Post-natal depression came crashing into my life
Enormity of life and death bends my brain and: ‘how can anyone stay sane amid all this’
Tanya Sweeney at home with her baby Isola. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/ The Irish Times
I’d never really known the meaning of the term “whites of their eyes” until I pushed a pram through a busy maternity hospital waiting room while bawling my eyes out.
A few days previously, things had gone from bad to worse.
I hadn’t had a day without crying for six weeks. I’d stand in the kitchen, letting tears fall in a quiet, exquisite release while visitors cooed over the baby in the room next door. I wanted to flee; all of it. I stayed indoors, avoiding people. The worry about doing the right thing, and doing the wrong thing, was wearying (read enough parenting guides, and you’ll soon start to believe there are 800 ways of doing the job wrong). In a sort of “emotional bulimia”, I’d creep downstairs at night, find old pictures of my dead relatives and wail over them, the enormity of life and death bending my brain.
I’d started Googling “why does my baby hate me?” and “what should maternal instinct feel like?” I began to stalk the house,wild-eyed and with J-cloth in hand, cleaning every surface over and over again, trying to prove to myself and everyone else that I was on top of things.
People would ask what was wrong, and I’d have no answer for them. I could start to see the low-level panic and alarm in B’s eyes when I’d be so sullen or silent. He’d come home one afternoon to find me lying in bed, the pillow damp with snot and tears and sweat, the baby somewhere nearby. In one particularly terrifying and disturbing moment, I could picture myself in my mind’s eye throwing a glass of water over my gorgeous, tiny daughter.
I was circling the plug hole; I could feel it.
It’s thought that about 15 per cent of Irish women experience post-natal depression (PND). Much of it goes unreported, with people dismissing their anguish as the baby blues. Far from being ashamed about a PND diagnosis, or feel like a failure I wonder how the other 85 per cent have managed to escape it. The sleeplessness, hormonal assault, loss of freedom, processing of childbirth, adjusting to a new person, the “high alert” culture shock, the bleeding, crying, breastfeeding, uncertainty of everything and the lack of time to regroup. On top of that, previous traumas or losses can also resurface, adding to the confusion.
Depression or anxiety seems a perfectly reasonable response to it all, if you ask me
Really, how is anyone expected to stay sane amid all this?
Depression or anxiety seems a perfectly reasonable response to it all, if you ask me.
I’ve experienced garden variety depression in the past: the one where you sleep for 18 hours of the day and Google things like, “am I having a nervous breakdown?” I understand it can happen to anyone, irrespective of income, personal circumstances, social life, personality, geography. Experiencing depression is a bit like being up to your knees in cold soup, the whole time. It’s hard to get your mind off it. It’s damp, gross, utterly wearying. A bit embarrassing, even. It impedes your life and movements. You wonder, “why am I the one stuck in soup?” Your friends don’t want to be around you, on account of the whole soup thing. Your nearest and dearest have to deal with regular splash back. Drained from the maddening unpleasantness of it all, you go to bed to escape it, and even there somehow, you’re still up to your ankles in Cock-A-flippin’-Leekie.
But post-natal depression is a different dog entirely. It’s a vortex of differing emotions, like mixing two paints together. There are degrees of severity as with almost all conditions, and here I can only describe my own experience.
There are moments where you feel as though every cell in your body has woken up, or turned into vivid Technicolour, now that your child is finally here.
But then a weariness that seems to dry your bones out follows in quick succession.
You’ll miss seeing your friends, but will also spend your new together fighting back tears and wishing the day was over.
It’s possible that you’ll whisper to your baby that she is the best thing that has ever happened to you, and that raising her is the biggest privilege of your life.
And then, you’ll wonder where your passport is just moments later, and whether anyone would really miss you if you decided to bugger off for a bit.
How is it that I feel like I’m fully on the grid, but then hazy with exhaustion and ennui in the same day?
You will be so fearful of an illness, accident or tragedy that will take you away from her, or her away from you, that you could puke with the thought. And then, another time, you’ll catch sight of the study hook that hangs from the ceiling living room, and know that while it’s just a hook, it could also mean away, away, away.
