“I think there’s something wrong with me,” I whispered to the doctor. Fists clenched, head pounding, I felt so drained.
An hour earlier, following what I can only describe as a minor breakdown, I’d picked up my keys and wallet and walked out of the house. Past my husband, past my young sons, aged three and one.
“I have to go, I have to leave,” I’d muttered as I shut the door, hands shaking, and drove away. I ended up on the doorstep of a local medical clinic.
I don’t remember what I said to the doctor after that first sentence. It wasn’t much – something about having young children who didn’t sleep. And then I cried uncontrollably.
The PND diagnosis
The next morning I met with a mental health nurse. By then a dull emptiness and a tight band around my chest had replaced the rage and despair.
The mental health nurse asked many questions. I answered him quietly and calmly. It felt like talking underwater, except I’d given up struggling to breathe. I watched as he wrote the words ‘depression and anxiety symptoms’.
‘Postnatal’ wasn’t mentioned on my Mental Health Plan. ‘Anxiety’ was a complete revelation to me.
I thought mothers of babies and toddlers suffered from Postnatal Depression. Not just plain old lowercase depression, let alone anxiety.
PND: The warning signs
I’d known there was something wrong with me for many months and I believed I knew what it was: I had failed.
I’d failed to control my temper around my children. I’d failed to keep the house clean and tidy. I’d failed to convince my children to sleep through each night. I’d failed as a wife, mother, daughter and friend and I just couldn’t stand it any longer.
I would smile and laugh when people asked me how I was coping. Inside I was screaming and wanted to beg them to take my children with them when they left. I was a bad mother.
I struggled to hold onto threads of conversation because my internal monologue was so loud it drowned out everything else.
It was overwhelming. It was exhausting. I needed peace. I just needed it to stop.
But babies and toddlers don’t understand about peace.
The road to recovery
My Mental Health Plan included both medication and therapy. A low-dose anti-anxiety tablet every day and up to 10 partially funded visits to a psychologist.
I started the medication immediately. I felt emotionally numb and slightly dizzy for the first few days but by the end of the week, the fog started to recede. The vice around my chest eased off. I stopped clenching my fists.
Two weeks later I virtually bounced into the psychologist’s office, ready to tackle this thing head-on. Over several sessions we worked through strategies for avoiding overwhelm and managing my hypercritical internal monologue. She taught me how to identify the start of a downward emotional spiral – and how to stop it before I got sucked into the spinning vortex of anxiety.
The most important thing I learned in those sessions was this: It’s okay to not cope.
It’s okay to accept help, let the house get messy or complain loudly when life gets tough. It’s okay to take the kids out for chips once in a while if the alternative is to go into complete meltdown at home. If that’s what gets me through the day, that’s okay.
When PND isn’t only postnatal
With the help of therapy I came to realise that this wasn’t just postnatal depression and anxiety. This was a mental illness that I had lived with since my teenage years. I’d lived with it for so long I assumed it was just my normal; that I simply needed to toughen up and learn to cope.
Falling apart completely under the constant pressure of parenting was actually a blessing in disguise. It forced me to seek the help I needed.
A week after my diagnosis, I remember playing on the floor with my gorgeous little boys. I was tickling them and laughing. I started to sing.
My husband sat on the couch, watching us, his eyes shining. “I haven’t heard you sing in a long time. Or laugh,” he said quietly. I smiled back and continued to tickle. And laugh. And sing.
Parenting is hard, but parenting with a mental illness makes it harder than it’s supposed to be. If you feel like something’s not right then please, seek help. Start the conversation and keep talking until you find the help you need.
For help contact beyondblue on 1300 22 46 36 or Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia (PANDA) on 1300 726 306.