This week I spoke publicly on what had until now been a very personal experience for me: the post-natal depression I had after the birth of my first child, beautiful Teyah, who is now 12. I was on a Kerri-anne panel that included 60 Minutes’ Peter Overton, a true gentleman who was visibly emotional talking about his wife Jessica Rowe’s far more public battle with PND, and journalist Angela Mollard, who spoke frankly about her raw emotions after the birth of her second child.
Though this discussion doesn’t relate to the raising of girls, the topic is so important that I want to share it, with the aim of supporting grown-up girls, too. I really hope this will spark conversations that heal.
If you feel that you might have symptoms of PND, help is available. You don’t have to suffer alone. A GP can refer you to the right specialist and there are several effective treatments. Beyondblue’s PND website, justspeakup.com.au, is an excellent starting point for help and advice.
Jessica Rowe not only recommended justspeakup as a site to share with you, she has also given her blessing for me to run this moving and honest account she wrote for Vogue. For those who are struggling to understand what it feels like to have PND, and for those who have this illness and feel they are alone, Jessica vividly captures the thoughts and feelings that many women with PND share.
I had everything I could possibly wish for—my newborn baby, Allegra, and my decent, darling husband by my side. Minutes after I pushed my little girl into the world, I held her against my chest, peering into her little squashed face. Her eyes were still jammed shut but I couldn’t stop looking at her. I told her, “So, you’re finally here, my darling. I’ve been waiting such a long time to meet you. For so long you were just a thought, a wish upon a star, but finally you’ve joined us.” And with that she opened one of her eyes and fixed me with her first look at the world. Her clear, blue stare drinking in the love and relief that poured out of me. The greatest love affair of my life was just beginning.
That first week in hospital was a blur of unfathomable love, joy, sheer terror and excitement. I felt safe in my room at the end of the corridor. Allegra and I drew the curtains around us, safely tucked away from the world and the reality of what waited for us at home. As the days went by quickly in hospital I started to worry about going home. How would I cope? I didn’t know how to bath my baby. Changing a nappy was a nerve-racking affair. The midwives kept telling me I could lose the fairy-taps and be more confident in handling my precious bundle.
And my breast milk still hadn’t come through. When my little one was five days old, I was sobbing and laughing simultaneously as I lay in hospital with cabbage leaves stuffed in my ugly feeding bra. The nurses told me the cabbage leaves were the best way to stop my boobs from being so sore. I wasn’t making much sense at all as I obsessively wrote down everything in my notebook.
In those early weeks at home I thought I’d be living my long-held dream. Finally, at last, we were a family. Why on earth did my dream feel like it was free-falling into a nightmare? It took me quite some time to get out of my PJs once I got home with my little miracle. Getting out the front door was tough—I wondered if I would ever leave the house again. Assembling the pram, changing nappies and working out how to put Allegra in the baby capsule became my biggest achievements.
Despite the sleep deprivation, I couldn’t sleep. My waking hours were consumed by anxious thoughts. Why couldn’t I breastfeed? Was my baby putting on enough weight? Did using formula mean I was setting my daughter up for a life of obesity and lowering her IQ? I wondered how I could feel so wretched when I finally had my darling girl. After all, wasn’t I meant to be the superwoman who could deal with anything life threw at me?
These were all pretty standard thoughts for a new mum. But something was seriously wrong. Because what weren’t so standard were the scary, obsessive thoughts that started to sneak into my befuddled brain.
The small silver Tiffany’s clock that I used to time breastfeeds became a weapon in my mind. I wondered how easily the clock could crack my baby’s delicate skull. My eyes would be drawn to the sharp carving knife in our second draw in the kitchen. I wondered if such a knife could pierce my little daughter’s soft skin. I knew I would never hurt my baby but these bizarre thoughts, of turning everyday objects into hazards, kept going around in my mind.
I wrapped the knife up in newspaper and threw it away. I did this at night, so the neighbours wouldn’t see me. I hid the silver clock. It didn’t matter that these objects were out of sight, as they were very much still in my mind.
