Postnatal depression: ‘I don’t feel depressed. I feel f**king furious’
‘Everything I have been feeling – the anger, the outrage – is reasonable. This is the start of my recovery’
Emma Jane Unsworth: ‘My son is now two and a half. I’m still on the anti-depressants, and might be forever. So what?’ Photograph: David M. Benett/ Getty Images
It is the worst of times and the worst of times. Brighton, May 2017. I am bone-tired, shoving a buggy through jostling crowds. The sun is beating down. People are sitting in deck chairs, enjoying the first blast of early summer.
But this is no ordinary Sunday on the seafront.
Either side of me, two lines of polished parked cars – all Minis – stretch into the distance. There are Minis in every possible colour and style. Some are themed like cartoon characters or sporting heroes. Some have eyelashes. Some have stickers on the bonnet and furry seats inside. Hundreds of people walk – no, amble – in between, admiring the cars. The crowd flows one way.
I am trapped.
On I trudge, trying not to run over any feet, children, or dogs, trying not to make eye contact with the smiling faces, the shiny, happy people basking in the Mini Love.
I had set out from my flat not knowing where I was going, just needing to walk, to get out, to put one foot in front of the other, to do something that felt vaguely autonomous. These walks are the only choice I have left.
I slammed the door, cursed the lift that never arrives (No 1 Bane of My Life), crossed the road, crossed the perilous cycle path, cursed at a cyclist (Bane No 2), and turned left along the front. I stomped along the promenade, past the i360 viewing tower, past the seafood shacks and the smokehouse, the ice-cream stalls, past the pier, lit up and heaving, the crazy golf and the aquarium.
Brighton – on the south coast of England – is a place where people come for holidays, for hen dos and high jinks. It’s a place of merriment and celebration. I am a dark cloud over it. My partner, the Cartoonist, actually said that to me this morning. “It’s like living with a dark cloud.”
I have accumulated layer upon layer of bad feeling; of negativity, rage and doom. I am swollen with it, waiting to explode
He has said kind things, too. He mostly says kind things. He is a man at the end of his rope. I know that I have not been easy to live with lately. My mind has been darkening steadily since December, a month or so after the baby was born. I have accumulated layer upon layer of bad feeling; of negativity, rage and doom. I am swollen with it, waiting to explode.
“I think you have postnatal depression,” The Cartoonist says regularly. “I think you should go and talk to someone. A therapist. Your GP.”
He is a GP two days a week, when he isn’t being a cartoonist. Even though I got him to check all my moles the first time we were in bed together (apparently this happens to doctors a lot), I am refusing to accept his diagnosis on this.
I don’t feel depressed. I feel f**king furious.
To make matters worse, in my hazy state of mind I have inadvertently stumbled into the midst of the London to Brighton Mini Run. It’s an annual get-together for Mini owners. The smell of petrol hangs in the air. People have dolled up for the occasion. They smoke rollies and drink tinnies. There is a distinct festival vibe.
I haven’t had more than four hours of sleep in a row for seven months. I am jumpy and twitchy, like a person on high alert. I want to shout and scream and lie down and curl into a ball and have someone – anyone – just take the baby for a few hours and give me time to regroup. I feel like I am on the edge of a psychic fit; some uncontrollable outburst.
The Cartoonist has told me he is worried I am “almost psychotic” more than once. But I have no options. My family are far away and I feel as if I should just be getting on with this.
Surely not everyone can find it this hard or they just wouldn’t do it, would they?
So here I am, almost psychotic, surrounded by jolly mods and Minis – my least favourite car. The Cartoonist and I have a Mini. It is an old pigeon-coloured thing with one functioning door. The electrics are bust so the windows don’t open. Pieces of upholstery and dashboard keep falling off inside. The Cartoonist and I argue every time we try to get into (or out of) it. The passenger door has been broken for two years, but it will cost more to get it fixed than the car is worth. Getting a baby in and out is a gymnastic feat. I often end up literally on my arse in the street, baby held aloft, bags scattered.
Travelling 300 miles to see either set of relatives, in Manchester and Wales respectively, is a logistical nightmare. The Cartoonist refuses to get rid of the Mini (he’s had it for 10 years) and I see this as him digging his heels in, like some kind of eternal bachelor in denial about his new responsibilities.
The Mini convention feels like something sent from my subconscious to mock me, and I can’t get out. It’s like a bad dream. People must be wondering why I’m charging ahead with such a thunderous look on my face. My phone vibrates in my pocket; I have it on silent so as not to wake the baby in the precious moments that he sleeps. I miss calls, but then people are calling less. My whole life has become one of shutting down, switching off, retreating into darkness.
It’s a text from The Cartoonist: Where are you?
