When I started writing my blog it was intended to be fairly lighthearted, a way of recording the ordinary moments of my life as a stay-at-home-mum. A way of coping with the truism of parenting that the days can feel as though they will never end but the years fly by in seconds.
By and large it has stayed lighthearted, with the odd foray into political rants when I felt so inclined.
This post is a bit different, because I want to write about one of the less happy elements of my life at the moment – not doing so is starting to feel a little bit like lying by omission, and is also doing a disservice to all the many people struggling with mental health issues.
Why is it such a big deal to write, or talk, about mental health? When I broke my foot or had tonsillitis I blogged about it without a second thought. But there is still a stigma attached to mental health problems. I worry that I will be judged, that I am over-sharing, or that I will make others unhappy, but after a lot of thought I’m going to go ahead anyway.
Ever since Sophia was born I have been aware of not feeling quite right, often in ways I couldn’t define even to myself. I’d checked the symptoms of post-natal depression a couple of times, but that didn’t really fit with how I was feeling. So, I dismissed it, pushed it to the back of my mind, resolutely ignored it. There were times when I felt absolutely fine, and during those times I could convince myself that the panic attacks, flash-backs, waves of utterly overwhelming and incapacitating guilt, terror or despair which literally stopped me in my tracks when they occurred had been a temporary aberration and were now behind me. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case, and they kept coming back.
I hadn’t told anyone at all. I felt ashamed and guilty that I wasn’t totally happy. I had everything anyone could want, my wonderful husband, adored eldest daughter and now a beautiful baby girl to complete my perfect family. With good friends both in real life and online who are having ongoing struggles to conceive I felt an especially strong compulsion to be happy and grateful for my astonishing good luck.
Then one evening back in May, a chance remark of my husband’s led to a particularly intense flashback. I cried. And cried. And cried. Then cried some more. Then hyper-ventilated. Then cried again. And finally told him some of what I had been experiencing. Saying it for the first time was the most difficult, but after telling him I also felt able to talk to my parents a week or two later. Husband and parents were incredibly supportive.They didn’t think I was making a fuss about nothing, which was what I had been telling myself, and they encouraged me to get proper professional help.
That was another big step, but with their support I managed it. I was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) caused by my youngest daughter’s very difficult birth, which came after an intensely stressful high-risk pregnancy, and a series of miscarriages.
Basically, my mind had got locked into danger-alert and I just couldn’t relax out of it. I didn’t think I would ever have Sophia. I had been told that I only had a 40% chance of having a healthy, full-term baby – and my previous ratio of pregnancy:live birth indicated that was accurate. I worried every single day of my pregnancy that she was going to die. For the first half of my labour I was terrified she was going to die, for the second half, when the epidural stopped working half way through my c-section leaving me able to feel everything, I was worried I was.
We didn’t die. But that didn’t stop my anxiety. Instead, those feelings of panic, inability to breathe properly, crushing, immobilising fear, increased.
I saw risk and danger everywhere. Stairs. Roads. Cars. Illnesses. Sleep. Falls. Accidents. I had become fixated on the idea that I didn’t deserve to have Sophia, I was simply too lucky, and that the universe would punish me by separating us through my death or hers. Sounds pretty bloody irrational when I write it down, but makes some sort of twisted sense in my head. Sometimes my anxiety expands to include panics about the health of my husband or eldest daughter or parents, but mainly it is about me and Sophia. All those times when my body failed me and the babies I wanted so much slipped away, those nine months of obsessively monitoring every twinge, cramp, spot, and kick left me with a profound mistrust of my own body and an unshakeable conviction of Sophia’s fragility. Of course, her episodes of Reflex Anoxic Seizure when she collapses apparently lifeless in front of me haven’t exactly helped with this.
I couldn’t talk about this at all for 17 months after Sophia’s birth. I still can’t easily talk about it. I have now told a few very close friends, and I am seeing a fantastic psychologist who is helping me a lot, but I still find it difficult. Partly because talking about it makes it feel more real, and makes me cry. Partly because I worry that others will judge me, think of me as a fusspot, a hypochondriac, ungrateful, undeserving, emotionally incontinent, weak. All of which are accusations I’ve thrown at myself over the last year or two, but not ones I’m ready to hear from others.
But if I can’t talk, I can write. I can use my blog to say loud and clear that mental illness is incredibly common and nothing to be ashamed of. That having a baby may be the happiest thing that ever happens to you, but that it is also a cataclysmic event that turns your world upside down, and the cocktail of wild hormonal changes, sleep deprivation and overwhelming responsibility can cause, or contribute to, illnesses like depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Suffering from them doesn’t mean that you’re not happy to be a mother, or that you don’t love your baby, it just means that pregnancy and childbirth can leave scars and stretch marks on your mind as well as your body.
I am getting there, I hope. Proper professional help has been invaluable, as has the love and support (and patience) of my husband and parents and the friends I’ve told. None of them have judged me or belittled me or hated me, and that encourages me to believe that maybe the rest of the world won’t either. I’m trying to take care of myself, and not see occasional long hot baths, lie-ins, naps while Sophia naps, a lunch with an old friend or a child-free weekend afternoon as selfish indulgences but more necessities for staying sane. I have noticed the tireder I get, the longer I have gone without a break, the more likely I am to have a total meltdown which stops me functioning at all. But this summer, there have been many more days when the sunshine wasn’t obliterated by clouds of anxiety, and moments when I could allow myself to enjoy the present without worrying about the future.