I’m not sure where you even start with a post such as this; it’s hard to know whether there even is a beginning, and I certainly haven’t reached the end yet, so I guess it’s a case of starting from where I am now.
I have been experiencing postnatal depression.
If I’m honest, these are the most challenging, the most shaming and gut wrenching words I have written since Orla died. They are possibly more riddled with shame because I feel terrified of being judged, blamed and seen as selfish, weak and inferior. When your baby dies, you know that many people will feel sad for you. Of course, you fear that there will be a multitude of other thoughts and emotions, but overall, you know that people will feel sadness and regret. When it comes to mental health however, you can never be so sure.
And when this occurs in the context of parenting a rainbow, the fear of being viewed as ungrateful and unworthy is paralysing. Which in itself becomes a self-perpetuating cycle of self-loathing and inadequacy.
After Orla died, I became a ‘doer’. I got up every day, I showered, I cleaned the house – I even cooked (damn you Gusto for signing up a vulnerable heavily pregnant woman who thought she’d spend the first weeks of maternity leave cooking nutritious meals!). I made keepsakes to treasure memories of Orla, I wrote and set up a blog and we planned our fundraising trip to America. Three months after Orla died, we flew to Canada. Two weeks later I feel pregnant. We spent the first trimester of my pregnancy travelling down the East Coast of the US and then Canada, and when we returned to the UK three months later, I went back to work for five months. I did yoga, I completed a mindfulness course, I saw friends. I was coping so well.
But was I? I was busy. I was productive. I was helping field awkward conversations left, right and centre from people at work who didn’t know that my baby had died. I was blogging about pregnancy after loss and navigating a whole year of firsts: Christmas, New Year, anniversaries of finding out I was pregnant, first scans etc. Overall, I was nailing this grieving malarkey.
And of course I wasn’t, but I started to believe I was. People would comment on how well I was doing; how strong I was. Social media is a wonderful place, but sometimes you can start to believe the picture that you carefully curate. Comments that are absolutely heartfelt and well-meant become part of your inner dialogue; they reinforce the strategies you are using and encourage you to do more of the same. ‘Being busy and productive is good’; ‘Not falling apart and returning to the real world with no help is inspirational’.
Yet, more of the same wasn’t actually helping me and I was setting myself up for the biggest crash of my life.
The strategy of ‘doing’, of trying to control my environment and have everything ‘just so’ is ingrained deeply in my personality. Nothing brings me quite the same rush of joy as clearing, organising and ticking things off my to do list. I have always been this way ever since I can remember: tidying and reorganising my bedroom was a familiar pastime, making lists that included ‘get up’, ‘brush teeth’ were a regular feature. It was a way of retaining order and control when maybe internally I wasn’t quite able to do the same.
And this strategy has helped me no end in my life. I have achieved a lot in my career as a result and feel proud of where I am professionally and personally. But tolerating ‘just being’ and sitting with difficult emotions has always been very hard, as I have always wanted to get on and fix them. I can sit with the emotions of others; I can hold them emotionally and psychologically with ease. But it has almost been impossible with my own. And I do not allow others to do it for me. Yet grief, control and avoidance do not mix in the long term. And control certainly does not work when you have a live baby to care for.
So, with full hearts, last year we welcomed Esme into the world and suddenly my armour of strategies was thrown out of the window. I could no longer control everything; I couldn’t keep my physical environment in the way that subsided my anxiety. I couldn’t control when I could do yoga, practice mindfulness, or even have a shower, which without a doubt always helps to lift my mood. The piles of washing (which grew and grew with a baby with reflux) would leave me agitated and with a sense of failure. Once Andy went back to work, I was alone all day with a baby that would only nap on me. A baby that, at night, would need to be held upright for at least thirty minutes after each feed to prevent vomiting and full outfit and bedding changes. And when your baby is feeding every two to three hours and taking at least twenty minutes to feed, this leaves very, very little time for sleep in between.
I was exhausted. But this is normal isn’t it? All parents feel like this. And, as you know, you are so, so lucky to be in this position with a baby in your arms.
A few weeks in, I found a way to get back some control. I purchased a new sling that gave me more confidence. I used nap times to sit still and write. I went to postnatal yoga and baby massage. I even went out for coffee and lunch with some of the other mums. I could sit and smile and share stories. In fleeting moments, I felt like a normal mum. I was doing great. Wasn’t I?
Yet when out of the house, I started to notice that I was experiencing a tight knot developing in my stomach that would only dissipate when I was back at home. And although never fully relaxed, I certainly felt safer within my own four walls. I became focussed on the need for routine and ensuring that Esme got enough sleep in the day, so that we wouldn’t be grappling with an overtired baby at night. So, I did what I could to meet her needs; rocking, walking, sitting still. But never with any downtime.
I read online forums and blogs that talked about motherhood being hard; that it can be a lonely and challenging place and that you can’t ever expect to enjoy every minute. This narrative helped me to feel normal, that what I was feeling was something that many other people did. But did everyone feel so heavy and wake each morning saturated with anxiety of what the day may hold? Did everyone feel like every step was as though they were walking through treacle? Was everyone fielding an overwhelming sense of ineptness? Maybe everyone is just putting on a brave face, and I just needed to buck my ideas up and stop being so useless and ungrateful.
