6 things postnatal depression and anxiety taught me
Earlier this week I came home from hospital after almost three weeks of treatment for major postnatal depression and anxiety.
After the initial high of being back with my family, eating home-cooked food, and my luscious king-sized bed with the good linen on, my burgeoning mental health began to wobble, and I started feeling really low again.
Here I was, back at the scene of my rock bottom, with toys and noise and kids and animals, and my number one nemesis, Mount Washmore. It felt like the only difference was that I’d caught up on sleep and had a few new meds in the cupboard.
When the old pinball machine that is my brain started pinging from sad to guilty to shame and back again within 24 hours of coming home, I took a Valium and reflected on what I actually know. Cue positive reframe:
1. I’m not a pioneer
Catastrophising is my special skill and somehow, even after hundreds of hours of therapy, I still assume that I’m the only person who has ever felt this way. My brain filters out the obvious truth - that I’m not the first person ever to experience whatever the fuck I’m spinning my wheels about - so I internalise it into a simmering potful of shame and guilt stew. Yum yum.
For me, the antidote to this particular strain of my brain's bullshit is sharing stories.
When it comes to talking about finding motherhood hard, we can all be reluctant to share for fear of judgement. But for me, sharing stories is not just cathartic, it’s essential.
Aside from normalising - how good is that exhale when the person you’ve shared with says ‘me too’? - the connection formed through that kind of honesty and vulnerability is fucking gold dust.
2. Life is pretty shit right now
Covid is a motherfucker! We’re all living through the apocalypse!
I haven’t exactly come home to the Fisher family household at its best. My three-year-old has a broken leg and isn’t allowed to move for weeks, and of course that happened while we’re in lockdown, for fuck’s sake.
In hospital, I came across the Homes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory, which allocates a point value to a series of life events (e.g. marriage, being fired, pregnancy, or moving house), the sum total of which predicts your odds of a major health breakdown. 150 points or less, you’re probably doing fine. 150 - 300 points? You’ve got a 50/50 chance of life getting on top of you. But score 300 points or more and you’ve got an 80% chance of a stress-induced health breakdown.
Naturally, I, the compulsive overachiever, scored OFF. THE. CHARTS! I got around 500, and that’s without counting the pandemic which isn’t listed because the tool was developed pre-apocalypse. Well, fuck me. It’s a miracle I didn’t lose it sooner.
3. Progress isn’t linear
We don’t recover from a major depressive episode in a straight, upward trajectory (no matter how much of an overachiever you are, Lauren).
It’s to be expected that I’ll have good days and bad days, and that I won’t go from being sad, angry, zombie Mummy to Mary fucking Poppins just because I’ve had a few well-slept weeks at the retreat.
I’m having to really check myself on my black and white thinking. For example, ‘just because I’m feeling low today, doesn’t mean the world is fucked and I’ll always be emo-Mum’. That kinda thing. There’s a big difference between a little lapse and a full-blown relapse, ergo point four.
4. Lapse doesn’t mean relapse
Feeling down for a couple of days and reverting to unhealthy behaviours like withdrawing socially, drinking to manage stress, fixating on negative thoughts, or eating crunchy peanut butter straight from the jar, is very different to a full-blown relapse. But it’s important to note these as warning signs and do something to shake it up before I end up in the big, black hole again.
5. Comparison is a c*nt
It’s so hard not to compare ourselves to others, especially when we’re feeling emotionally vulnerable. I don’t even need Instagram to make me feel shit! My wife, Alex, copes with the demands of motherhood so much better than I do. She also functions just fine on very little sleep, and has a reservoir of patience that I can only dream of.
I, on the other hand, am a highly sensitive person. Essentially, this means my nervous system is almost always in overdrive, and I'm easily overstimulated and overwhelmed by loud noises, strong smells, crowds, bright lights, and the world in general.
So the simple truth is, being alive in the world takes more energy for me than it does others, and sleep deprivation is my mental health kryptonite.
Every now and then, I have to make like a bat and retreat to a dark cave alone, and Alex has to pick up the slack. Part of what landed me in such deep depression doodoo was comparing myself to her, and the internalised shame and guilt attached to that dynamic.
6. My sensitivity is my superpower
My sensory sensitivity will never go away, but when I’m well it’s also my superpower. I’m highly attuned to the world around me and have empathy and intuition in spades. These make me a great friend, boss, wife and mother.
I can think deeply, process information, and find meaning and connection in a way that others can’t. This makes me a natural storyteller and comes in very handy in my day-job working in communications for a large NGO.
I’m creative, expressive, and fun, and I feel things so very deeply.
Have you ever felt so moved by a piece of music or art that every hair on your body stood up, charged with electricity, your eyes welled with tears, and felt you’d certainly explode for your inability to contain the sheer intensity of emotion within? I have, and I would never give that breathtaking depth of feeling back.
Sometimes I’ll manage my sensitivity with ease and sometimes I’ll have to ask for help. But I reckon that’s a pretty small price to pay for my superpower.