“I think you’re depressed’
The words that still ring through my ears when I think about the day that the perinatal mental health nurse turned up at my door. It had been a difficult morning; baby refusing to sleep, pacing the house wearing the sling. Much like many of the days that had preceded really. I was tired. Emotionally more than physically, although my body had certainly been through the mill too.
It’s something that I still struggle to accept sometimes, and something that I have fought hard to overcome. But I think that this term – depression – has gradually become more of a friend than a foe. Although deep in my heart, I knew that this was what was going on, hearing the word spoken out loud and directed at mestung. A verbal slap in the face. I denied it could be true. I tried to argue that I was just stressed. But when I struggled to answer one of her questions, I realised that this was why I felt so heavy and why each day had become like I was wading through treacle.
I felt stupid: ‘How could I not have known?’ I felt ashamed: ‘Why couldn’t I prevent this?’ I felt guilty: ‘What kind of mother – what kind of person – are you to become depressed now, when your arms are full?’
But the thing with depression (and all mental health difficulties) is that it looks different to every single person. Put 100 people with depression in a room, and each and every one will be unique. Their symptoms will differ in the same way that their appearance differs. The way in which they manage things will differ in the exact same way that we all have different ways of coping with life. The core experiences may have similarities, but the ripples that they create will be as individual as their fingerprint.
Depression is an umbrella term for a collection of ‘symptoms’ and to have a diagnosis, you need to experience a number of these that last more than a couple of weeks and which impact on your daily activities*. One of the main symptoms is either depressed mood or diminished interest in activities – and that’s where I realised what I had been missing. I didn’t feel ‘depressed’ in the typical way that you might expect: I wasn’t really sad or tearful all of the time, although I did feel a little hopeless that I wasn’t ever going to feel unadulterated joy again. It was more that I didn’t really feel anything. I couldn’t find joy and interest in the activities that I was doing. Which was possibly why I missed the neon warning sign flashing above my head. I couldn’t remember the last time I did something that made me feel excited or relaxed. Every single thing I did was focussed on my baby and almost each of those moments was filled with doubt and paralysing fear. Any deviation towards caring for myself led to anxiety and guilt. I could not allow myself to enjoy my baby or parenthood. I was well and truly stuck in the quagmire of post-natal depression.
My overriding fear was that this was motherhood – and that is what terrified me the most. I was petrified that the GP would turn to me and say ‘this is your life now’. And that would be it. Acceptance that I would live a life filled with daily stomach churning anxiety, waking with a heaviness that made it hard to see a way forward, struggling to find the motivation to see other people and feeling worthless, inept and guilty for almost every moment of every day.
This is not motherhood. And this is not how it needs to be.
Diagnosis really is a way of just giving a name, a meaning, an understanding, to a set of experiences. It gives a label to suffering with a view to finding an intervention or treatment that will hopefully alleviate the pain. There is much debate about how helpful or unhelpful diagnoses are, and as I psychologist I have sat on both sides of the fence. However, on the whole, I have tended to perch precariously on said fence, since I can see the benefits that either side can offer. Yet, one thing I do know is that whilst diagnosis does provide a degree of clarity, every single person’s experience of that diagnosis will be utterly unique – and it is that uniqueness that is the key to finding hope.
For me, being told that I was depressed opened a door to help. I was accepted by the perinatal mental health team and offered medication (that I declined) and therapy (that I accepted). I was allocated a nurse who came to see me at home and who I could talk with openly about how I was feeling. But after that day, the word depression was hardly ever used again, because what mattered was that my reasons for experiencing this were my own. What was stopping me from experiencing joy was complex and unique to my life experiences, personality and the trauma of losing Orla. And I needed to unpack this and work through it so that I could see the light again. So that I could reclaim me – or build a slightly different version.
Now, I understand that not everyone wants to have a ‘label’. Mental health carries a stigma that, whilst I have always fought against at work, I have never reallyunderstood until I experienced it myself. I have the added weight of being a mental health professional. The shame I have felt as a result of that has been acute. But what does that actually say: that we are immune? That there is a ‘them’ and an ‘us’? What does that say about how serious and indiscriminate mental health difficulties can be? Being on the other side has challenged every aspect of my beliefs and attitudes for the better.
Having that heavily laden label has helped me to make the changes I have needed to make for myself and my family. It has enabled me to understand who I am and what I have been through in ways that I wasn’t brave enough too before. And of course, it hasn’t been all plain sailing and I know that there will be more hurdles to come, but I do not regret taking it on. And I do not regret telling people. But the label of PND isn’t me and I am not it. Postnatal depression is something that I have experienced and it is something that I am working through. I am a person and that experience is a part of who I am, but is does not define me. And it doesn’t define you either.
** This post supports the #DepressionWearsLippy by the wonderful Jo at Lobella Loves on Instagram – please go and give her and the campaign a follow **