This week, 13-19 November, is Perinatal Depression and Anxiety Awareness week.
After experiencing mental illness after the births of both of my children, perinatal mental health is a subject close to my heart. Although much is changing, and campaigns such as Perinatal Depression and Anxiety Awareness week are increasing awareness within the community and beginning to break down barriers, there is still much stigma, misinformation and lack of awareness that still needs addressing. It is very common for parents (yes, dads too!) to experience mental illness during pregnancy and after baby is born. Sadly, many mums and dads still find it hard to speak up about it. All new parents need support to stay mentally and emotionally healthy, and those that do experience mental illness need extra support on their road to recovery.
Like many women, I found it hard to speak up about my own experiences with mental illness after my first daughter was born, and chose to share my struggles with only a few people for quite some time. Closer to the birth of my second daughter I plucked up the courage to share with my church. As you may expect it became impossible to keep it under wraps any longer once I was admitted to Helen Mayo house with Puerperal Psychosis when my second daughter was almost 2 months.
Today I want to share with you my own experiences with perinatal mental illness. I hope that by doing so I can help to create awareness, reduce stigma, help anyone out there who might be struggling now to feel less alone, and help break down the barriers that are making it hard for parents to speak up.
My journey began with a healthy and happy pregnancy with my first daughter. Aside from the morning sickness that lasted until birth I was physically well. Aside from stress related to my mother being unwell in the last month of pregnancy I was also mentally well. After normal, straightforward labour my daughter was born healthy, took to breastfeeding like a duck to water and was also quite a settled baby.
Then day 3 came around and I warned my husband, “I might be a bit emotional today as my milk comes in”. Sure enough I was. I was amongst the 80% of women who experience the baby blues. I expected it to get better over the next few days, but the random bouts of tears and mood swings continued and over the next few weeks morphed into postnatal depression.
Postnatal depression (PND) sapped my energy and motivation, it took away my appetite, it made me feel incredibly guilty and think that my parenting was not good enough. It made me think that everyone was judging me, made me feel cold towards the child that I knew deep down I loved very much and it made me feel sure that she cried because she hated me. It took much of the joy out of parenting. But the worst part was the intrusive thoughts that would just pop into my head unbidden and were often about my baby getting hurt.
I was fortunate to be educated about PND and sought help from my GP and a psychologist and it wasn’t too long before things began to get better. When my first daughter was 8 months old I became pregnant with my second and by that time, although I hadn’t completely recovered, I was almost there. Unfortunately around this time, baby number one started to go through a really rough sleep phase. Lack of sleep was definitely a trigger and I began to struggle again and this time irritability hit the hardest and was what I had to work hard to tackle. Eventually baby number one started sleeping well again, and was even sleeping through the night in her own room by 14 months.
Then, sometime during second trimester the depression came back with a vengeance. Some days the intrusive thoughts were relentless. It made it hard for me prepare myself emotionally for a new child! And so I trundled off the my GP again and with the help of sertraline (Zoloft) and my psychologist things began to get better again (although the first few weeks of medication was unpleasant to say the least).
Then my second daughter was born. I fell in love with her straight away, she also took to breastfeeding well and I even sailed past day three without getting the baby blues. I started this blog to share some of the funnier moments of parenting two breastfeeding girls and everything was going well. Around the 6 week mark started to feel a bit flat so I made an appointment with my psychologist, but before I saw them, to coin a figure of speech, “all hell broke loose”. We were off to take nursling 1 too see the snow on Lofty (rare as hen’s teeth) when conspiracies started sprouting from every corner, the radio was transmitting secret messages about rainbows and the snow on Lofty was a result of cloud-seeding by an unknown terrorist group. My husband took me to the doctor, then to ED, who linked us in with the community mental health team and after about a week I had scored a bed at Helen Mayo house (a mother and baby psychiatric unit), where I’d stay for 6 weeks.
Puerperal Psychosis (PP) was like a roller coaster. There were the highs, when I had so much energy I was going to clean the house and save the world and run marathons whilst baby-wearing nursling 2, when I felt at one with the universe and a deep connection with both girls, when I thought I could come up with groundbreaking theories that would wow society. There were the lows, when I was inexplicably irritable and snappy, when I was convinced I was being spied on, that the world was going to end, or that there were agents of the devil all around. There was also the plain weird (and at times kind of amusing), when I seriously suggested that the zoo should get some Velociraptors to increase their revenue. PP also made me incredibly forgetful, so that I could walk past the same whiteboard at Helen Mayo 10 times a day and each time have to re-read what was on it because I’d forgotten.
With the right medication, rest and time I began to get better. The crazy thoughts became less convincing and eventually disappeared entirely, and the mania went away. Nursling 2 is approaching 6 months of age, and it close to 3 months since I left Helen Mayo House. I am doing well, but will be on medication for a while, and am tackling side effects such as drowsiness and a tendency to gain weight. Support and self care are still really important, as is getting enough sleep to stay well. I know I still have a way to go before things are really back to normal.
If you got this far, thank you for letting me share my journey with you. If you’d like to learn more about perinatal mental illness, check out the links below: