When Alex was a couple of months old and I felt like I was slowly losing my mind, I never thought I’d feel happy again.
When I was exhausted beyond measure and crying every day, I never thought I’d feel normal again.
When every decision I made was followed by crashing waves of Mum guilt and self doubt, when I had no time or desire to look after myself and when the only thoughts I had where anxiety fuelled and terrifying, I never thought I’d smile again.
There was a long time that I thought my brain was broken, that I couldn’t trust my own instincts and the majority of the thoughts that whizzed around my head scared me to my core. I had post natal depression brought on by really bad anxiety and for months I didn’t get the help I needed. Over 18months on, I no longer say I have post natal depression, I am no longer a giant ball of anxious energy. I’m happy now, the happiest I’ve ever been. If you are struggling, if you are trapped under that dark heavy cloud and feel like the storm will never pass, I’m here to tell you that you can get through it, you won’t always feel the way you do now.
Recovering from post natal depression
I have always been a positive person, a glass half full kind of girl. In a stressful situation I would try and find a way of diffusing the negative mood, if someone was down I would try and search for the silver linings that maybe they were too sad to see. I had never been depressed before. When I was a teenager and on the pill my mental health definitely took a battering, I’d cry for no reason and my brain was so full of hormones I just didn’t have a clue what was going on. Coming off the pill removed all that craziness though and happy normality was restored. When Leo was born I was ecstatic, so so happy and content and I don’t think I even got the dreaded day 3 post birth baby blues with him. I’d expected things to be the same when Alex was born and when they were the complete opposite I felt every negative emotion there is.
I loved Alex from the start but something was off and it took me or month or so to notice. We had some trouble establishing breastfeeding and that caused a lot of stress and exhaustion (mental as well as physical) over those first few weeks. He didn’t sleep well and I couldn’t nap when he did because I had Leo to look after and, with Oli back in work, I had no friends or family around to look after my eldest so I could rest.
I was tired and riddled with guilt that I couldn’t do everything I used to with Leo as I was pinned to the sofa feeding Alex. At the same time, I felt guilty that I couldn’t give Alex the complete undivided attention that his brother had enjoyed when he was a newborn as I needed to make sure Leo didn’t feel like he wasn’t loved the same now there was a new baby in the family. My mind was just full to the brim with guilt, it was soul destroying.
This constant self doubt and negative train of thought began to build the foundations for something much much worse. In my dog tired brain, anxiety began to spark and my waking moments began to be full of thoughts of things that weren’t real. I’d be going about my day and suddenly a horrific scene would flash in front of my eyes: Leo dead in the road, Alex dead in his car seat, Oli packing his things and leaving me, me standing on top of a tall building taking my last breath. It was horrendous, I couldn’t look at Alex sleeping without an evil voice piping up in my mind telling me he wasn’t breathing. The thoughts made me too scared to venture far from home, if we didn’t go out then nothing bad could happen to them. If we just went to toddler groups in small church halls, there was no way Leo could run out of my site and be lost forever.
These things I was thinking, they were intrusive thoughts, a common side effect of anxiety. I didn’t know this at the time, I genuinely thought I was going mad. I had a spell of crying on and off for days on end and one day I woke up and the first thing I felt was unbearable sadness and I knew I needed to get some help. I phoned my health visitor who said I needed to see the doctor ASAP. The doctor referred me immediately to the perinatal mental health team and they wrote back a few weeks later, basically saying I wasn’t ill enough to receive their support. Instead I had three listening visits with my health visitor, I found her patronising and hard to talk to so I told her what she wanted to hear and I was signed off from her too. I was left to struggle through these dark and dangerous waters alone.
And struggle I did, for months and months and months. All that time with Alex should have been wonderful but so many times I would look at him and just start crying. To try and ease my guilt for feeling so sad, I’d overcompensate, I’d start playing with him and singing and pulling the biggest smiles I could muster when really I just wanted to leave him in his mosses basket all day and pretend none of us existed. For such a long time all I wanted to do was fall into the safety net of sleep where I didn’t have to listen to my anxious brain for a moment longer.
Things got better and then worse and then better again for over a year. My mood up and down, up and down, never reaching a peaceful equilibrium. I would visit the doctor and be told to try mindfulness, research CBT and to come back if it didn’t work. I wrote and wrote and wrote about my experiences here on my blog and Instagram to try and offload some of my mental pain. Writing does help, getting your thoughts out into words does offer some catharsis but there came a point when it wasn’t enough.
As time passed and I discovered words to label what was going on in my head – intrusive thoughts, anxiety – I started to feel like I could manage. I did start to feel better, there was a good chunk of time after Alex’s first birthday that I felt almost normal again. In January this year, everything came crashing down again, the storm clouds burst once more and I was drowning in their endless heavy downpour.
