[Trigger warning for suicidal thoughts]
If, like me, your social media feeds have been full of ‘shouty selfies’ (my opinion on selfies for ‘awareness’ is for another post, another day) and incredible stories of brave women overcoming PND you’ll be aware that this week is Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week. Something that I (obviously) feel very strongly about and am 100% behind.
However when it came to sitting down and thinking about my own input into the conversation I found myself a bit lost. I didn’t know at all where to start.
Discussing mental health isn’t something that I shy away from, as you may have noticed. I’m a total advocate for talking about mental illness not only to allow yourself to feel some release and to aid recovery but also to help normalise it and help destroy the many stigmas still attached to mental illness. One thing I’ve learnt from sharing my own experiences is that you are never the only person experiencing things the way you are, and learning that others are going through the same shit can make you feel less alone in a really scary, lonely place.
Finding words that I thought would fit this situation wasn’t easy though. There’s sometimes something of a competitive streak within the blogging community, and weeks like this where everybody is sharing their stories of PND it can feel a little bit like a race to who can write the most harrowing account of their personal experiences. I am in no way belittling anybody’s experience – whether weeks, months, or years, the battle to regain normality is hard, horrific, and terrifying. But sometimes it can be hard to find where your story fits among all the others, it can be hard to feel like your voice is worth putting out there. Somebody else always said it better.
I also wasn’t sure if my story really fits with the narrative that is presented of maternal mental health. My story isn’t just one of postnatal depression – it’s one of antenatal depression and anxiety, postnatal depression and anxiety, and just plain old depression and anxiety. Most stories we read from parenting blogs speak about mental illness after birth, triggered by god awful hormones and life changes and the sudden unrelenting demands from a tiny person. However for many, many parents that’s not where the story of mental illness ends, for many, many parents mental illness is something that affects them for their entire lives. I was going to write a quick post about my own experience with PND, but I decided to tell the lesser told story instead.
In England approximately 1 in 6 people experience a recurring mental health problem such as depression or anxiety, obviously mothers are amongst that number. Yet the discussion of maternal mental health is so rarely about living day to day with mental illness. Mental health issues that effect the rest of the world of course effect mothers too, I know there’s been some rumours to suggest otherwise but *shock* we’re people too!
Since the age of about fourteen I’ve struggled with battling mental illness. Self-harm, eating disorders, debilitating panic attacks, weeks of black depression, suicidal thoughts, and a pretty strong belief that my brain is very, very broken. Over a decade of various treatments, therapies, and medications has brought me to a place where I am able to live my life relatively unaffected by my mental illness, but it is still something that I have to acknowledge and consciously deal with on a daily basis.
Having depression and anxiety as a mum can make you feel like an absolute failure, this feeling is one that is commonly spoken about with regards to PND. However there is a societal expectation to snap out of it, to find your way back, and by the time your child reaches a certain age you ‘shouldn’t’ be ill anymore. Unfortunately for me, and many others, that just isn’t the case. I’ve spoken before about the guilt and worry of the impact my own mental illnesses have on my daughter but I don’t think it can be discussed enough. As a single person a bout of bad depression you can lock yourself away, stay in bed, not eat, not wash, and not think about anybody else. However when you have a tiny human to look after that’s not possible without it also effecting their child – especially if you’re a single parent.
I have a vivid memory of a time when my life was completely collapsing around me, I’d moved away from family and friends to a town where I knew nobody and I’d just gone through a very nasty, and very unexpected break up. My mental health had already been deteriorating for a few months but I finally felt myself hit very near bottom and dragged myself to the doctor to go back on antidepressants. Fun fact about antidepressants – for the first few weeks they make everything so much worse. I was in a complete hole, I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t washing, the house looked like a squat, and I could barely drag myself out of bed. I wasn’t sad, I was numb, I felt absolutely nothing and yet I still wanted to find a way to feel even less. I remember laying in bed with my daughter who should have been at nursery but I couldn’t face the walk and was eating dry cereal out of the box because anything else required too much effort. She ate and watched CBeebies meanwhile I was planning how when she next went to her dad’s I would take the whole packet of sleeping pills I had, neck a bottle of gin, and never have to feel this nothingness again.
Obviously I didn’t do that. Because my gorgeous three year old daughter made me laugh with a ridiculous attempt at a forward roll and that tiny moment gave me the perfect amount of clarity. That forward roll could well be the moment that saved my life.
I didn’t magically get better after that. I stayed on medication for a long time, I lost nearly two stone, and I filled my small amounts of free time with alcohol and boys. I completely lost control of my life before I could begin putting it back together again, there was nothing healthy about the life I was living but it was the only way I could. It took me a long time but I dragged myself out of that black hole I found myself in, and I was only able to do that for the Tiny Idiot.
The repeated message given to women with PND is that of support, of reassurance that you are in no way doing a bad job, that you are a great mother. All of this is completely true. When you’re in the pit of depression or a complete clouded haze of anxiety and you suddenly can’t face the school run, or to cook anything more nutritious than beans on toast (again) people aren’t so quick to offer these words of support. People look at you like you are a bad mum, and you believe it.
Mental illness doesn’t pick and choose who or when it’s going to rear it’s ugly head. As we are seeing more and more in the press recently (thanks to wonderful campaigns and very brave people) mental illness doesn’t discriminate. It can and does fuck anybody over, no matter who you are. However a lot of the conversation surrounding maternal mental health says otherwise, mothers are forgiven for having PND, celebrated for overcoming it, and accepted into the gang. Mothers experiencing mental health problems at any other time are swept under the rug and hidden away like a dirty little secret.
The conversation around maternal mental health is definitely improving. When my daughter was born nobody admitted to having PND, that was crazy. The conversation is happening, and changing the ways people view and discuss mental illness takes time. We have to share and listen to women’s stories, but we also have to remember that mental illness isn’t a trend, and that it comes in many forms other than the ones we see alongside the new baby photos on Instagram this week.
If you know a mum who you think is going through a hard time, reach out and offer help. Don’t judge her. Don’t assume she’s just a shit mum. Offer to do the school run, offer to have the kids over for dinner, offer to just listen to what she needs to say.
I’ve been that shit mum. I got lucky. Others don’t.