In internet circles, I find myself surrounded by some of the most amazing inspiring people on a day to day basis. I interact with them in Facebook groups, on twitter, people I’ve never met in real life but have spoken to on a regular basis for the best part of a year. They are strong, courageous women (mostly) who have found themselves able to speak out about things that aren’t normally talked about; things considered taboo. Lately I’ve found myself wanting to say things in the same vein but have found myself afraid, not knowing exactly what to say, or how to say it, or whether I should say it at all. From authors who I really admire, the lovely Marian Keyes, to fellow parenting bloggers Karen and Suzy, these women have made me feel as if it is okay, which is exactly why I’m writing this now.
Mental illness is thankfully something that is entering the realms of “Ok to talk about” in Irish society in the last few years. I am thankful, not that it is so prevalent, if anything I wish for its disappearance every day, but the taboo nature of the topic is something that can only be a good thing to abolish. I’ve spent the last five years involved in some small capacity with trying to diminish that taboo, that stigma that is attached to it. None of us can deny that it doesn’t affect us in some way – everyone has a friend or family member, or even their own personal story to add to the discussion. I am no different.
I was diagnosed with depression in January 2010, in my first year of college. It had been a bit of a rough time, I’d moved to a new place where I knew three people, started a new college course which I thought I’d loved and absolutely hated, and I’d experienced my first proper death – a classmate from school who I couldn’t find any justification for her not being around any more. With the ins and outs of everything, I became a bit of a recluse, and sunk into myself, feeling more and more like I was losing touch with life around me. Thankfully I was surrounded by a group of wonderful people who knew what to do and where to send me; the friends I had made in college were fantastic and directed me to the Counselling department where I got the help I needed. It is amazing how things work out. I feel incredibly lucky to have made the choices in friends that I did; that they had the contacts to show me where to go, and the understanding that I felt like I wasn’t alone and losing my marbles.
Throughout college I dealt with anxiety in different forms; throughout my second year of college it was stress migraines which were no fun and were incredibly debilitating to the extent that I missed a lot of college, during my finals it was as close as I’ve ever been to a breakdown, where messing up an exam sent me into a tailspin of hysterical tears that ended in the doctors office and being told I could repeat my exams under medical grounds. My experiences have taught me that mental illness isn’t to be messed with; it’s a demon of a thing if you lose control for even a minute. The black dog bites, and bites hard, it just needs to be trained.
Less than a year after graduation I fell pregnant. It was a shock, but after the initial shock wore off I started looking forward to this new venture in life that was coming my way. Pregnancy wasn’t ideal; by any stretch of the imagination – but I was assured by everyone that I deserved a good baby, who slept, for my troubles in getting him here. I obtained a back injury half way through my pregnancy which put paid to my working until maternity leave kicked in, and wound up hospitalised near the end for soaring high blood pressure, culminating in pre-eclampsia and early delivery of my gorgeous baby boy. Honestly, I was glad it was over. I remember waking up from a sleep the day I had him, and not feeling the burning heartburn I’d had for weeks previous; and just this overwhelming sense of relief hit me. He was here. The hard part was gone. I was now in my new life, with my new baby, and everything was going to be fine from here on in.
And it was. For the first few weeks, we trudged into life with a newborn. Sleep deprivation like never before hit us, and we slowly developed a routine of sleeping, feeding, changing nappies, repeat ad infinitum. Through this I was a bit on the emotional side, but put it down to the baby blues, and the sleep deprivation, sure nobody is in the best of form when they haven’t slept.
Weeks went by. It started to become a thing that I’d cry when the baby cried. Or when asked how my day was going. Or if any comment was made about anything I did, positive or negative. And still I put it down to those damn baby blues, those damn hormones. See, I’d been told it was likely that I’d develop postnatal depression – both the staff in the hospital and my own wonderful GP had advised me to read up on it, and told me to watch out for the signs. So I did – and I became determined that the black dog was coming nowhere near me and my baby, and my new life as Mammy. That was to be left behind in my old life, the one where I wasn’t held together and a proper grownup responsible for someone else and making sure I didn’t mess them up. I became so determined that I started putting even more pressure on myself to be good – I left the house every single day for walks with the baby, tried hard to put on the smily face, saved the tears for when I was sitting on the sofa at home – and tried to hide the tears, rather unsuccessfully. I wasn’t crying, I was leaking, and it was just those damn hormones.
