It’s 4am, and I’m laying in bed, staring at the ceiling. I’m physically exhausted, my head hurts, and my eyes sting – but I can’t sleep. I haven’t actually been to sleep yet tonight. Or is it this morning now? I don’t even know what day it is anymore.
I’ve just got up for possibly the 4th time in the last hour to check on Chase. Each time I’ve got up, it’s taken me around 6 minutes to walk the three steps back into bed. And now I’m back in bed, I’m worrying again.
Why might you ask? Because I suffer from postnatal depression and anxiety (PND/PNA).
These invisible illnesses make doing even the simplest things, such as checking on my 18-month-old son only a few feet away from me – seem as difficult as climbing Mount Everest.
I want to start out by saying that this has been a really tough post to write. Generally speaking, when I’m writing, the words just flow out of me. But this one post has taken over a month of writing, editing, erasing; then back again full circle. Namely because, if I’m honest, it’s a subject I don’t like to talk about out loud. I guess I have this naive conception that if nobody knows, then it can’t be true. I wish that were the case. When in reality, it’s a fear of perception and acceptance that stops me speaking. So I’ve decided it’s time to open up, and to share my story with you today.
Meeting the midwife
Scroll back to two years ago, and I’m sitting at my dining room table meeting my midwife for the first time. She’s just finished completing my 16-week pregnancy health assessment, and is giving me “the talk” after the results flag me as high risk for postnatal depression and anxiety.
At the time, I remember thinking to myself: perfect. Once again, another healthcare professional looking at my history of depression and anxiety, and immediately thinking I’m unstable. My “history” spans out over 15 years, and generally speaking, I self-manage my mental health pretty well. But on the few occasions I’ve needed extra help, I’ve asked for it.
Although any new mother can develop postnatal anxiety, it’s been found that those with a personal or family history of either depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are particularly vulnerable. Which is why those with a history, like myself, are flagged up during the pregnancy health assessments as someone to keep an eye on during pregnancy and initial postnatal care.
Giving birth & going back to work
Following quite a traumatic birth experience, I was surprised to find that I didn’t have any issues bonding with Chase. If anything, the only problem was my lack of mobility due to having an emergency c-section. After about four months, when I was fully mobile again, I started to feel a bit alienated being at home all day alone with my baby. I’ve never been girly, or one to have a lot of female friends, so I found the mum groups I attended overly feminine and cliquey. I realised I was struggling when some of my depression tendencies starting rearing their ugly heads. This prompted a long discussion with my husband, which resulted in me returning to work sooner than planned at six months post-birth.
At first, this all went really well, but after a few months in the office I started to struggle again. Whilst I was on maternity leave, there were some significant changes made within my company. Changes which, in the end, affected both my job role and the way I had been accustomed to working for the past few years. I trudged through for a long time, believing that it was just an adjustment period because I’d been away for so long. What I didn’t realise was that by compartmentalising the stress and anxiety I had at work, I was actually increasing my anxiety levels in other areas of my life. The main one being in relation to Chase.
Noticing a problem
It was around five months after I went back to work that I realised I wasn’t getting better. If anything, I was getting worse. Chase was coming up to a year old, and I would constantly worry about him at night – getting up multiple times to check on him to ensure he was still breathing. My usual hobbies such as reading and watching films just bored me, and the closest I came to exercise was walking downstairs to the coffee machine and back again. I sought advice from my GP, who referred me to a local counselling service.
Despite numerous prompts from my husband, I had no intention of moving Chase from our bedroom. Everyone I spoke to told me I was being silly – a typical first-time parent overthinking it. But I genuinely felt terrified about his wellbeing if he wasn’t in the same room as me. During the day, when I was occupied with work, and he was with my husband (he’s a SAHP), I was completely fine. However as soon as nighttime came, and it was time for me to relax and sleep, the silence would kill me.
By the time I eventually saw a counsellor, I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Every time I get into bed, I have flashes of Chase becoming ill or involved in an accident of some sort. I know now that these thoughts are common concerns that parents have. The only difference being that most parents have these thoughts as a fleeting moment. An errant thought, gone before it can be fully processed. But my over-anxious brain doesn’t work that way. It overcompensates, analyses, and looks for ways to make sense of the flashes. Even when they are, in reality, highly unlikely situations.
It’s then, when my brain can’t put the pieces together of “How?” and “Why”, that it overthinks the situation. And that’s when the thoughts of “Did I put him into that compromising position?” come to play.
Which is crazy. I would NEVER do anything to put my son into harm’s way.
But that’s not how the brain of someone with PND/PNA works.
It actively LOOKS for ways to make sense of the thoughts, and therefore puts the only “logical” response into your head. That you must have done something to cause it. And this feeling opens up a whole can of worms for me. Most notably, I have obsessive-compulsive (OCD) tendencies. Meaning that I have to do specific things, in a specific order – with the fear that if I don’t, something bad will happen.
All time low
That nervous breakdown I mentioned? Yea it happened. But in a way, it was a good thing. It made me realise that in order to get better, I needed to take action, and focus on me and my family.
My GP signed me off work with immediate effect, and my intention was to do my counselling sessions, and spend more time doing everyday things with my family – like going for a walk, playing in the garden, or building bricks in the playroom. This was actually a lot harder than I thought it would be. The colder and wetter weather didn’t help, but the main issue was my sleep. I had insomnia due to the anxiety, and would often have panic attacks in the middle of the night because of the OCD. My GP prescribed sleeping tablets, but unfortunately they didn’t help in sending me to sleep any earlier – they just made me sleep until midday the following day, and then sit on the sofa in a dazed state for the rest of the afternoon.
It took a few weeks being at home to start getting a balance back in my life. To become more involved in day-to-day activities, and to actually WANT to participate in them. After five weeks at home, I opted for a phased return to work. Being honest, I wasn’t completely ready. But with only one income, and minimal savings, that decision was unfortunately taken away from me.
Now, two weeks into my phased return, I’m starting to feel better. I have good days and bad days. Bad days are still tipping the balance, but nowhere near as much as they were before. I’ve started doing housework again – forcing myself actually. I’ve found this can help manage the OCD better than just ignoring it. Think of it as refocusing the thoughts elsewhere – it does help.
The anxiety is still there. Very much so. But I’m not naive to think that it will disappear as quickly as it came. And I think that’s the difference now. I understand my illness better, and know that it is an illness, and not a fault.
I’m still not sleeping great, but on the upside, I’m not checking on Chase half as much as I did before. And I’m even thinking about the idea of moving him into his own room. Maybe. I have however, cleared his room out so that the idea COULD become reality when I’m ready.
I have a few sessions left with my counsellor, which I’m hoping will help me through the first few weeks of the New Year back at work. Then I guess I’m on my own. Well, not really. I have my happy, loving son and my devoted husband at home to help me through this. And at the end of the day, that’s all that matters.