There were times, in those first few months after giving birth to my third child, when I thought I was dying. The uncompromising exhaustion, the endless waking with the baby that was up every two hours at night and only slept in forty-minute slots during the day. Having other children to contend with, housework that never got done, a husband driving trucks who was often away for up to three nights a week, no immediate family around who could just pop over when I needed a hand, no mum and dad (both had passed away before I married) for a shoulder to cry on when things were tough. It all compounded and eventually imploded into full-blown postnatal depression.
I had suffered severe PND with my previous two children, but having beaten it each time I assumed it wouldn’t happen again.
With my first child, I was a first-time mother going it alone. I had a history of depression prior to giving birth and the relationship with the father of the child had been abusive and dysfunctional. I was strong enough pre-birth to finally make the break and end the relationship but the attempts to control and manipulate me by the other party continued; particularly after the birth of our child, and certainly didn’t make for an easy ride into parenthood. Those early days are crucial when, as a new first-time mother, you are grappling with a flood of hormones, learning how to breastfeed and care for a new baby and dealing with the incredible and unending assault of lack of sleep. This, combined with the stress of a long drawn-out battle with the father over child protection and custody, nearly cost me my life.
When I met the man I am currently married to and we had our first child together I had been well for a long time and expected motherhood second time round with the right support to be a breeze. How wrong I was! Yes, I had a good man in my life who is a great dad, and the support of his amazing parents; but the hormonal imbalance was still there and reared its ugly head within the first six weeks post-birth. I had another natural birth with great support from my midwife and I was determined that all would go well this time! However, I had struggled with milk supply the first time round (12 years beforehand) and once again this became an issue. No matter what I did (and that was everything possible!) I just could not produce the goods. For me this was not only physically draining, but emotionally disappointing. I also developed mastitis, to add to the mix, and once again faced that crippling lack of sleep which comes as part of the package with newborns. Within several hours, that whole cycle of waking, feeding, changing and trying to resettle the baby would start all over again, and then again. I was also pumping to produce enough milk to get through those feeds. It was, in short, ridiculous. The amount of pressure we as women place on ourselves is beyond comprehension at times. When I finally did concede, three weeks later, that trying to be ‘the best mother’ by breastfeeding my baby was actually harming both of us, things improved a lot. Not enough though, and – to be honest – by then the damage had probably been done already.
I attempted to take my life, but panicked after the fact and rang for an ambulance. I was seen by an attending psychiatrist in the emergency department and admitted to the mental health ward. The staff remembered me. The place was familiar and felt safe. Despite being filled with all manner of men and women with wide and extreme mental health issues, this was where I knew I needed to be. This was where I would get the much-needed break that would give my body and mind a chance to heal from the tornado of hormones that had been assaulting my system. Immediately after these attempts to end my life, I would wake up and be aware that I had zero desire to die. Such a shame that the pathway was fraught with such risk. And so blessed was I that I didn’t succeed, again.
PND does not have to be a life-long sentence. It does not mean at all that the mother (or father) affected by postnatal depression is a bad neglectful parent, unworthy of the title or undeserving of having children. It just means that he or she is unwell for a time, due to circumstances and a chemical imbalance. With time, good amount of sleep, proper nutrition and balancing of chemicals, they will come right. Learning strategies for coping with stress and having practical help put in place will also go a long way towards optimum health. To put it bluntly, mums or parents with PND just need a break!
I stayed in the ward only for a short time before I was well enough to come back home, with support in place, and continue my journey towards wellness. Of course it took time, which felt like forever. During that period, as my mind and body readjusted to the correct state of balance, I only focused on placing one foot in front of the other, taking one minute at a time, one day at a time. Eventually, I did recover fully and went on to be able to enjoy being a mother once again.
Roll on child number three; two and a half years later. I had a great pre-birth support network in place and a solid plan with maternity mental health team, who confirmed that should I ever need to be reinstated on medication post-birth, they would ensure it would take place. Post-birth this time round was amazing! For the first time ever and even as an older mother, I was able to breastfeed for the initial three months of my son’s life. It was an amazing bonding experience and one that I will treasure. However, once again, circumstances that led to the lack of practical support when I needed it the most, led in turn to that overwhelming lack of sleep, which ultimately – six months later – put me back under.
My third bout of PND coincided with my husband’s need for a hip replacement and his parents had come to help out. I should have felt the most supported but I didn’t. However, when I approached my psychiatrist to ask for the previously promised medication, she refused to honour the agreement that had been made between us. To her, I was a new client and she had never seen me unwell, so decided that she knew better than me. My own personal experience and years of knowledge counted for nothing – the doctor decided I did not need the medication that I was asking for. I went downhill fast. When I finally was listened to, it was too late. The overload had already catapulted me into the abyss, so to speak.
The desire for death took hold; this time without mercy. I attempted to take my life again and this time almost fatally. Thankfully, I woke up a day later in ICU, connected to drips and catheter with my long suffering husband sitting by me and waiting for any sign of life. Once again, the moment I woke, I wanted to live. I knew that I didn’t want death at all.
I knew immediately I wanted to live. I just wanted to get better, so that I could be there for my children and my husband. I wanted and needed to be back at home, with my loved ones around me and be able to get back onto the road of recovery as soon as possible. My husband reluctantly agreed under the proviso that he would administer and control my medication. I readily agreed. I just wanted to be at home where I belonged.
So blessed I felt (and still do) that I did not succeed! It could have been so irreversibly different. By now I believed I was meant to stay on this earth for the very purpose of reaching out to others going through the same thing, in hope of saving other lives. It is my hope, anyway, that I might help to bring some light into the darkness for others.
Finding the keys to not only beating this illness, but avoiding it from happening in the first place, has become the hope that drives me forward. Equally, helping others to find their freedom from this demon has become my passion. No one should have to endure this crippling disease. No one. No one should lose their life because of it. But people do. Mothers do. Fathers do.
If you know someone who is going through PND or any depression in general, stick around. Be their hope, be their ray of light in the darkness. Be something, be anything – and don’t give up. You may just save a life. Often, it is hard to know what to say or do. Just do something. It doesn’t have to be big. Something as small as a smile can be enough of a branch to cling onto for a depressed person. Anyone can do it.
If you are that depressed person, don’t be afraid to reach out. And keep on reaching out until you find the help that you are looking for. If it wasn’t for the prayers of some very faithful friends in my life, it’s likely that I wouldn’t be here today, typing this piece. I’d be gone and that tragedy would have been ongoing now, in the lives of my husband and children. On reflection, suicide feels to me like a long-term solution to a short-term problem, though I appreciate not everyone with feel the same way. When you are in a dark place, it feels like a lifetime before there’s even a glimpse of hope. But I promise you, things are not always going to be this way. I promise you that there is hope. I promise you that things can and will get better, because they did for me when I thought I was beyond any hope.
Hang in there. You can do this. You are worth it. Your children, especially, need YOU!