I remember the moment I knew I needed to get some serious help vividly. We had been living in our new house for about three months, Oli and the boys were sitting in the living room watching TV after tea and I was carrying the laundry basket upstairs to put the washing away. It was a moment seeping in the ordinary and I felt wonderful. ‘Look at my gorgeous family in our lovely new house’, I’d thought and less than a heartbeat later, that negative voice came out of hiding and shouted, ‘they are all going to be dead one day, you too. All of this life you’re building is pointless.’ The thought hit me like a punch in the face, I was happy wasn’t I? Just seconds ago I had felt so blissfully content but the negative thought set off the familiar churning of anxiety in my stomach and got my heart racing until I felt dizzy. The physical side effects of anxiety aren’t pleasant and can leave you feeling completely exhausted and deflated and that’s how I felt for all of January this year.
The intrusive thoughts came back, this time not so focussed on bad things happening to my kids but of me doing bad things to myself. One day I dropped Leo off at school and as I went to cross the road, an image popped up in my head of me putting Alex into another school mums arms on the pavement before I stepped out in front of the 4×4 that was driving fast up the road. Of course I didn’t act on it but I couldn’t stop questioning why I’d thought it. For weeks I was too scared to shave my legs, my razor terrified me as I didn’t trust myself to hold it without giving in to the thoughts that flashed in my mind of me running it across my wrists. Whenever we drove over a bridge all I could think about was the car veering over the edge and us all meeting a watery demise.
I didn’t want to be here anymore. I didn’t want to be dead, I just didn’t want to have to go on living with my brain and the horrible thoughts it made me endure for a second longer. If brain transplants were a thing, I’d have been begging my doctor to get a surgeon to remove my obviously broken brain from my head and replace it with one that knew how to think properly, one that didn’t torture me with worst case scenarios and suicidal thoughts. I always knew deep down that I’d never act on these thoughts, I love my kids and my husband and I love being alive, but I was terrified that I was even thinking these things to start with.
At the end of January I saw a different doctor, this doctor didn’t brush me off with advice to go find the answers online and in books myself. She listened, told me I don’t want to kill myself, what I was experiencing was really bad anxiety and the post natal depression that had never really gone away, even though Alex was one and a half at this point. She promised that things would get better, she’d said that motherhood is seriously hard work and gave me the permission I needed to make time for myself and that I needed to start making myself a priority. She also prescribed antidepressants and with that I was able to see that I was ill, not crazy, not loosing the plot, my brain was poorly and needed some help to get better.
I have been taking 50mg of sertraline for the last six months and they have changed my life. I’m not being hyperbolic here, they really have completely transformed my existence. I feel about ten stone lighter, my body doesn’t ache because it’s been in a tense and anxious state all day, I don’t think about killing myself or my kids being taken from me anymore. I still worry, what parent doesn’t, but these are tangible and realistic concerns, not scenarios that have been completely made up by my brain and given a coating of violence and fear before being chucked into my train of thought, seemingly out of nowhere.
We have moved house again recently and the other week I had a moment of de ja vu. I was washing the dishes and looking out of the large kitchen window at the boys playing in the garden after tea, they looked so happy and I felt so warm inside, so content. After I thought it, I caught myself unintentionally waiting for the landslide of negative thoughts to come crashing down and ruin my happy musings, but the rocks never started to fall. I was happy, really truly happy and, at long last, my own brain wasn’t trying to sabotage that happiness.
Sertraline saved me, I don’t know how I’d be feeling now or what would have happened if I hadn’t finally been given the help I obviously needed. I have regrets, I wish I’d been more open with the doctors when Alex was tiny, I wish I’d stormed into the surgery with my letter from the perinatal mental health team, calling bullshit at their assessment that there was nothing wrong with me. I long to go back in time and start taking medication sooner, to really enjoy that first year of Alex’s life instead of just floating from day to day, scared we weren’t all going to make it through to the end of it. I can’t do that though, time travel doesn’t exist so instead I’m trying to make peace with the turmoil of all those months and am enjoying the happy times we are having now.
I have learnt it is impossible to recover from post natal depression if you are always looking back, feeling sad about all the happiness that was stolen from you and reliving the pain you went through. Take one new day at a time, talk about how you’re feeling, don’t suffer alone. Find support, from health professionals, your loved ones and other women who have been through the struggle of post natal depression too. If the doctors don’t listen, ask to see another doctor and then another and another until you feel like you are getting the help and support you need. You are not on your own, you are not losing your mind. You do deserve happiness and you will find it again, I promise. After Alex was born and I plummeting quickly into the darkness, I never imagined I’d be able to climb back out again, here I am though, dancing with happiness in the light. If you are still in the darkness, don’t lose hope, you’ll find a path to lead you back up to happiness again. I promise you won’t always feel this sad.
If you feel like you may be suffering with post natal depression here is a list of resources and charities that can help and support you.
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