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).
I know there are a lot of lists out there of what to do if a friend of family member has postnatal depression (PND) but I wanted to write my own list to capture the things that helped me. I’ve also had input from other women I know who have suffered from perinatal anxiety and depression.
PND and related mental illnesses vary in symptoms and severity from person to person. If you are concerned for the safety of a mother or her child/children then seek professional help immediately. There are resources at the bottom of this post.
Understand that PND is a mental illness. It’s no-one’s fault and it isn’t anything to be ashamed of.
Respect her privacy if she doesn’t want to talk about her illness, symptoms or treatment. Let her know you are there to listen if she does want to talk, but encourage her to get professional counselling/therapy as well.
If she does want to talk about her experience, do your best to listen without judgement.
Understand that she won’t be her usual self at this time. With help and time she will get better.
Tell her you love her and that she is going to get better.
When she is starting to feel a bit better, or on days when she doesn’t feel so bad, sharing a laugh together can be wonderfully healing for everyone. Sometimes laughter comes at the most unexpected times and babies/little kids are excellent to have a laugh with.
It’s important that you look after yourself. Supporters need support too.
It’s probably not helpful for her to hear a big list of the things she can do to to feel better. Depression and anxiety make it hard to make decisions and chances are she is aware of all the things she could be doing to feel better but is having trouble doing them. For example, rather than tell her she needs to eat better, try cooking her some nourishing food (fish, protein, fresh vegetables, soups, stews) and dropping it off at her house with no expectation of a chat unless she would like one.
There probably isn’t much you can say that will help them, but there is stuff you can do. Be guided by them. If she would like a chat then ask them how often she’d like you to call them and check in. If she would like to go for a regular walk, do that. If she would like you to come and play with the baby while she has a nap then do that. If she would like some adult company during the day then that’s a great way of showing support.
If she doesn’t want to see people please understand this isn’t a rejection of you – she just can’t deal with company at the moment. I really went to ground both times that I had the depression/psychosis and didn’t want to see anyone except immediate family. I really appreciated friends who let me know they loved me and understood that I would see them when I was ready.
Be respectful of her choice to either take, or not take, medication. It’s her call.
If she wants to seek the help of a psychologist or therapist (again, it’s her choice), do whatever you can to help make it possible e.g. offer to babysit while she goes.
Be ready to share in her joy when she is feeling better. Acknowledge her strength and courage.
Cut her some slack with getting *stuff* done. When I was at my worst I wasn’t up to eating, let alone cooking and cleaning.
If she does manage to achieve something in her day but can’t see it, remind her that she’s doing great.
Let her have good days and bad days. It is such a rollercoaster for everyone involved, but it’s going to be easier if you just leave space for her to feel how she is feeling.
If she needs time away from the baby then help make this happen. If she needs to not be away from the baby then be supportive of that too. She’s going to be the best judge of what she needs.
Random acts of kindness can really help. Whether it’s an unexpected meal, cake or box of fruit and veg dropped off at the door, or a pretty card sent in the mail, or whatever, random acts of kindness remind your friend you’re thinking of her.
Consider making routine contact. I had a friend call me every Monday during her lunch break at work. She knew my baby would be asleep and it was a good time to chat. If I felt like it, I answered the phone, if I didn’t she left a message. It could be an email, text, whatever, but regular, gentle contact will let her know you really are there.
Check with her partner how they’re doing and whether there’s any way you can help them to help your friend.
Sometimes she may need an advocate e.g. someone to accompany her to a medical appointment.
If it’s your partner who has suffered PND and you’re thinking about having another child, be ready to have open conversations about what you would do if it happened again. The book What Am I Thinking (referenced below) is a helpful discussion starter for this.