I text back. It’s hard to type while walking and steering. He’s worried, but I also want to vent at him. I am the master of angry texts, especially angry nocturnal texts when he is away (how come he gets to go away?). “I am stuck in the middle of a Mini convention . . .”
I wait a moment, and then I launch my irresistible punchline. “And I f**king hate Minis.”
He doesn’t rise to it, not today. I half expect him to. He’d love it here. He’d blend right in. Not like me, with my three-day-old clothes and scraped-up hair and foul demeanour. He texts back. I look, expecting some lengthy and passionate defence of his beloved Minis, but no. He says: “I’m going to get on my bike and meet you at the marina.”
I do not reply. I do not look for him on the cycle path. I stomp on. Everyone and everything is in my way. Sunday is in my way. Life is in my way. By the time I get to the marina I am a ball of rage, some kind of dying earthbound sun, a red giant on her way out.
We buy burgers. As we sit down, where it is quieter, the baby wakes and looks at me. My heart pounds in my chest, as it does in the night, as it does any time he might need me. I pull out his bottle. The baby accepts the bottle and sucks on it. The knot in my chest – the constant knot – slackens off a little.
I chomp on the burger joylessly, not tasting it, hawking and squeezing it down my dry throat. My love for food – like my love for most things – has mostly disappeared. I eat whole packs of biscuits, mindlessly, to stay awake in the afternoon. I shovel in jumbo bars of chocolate, barely chewing. Sugar is my fix – but also, I sense a self-destruction in these acts. Self-loathing, the like of which I have never known. A darkness that is deepening and widening, right through the centre of me.
Boom. I am miserable. And I know it. I start to cry
The Cartoonist watches me eat. I shake my head and scowl. I don’t want to be watched. Don’t want to be scrutinised. Leave me alone in my . . . My brain says it before I consciously allow it to.
And there it is.
Boom. I am miserable. And I know it. I start to cry. The Cartoonist nods and hugs me. “I think I might be depressed,” I say. “Yes. Will you go and see someone?”
“I’ll go and see someone else for a potential diagnosis,” I say. His face sort of crumples, but it’s all I can give him right now. I am so ashamed. The floodgates have opened and I can’t stop crying. How did this happen? I am tough. I am smart. I have built a career. I have lived alone. I have spent decades carving out a life for myself that feels fulfilling. Now I am cracking, right down the middle.
Rewind six months, to November 2016.
My son’s birth was chaotic. I tore badly. I had an instant urge to protect him, but it wasn’t what I’d call bonding. The only thing I was bonding to was the wrong kind of maternity pad. Ouch. Breastfeeding was equally tough. I got mastitis, then thrush, and then my son got teeth – at 16 weeks. My hips hurt every night – sometimes so much I cried, maxed out on painkillers, unable to get comfortable. I was told it was “normal” to have pain for “about a year” after childbirth.
Meanwhile, I was Whac-a-Moling a haemorrhoid every other day. But that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst of it was the sleep deprivation. My son was a bad sleeper from the start. There are not even words to describe that level of tiredness.
“Bone-tired” is the closest I can get, but my bones felt like they had dissolved – along with my frontal lobe. I couldn’t finish sentences. There is a reason sleep deprivation is used as torture. At night, in bed, I get flashes of bright white behind my eyes – bursts of adrenaline, I learn – the split second the baby starts crying. I run out of supermarkets – basket abandoned in the aisle – whenever he cries, dashing home in a panic, crying myself.
New mothers are not supported, financially or holistically, by the state or system. In fact, I feel actively discouraged
But it becomes more than tiredness, more than “baby blues” – it calcifies into something deeper, more lethal. As the months go on, and winter turns to spring, I get darker inside. I have to start working again; I want to start working again. I am a self-employed writer, and it hasn’t come easy. But new mothers are not supported, financially or holistically, by the state or system. In fact, I feel actively discouraged.
The Cartoonist is great, but I have become a person he doesn’t know; a person who screams and shouts, and whom he finds on her knees sobbing in the kitchen as the baby naps.
With no extended family nearby, I just have to keep working and not sleeping and feeling like I’m doing a shit job of the lot. When I allow myself to compare myself to other people, my pride clouds things. I feel like a loser for not coping. I lie to my health visitor. I lie to my friends. I am lying to myself. I start overcompensating. I bake (I am not a baker). I post happy pictures online. I do my best “I’m fine” dance all over town. I want to look like a capable person. A modern woman. A successful feminist, having it all her way. But, slowly and surely, I am breaking myself.
I don’t talk to my GP first. I talk to a therapist. My friend Lauren tells me, on a walk through a bluebell wood, that she had postnatal depression (PND) after the birth of her second child. It feels like a secret confession from one of the strongest, coolest women I know. I sense her shame, and I hate her shame.
Lauren recommends a therapist who lives locally, a specialist in family issues. After the Mini convention I email the therapist, Kim. I tell her I’m not entirely sure if I am depressed but could I come and see her for a chat.
