My mental health journey: from anxiety to postnatal depression.
25 January 2021
Disclaimer: This post may be triggering. I am not a doctor or mental health expert, these are my own reflections on my personal mental health journey.
I was an anxious child. I have vivid recollections of having panic attacks from a young age, at the time I did not recognise what they were, but I would hyperventilate when crying and it took me a long time to get my breath back. This tendency subsided for most of my teenage years and it was only when my anxiety peaked in my early twenties and the panic attacks returned that I realised I had had anxiety on and off for my whole life. I’ve always been a worrier/overthinker, however, I developed horrendous anxiety when I was 23 which I believe was triggered by living away from home and hormonal changes (coming off the pill).
I began having ‘intrusive thoughts’ but at the time I thought I was losing my mind… intrusive thoughts are often violent, sexual or even perverse. If you allow yourself to believe what you are thinking, it can cause feelings of self-hatred, anxiety and panic. It was only after multiple CBT counselling sessions that I recognised what my intrusive thoughts were and that they were just that, thoughts. Thoughts do not have to be a true reflection of you as a person, anyone can think anything, but it does not mean they would ever act on that thought or that it is true. The human brain is a funny old thing. As an example, if I tell you now to not think of a purple elephant, you think of a purple elephant. That is a bit what intrusive thoughts are like, only usually not so pleasant as a purple elephant! You get trapped in a cycle of ‘why did I think that…I shouldn’t think that… I’m an awful person…’ until that intrusive thought is all you can think of. Once I accepted intrusive thoughts for what they were, the anxiety began to subside (with the help of my family, friends, yoga and several months of antidepressants).
I recovered from this bout of anxiety and mild depression and did not expect to develop post-natal depression after the birth of my second child Matilda, but I did. If you have read my other posts you will know that the pregnancy and labour all went well with no major traumas (despite giving birth during a pandemic) and this was my second baby, I had done it all before… however I did not feel ‘right’ immediately after she was born. It is extremely difficult to admit/write this but I did not feel the same overwhelming rush of love when Matilda was born that I did with Eliza.
I encountered many of the same challenges first time moms do when I had Eliza; sleep deprivation, baby blues, struggles with feeding and getting used to my new identity as a mother, however, the love for Eliza and support from family and friends stopped this progressing into anything more serious. I have to say that breastfeeding Eliza was particularly difficult for me and I felt awful mom guilt when I switched to formula at 8 weeks, but it was the best decision for us as a family and allowed me to enjoy spending time with my baby without the constant stress of trying to keep her weight up (but that’s a whole other topic for another time).
The first few weeks of Matilda’s life were incredibly tough, I felt completely overwhelmed and guilty trying to split my time between my two daughters. Going from one to two children was harder than I ever imagined, especially when you have a toddler. Tilly was quite unsettled and had a VERY loud cry and she was awful at napping. The only way I could get her to sleep was in the carrier which meant I was always on my feet and I became exhausted. Eliza was acting out as a reaction to her new sister. I found it impossible to look after both children without bursting into tears and often cried when it was just Tilly and I, obsessing about her naps (or lack of). I was getting extremely low and started to recognise that I was not feeling well mentally. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep and had a constant feeling of dread. My mom mentioned post-natal depression to me, and I released that she was right.
I look back now on some of the daily thoughts I had during those first few weeks and realise they were a result of this awful illness and simply not true. I wanted to give Matilda away, I genuinely thought she would be better off with another family and that I was not capable of looking after her. It all peaked in one of the most distressing nights of my entire life. I could not get Tilly to settle, she was hysterical, and I was completely exhausted, and I snapped. I called my mom is tears yelling that I could not cope and asking her to adopt Tilly (really, these of the sorts of things PND can make you think!). My mom came over, wine in her handbag, and held me whilst I sobbed. Post-natal depression is a cruel illness, but I am grateful that I caught it early and had such a wonderful support network.
Things began to improve after this low point as I sought help from my GP and reached out to friends and family. I will never forget my GP saying to me ‘most post-natal depression is caused by women being too hard on themselves… is the baby fed and clean? Yes? Then you are doing a great job!’. A couple of weeks later, with the help of antidepressants, the fog began to lift, and I felt more able to cope and began to bond with Matilda. There have been plenty of wobbles since, but I am relieved to say I am writing this from a place of good mental health and I could not love Matilda more. I honestly did not release how hard it would be going from one child to two and often still feel torn and a little overwhelmed, but nothing compared to those early weeks (thank goodness). My family and friends have all been amazing so thank you. I’m writing this not in the hope of sympathy, but that people will feel able to speak about their own mental health more openly and ask for help when needed.
What lesson’s have I learnt along my own personal mental health journey? Firstly, mental health is just as important as physical health and needs the same amount of care and maintenance (for me that’s yoga, bubble baths and socialising with friends) that you are not alone in your struggles and that there is always help there if you ask for it and lastly, that mental illness can strike anyone at anytime and we must all speak out about it and do our bit to end the stigma attached to it. Be kind to yourself.