Having had mental health issues as a teen, going through periods of anxiety and depression, I thought I would know what to look for after giving birth to my son. But nothing could have prepared me for the intense hopelessness and despair I would experience.
I had always wanted to be a mother so when I fell pregnant after battling endometriosis, I thought the happiest days were ahead of me. It was in my second trimester where things started to feel disjointed. Small inconveniences set me off and I was snappy and unhappy. One day, when I had spent the morning sobbing uncontrollably, I called the hospital and spoke to the social worker. She set me up with my local Perinatal Mental Health Team who I met with for the remainder of my pregnancy.
Things started feeling a bit easier; I would talk about my feelings every fortnight and felt as though I had a grasp on my emotions. It was just before my son was born that I lost contact with my worker, we had just moved 30 minutes away and I didn’t feel like I could get myself to the appointments. I was induced and had the most beautiful birth with our sweet son Jackson. The first 24 hours that he was with me, I felt euphoric, like nothing could possibly bring me down from this high. Watching family meet our son and soak in all his sweet noises and faces was amazing. The day before we left the hospital my husband and I sat together on the bed and looked over at my son in the bassinet. We both cried and laughed at how amazing he was and how we were now parents.
It was day three when everything came crashing down. That day we were being sent home from the hospital. Everything felt like a blur, getting all packed up, getting to the car. When we arrived home, I felt numb. What were we meant to do now?
The next week felt like the longest of my life. At no point did I feel like I’d had enough sleep to call it a new day. When the child and family health nurse came to check on us at home, Jackson was nine days old. I sat and answered her questions with Jackson on my lap. After a while she paused and looked at me and said: ‘Do you feel like you’ve got a connection to him?’ I nodded obligingly, she replied saying ‘because he has been staring at you this whole time and you haven’t looked at him once’.
I froze. Surely that couldn’t be true, this was the baby I’d dreamt about for so many years, this was motherhood, what I had always wanted. She was right though, now I think back and I don’t remember looking at his face. I went through the motions of feeding and changing but at no point did I feel like I could soak my newborn baby in.
That night started just like the others, a blur of small amounts of sleep and long hours feeding. I would often find myself drifting off to sleep when I was feeding Jackson and shaking myself awake. This night was different though. Sitting in the dark I suddenly had a very vivid flash of what felt like a movie playing in my mind. I won’t go into details but it involved me wanting to hurt Jackson. As I realised what I was seeing in my head I physically shook my head and gasped. Jackson was still there, on my lap feeding. I was too tired to discern if it was a dream or just from pure exhaustion, all I knew was that I felt sick to my stomach.
I wish I could say that was the last time I experienced that feeling but it wasn’t. I started to have these flashes daily or sometimes hourly. One time during a really hard day with Jackson I decided to go on a walk. It was while walking through a bush area that I had a flash of putting the brakes on the pram, turning and running away. The worst part of it was, I was beginning to not feel so guilty about these flashes, I felt as if I was my mind showing me how I was actually feeling.
I didn’t talk about these flashes with anyone for a while, it was too shameful, I wondered if people would want to take Jackson away from me. The rest of my days were full of hopelessness and despair, I started to resent the decision I had made to have a baby, wishing endlessly for my old life back. My husband was at a loss, he would hold me while I sobbed, reassure me but nothing seemed to help.
It was a week or so later when I met with my perinatal mental health worker. She brought with her a new worker who would be working with me from now on. She seemed nice but I couldn’t really bring myself to make eye contact with anyone. It was towards the end of the session that somehow I managed to explain these flashes. The best way I could describe it was as a movie playing in my head that I couldn’t seem to stop without actually shaking it off. It was then that my worker explained to me that this was most likely postnatal obsessive compulsive disorder.
At first I was doubtful, there was nothing compulsive about it, I wasn’t counting things 5 times or locking the car repetitively, that was surely what obsessive compulsive was. She went onto explain that these flashes I was getting were obsessive thoughts, thoughts that were beyond my control and related to my very poor mental state.
Very slowly, things started to change. Jackson was diagnosed with reflux and we started him on medication. Every day still felt like a life time but I was determined that if we made it to 12 weeks everything would settle in. If we made it.
I met with a psychiatrist who started me on medication. I was apprehensive at first, I’d taken anti depressants before and had a severe psychotic reaction as a teenager, but in the end I figured nothing could be worse than what I was currently experiencing.
It was when Jackson was about 13 weeks when one morning I woke up and actually felt like I could see. Things weren’t quite so dark, the hours seemed to pass a little faster and Jackson was there, his sweet little body and newborn smell. My worker came later that day and as she walked in the door she smiled. I knew I must have been starting to look more like myself too. By no means was that the end, my medication is still always a fine balance between my mood stabiliser and my antidepressant. There have been days where I was sure I was headed south again but as days and weeks and months pass, we are moving forward.
I have always felt I am an insightful person, reflective in my feelings and experiences. The weeks after I gave birth, I felt as though nothing would ever be ok again. Those weeks were, without sounding cliché, the closest I’ve ever felt to losing myself. I was lucky, I was already linked in with help and I knew who to call but it all transpired so quickly, I couldn’t keep up.
Today Jackson is a happy, healthy and busy 13 month old. I now work as a Child and Family Health Nurse, using my own experience as motivation to help other mothers who are experiencing perinatal mental health issues. In the next few weeks I will finish up with that Perinatal Mental Health worker that I truly think saved my life. I am so thankful for the support I have received and the beautiful relationship I now have with my son.
PANDA’s National Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Helpline
1300 726 306 9am – 7.30pm Mon – Fri (AEST/AEDT)
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