I’m 35 years old. I can’t remember living without a mental health illness of some sort crippling my life. As a child, anxiety manifested itself into anorexia, and in turn OCD, and in turn profound depression. I have battled my way through addiction, low self-esteem, social anxiety, general anxiety, that overwhelming sense of doom that something catastrophic is happening but you don’t know what, where or when. Panic attacks that instill a fear so intense you can’t move, see, speak, just scream. The drugs doctors gave me only made it all worse and I have felt the isolated, frightening hell of cold turkey withdrawal. But of all the sadness and pain I have experienced, nothing has ever taken me to darker depths than postnatal depression.
I am crying while I write this. Sometimes I wonder if the trauma of what it did to me will leave scars forever.
When I got pregnant I believed that having a baby would mark the end of my suffering. That having a baby to focus my attention on and love would take away all the pain. I believed that from the moment I held him I would no longer feel any sadness and the cloud would forever disappear because there is nothing more beautiful in this world than becoming a parent. The media is splashed with idealistic images of motherhood, the bond, the moments, the intense fulfillment that is holding your new baby. All anybody ever told me about having a baby was how wonderful it was. And I naively discarded warnings that someone susceptible to mental health issues should be aware and ready for postnatal depression. Because how could something so perfect make you feel anything but happy?
My son was about a week old when I began to cry. This, I was told, was perfectly normal and expected. The “baby blues” are a result of the progesterone drop that occurs once you have given birth. It would go away. But as the weeks turned into months my world crumbled around me in a way I worry I will not even find the words to express.
Anybody who has been through depression will know that it makes you want to disappear from the world. It drags you down to a place where nothing shines, nothing makes you happy, nothing is OK, nothing will ever be good again, there is no light at the end of that tunnel, everyone would be better off without you, and it doesn’t matter how hard you try to see the positives – you cannot see them because you are completely blinded to them. Yes there are people with less than you, yes there are people who have horrific lives, yes there are people going through worse… But depression is inside you and it claws its way up and wraps itself around you and pulls you into a place where none of that matters, because your own world is dark and you fall into a lonely introverted hole of sadness that makes you incapable of seeing anything else but that darkness.
Without a baby, you hide. You isolate yourself to cope. You cry. You scream. You stay in bed for days at a time. You neglect your physical well being. You don’t go outside, you don’t see anybody, you don’t work. You don’t function. But with a baby who is innocent and dependent on you for survival none of this is possible. You can’t hide, you cannot scream or stay in bed or neglect your physical well being. You have to function as a person and as a mother because if you don’t then what will happen to this baby? And then there is that thought: why am I not in love with this experience like I am meant to be, like everyone said I would be and like all other mothers seem to be?
The guilt that eats you. You are meant to be loving every moment of this experience, loving every moment of time with your new baby. You are not meant to be wishing you could disappear from it all, run away and not be where you are. Sleep deprivation, physical exhaustion, emotional strain and the way life is turned upside down by a new baby are things all mothers experience, and they are hard enough alone to endure and not spoken about enough either. But when the black hell of depression hooks itself onto you at the same time, you go down to a darker, deeper place than anything else will ever take you. I am struggling to find the words to describe postnatal depression.
My son was six months old when I began to really fall into the black. Intrusive thoughts began whispering at me that I was a bad mother. A good mother would not feel like this. I am struggling to write this and crying remembering it and it is choking me to admit it but this was when I began to wish either my son or I did not exist. I couldn’t do it. Of all the things that have made me feel like I can’t cope, this was so much worse. I physically, mentally and emotionally could not do it. I would scream that I could not do it. I woke up every day scared because I felt I just could not do it anymore. I wanted someone to come and do it for me, to take him away and let me fall and hide. I wished that I had never had him. On the other end of it now, I can’t believe I ever thought that, but I did. I wished my son didn’t exist because all I wanted to do, instead of care for a baby, was disappear. And if I felt like this, I must be an absolutely vile human being because what sort of person wishes their baby didn’t exist? I hated myself. By the time my son was nine months old I believed he would be better off if I no longer existed. I felt like I couldn’t give him happiness or what he deserved, and that it was in his best interests if I was not a part of his life. He deserved better than a mother like me.
It is a very isolating and lonely place because I felt I couldn’t talk to anybody about this. How could I admit I felt this way? On the one hand I wished he wasn’t there but at the same time I was absolutely terrified that social services would take him away if admitted to anybody how I felt. I was scared by what people would think of me. Then there were times I almost called social services myself because I felt I was that bad a mother and he should be with someone else. All around me other mothers got on with it, all other mothers loved it, all other mothers wanted to do it again a second time. I was expected, as a mother, to feel all this too. But I would look at my little boy and just cry thinking I was just incapable of doing it anymore at all. I have never cried so much, wanting to be the perfect mummy for him and feeling intense guilt at not wanting to be a mummy at the same time because I just could not cope. I suffered in silence and this was the biggest mistake I have ever made and is my motivation for writing this. Don’t suffer in silence. Talk to someone. Anyone. I began to understand those horror stories of mothers who… I can’t even finish that sentence. Had I not reached a turning point when my son was about a year old, I would not be here to write this.
Finally, feeling like I would do something irreversible, I walked, crying and trembling, to A&E, pretty much handing myself over to them and admitting I could not cope. But I still could not admit the full extent of my feelings and put it down to the way my relationship with his father had been ripped apart as a result. But it was the start of a process that slowly brought me out of it all. And all of it out of me too. I began talking, I began admitting how I felt, and that in itself was such an incredible release. Other people began talking back, telling me they had felt the same way. I wasn’t alone.
I don’t think any of this has come close to expressing what postnatal depression does to a person. I still feel immense guilt at having ever felt that way and having had those thoughts. My beautiful son is perfect. He is my world and I now don’t know what I would do without him. I consider myself lucky to have come out the other end, to now be happy and be able to love and enjoy motherhood with a passion so intense that I believe I am absolutely brilliant at it. He is my everything and I am his everything and we are a little team. I have an incredible bond with my son now, and if anyone reading this is going through that depression… don’t give up. I don’t know if it was the talking, the therapy or the stabilising of hormones, but by the time my son was about a year and nine months old I began to come out the other end of it. And now my life is beautiful. Motherhood is the most precious experience and I would change none of it. I am so lucky to be here now to watch him grow up and be there for every moment of it. To anybody going through postnatal depression, I know where you are inside. I know you want to give up. But talk to someone and hold on because while it does feel like it will never end, it does. And when it does, my god will you shine.