I’m extremely lucky in that I have two wild, quirky, brilliant kids: Elvie, who’s now five, and Joel, who is three. I’m less lucky in that I suffered fairly severe postnatal depression with both of them. After Elvie’s birth I slipped into the ‘baby blues’ and never really came out. I was a first-time mum, wandering around in an absolute grey, numb daze. My husband and my parents knew that something was wrong, but I didn’t want anyone else to know in case they thought badly of me, or judged me, or tried to take my baby away, so eventually we dealt with it by ourselves, just my husband, my parents, and the doctors, and nearly pulled each other apart in the process.
Just after Elvie turned one I was starting to feel much better and was officially in recovery, shortly after which I found out I was pregnant again, which was terrifying. However, this time around we were better prepared, armed with all the information and the warning signs, and I was convinced it was all going to be fine – and, in fairness, it was, until Joel was about three months old. It was at this point that we were knee-deep in buying a house and moving everything we owned to a part of town we didn’t know, with a potty-training two-year old and a tiny, constantly hungry baby.
The stress, combined with the sleepless nights and all the hormones, absolutely knocked me for six. We moved 10 days before Christmas, and by New Year I knew that I was going downhill fast, and that with two children to look after this time around, it would take me much longer to climb back up again. It definitely did, but I eventually came off my anti-depressants about nine months ago, and am, for the most part, in a pretty stable state of recovery.
When I first visited the doctor it was begrudgingly. I was almost completely convinced that they wouldn’t be able to help, and probably wouldn’t believe that anything was wrong. My first visit was genuinely a huge step. I’ll always be grateful to have had a doctor who knew me, and took one look at me before saying, “We need to get you better, and we need to start fast.”
The second time round, I was desperate, really desperate, and I knew there was no way that my husband and I could make it through by ourselves. So I started telling people other than the doctor and my immediate family. I told almost everyone I knew, in fact. I needed to feel known, understood, and seen, in the middle of a time that felt so grey and bleak and awful.
I know that treatment from your doctor can be a lottery, and that makes me absolutely furious, because I know how much difference it made to me to get the right treatment, really quickly. I was referred to Talking Therapies on the day that I first told the doctor I was suffering with my first bout of PND. They put me on a cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) programme, and taught me so many valuable coping skills that I still use today.
When I went back with Joel I was given more therapy and, crucially, two years of antidepressants, which helped me get back to a place where I felt as though my head was above water and I could start to make progress for myself. Having said that, the medical support is only a small part of the recovery process – so much more of it happens in day-to-day life, outside of the doctor’s office. I would say that without the support of my family and friends I wouldn’t be so far down the road to recovery as I am today. I had so much brilliant, practical support – meals cooked, children babysat, tears mopped up, occasional deliveries of cakes and biscuits. We’ll basically be paying them back for the rest of our lives, and I’m totally ok with that.
I’ve had to learn the importance of self-care which is something that I’ve never been particularly good at. I think it’s a female trait, that we look after everyone else continually, and eventually slightly resentfully, not ourselves, until we breakdown. So I’m really trying to break old habits and focus on the things that bring me joy, and help me stay balanced – getting enough sleep, not watching too much crappy telly, reading, getting out of the house regularly, that sort of thing. I’ve also learnt that my mind is much calmer when my hands are busy so I’ve been fully embracing the cross-stitching and colouring in that I used to love as a kid. Of course there are days when I just drink gin and watch The Bachelor, but now I have a checklist of simple things I can do to lift my mood if I feel it slipping.
When I started the blog Joel was nine months old and I hadn’t written for years. It worked really well as a form of therapy for me, getting hold of the thoughts that were spinning round my head, putting them down on the screen and being able to let go of them when I pushed the ‘Publish’ button. Initially I wasn’t convinced about sharing it, it seemed almost a step too far in the telling-everyone-about-my-mental-health stakes, but I showed it to family, and a few friends, and they were so supportive that I went with it. The response has been amazing. So many people coming out of the woodwork, from all around the world, to say that they’ve been suffering too, and are so relieved to know that they’re not alone.
My book followed the blog and is a record of a year within our lives, documented through blog-style essays. It covers everything from the fact that sugar alone will not heal your post-baby body, to the time that Elvie pooed on the floor and stuck a toy spaceman in it. All whilst dealing with the emotions and difficulties of the big grey whirlwind that is PND. I’ve been told it’s funnier than it sounds! My hope is that other mums will read it, and realise that they are absolutely not alone. I really hope that it can give people the courage to get help, or reach out, and that it can provide insight and support for the superheroes who are loving and caring for PND sufferers and their children.
I think depression, and mental health issues in general, remain taboo because people are scared of them. They are scared of how to deal with people who are suffering, and scared of what they would do if it happened to them. And this fear creates a culture of silence. It’s very rare to hear the stories of sufferers themselves who are actually regular human beings with lives and families who are dealing with this awful disease every day. In terms of PND in particular I think the problem is that society has such a warped view of new motherhood – this idea that it’s all blissful, and roses, and happy cuddles – when the reality is bleeding nipples and sleep deprivation and having absolutely no idea what you’re doing. But that’s not what we typically see on Instagram, and it can feel very scary and isolating to reach out and say, “actually, that’s not how it is for me.”
I think the only way to raise awareness and combat the stigma attached to PND is to normalise it, and the only way to do that is to talk about it. If we take the unknown and the fear away from it, and make it a perfectly normal topic of conversation, then we stand a chance of making it something that people will open up about, and get help for, rather than something that just crops up in the news when there’s a tragedy, which in turn fuels the fear and the silence. That’s what I really hope the book will facilitate, those toddler group conversations, or chats with family members, or emails to old friends that could be the pivotal moment in someone’s journey towards recovery.
For anyone who currently thinks they are suffering from PND I would say you are absolutely not alone. I know it’s hard and it’s horrible and you never knew you could feel like this, but it will get better. There is so much help out there – from the doctors, from friends and family, from support groups. Google the PANDAS organisation, find your nearest support group, and go. Book an appointment with your doctor, go and see them and be honest about how bad it is. And above all, talk to people, people who love you, and know you, and really want you to be happy. Be brave. Hang in there. Talk. It will get better. I promise.