Months went by. At E’s four month check, the public health nurse asked how I was doing. At this point I’d joined Weight Watchers, and had a little more control over sleep patterns and general day to day-ness. I’d settled into being Mammy. But when she asked how I was doing, I said “Well, I’m only crying a little when the baby cries”. I didn’t tell her that I was resenting every single time that the lovely Man Friend walked out the door to work, leaving me on my own with the baby. I didn’t tell her about the trying to hide the tears in the bathroom on an almost daily basis when himself asked me how the baby was, or what was for dinner. I believed that if I didn’t let that Black Dog in the door of my new life that it wouldn’t be depression, and that I wasn’t going to be one of those Mammies with postnatal depression. I had a gorgeous baby boy who was a good baby. What did I have to complain about? Everyone told me how wonderful he was, how he smiled up at everyone. Nobody else saw him bawling for hours at home and not settling, saying to me “You’re a bad Mammy, if you were any good you’d be able to make me stop. When I gave up breastfeeding, people praised me for keeping it up so long. I even wrote a post on how relieved I felt, and how he was now gaining weight. I didn’t include the fact that his rampant weight gain on formula didn’t make me feel so much relieved as annoyed and angry with myself, for not being able to give my baby that goodness, for failing at yet another thing.
I was unfair to myself. My parents and the man friend were amazing, telling me I was doing a great job, and all I kept telling myself was “But nobody else’s baby isn’t sleeping and cries all the time” I was a member of a Facebook group at the time of mothers who had babies at the same time as me. They wrote about how their baby was sleeping the night, when I was waking every hour. While mine was throwing tantrums and refusing feeds and not gaining weight, theirs were thriving. Looking back, I’m now realising that Facebook only sees what you want it to see, and many of them have since broken down the walls and shown that their life with baby isn’t as perfect as it seemed either. But at the time, I felt like shit. I was crying for no good reason, and I was resenting my child for making me stay at home with him and not giving me any of the love and affection he was giving his Daddy. Most of all, I had serious guilt, because I knew it was wrong to resent my innocent gorgeous baby. The guilt is all-encompassing, I just couldn’t get away from it.
The public health nurse told me that the Baby Blues should have finished by now, and that it might be worthwhile having a word with my doctor about post natal depression. Honestly, I wrote her off and in my own head decided that she was exaggerating, that this was nothing I couldn’t deal with. It wasn’t until a few weeks later when I found myself bawling walking down the street because the child wouldn’t settle in the buggy that I decided that maybe what she said might have some merit. As much as I didn’t want to seem like I didn’t have it all together and going on, I knew that perhaps I was a little in over my head. I made an appointment with my saint of a GP, and headed along to a ten minute appointment where I cried for most of it, and at the end she told me everything would be okay, wrote me a prescription and told me that I needed to take help where it was offered and to stop trying so hard to do everything myself. She was right; I needed to start admitting I wasn’t okay and asking for help, which I have done.
It’s now just over two months on. The cloud has lifted, medication has definitely helped, as has changing my attitude about how people see me and my methods as a Mammy. I’ve gone back to work, which has helped because it’s given me a bit of my sense of self, outside of being Mammy, back again. I regularly check in with my GP. That’s not to say its all roses in the garden – the meds are good, but they don’t magically make everything perfect, if they did I imagine they would charge a lot more for them. As with everything, I have my ups and downs, but I’m now loving the time I get to spend with my baby instead of resenting it, being able to watch him grow and learn on a daily basis.
Postnatal depression is extremely common in Ireland – roughly about 10% of new mothers reportedly suffer with it after having their baby, and it can last up to 18 months. It’s just one of these things we don’t speak about – everyone wants to be seen as coping and doing well with their new baby, like its easy, like that perfect picture you’d imagined when you were pregnant of your wonderful life with your new bundle of joy. Nobody ever factors in the sleep deprivation, screaming (babies and yours) and wall to wall poo-covered nappies when they’re imagining all of that. Parenthood is tough.
If you’re reading this and you feel like the walls are caving in and that black dog is barking down the door outside, please tell someone. I promise you, it will be okay, but telling someone and admitting that you’re in over your head, as tough and as crap as it feels at the time, is the first step to helping yourself get through this. I’m not saying it is easy. I’m on medication on a daily basis, and am surrounded by help and listening ears, and still find it a rough ride sometimes. However, it does get easier, and at some point soon, you’l start to feel the dark clouds lifting ever so slightly.
For more information on Postnatal Depression in Ireland, check out http://www.pnd.ie.