I had post-natal depression. I had it for so long, I didn’t even know it. It lived with me for nine months before I sought help. Before it occurred to me that something might be wrong.
Looking back, I don’t understand how I didn’t know. How it escaped not just my notice, but the notice of everyone around me, that things just weren’t right. To be fair, ‘escape my notice’ is a euphemism. Just four weeks after baby arrived, in the ink-black morning, after hours and hours trapped, pacing a tiny room, frantically rocking a mewling, sleepless creature, I sank into a chair and googled ‘post-partum depression’.
So somewhere in my sleep-adled, hormonal brain, I registered that things were weird. They weren’t quite right. But they weren’t wrong enough for anyone to notice. I did a great job, a fantastic job, of being normal. What ever normal is for a new mom.
And whenever I tried to broach the wrongness with people, it ended badly. I say broached, because it’s mental health. And motherhood. You’re surrounded by beatific images of celebrity moms basking in their cherubic offspring. Of maternal sacrifice and the fulfilment that only comes from motherhood. Nobody wants to announce, ‘being a mom sucks and I cry all the time”. You may as well stick a giant, “moms are the best and I’m awful at it” sign on your head.
So I went for gingerly suggesting that I was tired all the time. Or I found the sleepless nights incredibly difficult. Or was plagued by frightening visions of my baby being hurt. Or couldn’t sleep. Or couldn’t countenance leaving my baby with anyone else.
And you either gently suggested this was all normal for a new mom. Or you scoffed ‘yeah – welcome to being a parent’. Or you raised your eyebrows, “what did you think being a mom was like?”. So I meekly accepted it. It was me who couldn’t cope. I was the weak, naive, stupid one who couldn’t deal with what millions of women face far worse than me. This was parenting. It was motherhood. And if I didn’t like it, if I couldn’t cope with it, then it was my own fault.
Looking back, there is anger. Anger that I tried to communicate my distress, in my own, addled, woolly way. That professionals who should have known did not step in. That I pushed as hard as I was able, and those who were supposed to help did not catch me when I fell.
Don’t get me wrong. There were wonderful moments. Crazy in love, head-swimming hugs with my baby, gleeful dancing in the living room as she hit various milestones, snuggles with a soft, milky bundle nestled into my chest.
But there were awful moments. Awful visions that frighten me. Terrifying thoughts so potent I daren’t write them down for fear that seeing the words will cause them to take physical shape and spring to life. Sheer panic at the anticipation of all the tasks that lay ahead. The laundry, the cleaning, the dishes, the groceries, the childcare.
And there were plenty of grey moments. Of nothingness. Of a void inside so deep I fell into it and couldn’t clamber out. Of a deadness, as if my emotional nerves had been burned beyond repair and were numb to any stimulus. Wavering attention, I couldn’t concentrate. I don’t mean reading War and Peace in one sitting. I mean couldn’t read a single sentence without losing track and drifting off. Which for a voracious reader who eats books for breakfast, felt devastating.
I was recently asked what I worried about. I didn’t understand the question. “Like, do you mean today? Or this week?”. “Let’s start with this week”, she said. I replied, “I’ll start with today and you tell me if you want me to keep going”.
– I heard a plane pass by loudly overhead and worried it was going to crash into the house
– My partner took the baby out so I could sleep. I couldn’t sleep in case he’d slipped on the ice, and they were both lying unconscious in the driveway
– I drove over a bridge and worried about yanking the wheel and driving over the edge
– I put laundry in the washer and worried about involuntarily stuffing my baby in there and turning on the water
– Winter. All of winter. Leaving baby outside to freeze. The heating breaking overnight and freezing baby. Forgetting baby in the car.
– Then the mundane like in-laws, co-workers, household tasks
Everyday is like wearing a set of lead weights, with hangover and a foggy head. And a baby who needs not just you, but you at your best. And all of you. No part of you is left untouched, unmolested, uninterrupted by a baby. They take, take, take and then demand more. They give you a scant smile (or is it gas?) in return.
I joke about the visions. But to be plagued by vivid, real images of yourself deliberately hurting the one person you love more than life itself is devastating. It’s beyond exhausting. It is pain. Mental pain. The sharp strike of a headache. A punch to the gut that makes you cripple over. Imagine holding your daughter underwater as you watch her drown. Over and over. Over and over.
And there were times in the first few months, where I just couldn’t cope. Where I was found, sobbing uncontrollably, clinging to the crib, on my knees, “please take her away please please make her sleep make her stop”.
Recounting this; it seems so evidently abormal. And yet it wasn’t. For a first-time parent, I had no barometer. No measure of average. When everyone said parenting was rough, and those tentative problems I complained of were par for the course, I accepted it.
That being said, since I got help (a psychologist, a psychiatrist and medication), the world seems a lot brighter. Not fully illuminated, but lighter. The images haven’t disappeared, but understanding I’m not a cruel, heartless person, and they are a trick of the brain, a chemical backfiring, helps greatly. The anxiety is a background hum, not a deafening roar.
So it can get better. It really can. My daughter just turned one. She is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but by far, the best.