Kim lives on the seafront. I enjoy the walk there, alone, listening to music or just letting the sun hit my face. I splurge it all out at that first session. I weep effortlessly as I’m talking. “I don’t know whether it’s even appropriate to ask you for a diagnosis,” I say. “But my partner thinks that might be helpful.”
Kim just nods. She tells me that, in her opinion, what we call “postnatal depression” is an umbrella term for a variety of mental illnesses that she believes are “a reasonable response to the demands of motherhood in the western world”.
I realise that the idea of “having it all” is a golden myth of modern western motherhood
Imagine that. Everything I have been feeling – the anger, the panic, the outrage – is reasonable. This is a revelation. It is the start of my recovery. Over the next few months, Kim helps me piece together a sense of what I’m feeling. Why I’m so angry. Why I hate everyone and everything. Why my previous positivity has shrunk to a black hole of despair and fury. Why I feel, for the first time in my life, like it would sometimes be easier to just be dead. (At least then I could sleep.)
As I start to grow stronger, Kim starts to challenge me, which I like.
Why am I taking on so much more of the mental load than my partner?
How have we allowed this to happen?
My partner and I are both feminists. We both thought I could do everything. I realise that the idea of “having it all” is a golden myth of modern western motherhood.
There is a huge gap between what women are expected to be and what is possible for us to be in the present system. According to the NHS, more than one in 10 women experience PND, and it is thought that many more cases go unreported.
I suppose that’s because women are ashamed of failing, and that’s what it feels like (or it did to me) – and because it seems like a betrayal of your child, somehow.
I was hesitant to write this article because I thought, what if my son sees it online in 10 years’ time and gets upset, or thinks I didn’t love him in the beginning? But I want to reach out to other new mothers who might be struggling and feel unable to say – or even see it for what it is. So the big question is, how do you know?
I’m sure many of the symptoms I’ve described will echo the experiences of all new mothers. Nothing prepares you for the onslaught and the exhaustion, mainly because we don’t yet talk about motherhood honestly enough. We don’t talk about the “normal” brokenness nearly enough. I suppose a comparison could be bereavement, where it is arguably “normal” to feel broken for a while after losing a loved one. But if that brokenness goes on, month after month, to a point where someone feels like they can’t get their life back, then it needs to be addressed.
There is no physical test for PND, but if you are struggling then please talk to your doctor. They will talk you through a test and offer help. You are not letting your baby down. You are not letting anyone down. You will feel empowered and informed, and will start to climb out of the hole, I promise. And the more we all talk about this, the more we all learn; it becomes less a thing to feel ashamed of, and more a thing for which we can demand support.
We are often told that depression is a clinical, chemical illness, separate from external factors, but I feel as though my PND was somewhere between the two: brought on by sleep-deprivation and feeling like I had to work. Maybe it would be better treated and more easily recognised if it were seen as a different kind of depression, with a spectrum all of its own. Childbirth and those first six months are often so traumatic that I almost think women should be screened like soldiers who have come back from war.
As my son turns one, I turn a small corner. I still get low, but not hopelessly low.
I am getting – incrementally – a tiny bit more sleep. But I’m not quite there. I’m still angry and crying more than feels right, so I go to see my GP. I am reluctant to go on medication. I worry it might curtail my highs as well as my lows, leaving me stranded on a dull, flatline of emotion. But I feel I might need a chemical jump-start, and my GP agrees.
I understand now that there is a loss in any big life change, even the ones you’re grateful for
The pills, citalopram, work almost instantly and I start to feel more positive and capable. My son is now 2½. I’m still on the anti-depressants, and might be forever. So what? I used to hide the pills when I went away – stuff them in my glasses case. Now I just leave the packet in plain sight. I need them like I need my glasses, to fix a bit of myself that doesn’t work as well otherwise. There is no shame in that. The rage still comes back, on a lesser scale, every few months or so – usually after a bad night’s sleep. I manage it with exercise, naps, looking after the machine of myself.
I feel strong and flawed and old and new. I understand now that there is a loss in any big life change, even the ones you’re grateful for. There is a grief that accompanies this loss, but it is a grief that can coexist with joy in your heart.
I remember the day I started loving my life again. I’d been on anti-depressants for a month or so. It wasn’t eventful otherwise – I was just sitting with my son on a bench near the beach, while he ate an ice-cream and it was, honestly, as though the sun had come out in my head. I sighed and looked up, because it felt like some sort of deliverance, although I’m not religious.
Suddenly, everything felt possible rather than impossible, hopeful rather than doomed. I wanted to smile at people who walked past, rather than punch them. I knew I could handle what was still hard, but not beyond my capabilities. I kissed my son’s head and whispered: “God, I love you. I’m glad we made it.” – Guardian