“It's not a weakness, it's an illness”: two mothers share their experiences of postnatal depression

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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Postnatal depression affects one in every 10 women within a year of giving birth, and symptoms range from feeling sad and having difficulty concentrating to experiencing suicidal thoughts. Now, researchers at the University of North Carolina hope to conduct the largest ever global study of postpartum depression by surveying 100,000 mothers via an app. Ahead of its UK launch, Sarah Biddlecombe speaks to two women who have experienced the disorder themselves.

Jo Gardner, 44, is a travel editor and mother-of-one. She experienced postnatal depression after the birth of her daughter four years ago.

About seven weeks after the birth of my daughter, I woke up and walked to the kitchen in my pyjamas. I can’t remember if she was in my arms or in her cot – I felt completely detached from her. To be honest, I didn’t really feel anything: there was no pit in my stomach, no nerves, no anxiety.

I didn’t even realise there were tears running down my face until my sister walked in and asked what was wrong.

Taking complete control of the situation, she told me to put some clothes on and drove me to the doctors. My dad had died three months previously, so my sister gave up a new job in Australia to move in with my mum. When my boyfriend left me three weeks after the birth of our baby, I couldn’t cope in London by myself and moved in with them too. We four were living in the house together when it happened.

We got to the doctors and sat in the waiting room, tears dripping onto my clothes. When the doctor asked me how I felt I could only shake my head, I couldn’t speak. He diagnosed me with circumstantial postnatal depression and prescribed me Sertraline, an antidepressant, telling me to come back in a few weeks when they had started working.

And that’s the hard bit: you go to the doctor to get pills, desperate to get better, and it takes three weeks for them to kick in. Taking them felt like ecstasy to start with, as they pumped me full of adrenaline and made me feel hyper. My heart raced.

It’s hard to put how postnatal depression feels into words. It’s like trying to describe if God is there or not – there’s nothing tangible to it. You feel so alone and lost, and nothing matters anymore. Even if you won a million pounds that day, it wouldn’t make a difference. Nothing would.

The only thing that could help is sleeping because then at least you’re out of your conscious mind. But when you have a child you can’t just put yourself to bed, and my daughter needed feeding and changing. 

Luckily, my mum was supportive and would give me time off and lie-ins. That helped a little, as I could stay in the lulled state of sleeping where my depression was not a reality for a little longer. But my main support network was myself: you have to get yourself through it, no one else can.

After all, you’ve just had a baby, and it’s a major shift in your life.

I didn’t read what people were saying on any online forums or look on social media. I had notes on the condition from my doctor but I didn’t want to read any more about it and get even more freaked out. I didn’t want to tell anyone about it. If you’re typing about it, that makes it more real.

Instead, I made sure I got out of the house a lot. During some of my very dark periods I would go to my dad’s grave, which sounds like an odd thing to do, but I would kind of replace one problem with another. Then the grief becomes the focus and detracts from the depression slightly.

I took the pills for six months. It was longer than I needed to, but I think they have a placebo effect on the brain – I worried that if I didn’t take them, I would talk myself into being depressed. Towards the end I was taking just a quarter of a pill, which the doctor said was ridiculous.

My recovery wasn’t a countdown where I became gradually better each day. Instead, it was very up and down, with no rhyme or reason. I would wake up in the morning not knowing how I was going to feel.

Once I had recovered, I would still get occasional bouts of depression. I’m a travel journalist and being abroad with my daughter would sometimes trigger it. You feel an overwhelming responsibility for your tiny child, especially when you’re not in your home country with your home comforts, and don’t know where the nearest doctors is in case something happens to her. The feeling is worse when you’re not in your comfort zone and you’re looking after someone who is completely dependent on you.

I had never suffered from depression before and would think, ‘just get out of bed and count the good things in life’. Now I realise how debilitating it can be, particularly when you have a new baby who is utterly dependent on you.

