I was trying to be helpful by giving the cashier the exact change for my lunch, but the thinking wasn’t going right. I had to think about the coins like I used to when I first moved to this country. And my occasional tremor was back. So maybe it wasn’t helpful.
“Come on Rox! I have a lecture to get to!” the woman behind me in the queue bumped against me as she put her purchases down. My coins dropped on the counter. The cashier took the correct ones leaving me to hamfist the coppers into my purse and march slowly, resolutely, through my tears to find a table. I hardly ate any of that meal. But the tears didn’t stop. Not at the table, not on my walk to the train station, not on the journey home. Not opening the door to my empty house and tripping over baby things. I considered climbing on a train down to London, to anywhere really, and texting The Dude to tell him he would need to pick up The Baby. That he was better off without me. That I couldn’t do it anymore. The only reason that didn’t happen is that I didn’t have the money for the ticket.
Little Person was 4 months old. I was in my second year at university, and I had a serious problem. I was tumbling down the cliff-face of Post-Natal Depression (PND), and I didn’t have a safety net.
I’m writing this from the other side, reaching back into history to remember things I would rather forget. Telling my story, so that the story that you tell can be different. Rather than just wishing that things had been different, I want to make them different for those who follow on from me. I am not saying that PND is always like this, but I am saying that it might be like this. But these are the things that I wish I, and the people around me, had known about PND.
- It is not just the “baby blues”.
Sure, you already knew that. PND is a serious condition that negatively impacts on the mental health of an individual. It’s not feeling overwhelmed for two weeks after your baby has been born. But even if it were, would you want to add to the strain? If it were you totally overwhelmed by your responsibilities, would you want people coming round unannounced, cooing at this bundle of tears and demanding coffee and biscuits, or would you want people to send food and hand cream, and wash your dishes?
- It is not just about the hormones.
Alright, it is about the hormones (maybe – I’m not up to date on my research). But technically, so is diabetes. Nobody runs around telling people with diabetes that it’s alright, they’ll come right, it’s just hormones. Even if it is about hormones, it’s still alright to receive treatment. It’s still alright to seek help. If it was your thyroid gland, and you were tired all the time, you would seek help.
The only reason I was able to go to the GP to get help was because The Dude recognised how bad the situation had become. He made the appointment. He took time off work to take me to the appointment. He explained to the doctor what was going on. He never, ever said to me “it’s just hormones.”
- Just because you pass the questionnaire, doesn’t mean everything’s okay.
When the health visitor comes round, they give you one of those questionnaires to ask whether you’re happy and smiley as usual. They total up your scores and if you get 13 or more they get concerned. I scored 12. So they didn’t worry about me. They said I was fine, everything was okay. I believed them. I had nothing to compare it to. I thought all new mothers felt this way – slightly hollowed out and crushed under the responsibility of it all. The Dude sat across the room, knowing that something was desperately wrong, not knowing what to do about it. (He only told me that years later, and strangely, I love him all the more for knowing that he saw it.)
The questionnaire is just a guideline. And self-report is notoriously bad as an evaluative tool. It’s alright to speak up on behalf of those you love. Because sometimes, the illness overwhelms, and we can’t see how far away from normal we really are.
- It affects the whole family – but not in the way you think.
I didn’t want to admit to myself, or anybody else, that there was a problem. The Dude knew, of course. He would come in the door and take Little Person, and I would disappear into the bedroom just to escape it all. I was drowning. And The Dude was doing his best to save me, but there was a hole in the lifeboat. I would not be here today if it were not for The Dude. But it took a mental toll. He spent the first three years of Little Person’s life making sure she felt loved, and cared for, because I could not do it. I felt like a failure as a mother, and as a wife. But I think that he felt like a failure too, because he could not help me. He could not get me out of that mess. Even though he was not a failure, because he managed to keep me going. And he cared for The Little Person. And he had nobody to help him.
People are quick to acknowledge that a woman may struggle with PND, quick to acknowledge that this would have a negative impact on the baby (although this is not strictly true). But people fail to recognise the gut-wrenching heartache that is watching somebody endure such hardship, finding only tears when they should be finding joy. In reaching out to the mother, let us not forget to reach out to the rest of the family, because these things are hard for them too.
- Small moments of kindness make a big difference. Especially repeated.
I went away with The Dude, and when I came home, my friend had potted some plants in our backyard. It meant that when I stood washing dishes or baby bottles, I could look out at the plants and smile. Because somebody had thought of me, and somebody was thinking of me. But I suspect that part of the reason that it had such an impact was because I could look at it every day. It is so easy to forget the positives when you are in a negative place. When you are expending all your energy finding a way to get through to the end of the day, it can be difficult to make a change, to think about good things, to plan for a better day. That means that people need to come in and keep doing the things that you need to make you feel better. Not once, not twice, but over and over again. And here’s the really tricky bit, at least in my case. Most of the time I couldn’t tell you what would help. Which is helpful. Not.
- The journey back can be long. Very, very long.
At the beginning of this piece, I mentioned falling down a cliff-face, and that’s what it felt like. Have you ever tried to climb out of a canyon? (Okay, no. I haven’t actually climbed out of a canyon. But I’ve walked up the hill at Giant’s Causeway, which felt like trying to climb out of a canyon.) But accepting that I was on a journey was a significant contributor to my recovery. I would laugh, and the sound seemed harsh and unnatural in my ears. And then I would be upset because I laughed so rarely that I had forgotten what my laugh sounded like. I used the progress that I made to berate myself for not making better progress. I was, as The Dude put it “exceptionally hard” on myself. His advice? “Do the best you can with what you have.” And yes, you could hear the italics in his voice. Sometimes you just don’t have much. When that’s the case, your best is not going to be anything near what you can do with tip-top resources. Sometimes your best is just saying “I can’t do this,” knowing that a day will come when you don’t have to say that anymore.
When I say it took me years to recover, I don’t mean to discourage. In my case, I struggled for at least a year trying to make the thing manageable (partly because I was unable to medicate due to conflicting medications), and then I reached a murky plateau. Things became doable, if not necessarily pleasurable. It was only after a year or so of murkiness that I was able to find the strength to climb back up to levels of mental health that I had known before.
But here’s a positive. Since then, I have teetered on the brink of depression and not succumbed, because I recognised what was happening. Twice. (But let us not become overconfident. Like an addict, I must always be alert to the dangers.)
- PND is not your identity. Even when it feel like it is.
I could tell you, don’t worry, you will smile again, but I won’t. Not because it isn’t true (it is), but because I know that those words won’t help you. Instead I say you are more than this illness.
You are still beautiful.
You still matter.
You are still a person.
You are still enough.
Though you may feel weak, and stupid, and incapable, you are none of these things. Every day that you stand and try again, every time you face this demon that haunts your soul, you are stronger than you realise, and braver than you know. You are the bravest of the brave.
I have never told this story before. I normally just say that I had PND, and people nod sagely, and think they understand. But every person’s experience of PND is different, every story is different. And we never truly forget. I think we carry the scars of these experiences on our hearts forever.
If you want to share your story, feel free to comment below or drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.