This is a very personal story - the story of my first experience with severe mental illness, my steps to recovery and what I have learned along the way. If you or anyone you know is experiencing or has experienced postnatal depression, you will know what a devastating illness it can be, all the more so due to the high degree of secrecy, stigma and shame that tends to surround it.
I choose to share my story to help others who might be affected, as I was so greatly helped by reading the stories of other brave women who spoke out publicly. I also want to share this to help to start breaking down the social stigma around the condition, to raise more awareness of its prevalence, and to reveal to you my vulnerability to demonstrate that this can happen to anyone - even a health professional who is 'supposed to have it all together'.
I was ecstatic to be pregnant and had a wonderful pregnancy. When our beautiful baby, Leif, arrived, it was via an emergency C/section which was simultaneously traumatic and incredibly magical - the happiest moment of my life. From the moment he was born I committed to putting all of his needs first, inspired by the model of attachment parenting and driven to provide the most loving, most nurturing and most gentle mothering possible. I derived a deep sense of satisfaction from my mothering role and committed to being 'the perfect mother'.
Over the first year of Leif's life, I ticked off many boxes on the list of major life stressors. We relocated to the Blue Mountains, suddenly lost a close family member, were evacuated from our new home due to bushfires, I took on more responsibility and risk at the clinic, had recurring illnesses, dramatically changed social activities, and dramatically changed sleeping patterns – i.e. I was getting almost none as Leif slept absolutely terribly. Being at home alone with Leif for 12 hours a day, with a rapidly increasing sleep-debt, juggling a growing small business and the continual pressure I felt to be 'perfect' all the time, began to take its toll.
Thinking back, I recognise the first tendrils of PND even right at the beginning, but it actually crept up on me silently and gradually. I didn't realise that my mood and outlook was becoming darker all the time, I thought I was just exhausted. I didn't register that my ever-present anxiety about looking after Leif perfectly was growing more intense day by day, I thought that was normal. I didn't feel myself, but I thought that was part of the huge adjustment to being a new mother. On some level I believe I knew I wasn't well, but I was not prepared to admit it. However, I vividly remember the moment I realised I needed help as it is burned into my memory. Much to my horror, I felt myself come within a hair-breadth of 'snapping' and hurting my baby out of feelings of frustration, helplessness, despair and failure. It will always make me cry to think of it.
The first thing I did was call PANDA (1300 726 306). They have a help line staffed by counsellors and the woman I spoke to was so incredibly kind, understanding and supportive to me at a time when I was completely overwhelmed by the realisation that I was very unwell. That first phone call and admitting that I had a problem was incredibly healing for me. I highly recommend them as a wonderful first 'port of call'.
She next referred me the Mental Health Access Line (1800 011 511) who in turn referred me to my local Community Mental Health team. Once I was connected with them, a whole wealth of support and help opened up to me. I was assigned an occupational therapist who visited me weekly at home for very helpful and supportive sessions, and she then linked me up with a psychologist, a psychiatrist, early childhood nurses, respite childcare and a referral to Tresillian. It was confronting to finally be 'face to face' with my illness and I must say things got worse before they got better, but from that moment I felt completely surrounded by support, and it was all free. How lucky we are in Australia to have such amazing services freely available to us.
I would never have thought to go to Tresillian and was quite nervous about it, as in the natural parenting community it is very misrepresented, but going there was one of the best things we could have done. We stayed there for 5 nights and by the time we left, using gentle techniques in line with my parenting style, 16-month old Leif had gone from waking up to 10-12 times a night, to waking 2-3 times a night. Over the next weeks at home, Leif started sleeping through the night in the first time in his life. I simply cannot overstate how amazing it was to start to get a proper nights sleep again – I remember after the first night he slept through, on our morning walk around the block I sang “Oh what a beautiful morning!” at the top of my voice, not caring who could hear me!!
In addition to all of these wonderful things, I started seeing a local acupuncturist for weekly sessions, and began taking Chinese herbal medicine. After my acupuncture sessions I felt incredibly expanded, uplifted, and restored, I felt like myself again. I had been offered anti-depressant medication by my community health care team, however I wanted to see if I could get better using my beloved system of Chinese medicine. I found the combination of the acupuncture and herbs as well as the ongoing emotional support from my community team, getting more sleep, and having the respite of one half-day a week with Leif in childcare start to make a massive difference to my feelings of wellbeing. My mood improved in a way that my psychiatrist said would have been the same or better than expected if I had taken the anti-depressants for a similar length of time. Having said that, please note that I do not in any way judge anyone who chooses to take medication - there are many paths to healing and I am simply sharing mine.
The better I felt, the more I could do nourishing things for myself, like doing more exercise, cooking healthy food, giving myself daily acupressure, doing more meditation, giving myself permission to do nice things like read a book for fun (not a textbook or a parenting book!) or watch a funny movie. I started talking to my friends and family and sharing what I had gone through silently for so long, and asking for support. And I started to learn to be more gentle on myself and not expect to be perfect not all of the time, in fact not any of the time. I am learning to love the mother that I am, not the ideal perfect mother that I once aspired to be.
Some of you who I had been seeing in the clinic at that time might be surprised by my confessions here, and may wonder if my cheerful persona in the clinic was fake whilst I was going through all of this. I would like to say that my most beloved profession of being an acupuncturist was a great strength to me during that time. When I am in the clinic I feel competent, empowered, alive and inspired. I absolutely love the work that I do, and I think it actually played a large role in keeping me from going off the deep end completely, and I am grateful for that.
Now that I am feeling healed and back to myself again, I am even more inspired to help more people with this system of medicine that I love so much. I am also continuing to get acupuncture on a regular basis myself and look forward with glee to my own sessions!
It has been a long journey, and how much I have learned and grown. I am always grateful for my health challenges and the wisdom and insight that I gain from working through them. If sharing my story helps even just one person, it has been worth it, and I send my love and support out to all the mothers out there. And I continue my healing journey alongside all of you.
Post Natal Depression affects up to 1 in 7 mothers, so it is much more common than you might think, even though it is not something that is openly talked about. If you think that you or someone you know might be affected by PND, please contact PANDA, Beyond Blue or the Mental Health Access Line for more information, help and support.
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