People visited and commented on how well I was doing. How clean the house was for someone with a new baby. How well I looked and how at ease I seemed with parenting and meeting Esme’s needs. How happy and content she was. Why could they see something that I couldn’t? Esme’s rainbow status of course makes her l that bit more precious, that bit more special, and the relief and happiness I could see and feel from those who met her was palpable. It reinforced how lucky I was; how much I should treasure every moment and how happy I should be.
And I was happy. I felt incredibly lucky and honoured that she was here, and I have always had an overwhelming love for her. But more often than not, this was completely overshadowed by my sense of failure and of feeling utterly overwhelmed by her needs. I became emotionally detached. Numb. Unable to allow myself to connect and feel the joy that we both deserved. I wanted so desperately to be able to enjoy her and our time together, but there was something stopping me: Fear of losing her too? Fear of failing her? I honestly couldn’t identify it then. With her being physically attached from 4am to 10pm, I literally could not distinguish where she ended and I began. Her needs were paramount, and mine, along with my identity, evaporated. And in any moment that there was space for me, grief started to leak its way back in.
My grief has been, and I imagine always will be, intertwined with trauma, guilt, shame and responsibility. Orla died before she was born, inside of me, and I did not save her. The trauma of seeing the still ultrasound screen, hearing the words ‘I’m so sorry’, giving birth to her lifeless body and completing the ultimate walk of shame through the postnatal ward, heading home holding nothing more a memory box, head hung in complete despair and fear of making eye contact with anyone else. These memories and their associated emotions and thoughts were allowed to seep through the cracks in my ever-deteriorating armour.
And yet no one seemed to be able to see. I was completely falling apart and my ‘strong, get up and on with it attitude’ kept everyone at bay. As a psychologist, I know so many tricks of the trade: strategies and skills for managing your mood, from behavioural activation to graded exposure, to recognising and challenging unhelpful thinking patterns. The practical strategies prevented me from slipping into a much deeper and darker place. The cognitive strategies made sense in my head. But the disconnect between what I could rationalise in my mind and how I felt in my heart was vast. A chasm of epic proportions.
My inner judge would say that I hadn’t tried hard enough, that I hadn’t focussed enough on positive affirmations or engaged in things that I knew would help me to feel better. But where was the time? Where was the mental space? I was barely separated from my baby long enough to express enough milk so that I could actually even have a break.
However, ultimately, I truly did not believe that I was worthy of the care and nurturance that I so desperately needed.
I started to believe that my detachment was further confirmation that I was not cut out to be a mother. The universe had already warned me twice by taking two babies away: why did I not listen then? I should have known that I was going to make a complete mess of it and that I wasn’t worthy of the honour of parenting a live baby. There were so many more worthy candidates, friends included. I was failing at the thing that I believed other people deserved more than me.
But one day I actually realised I was broken. That I was slowly but surely spinning out of control. That other people probably didn’t feel this heavy and burdened with guilt, anxiety, self-loathing and defectiveness. That maybe this wasn’t normal. That feeling trapped in a prison of my emotions (or lack thereof), that seemed to have a life sentence, wasn’t actually mandatory. That maybe, with help and someone being able to hold my emotions for me, I could possibly feel better. That I could feel happiness that I knew was hidden underneath the weight of grief and trauma.
On that day I made a GP appointment for later in the week. Maybe it was the relief that I had committed to asking for help, or maybe just coincidence, but I already felt lighter by the day of the appointment. I even considered not going, because ‘I can’t be that bad, can I?’ But I did and I am so, so glad that I did. The walk there was heavy; I was weighted down by the deep-felt humiliation that I was unable to fix myself and that I had somehow failed as a mother and a psychologist. Of course, mental health professionals are no less likely to experience emotional and mental health difficulties than the next person. But my strong internal critic said otherwise.
And so, I went in and said I thought I needed help. That I didn’t think I was coping or that how I felt was normal. That I wasn’t sure where to turn but that I also didn’t know who could help. My default position of helping myself switched on, and in true work mode, I started talking about whether I would meet service thresholds, as if that was my decision or responsibility. But the GP took that responsibility and burden away from me. I cried and she allowed me to. She made me feel worthy of help and as though I mattered. That my wellbeing mattered as much as my baby’s. And I cried even more, because for the first time since Orla died, I allowed myself to recognise my own needs above anyone else’s. I didn’t need to protect her from my pain.
And here I am, four months later and only just feeling brave enough to tell my truth. It is only now, within the safe and containing therapy relationship that I feel able to break down and feel everything that I have been working so hard to avoid. I have read countless accounts of others grief that talks about falling apart, crying, screaming, needing to be scooped up from the bathroom floor and yet I could relate to not one of them. Because I didn’t allow anyone to hold me emotionally. Because I felt that I needed to hold myself. I believed that I had burdened people enough by inflicting pain on them through Orla’s death, that I didn’t think that I deserved to be looked after. And maybe I didn’t trust that anyone could handle it, because I wasn’t sure if even I could.
Maybe I only feel safe to do this now that Esme is here? Maybe I just didn’t have the time to allow myself to grieve between babies? Who knows. But what matters is that I have recognised it and I am getting help. And maybe someone else reading this will be able to say ‘me too’, so that I feel less alone. Maybe part of my story will resonate, whether you have been through loss or not. But experiencing PND is an incredibly lonely and dark place and I hope that anyone feeling that way will be able to see that asking for help can turn things around. That slowly, day by day, life can become lighter and brighter again.