I wanted to share with you a rather scary goal I’ve set for myself: by November 2020 I want to finish a 10km race in 45 minutes. Given the timing of this post you’d be forgiven for thinking this is my New Year’s resolution, but this is so much more.
Most people close to me know that I had my second baby in May. What most people don’t know is that I had postnatal depression. Even as I type that I feel like a little bit of a fraud. My battle with postnatal depression was, at its height, just a few weeks long. But make no mistake: it was a battle. I’m acutely aware that many other mothers (and fathers) experience postnatal depression for a more prolonged period of time, and that many need medication or other forms of professional intervention. Everyone’s experience is different.
My mental image of PND had always been one of a messy dishevelled mother, wearing and sleeping in the same clothes for the past 2 weeks, greasy hair and probably shoeless, crying silently in the corner while her baby cries loudly on the other side of the room, ignored and neglected because the mother feels she can’t cope. My own experience was the exact opposite. My tendency to watch every little move and breath the baby made turned me into a ball of anxiety, so tightly wound that the tiniest thing was likely to make me pop like Buckaroo. I can only describe it as having a waterfall inside me. Sometimes the noise of the waterfall was so deafening that I couldn’t hear people speaking to me. I could see that they were speaking, and I usually managed some kind of auto-response, but I never had a meaningful conversation with anyone. Most days I was struggling to cling on to the sides and keep my head above the water, but if I just gave in to the force and let go, I could be swept away with the waterfall, down into a whirlpool of anxiety and fear.
I was lucky that the right person asked me the right question at the right time, and I was able to get help just when I needed it most.
I was visiting my public health nurse, a kind, gentle woman named Carol. Baby Iarla was about 7 weeks old and had what I suspected was reflux. He wasn’t finishing any bottles and had woken up 2 mornings with a dry nappy. I thought this was weird, so I contacted Carol and she suggested bringing him in to be weighed. Driving to the appointment, a man beeped at me and I started crying. This wasn’t unusual. Those days I cried at everything, but it was easy to dismiss it or make excuses. I was hormonal and recovering from childbirth, or I hadn’t slept for 6 weeks, or I hadn’t eaten all day and had too much coffee – of course I was feeling sensitive. During the appointment it crossed my mind two or three times to say to the nurse that I’d been feeling quite emotional, but I bit my lip and decided not to say anything. I didn’t want her to think I was a drama queen.
Carol checked Iarla thoroughly and assured me he was fine. I mentioned my concerns about the possibility of reflux, and she gave me some good advice. Then when I was getting ready to leave, she asked me, very simply, “and how are you doing?” That was all I needed. The tears bubbled to the surface and I couldn’t hold them back. It was as if the waterfall had burst through the cracks and was now flowing on the outside, washing away any effort I had made to conceal it.
Carol asked me to complete a questionnaire which indicated to her that I had postnatal depression. When I heard her say that I felt mixed emotions – relief that I wasn’t over-reacting and now I might be able to get help, but also dread and fear that there really was something wrong and that I couldn’t just keep pretending or excusing it away anymore.
The next step was to go to my GP who gave me some great suggestions such as moving Iarla into his own room so that I could try to switch off and get some sleep, or making an effort every day to get out of the house on my own. She also encouraged me to speak up, to tell my husband that I needed more help. At first, I thought these solutions were too simple and wouldn’t have much effect, but I’m pleased to say just taking these little steps had a huge impact. Moving Iarla to his own room was difficult. He was so young, and I felt anxious about leaving him alone. But after a few nights we all became accustomed to our new arrangement and everyone was sleeping better, even Iarla.
Over time I began to feel more like myself again, more in control and more confident of my ability as a mother. Most importantly I understood that help was all around me, if only I would just ask for it. No mother is expected to be able to handle everything by herself. No mother has to face it alone. Help is always available to anyone who asks.
What I would say to anyone in the same situation is to ask for help today. Don’t wait. You don’t know what tomorrow may bring. Nobody will accuse you of over-reacting or of being a drama queen. Anybody you speak to will take you seriously.
Looking back on last summer I feel sorry to have lost those precious months at the start of Iarla’s life, and I do consider those months to be lost. I dreaded being alone with the children and the wonderful plans I had made for the summer never came to life. I just survived from day to day. There is nothing I can do to change that now, so I plan to look forward, to make 2020 a better year and to make my family my priority with a focus on myself at the centre, a strong, energetic, positive version of myself.
And so, I set out on this journey to challenge myself, to push myself further and harder than I ever have before. I know I can do this because I have been at the bottom of the pit and pulled myself out of it. And if I don’t quite hit my target on time, who cares? I won’t stop. I won’t give up until I’ve done it. It’s the journey that matters. This is my journey.
02 January 2020