It’s been a really big deal for me to ‘come out’ as having suffered from mental illness after the birth of my children (yes, I had issues both times). I am writing about my own experience because I found it really helpful to read about other people’s stories when I was recovering, and because a big part of who I am is that I survived two bouts of postnatal depression (later diagnosed as mild postnatal psychosis).
I am also sharing my story because the challenges we’ve been through explain why we are passionate about this project. We have seen first-hand how tender those first few months are and would like to tell parents who are giving themselves a hard time that they are doing great.
You’re Doing Great, Baby is not just for people with postnatal depression. It’s for anyone who has found the learning curve of being a new parent challenging. For people who are tired and have good days and bad days – which is most parents I think.
People who suffer from mental illness often suffer two-fold: once in experiencing the issues and all the ramifications this has on your life, job and relationships, and then again in the shame of keeping it secret. I am not ashamed anymore. Or at least I’m getting there with not being ashamed. It’s a work in progress.
My darkest times were in the first ten weeks after having my first son, Leo. I became convinced I was a total failure as a mother and that Jeff and Leo would be better off without me. I felt unsafe in my own skin. So anxious I couldn’t sleep, watch television or carry out a conversation. So depressed that I couldn’t taste food or see colours. I was paranoid about my caregivers and felt like I was going crazy. Getting up each morning seemed impossible but somehow I did, and I put on a brave face for Leo – crying only while he slept. The thing that kept me going was my love for Leo and Jeff. I couldn’t figure out a way of not being around anymore that wouldn’t scar Leo for life. After ten weeks of suffering in silence – ashamed of what I was feeling at a time that was meant to be the happiest of my life – I told my Mum what I was going through and she made sure I got the help I needed.
If you’re curious about what helped me recover, it was first and foremost a mixture of medication, therapy and support from Jeff, my parents and understanding friends. I was helped along by exercise, diet and sleep (once my own depression-related insomnia was gone, getting up to a hungry baby was much easier).
My Mum came and stayed with us for a couple of weeks while the medication was kicking in. One night she cooked some white sweet potato and I remember tasting that sweet potato and being conscious that it was the first time in a long time that I’d tasted something.
I was forever changed by the humbling experience that is mental illness. Not a day goes by that I don’t give thanks for still being around.
In the years between the birth of my two kids I had a total lifestyle change. I got into yoga, fitness and meditation. I completely changed my diet and started eating meat and bone broths after being a veg-aquarian for 17 years. I made sure our house had more light (skylights, white paint, new windows) – convinced that light would help. I had much more support around me. Jeff had taken six weeks paternity leave. I had a wonderful midwife by my side and planned to have a home birth so I wouldn’t have the birth trauma I had first time around.
Clem’s birth was wonderful, calm and fast. I had read books, done therapy, taken placenta capsules and vitamin supplements, learnt how to look after myself, gotten fit, made peace with my demons… But right after Clem was born, all those same feelings came flooding back – like I was being fed paranoia and anxiety through a drip.
So I got help fast, and after the medication started to take affect, I got to experience the waves of love and happiness that I’d heard about. It was very healing.
- I’ve learnt how to look after and be compassionate towards myself.
- It’s given me perspective and made me better at coping with other challenges in my life.
- I am grateful beyond measure for every day and for my life, my three wonderful menfolk, my family and friends.
- It forced me to deal with issues from my past.
- I have become closer with my parents and Jeff.
- I care a lot less about what people think of me and my creative work.
- It’s made me a more compassionate person and therefore a better parent.
When I was sick the first time, almost six years ago, my worst nightmare was that this was how I would feel forever. But once I started climbing out of it and could see that I would feel myself again, my worst case scenario was that I had made it all up. Like a traveller returned from a strange land – totally altered by the experience – but with no photographs.
I wanted to be the keeper of my story. I wanted to tell everyone about it, but I also wanted to stay quiet so that I wouldn’t be pitied or stereotyped. To be believed and understood. The illness never took away my love for my children. I never regretted having them, even in my darkest times.
So that takes us up to today. One year after my last bout, medication free and feeling good.
I send my heartfelt love and compassion to anyone who has been affected by prenatal or postnatal mood disorders (depression, anxiety, psychosis). I hope you find the help and support that you need.
- Karen Kleiman – What Am I Thinking? Having a Baby After Postpartum Depression
- Katie Brown – Mother Me: A Mum’s Guide to Balance, Wellbeing and Harmony
- Brené Brown – I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame
- Sarah Napthali – Buddhism For Mothers
All the photos in this post are taken from Home: an installation by Beth Taylor, 2013.