block. She would require a pacemaker, and perhaps an early delivery, at 32 weeks, if she made it. There was a chance her heart may have failed in utero.
All of this was terrifying, while caring for my 2.5 year old, and working casually. I continued to see my clinical psychologist and a psychiatrist to get me through two very difficult months. My baby girl was born at 38 weeks and had a pacemaker inserted 5 days later. Despite the sleep deprivation and added work of a toddler, I found it all a little bit easier the second time around. I knew what to expect. I asked for help. I accepted help. I made an effort to get out and about and stay connected to the world. Around 4 months in, I began to struggle again, but I caught it early this time. I increased my visits to my psychologist and psychiatrist, and increased my medication. I asked my family to just be with me. Knowing people will help if you ask them was very comforting to me.
My son is now 7 years old, and my daughter is 4. They are both clever, full-on, and we are so proud of them.
I am very well now. I am still medicated, and continue to see my psychologist from time to time. A big turning point for me was to realise that it’s ok for me to want to go back to work. Work is my sanity, my ‘me time’. I used to feel guilty about sometimes preferring work over staying home with my children, but now I know that time as ‘my old self’ actually makes me a better parent.
I have accepted that I will most likely need to manage my anxiety and depression for life, but have learned so much from my experience. I know that sounds cliché, but it’s true. I have so many more coping skills available to manage my symptoms. I can recognise them much earlier. Therapy has been a godsend for me.
Most of the time, parenting is hard. It required strength you did not know you had. It’s tiring, emotional, and always time consuming. But- it’s worth it.
To parents who might be struggling, I give you my advice as someone who has been there. Please ask for help the minute you feel unhappy. Do NOT feel guilty. Guilt is a symptom of the illness. Be honest with yourself. You have an illness. You are unwell. Like any medical condition, postnatal depression requires medical treatment. You can and you will recover. Some days will still be hard. But they will be fewer and far between. Remove negative people from your life. Learn to say no. Care for yourself. Be kind to yourself. Find joy in small things. You are stronger than you think. Your children love you.
After my first child, I was adamant that I would never put myself through it all again. But as I became well, I realised another baby was what I wanted, and I refused to let my illness choose for me.
But you do what is right for you. Not anyone else. You don’t want another child? Don’t have one. Want 5 more children? Go for it. You may not become unwell again. But if you do? You are a warrior. You are a survivor. You are loved. You are a good parent.
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"To parents who might be struggling, I give you my advice as someone who has been there. Please ask for help the minute you feel unhappy. Do NOT feel guilty. Guilt is a symptom of the illness. Be honest with yourself. You have an illness. You are unwell. Like any medical condition, postnatal depression requires medical treatment. You can and you will recover."
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