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Postnatal depression: 4 women on how it really feels to live with the condition

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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From loneliness to frustration, postnatal depression can have a huge impact on a woman’s life. Here, four mums share their experiences of living with the condition, in order to help break down the taboo surrounding the condition.

Postnatal depression (PND) is an incredibly common mental health issue. Yet despite being thought to affect at least one in 10 mothers and four in 10 teenage mothers, it is still a mental health condition that comes hand in hand with a great deal of stigma.

This is especially worrying when we consider that the actual number of women who have the condition is thought to be much higher, but that many suffer in silence because they are too afraid to speak out.

The symptoms of postnatal depression include a feeling of hopelessness, a loss of interest in the baby, not being able to stop crying, panic attacks and sleeplessness. That is not an exhaustive list – the NHS names no less than 14 different symptoms on its website, and no woman will experience it in the same way, meaning there are likely to be more.

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Despite the potentially life-threatening affects of postnatal depression, a recent study confirmed that one in five women will not disclose their feelings to a doctor. Writing in The Guardian about the “taboo” of postnatal depression, clinical psychologist Dr Emma Svanberg said, “For mums, this stigma [of struggling with their mental health] is exacerbated by the fear of what happens if we confess we are not coping”.

To help break down this unnecessary and potentially life-threatening taboo, Stylist speaks to four women about their experiences of postnatal depression, and asks them for their advice for other mums who might also be living with the condition.

“Getting help was surprisingly hard to come by” – Amy

I had postnatal depression after the birth of my first child. It seemed to really hit me when she was about six weeks old.

The strongest feelings I had were an immense sense of loneliness and anxiety, and an absolute conviction that I wasn’t good enough to be a mum to this brand new person we’d created. I beat myself up every time something didn’t go to plan (see: every time she didn’t nap properly, or for long enough, or on her own). I constantly compared myself to my husband, who seemed to take to this whole parenting lark so naturally that I looked woeful in comparison.

The depression didn’t affect my love for my daughter, or my awe that she was this incredible human being that I had somehow made, but it did mean that I don’t think I really enjoyed her for a long time.

postnatal depression
Postnatal depression: “I had a conviction I wasn’t good enough to be a mum”

In all honestly, I received very little help or support. While I was pregnant, there seemed to be a lot of talk about postnatal depression - what signs to look out for, and did you know men can get it too?

However, when it came to actually recognising that this was something I was going through, getting help was surprisingly hard to come by. I spoke to my health visitor, who came and did some extra visits, but she seemed to just expect me to talk at her and didn’t stimulate any conversation or offer any real support. Then, when speaking to a GP I was immediately offered medication, and when I said that wasn’t a route I wanted to go down straight away, she didn’t seem to have any other suggestions. Another GP suggested I do less housework. I was incredibly lucky to have a very supportive and understanding husband, and the friends I confided in were also supportive. But the difficulty, I think, is that a lot of the time you don’t want to talk about it, because it feels like admitting defeat.

But even though it’s hard, talking about how you’re feeling and being honest with those closest to you will massively help. Everyone will experience it in different ways, but the best thing that helped me get through it (after finally accessing some counselling through work) was realising that I was enough. For my daughter, for my family, and for my friends.

“In public, I put on my best face. In private, I cried and screamed” – Renee

I experienced postnatal depression almost as soon as my daughter was born. The birth wasn’t as bad as some, but it did set us up for hard times straight away. I really struggled with breastfeeding – I wanted to give up so many times but felt as though I shouldn’t, and I certainly experienced pressure from my husband not to. So I had this crying baby who was hungry, and I was crying because I couldn’t feed her. I was exhausted beyond belief and felt like a failure.

It had taken us nearly five years to get our little girl, and we had eventually gone through IVF, with which we were very lucky with the results. But when you wait so long for something, and then it finally arrives, there is this huge expectation that it’ll be the most amazing thing in the world. And it turns out it’s not so great.