My advice to new mums who are suffering from post natal depression

  • Sleep helps – try and get someone to help so you can get some.
  • Talk to people who have been through it – if someone can say to you, 'I am proof that you can be on the other side', that might help.
  • Don’t force yourself to do things – if you have something planned but wake up and find you can’t face it, it won’t help to force yourself to go. Just say you’re not up to it.
  • This is temporary – remember the feeling will eventually go. This is just a period while your hormones balance out, but your body will find its way around eventually.

Joyce Butler, 40, is a clerical officer and mother-of-two from Ireland. She experienced postnatal depression after the birth of her first daughter six years ago.

I had postnatal depression three times after the birth of my first child. It hit me suddenly when she was just 10 months old, and every time I tried to come off my medication it came back scarier and more severe.

By the third time I got it, I really didn’t know if I could fight it any more.

I’d experienced depression twice before, once when I was 19 and once when I was 29, but postnatal depression was much worse. Each bout lasted around eight weeks, until the medication started kicking in, and looking back I don’t know how I functioned.

For the first two bouts I was prescribed Lexapro, followed by Prozac for the third. Each time the medication would make everything worse for a while.

It intensified the feeling [of depression], as if my brain was all over the place like a roller coaster. When your serotonin levels go back up, it feels as if your head is going to fly off – and not in a happy way.

It would take weeks for me to feel a lift of maybe two minutes one day and five minutes the next.

It is a massive adjustment when you have your first child. Before you have your own time and go out for meals, but then you have your child and you don’t have one second to yourself. It’s all so new and they need so much care, plus you want absolutely every detail to be perfect. You think, I will never have time, ever again. I put myself under so much pressure but I didn’t even realise it at the time.

When I was diagnosed with postnatal depression for the third time, my doctor wanted to sign me off work for a few weeks, but I refused because I wanted there to be a normal routine in the house for my daughter. She was two years old at the time and I wanted everything to stay the same for her so that she wouldn’t pick up on anything. I knew I couldn’t just stay at home and not get up in the morning.

It was difficult though. I wasn’t really sleeping and the depression would be worse in the morning, as if my thoughts were pummelling down on me.

I would open my eyes and just want to burrow into a hole and wait for it all to go away. My head was destroyed from the depression and full of blackness, like a mass of clouds. Why couldn’t I take it out of myself and just throw it away?

When my doctor referred me to a psychiatrist I initially refused to go. I felt like a freak. I thought I must be really nuts, and a complete basket case, if I had to see a psychiatrist. I was in denial – there wasn’t anything wrong with me, I told myself. I’m superwoman! I can get over anything!

But when they sent me a second letter, I decided to go in. I was really paranoid someone would see me and had to be taken downstairs to an empty room. But the psychiatrist was brilliant. ‘How would you feel if you had diabetes or asthma?’ he asked, which reassured me this was just another illness, and one that a lot of people had. I have so much to thank him for.

But I was scared the postnatal depression would come back if I had another baby and I knew I couldn’t go through that again. During my final bout of depression I was talking to someone on the phone when suddenly it felt like there was a claw sticking into my cheek. It gave me such a fright and I was terrified I would develop psychosis. Luckily it didn’t happen again, and I didn’t have postnatal depression after the birth of my second daughter.

I think it’s important to reach out to people when you’re suffering from postnatal depression. I remember asking my psychiatrist if there were other women I could talk to, and he said they wouldn’t be open about it.

I think people can think you’re failing as a mother if you have postnatal depression. That’s why I started documenting my experiences in a blog, which I hope can help others.

I know it’s not a cheerful thing to talk about, but we should never be ashamed of having depression.

My advice to mums suffering from post natal depression

  • Reach out to people – you need a lot of support. If you had any other form of illness you wouldn’t expect to just go along and get over it.
  • See a counsellor – they can help you to get everything out of your system.
  • Try meditation – I meditated with nurses for 40 minutes every week and I found that my head would be OK during that time.
  • You will get time to yourself – your children will get older and things will get easier.
  • Do not be ashamed – it’s easy to think, ‘I couldn’t get postnatal depression, I’m strong. That’s a weak thing.’ But it’s not weakness, it’s a serious illness.

If you, or anyone you know, needs advice on postnatal depression, visit the NHS website here or Mind’s website here.

Main image: iStock