Postnatal Depression: My Story
I don’t know what’s come over me. I seem to be in a confessional mood. Not content with sharing the details of my birth experience last week, I’m now going to post about postnatal depression too. This is going to be a long post, so bear with me.
The benefit of waiting three years is that it I will (hopefully) write about it more coherently than I could have done at the time. In general my mental health is pretty good.
In general my mental health is pretty good. My moods are ruled a little too much by my hormones, but that’s something that I know how to work on, and most days I score pretty highly on the happy scale.
That was definitely not the case immediately after DorkySon’s birth though. I’ve already posted about how drastically his birth experience differed from what I’d been hoping for and expecting. I knew that it would take a while to recover physically from the birth; what I didn’t realise was how long it would take to recover mentally.
I don't know how I would have felt if I'd not attempted a home birth and just gone straight to hospital like the majority other women, but trying to have a home birth and then having it not work out was awful. Even though all the statistics suggested that a transfer to hospital would be the most likely outcome for a first time mother, I kept going over it in my mind afterwards, wondering what I could have done differently; what if this, what if that… I felt like such a failure, like my body had let me down, and that something must be wrong with me if I couldn't manage to do what millions of other women had managed to do with ease before me.
The early days of being a mother are such a blur of hormones and exhaustion, that it is hard to separate that from anything darker or deeper, but I know that it took months before I stopped crying at the memory of DorkySon’s birth. It took much longer than I expected to feel like I'd bonded with him, because I resented what he'd 'done' to my body. I breastfed for nine months, but hated it, because it felt like my body still wasn't my own.
On top of all that was an immense feeling of guilt; I winced every time I looked DorkySon’s forehead and saw the scar from his forceps delivery. I even went as far as writing him a letter to apologise for his bad birth. And I was bitter. I didn’t feel like it was fair that I’d done everything ‘right’ for nine months – going to yoga classes, eating healthily, cutting out alcohol and caffeine, listening to hypnobirthing tracks… and I ended up with a horrible, scary, physically scarring birth. I couldn’t believe it when I heard about another girl in the area who had boozed and smoked throughout her pregnancy before having a quick, drug-free birth with no tearing or stitches, and ended up home the same day.
Spending my days tired, angry, and in tears became the new normal. But there was no way I was going to admit to anyone that I was struggling, not even the people closest to me. I am so stubborn. Sometimes that’s a good thing. Other times it is daft. This is one of those times when it was daft. But at the same time, I don’t know how to do things other than in my own way. Those closest to me – DorkyDad and my Mum, who both had infinite patience – know that the worst thing they can ever do is push me in a certain direction. If I don’t want to do admit something, or deal with something, then trying to cajole me only makes me dig my heels in further.
Whenever I had to be at the doctor or the health visitor they did their thing and went through the checklist of depression symptoms. But if you don’t want to talk about it, it doesn’t take a genius to give the answers that’ll make them leave you alone, rather than the answers that flag up a problem.
When DorkySon was about 9 or 10 months old, things seemed to calm down on their own. I felt like we were doing a pretty good job as parents. DorkySon was sleeping well, and developing a brilliant, funny, clever personality. I’d stopped breastfeeding and was enjoying the feeling of having my body back. We went on a lovely family holiday, staying near some friends and soaking up some sun. All those memories of the birth were starting to fade into insignificance.
But then when DorkySon hit about 16 months ‘the crazy’ came back with a vengeance. I don’t know what sparked it off again; whether it was just my hormones changing again, whether it was the effect of other stressful things happening in our lives, or what. But it wasn’t good. I was back to feeling exhausted, angry, weepy, and resentful of both DorkySon and DorkyDad for no reason at all. I always loved them, and there was never any danger of me harming either one of them, but I was unable to keep the small irritations of everyday life as a wife and mother in perspective. I felt like I was entirely not myself. It was like I was watching someone else living my life, and not making a very good job of it.
After one particularly irrational argument with DorkyDad – I can’t even remember what it was now, thank goodness - I promised to go and speak to my GP. I was prescribed antidepressants, which I tried for 3 months. I know that the advice is to persevere with them for longer than that, but as far as I was concerned the physical and emotional side effects outweighed any possible benefits. They gave me terrible skin, which killed my self-confidence. They made me grind my teeth. They made me feel spaced-out all the time. I had been specifically told that there was no issue with the antidepressants and alcohol – “I don’t know many parents that don’t need a glass of wine in the evening, so I’ll prescribe you something it’s okay to drink with,” said my GP - but that was bad advice. They didn’t mix well at all. Just after I started taking them I ended up making a complete idiot of myself at a work event with DorkyDad; swearing loudly and being obnoxious to everyone in the room before throwing up in the toilets after just a couple of glasses of wine. It was one of the most embarrassing and awful times of my life.
(Even now, I’m scrunching my face up and blushing at the memory.)
Without consulting my GP, I made the decision to stop taking the antidepressants and try to fix things my own way. We decided that when DorkySon turned two we’d start putting him into nursery for 2 mornings a week so that I could reclaim some time to myself. I started blogging and took up photography, for a creative outlet. I went running a couple of times a week because exercise always makes me feel better, even though I’m always reluctant to start. And, the most crucial thing, I went to see an acupuncturist. I’ve mentioned acupuncture briefly on the blog before; I’d never had it until I was pregnant, but one session with Pascal da Silva - an Edinburgh-based expert in fertility and emotional health - fixed my horrendous morning sickness and I was converted.
I went back to see him, and gave him a rundown of everything I’d been feeling – both in my head and in my body. I liked the fact that he took a much more holistic approach than my GP had. The causes of how I was feeling were as important to him as the feelings themselves. Instead of separating out my physical and mental health, he treated them as one thing.
There wasn’t the same instant, miraculous result that there had been with my morning sickness, but after a couple of sessions I started to feel like myself again, like I wasn’t being ruled by my hormones or my depression, or whatever the hell it was. I was more energized, and so, so much happier. It was only once that fog had lifted that I could see how bad the previous few months had really been, and how incredibly patient my immediate circle had been with me.
I know some people dismiss acupuncture as hippy nonsense, but for me, it completely works. I don’t need it a lot, but every 6 months or so I feel like my body and my head are starting to get slightly out of whack, like my energy levels are dipping, I’m getting more irritable, my eating habits are off, my motivation is going, my PMS symptoms become more extreme… and an hour of acupuncture always gets me back on track again. I have no idea how it works, but it does. For me, it did what Prozac couldn’t and helped me get my shit together. Perhaps that means that I wasn’t suffering from chemical depression. I have many friends who find antidepressants hugely effective and say they couldn’t live without them. Perhaps they persevered for longer than I did. Perhaps a different prescription would have worked better for me. Who knows? Really, who cares?
What matters is finding what works for you… and then not being afraid to talk about it. I managed the first a while ago, although I wish I’d done it sooner.
Now – eek - it looks like I’ve managed the second too.
If depression – postnatal or otherwise – is something you’re dealing with, please don’t be as stubborn as I was. Confront it sooner rather than later, in whatever way works, and then move on to happier times. Life’s too short to do it any other way.