How could I feel contentment and uncomplicated love one minute, and then an unholy trinity of despair, anxiety and doom the next? How is it that I feel like I’m fully on the grid, but then hazy with exhaustion and ennui in the same day? Why is it that I’m sad after having a healthy baby after an uncomplicated birth, and friends of mine had experienced birth trauma, or have a child with additional needs, and seemed perfectly okay?
I couldn’t understand, much less trust, the overlapping and jostling of such wildly varying emotions.
Then I saw an image online in a post-natal Facebook group. It was a familiar enough tableau: a smiling mother staring adoringly into her baby’s eyes, stroking his tiny hand, and the baby reciprocating with the pure, trusting love that babies have for their mums. The caption revealed that this mother had taken her own life later that day.
I wish I could say that was the moment I decided to seek help, but it wasn’t.
I simply assumed that this was my new life in all its crazy, contradictory and chaotic glory, until one morning, the public health nurse asked me how I was doing. Previously, I’d been a bustling and efficient character on her visits, making tea and proffering lists of questions, doing my best: “I’m grand, swear!” Dance. Yet this one morning, the whole façade fell to the floor. It felt so good to weep in front of her. I was packed off to my maternity hospital’s mental health unit, to a very wonderful mental health nurse. There, I did an Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale test. A score over 13 indicates a depressive illness; mine was 25.
I was lucky. My depression was caught early on, before my daughter was three months old, and treated with medication. I’d worried about going back on anti-depressants; the loss of libido and the weight gain and the general flatlining of emotions, both good and bad. But it’s not just about me anymore. I had to try and get better for all of us, somehow. I needed to remember the first few months of my daughter’s life as a joyous time. She deserved a mother who was on the grid as much as possible.
The sooner a treatment plan is in place, the sooner you will get back to yourself
After that afternoon, I felt more in control and empowered. We had a plan in place, and that is a fantastic feeling. I went to counselling. I joined an infant massage class and met other mothers who appeared every bit as war torn as me, which helped. Within a few weeks, I returned to do more Edinburgh tests. I’d come down to 19, then to 14, and then finally to seven. I’m making it sound easy: it wasn’t. It’s a bit-by-bit process, with no shortcuts and no miracle cure.
I had worried about writing this piece: that my daughter would unearth it one day and somehow think it was her fault, or that it would reflect badly on B, or my family. But post-natal depression doesn’t work that way. It’s no-one’s fault; just a possible misfiring of body chemistry, added to a huge life change and sleep deprivation. You could have the most supportive, involved and protective family and partner, as I do, and it won’t inure you to mental health challenges.
About the best thing a new mum can do, if she suspects that she might have crossed over baby-blues territory into something more insidious, is to seek help. Parenting is hard. But it’s not meant to be this awful. The sooner a treatment plan is in place, the sooner you will get back to yourself. And you do need help. I know we’re supposed to be all Superwoman now (whoever made that rule up, I could clobber them with my gold and red tiara thingy), but asking for help is not a sign of weakness or failure. Nor should it be an embarrassment. If anything, asking for help shows spectacular courage, not to mention a willingness to do right by yourself and your family.
I am not “free” from PND, but the condition is certainly being managed.
I can remember a moment recently where I felt the deliciously warm slick of contentment pass through my whole body. I was watching a sunset in Westport with B over a glass of good wine in our rented holiday apartment, while our baby slept in her crib, down the corridor. It had been a long and tiring day, the way days where you’re bringing a young baby anywhere often are. We could hear her toss lightly in her sleep. She was fine. No, she was better than fine.
“We have got the coolest kid,” B observed. “How lucky we are,” I agreed. And then I realised, it was times like this – small, fleeting, barely recognisable as beautiful in the moment – that one by one, make up a wonderful life.
IF YOU NEED SUPPORT
- Your GP will refer you to an appropriate HSE service – eg primary care psychology, child and adolescent mental health, adult mental health.
- You can also access free, 24 hour helpline support: Samaritans: Freephone – 116 123; Text - 087 2 60 90 90 (standard text rates apply); find your nearest branch at samaritans.org.
- Pieta House – 1800 247 247, pieta.ie.
- Women’s Aid National Freephone Helpline – 1800 341 900, womensaid.ie.
- For information on mental health support services, see yourmentalhealth.ie.