The outside world was none the wiser to how I was feeling. I was determined to keep up appearances. Fashion had always given me such pleasure and in some strange way I believed if I could walk out the front door looking together all was not lost. My uniform became a brightly coloured feeding bra, teamed with either a Zimmerman pink leopard-print frock or a fifties-style chocolate dress that was scattered with a mauve and pale pink diamond pattern. The look was complete with big black Escada sunglasses and gold or silver ballet flats. But as you know, appearances can be deceiving.
I was wearing one such outfit at the first meeting of the mothers group in my area. I arrived late, having struggled to pack the baby bag with the right number of nappies and dummies. Then it took another 20 minutes to work out how to clip the wretched baby capsule into the car. Suitably stressed out, I flapped into the group to be confronted by a group of women who seemed to all be blissfully feeding and snuggling their babies.
The new mum next to me said, “Isn’t this the best thing you’ve ever done?” Another mum told the group that it “just got better and better”.
It had taken so much to get me out my front door. I didn’t have the courage to confess that for me it didn’t feel like it was the best thing I’d ever done. I felt like I was making an enormous mess of things. And no, it wasn’t getting better and better. I was feeling so much worse, it was getting harder, not easier, and I feared the long nights ahead and those scary thoughts dominating the hours before dawn.
I felt like the odd one out. No-one else seemed to be drowning. I had never felt so isolated in my life. I vowed to myself never to go back to that meeting again. I’m sure on the surface I looked like I was coping; and looking back, there would have been some other mums in that group who, like me, were floating adrift, desperate to be thrown a lifeline.
. . .
What surprised me was the stigma I felt when I realised I had post-natal depression. It was ironic, as for many years I’ve campaigned for greater mental health awareness. The message I would tell people again and again, in media interviews, charity functions and education campaigns, was that having a mental illness was nothing to be ashamed of, that it was an illness like any other. But now, here I was feeling that shame.
. . .
After about six weeks of trying to ignore how I was feeling and attempting to hide my inner chaos by putting on my wardrobe armour, I realised I had to talk to my husband. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I felt that I was letting him down, too.
As my daughter slept, I sat next to Peter on the couch and told him I wasn’t coping. He kept asking me if I was going to harm myself or Allegra, and I told him of course not. But I knew that I needed someone to pull me out of the anxious, frightening world my head was slipping into. He held me and told me everything was going to be all right, and then, for the first time in a long time, I believed it.
We came up with a plan, that I would call my obstetrician the next day and take it from there. My doctor was wonderful. I rang her, explained a little over the phone about my black thoughts and she arranged for me to see her that afternoon. I remember pouring my heart out to her, sobbing as I explained how I had been feeling over those past few weeks. She organised for me to see a psychiatrist the following day.
I put on my diamond-patterned dress for the psychiatrist. She could quickly see through my appearance. I realised I didn’t have to pretend anymore and I just had to be honest. And when I sat there talking with her, describing my thoughts, I started to feel a sense of relief. She explained that the thoughts I was having were typical for someone with PND. No longer did I feel like a freak, some crazy woman. I already felt like I was on my way. The most difficult step for me had been asking for help. Now that I was getting the help I needed, I felt like this incredible weight had been lifted off my shoulders.
I was keen to get started on anti-depressants. I was desperate to get the thoughts out of my head. My psychiatrist laughed at my eagerness. Usually she would have to convince her patients of the benefits of a little chemical help. I knew medication had helped my mum, and I was keen to kickstart my recovery. And make up for lost time with my family.
After about three weeks on the medication, I started to feel a little better. I was standing in my front garden and noticed the smell of jasmine in the air. I could feel a slight shift inside of me, a little breeze of optimism. What a lovely change in the wind. And that positive wind blew stronger over the following weeks, taking my dark thoughts away with it. And slowly, I began to feel more and more like me again.
I realised I wasn’t a failure. What I had was an illness. It didn’t mean I was a bad mother, or that I didn’t love my baby. I just needed some help to get over a difficult, dark patch in those early months of my little girl’s life. Now when I put my darling girl to bed and she closes her blue eyes, I don’t dread the night ahead. We both sleep heavily, dreaming of the joy that daybreak will bring.