When I was 27 years old I experience my first episode of depression. It floored me. It was a mental whirlwind that left me disoriented in its wake. No one in my family had suffered from any mental health issues, at least openly, and while I navigated the journey, I felt exposed, isolated, lost and frankly, a little disgusted with myself. Why couldn’t I cope? What the hell did I have to feel so down about? Wasn’t everything pretty damn sweet in my life?
The medication helped but as I started to feel some equilibrium returning, I was unable to reconcile the ‘old me’ with this new less effective, forever slightly disappointing version of myself. I felt like I’d failed, like I was an ineffective human. If Yoda had been a psychotherapist, he might have said, ‘The shame was strong in this one.’
The key is this: I, the one person who should have been absolutely, instinctively and without question on my own team, was unable to feel compassion for myself. The shame, the embarrassment, the lack of confidence and self-esteem that naturally comes as a side effect to depression made it impossible for me to get past the stigma and recognise this for what it was: a debilitating illness that, while impossible to see or touch, was incredibly real.
Fast forward four years and I’m a mama. I’ve given birth to my first daughter and I’m two months into motherhood. By this point, I’m at peace with my predisposition to ‘dropping my mental basket’ and I’m confident I can read the warning signs, practice self-care, look after me. I’m vaguely aware of something called post-natal depression but I know depression, and this isn’t it. This is just what having a newborn is, right?
I haven’t slept more than two hours in a row in eight weeks and my nipples are so sore I can’t even wear a bra. I’ve been in an out of hospital with mastitis and my vagina still feels alien and more than a little sore after hoofing a human through it. I’m exhausted, teary, emotional and struggling to cope with the challenges of motherhood. I don’t want to leave the house, I can’t keep anything straight in my head and I’m a little lost in conversations where other mums talk about how much they love their newborn. Don’t get me wrong – instinctively I know I’d die for her should the necessity arise but deep, unconditional love that knows no bounds? Nope. That’s not what I’m feeling right now.
My husband might say, “Babe, do you think you should see a doctor? I’m worried about you.” I’d reply, “I know what depression is and this isn’t it. This is just motherhood.”
It took me a year to accept that possibly, just maybe, this wasn’t motherhood. By that point, I wasn’t the soggy mess I’d been at the beginning while the hormones were still raging but I wasn’t right. I was disconnected, frustrated, lacking in patience. I wasn’t looking for occasional ‘me time’ as much as I was trying to avoid actively spending long periods of time with my daughter. She was fine, and cute and really, really chubby but I didn’t think twice when I left her at nursery or walked out of the door to work. The connection wasn’t there and I was, on the inside, quietly miserable, eternally guilty and pretty much constantly crying in the shower.
You see, post-natal depression isn’t any worse than any other kind of depression but it does bring with it unique and nuanced layers of shame. If depression makes you feel like you’re a shit human, post-natal depression makes you feel like you’re a shit human and a shit mum. That thing that’s supposed to be the most natural thing in the world – motherhood – feels like a life-sentence that was bestowed upon you when you weren’t looking.
And the judgement – oh the judgement! – that hits you full force when you enter the world of mothers. Mothers can be awful to other mothers. It’s not because they are, in themselves, despicable humans, but I believe it’s because they’re all floundering to some extent as they navigate this new world. They are insecure and who wouldn’t be? With all the books and the ‘experts’ and the opinions out there, there’s a innate sense of needing to ‘learn’ motherhood. Somewhere along the line, we become conditioned to think that we aren’t built to do this, that we need to read, and learn and choose a lane because otherwise, why would all these books and ‘experts’ and opinions exist in the first place?
Until very recently, there wasn’t a book or forum in the world that told them that a) motherhood can be a really tough gig and that’s ok and b) they just need to trust their instinct and so the judgement begins. When they see someone doing something differently, they panic, get defensive, question their own decisions and hate that person for making them do that. The aggression is passive to the nth degree and those first few playgroups and NCT coffee mornings are brutal. When you’re already vulnerable, tired and lost, it’s the last thing we all need especially if you’re already struggling with the PND beast.
Post-natal depression, depression, anxiety, social anxiety, OCD – whatever your brand of mental health issues – these are not a badges of dishonour. They are not weakness or failure. They are not shameful. Mostly, they are not secrets, or at least, they shouldn’t be. They are real, tangible illnesses that occur for a myriad of reasons and if you feel, as a mum, that something may not be right, go to the doctor. Even if it’s just a niggling fear, a secret that you dare not even tell yourself, go see your doctor. If you’re sat here wondering if this applies to you, it probably does. Go and see your doctor.
On April 26th 2018, I will be completing five hot yoga session in one day at Hot Yoga House, Eastcote, to raise money for Cocoon Family Support – a London-based charity that supports mothers and families affected by mental health issues surrounding pregnancy and motherhood. I’ll be taking some pretty cool people with me for the ride and all the way through I’ll be doing everything I can to lift the lid on mental illness, get people talking about it, feeling less ashamed about it and thinking of ways to manage it.
So please, know this: I will shout about my own mental health issues from the virtual rooftops for as long as it takes until you feel comfortable talking about yours. I will write about the fact that I didn’t love my daughter in the socially expected way for at least a year until you can be at peace with the fact that you were simply ill and not just a terrible mother. I will list my medications and run through my symptoms until you feel comfortable accepting your own symptoms and asking for help. I will not stop banging on about this until we have accepted mental health issues as an illness just like any other – one that is beyond your control, valid, shame-free and manageable.