I struggled with what to title this post. The honest title would have been ‘Coping with Post Natal Depression’ but lets face it, that’s about as inviting as ‘My Botulism Explained’ or ‘Living with E-Coli’. You don’t want to come to my pity party after all, the music’s shit and there isn’t any booze.
Winston Churchill described his regular bouts of depression as his ‘Black Dog’. I like this, but typically my depression wasn’t dark enough to be described in such poetic terms. Neither was it as profoundly bleak or recurrent as Sylvia Plath’s ‘bell jar’;
“because wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”
― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
The form my depression took – which actually began during pregnancy and wasn’t diagnosed until my daughter was two – was of a creeping anxiety which left me isolated and bristling with fear. I didn’t think that I was depressed and, going against my doctor’s initial diagnosis tried to find other methods to deal with what I regarded as inconvenient panic attacks. So I tried hypnotherapy. I tried a daily dose of St Johns Wort. I tried CBT, Talking Therapy, Exercise and Aversion Therapy. I tried ignoring it. I tried drinking it away. I even tried to reason with it.
Because I didn’t look like someone who was depressed. I wasn’t thin enough for one thing, and I cared about my appearance. I didn’t wear ill-fitting clothes or have that haunted, harrowed look I associated with mental illness. You know, like drug addicts and insomniacs. Because genuinely, I was ignorant enough to think that all mental illness or addiction could be diagnosed by outward appearance. I still showered and applied make-up every morning, ergo I wasn’t depressed.
Here is the biggest lie you will ever tell yourself; if you ignore it, it will go away.
Years previous to my pregnancy I began to experience isolated panic attacks, often when I was out in town or on a bus. Sometimes I could blame the hangovers, sometimes the coffee, sometimes it was just ‘one of those things’. But if I ignore it, it will go away, right?
I self medicated with alcohol because after three or four pints that lingering feeling of anxious despair lifted and I felt like myself again. Good old booze. I was never short of drinking buddies and when it got too much for some I always had someone else to fall back on. In the unlikely event that there was no-one else around I happily drank alone. Why the fuck not? I was an adult in charge of things, after all.
Until the day I woke up in the back of an ambulance I thought I was doing alright.
“You’ve had a grand mal seizure” the paramedic told me, “I’m quite pleased you came to because I thought I was going to have to give you an adrenalin shot.”
But if I ignore it, it will go away, right?
I carried on drinking, confident that the seizure was a ‘one-off’ caused by low blood sugar due to skipping meals. The panic attacks increased, but I was confident that in was an issue with low blood sugar due to skipping meals. If only I would eat sensibly!
The second seizure was two years later, almost to the day. I came to in hospital, hooked up to a drip and shaking all over. Three weeks later I was due to leave the country with my boyfriend to move to Portugal. I’d sold all my furniture, left my flat and was staying with friends. We’d bought our tickets, and I’d quit my job. I couldn’t not go.
Nine weeks later in sunny, booze soaked Lagos I discovered I was pregnant. I cried all the way to picking up the pregnancy test and all the way back to the campsite we were currently living in. The only pixel light of humour was that my Portuguese language skills had only evolved to roughly the size of a walnut which meant that in the chemists I’d had to mime ‘pregnancy test’ by pretending to be fat. They brought me tablets for trapped wind.
That night I got absolutely hammered. I chain-smoked enough cigarettes to make Dot Cotton blanche. I could barely walk back to the campsite. I told my boyfriend there was NO WAY I was having this baby. I booked flights home and cried all the way back.
My decision lasted all the way up to the day I’d booked my termination and I still don’t know what changed my mind. Certainly I wasn’t maternal, and I really didn’t want a baby. We were back in England, homeless, jobless and broke, and had started arguing already. I stopped drinking and smoking and felt wretched, The midwife diagnosed ante-natal depression and told me to keep an eye on myself post birth. I told her that it was just a reaction to the shock of pregnancy and that I’d be fine. Because if I ignore it, it’ll go away.
