I was driving in the car, with both of my beautiful children in the back seat, with tears streaming down my cheeks.
I thought "I could drive into that telephone pole and end this right now". Luckily, it was just a thought.
In hindsight, I had experienced postnatal depression after the birth of my first child, but it was the journey with my second that prompted me to seek help.
We were having difficulty falling pregnant the second time around, and were undergoing IVF, to no avail. I was concurrently, and ironically, working as a counsellor for a brilliant organisation that assists women and pregnant people with unplanned pregnancies. I was counselling clients who were pregnant, and weren't sure if they wanted to be, whilst wanting to be pregnant myself, unable to conceive. Out of the blue, I was diagnosed with a physical health condition and told that I had to stop work. Two days later, I found out that I was pregnant! It became clear that I would be unable to take the prescribed medication for my condition due to the pregnancy. This journey was fraught from the outset.
Despite these challenges, our second child arrived without incident. We had the usual breastfeeding and sleeping issues; however, I noticed that my responses to these issues were increasingly agitated. I initially dismissed this as transient “baby blues” and a side effect of sleep deprivation; but I then developed a slew of more physical symptoms, including dizziness, blurred vision, and pins and needles in my hands and feet. With an irrepressible fear that I had some serious physical illness, I admitted myself to a general hospital – but test after test over a five-week period yielded normal results. I had lost the ability to tell the difference between which physical symptoms were normal and which weren’t. I now know these initial symptoms were a physical manifestation of depression, but at the time I was discharged feeling even more confused and overwhelmed than before.
After discharge, I noticed myself becoming increasingly unmotivated and anxious when left alone with my children; I would count down the minutes until my husband returned home from work, needed help 24/7 from family, and felt “wired and tired” – exhausted but unable to sleep. I would fantasise about escaping the relentlessness of parenting, then feel guilty for having such thoughts, and further guilt for having had IVF – surely another family would have been more deserving? I felt like I was being tortured from the inside – I wasn’t sure if I hated parenting because I was depressed, or if I was depressed because I hated parenting. Listening to my child cry, without knowing what was wrong, incited feelings of powerlessness and inadequacy. Ultimately, I was crying so much I couldn’t get out of bed. I knew I needed help.
This led to my second hospital admission, this time to a private mental health hospital, and a diagnosis of postnatal depression. The shame was palpable. How could I, a counsellor, with all the knowledge and tricks up my sleeve, not be able to “fix” myself? I had convinced myself that medication, let alone electro-convulsive therapy (ECT), were options only for “acute” patients, and was devastated to learn quickly that I was in this category. One month of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) brought me no relief, and I transitioned into ECT, all the while experimenting with different medication. I was desperately worried that attachment with my children would be compromised in my absence, and that if I admitted how much I was struggling, they may be taken from me. I was so anxious to feel better, that the possible benefits of ECT outweighed my concerns about the potential side effects (memory loss). Slowly but surely, I started to feel better.
These days, I see a psychiatrist and psychologist regularly, and am still trialling medications. I have accepted that postnatal depression is an “illness” rather than a character flaw, and I continue to take life very day by day, along with the fluctuations in mood, appreciating the small stuff.
Other things I have learned: it’s possible to love your children, but hate the “job” sometimes; fit your own oxygen mask first – self-care is vital to be able to look after others; engage social supports and challenge thoughts that you are a burden, or that you are the only one in your network going through this (I can assure you, you’re not!); ask for, and accept help from, family and friends; acknowledge that our society teaches us how to give birth, but not necessarily how to be a parent, and the phrase “good enough parenting” cannot be underestimated; get professional help ASAP from organisations such as PANDA, and/or your GP; and there is hope – you won’t feel like this forever. Lastly, toasted sandwiches are an acceptable children’s dinner option. Yes, for a week straight.
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