My journey through postnatal depression

9 Aug 2017

I've always found talking about mental health exceptionally easy, in fact, I often encourage others to speak out. I believe it's important to raise awareness, to smash through stigma associated with mental health and to be open with others; not only because we need mental health to be taken more seriously, but because for many, speaking out can have a truly positive effect for those who are struggling. I studied Psychology at University and my dissertation was based on mental health stigma and ways in which we can reduce this. Mental health is something I like to talk about, something I'm passionate about - so why has it taken me so long to openly discuss my journey with Postnatal Depression?

How to overcome postnatal depression

When I was pregnant, the possibility of me developing postnatal depression was discussed at almost every appointment with my midwife. With a history of severe depression, anxiety and borderline personality disorder, I guess you could say I was the perfect example of an expectant Mother that was at risk. It was something I worried about, even before getting pregnant, because I worried that my mental health history would leave me open to less-than-standard healthcare, someone who would be approached with caution, needing risk assessments. Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised with the care I received and although my mental health was brought up at every appointment, it was done so in a caring and compassionate way, respectful even, opposed to the scary outcomes I had had sleepless nights worrying over.

During my pregnancy, I was offered the opportunity to coordinate with my local mental health team, which I declined. At each appointment, this was offered again, as my midwife and GP really did want me to have regular sessions with the mental health team, but each time I declined and they respected my wishes. Why did I decline? I am 29 years old and I have suffered from mental health 'issues' since around the age of 11. I've seen counsellors and psychiatrists, I've had therapies and been on several different medications. For me, these things do not work. For me, they do not help me to deal with things on a day-to-day basis. I have found my own way to deal with things and for me, those methods work; but to make it abundantly clear, I am wholeheartedly behind going to see your GP, being properly diagnosed, being referred to the relevant mental health services and getting the right care for you. In fact, I think it's paramount that anyone who is struggling with mental health sees a health professional - I am not behind self-diagnosis and for good reason.

We came to a sort of mutual agreement, my midwife, GP and I. An agreement that should I need some extra help, I could go to them no questions asked. I know when I am managing my mental health and when I need some extra help and I am not too proud to ask for that help, should I need it. For me, throughout my pregnancy, this worked best for me - the help was there if I needed it. Of course, M also had a say in the care I received, as my baby's father, I wanted him to feel comfortable and happy with the way I chose to go about it and thankfully, he was nothing but supportive.

Throughout my pregnancy, my mental health was actually in a really good place. My anxiety all but disappeared, only manifesting in the usual anxieties you'd associate with a first-time mama. Mentally, being pregnant was actually the happiest I've felt in years and I felt completely in control throughout my entire pregnancy. Afterward, when Willow was born, well, that's when things got murky.

If you read my birth story - the birth I didn't plan -, you'll know that Willow's birth wasn't quite what I expected, or planned, and this for me is where problems started to arise. I have spent the past 18 months telling myself that because both Willow and I were safe and healthy, that I don't have the right to call my birth 'traumatic', but for me, it was. It's something I took many, many months processing and getting over; I am still struggling with this now, to be truthful.

I discharged myself early, I think roughly 36 hours earlier than the hospital originally wanted me to stay after an emergency caesarean, with the promise that I would see my GP within 7 days to have some tests done. At that appointment, which took place exactly 7 days after discharging myself, I was seen by a nurse. I was visibly shaking; my anxiety since coming home had come back with a vengeance, much of your normal new mama anxieties but I could feel my usual tell-tale signs of my anxiety getting out of hand. My blood pressure was through the roof and after a little chat about how I was feeling, the nurse pleaded with me to see the mental health team. Again, I declined. Why? Because I had a newborn at home to think about, I was struggling tremendously with my breastfeeding journey, I didn't need to talk about my mental health, I needed to be a Mother.

When we introduced formula, and eventually went onto formula exclusively, my anxiety dropped and I felt like this was a turning point, I was OK, things were getting better. As happens when a new baby, months went by and they sped by so quickly, I felt like time was running away from me. Day to day, I got by with a loose routine of getting things done and Willow thrived. My entire being was concentrated on Willow, every minute of every day. She was my priority, and rightly so.

It wasn't until she was around 6 months old that I realised the way I was feeling, wasn't right. For months I had completely ignored myself entirely, to the point where I didn't even know how I felt, I was numb. It was as though on the outside, I was doing everything like a robot, ensuring everything that needed to be done, was done, whilst on the inside, I was in a bubble, a dark bubble with nothing on the outside, stuck on the inside with no way, or even desire, to get out. Willow was never, ever affected by this; she has and always will be my priority and although on auto-pilot, she was never negatively affected.

This was when I needed to talk to my GP, and I did, touching base with my local mental health team, but my situation didn't change. I didn't want to try counselling, which had so badly failed me in the past, and I was adamant that I didn't go on medication because I didn't want to be in an even bigger bubble, which I worried would affect my ability as a Mother. Again it was agreed that we would regroup and reconsider options if things became worse, but as my current state wasn't harming Willow or myself enough to warrant stronger steps being taken, it was decided that I would work through this the same way I have worked through my mental health for more than half of my life. And so, that's what I have done.

I do believe I am coming out the other side of postnatal depression now, that what I feel when it strikes, is now just my usual depression and anxiety pre-baby. I feel as if the first year or so of her life is a little bit of a blur, hazy to look back on and with very little coherent memories about myself during that time, but knowing it didn't effect Willow is the most important thing to me.

You see, I think, Willow was the reason I didn't allow myself to accept that I needed help, that I was struggling with postnatal depression. Although I know from my background a lot more than your average person about mental health, my worries about the perception of others stopped me speaking out for as long as I did. The media has a clever way of perpetuating mental health as something dangerous, scary, something to be afraid of and in the case of postnatal depression, the stories you see in the media are terrifying. Mothers taking their own lives, sometimes even the lives of their innocent babies. Those are the stories you hear, those were the things I didn't want people to worry I was capable of doing. The negative stigma associated with mental health, something I fight against all the time, something I am so passionate about I decided to dedicate my entire dissertation to it, stopped me speaking out.

So although my story of postnatal depression may not involve tears and emotional outbursts, causing harm to myself or my baby, it is still my story, it is still something I went through, something I am still processing and overcoming. Postnatal depression is horrible, absolutely, but it doesn't always have the scary outcome we've been led to expect or believe. It is not something I am ashamed of, it is not something I am afraid of - it just happened and it's a part of me as much as anything else, but it doesn't define me.