I hated pregnancy, but enjoyed the birth. Not at the time of course, at the time I considered throwing myself through the window just to take my mind of the excruciating, bone splintering pain I was in, but after listening to others stories it was actually a very nice birth. My daughter was born into water at six fifty eight on a sunny spring morning, and I was thrilled to see her. There was no explosion of love, no limitless adoration, no tears, just the relief that that part was over with.
And so it went on. I became afraid to take my newborn daughter out of the house in case she cried. You ever seen those nasty people who roll their eyes when people with young children board a train or a bus? Those ‘please don’t sit next to me’ faces they pull which makes them look as though they’ve just swallowed a pine cone? That had been me ten months ago, and I hated the idea of people doing the same to me. I couldn’t bear the thought of her inconveniencing anybody, even her father, so I did everything myself. I read books, studied charts, got opinions – anything rather than listen to my own instincts on how to raise this poor child. I was obsessed with doing it ‘right’. I would wake up, and the day stretched ahead of my like a long, silent scream. It became so that it was easier for me to not leave the house rather than deal with the anxiety about leaving the house which made it so hard for me to get out. You can see where this is going can’t you? If so you’re way ahead of me, I couldn’t see that how I was behaving was abnormal. I couldn’t see that leaving the house with a plastic bag in your handbag just in case you needed to be sick was strange behaviour. I couldn’t understand why people would leave the house and nonchantently walk down the street as if a thousand terrible things couldn’t happen to them. So in the end I cocooned myself and my daughter inside the house, where it was safe and I knew where the exits were. And I ignored it, so it would go away.
The day it broke, the day it all came caving in is still as raw and visceral in my head as the day I went into labour. I stood in the hallway, naked apart from a small towel and dripping wet from my shower, the water puddling around my feet, suds of shampoo slipping down my hair.
“I’m having a nervous breakdown.” I said to my boyfriend, “I’m having a nervous breakdown and I don’t know what to do.”
I didn’t cry. I got dressed and sat in the bedroom with my phone in my hands. It was a Saturday and we were due to be somewhere. I wondered if I could kill myself but the thoughts were vague and out of focus. When I looked into the mirror I didn’t recognise the woman I saw there. I could pick out my features individually but couldn’t corroborate them together to form a face I knew. Couldn’t remember her history. I could remember things she’d done, but not attach them to her. Who was this blank eyed ghost?
The emergency doctor (it was a Saturday) unsurprisingly prescribed me some medication with the words, “What took you so long?”
I was so against taking the drugs that I sat and looked at them for a few days, feeling hollow and wired. Eventually though, the thought of never getting better seemed to spur me on, and I managed to take a pill. Then another. Then another. There followed six or seven weeks of absolute bristling horror as the pills kicked in, exaggerating all my panic and fear into amplified, cartoonish terror.
That was ten months ago. I still have days where I feel jagged and more than a little edgy. I still loathe the drudgery of housework and often hear the line from Jack Nicholson to Cher in the Witches of Eastwick as I tidy;
“You clean up the dirt, there’s just more dirt tomorrow. Make the beds, they just have to be made tomorrow. Wash the dishes. There’s more to wash tomorrow. Make dinner? It just gets eaten.”
But I feel a connection to my daughter that I can’t believe I am capable of. My thoughts feel anchored and harboured, not as though they are going to fly out of control and do me damage. The medication gave me the impetus to start doing things again, and what a pleasant surprise it was to have an interest in things for the first time in over a decade. I tried Yoga and loved it, loved the feeling of untying my mental knots and stretching my poor, over stressed muscles. I haven’t had a drink or a smoke since New Years Eve and cut my caffeine levels right back. With all this sober time on my hands I became productive, actively wanting to do things and go to places, and enjoying it when I got there. I haven’t discovered a cure or done something rare or controversial (over 43 million antidepressant prescriptions were handed out last year in the UK alone), I’ve just considered how I can make myself as well as I’m capable of being, mentally and physically. I still find it hard to attend boozy parties or social occasions in pubs. I get twitchy with frustration at my inability to drink and I envy friends who can.
But as time goes on that will change, as will I.
It will get better and better.