The depression (which I’d experienced before, but not postnatal), felt like an extreme black cloud and dark tunnel that I couldn’t escape from. I stayed there because it was comfortable and it was too much effort to come out of it. However, on the outside, I pretended everything was fine. I was studying full time and the President of my Rotary club. My husband also worked away for most of that first year. So in public, I put on my best face. In private, I cried and screamed and wanted it to end.

I had visions of driving into traffic, leaving my daughter on the side of the road, throwing her from the balcony. In the same instant, I would cry so hard that I could be such an awful person. I never hurt her but I often wonder how my sadness has affected her.

Sometimes I would look at her and just see nothing. People would comment on how beautiful she was and I couldn’t agree. I would be stuck in this dark place just hoping I could crawl back into bed and never come out.

Throughout that year I resented her, and loved her. I did everything for her and some days I did nothing, except the basics of feeding, changing and sleeping. On my good days, I would make up for the bad days. And on my bad days, I asked my mother-in-law to take her for a couple of hours so that I could cope.

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I sought out professional help, and received a referral from my GP to visit a psychologist. I started seeing her about once a month and, in my really dark moments, she would see me twice a month. I saw her for over a year. Whilst I was struggling with PND, my marriage was struggling as well – we are still together. I was lacking in self-confidence, I had gained weight (not a lot but I thought it was at the time) and I felt useless and constantly judged. It took me a long time to realise that a lot of the other problems happening in my life were in my head and it was down to the PND.

My advice to other women out there would be to talk to people. Find someone who will listen. You don’t always want advice, you just need someone to listen. A psychologist is better than a friend sometimes, because they have the education to know how to cope with what you’re explaining. But if you don’t have access to a psychologist, find someone who’s been there before.

Some of my friends were incredibly unhelpful, because they didn’t get it. I would pour my heart out to them and they would just say - don’t worry, it’ll pass. Or they would suggest I just need some sleep. What they don’t understand is someone may need sleep, and it may pass, but when you’re in despair and you can’t see a way out, you just need someone to listen and comfort. Plus you also want to know that what you’re going through is normal and there is light at the end.

One other thing that really helped me throughout my experience of PND was walking. I would force myself to walk everyday, sometimes twice a day. Just the act of putting on shoes and taking my daughter to the park was enough to keep me going. 

“The love I felt for this beautiful person was too much for me to bear” – Melissa*

I experienced postnatal anxiety and depression after the birth of my first baby, in summer 2016. I fell instantly in love with my gorgeous son but this adoration quickly turned into an overwhelming fear that paralysed me. I didn’t immediately recognise that it was PND as a lot of people told me that anxiety was normal with first babies, and it was most likely just baby blues mixed with exhaustion that was leading to me being afraid something bad would happen. But it wasn’t. I cried if I had to leave him, even for a minute. I didn’t sleep as I felt I constantly needed to check he was breathing. I couldn’t swallow food with the lump in my throat, so I liquidised everything in order to have enough food in my body to breastfeed. I was afraid to leave the house, as I was convinced something bad would happen as soon as we left our cocoon. It was safe indoors and I was happy when I was with him and able to watch his every move.

I didn’t want to stay inside - I wanted to be a happy new mum out and about with my baby, but most days I couldn’t get it together to shower, never mind dress both of us.

This had a horrible effect on my marriage. My husband didn’t get it, no matter how much I tried to explain how I felt. How could he? We had a beautiful, healthy, happy baby – what was there to worry about? It was the loneliest, most dreadful time, made so much worse by everyone saying what a magical time it is to have a new baby. This was not magical. It was terrifying.

Thankfully, the story has a happy ending. I got help from a wonderful psychiatrist who gave me tablets to untangle my panic-filled thoughts and let my addled brain rest a little bit. We talked it out every week for six months until I felt better. My main issue was control and feeling helpless that the world is such a scary place. I had always thought that I was prepared for motherhood. I come from a wonderful, loving family and my husband and I love each other to pieces, but the reality was different to how I had imagined it. The love I felt for this beautiful person that I had built from scratch was too much for me to bear. Writing this now, it sounds bonkers but that was the crux of my anxiety.

But I am so much happier now and delighted that my anxiety had no negative effects on my son. I even felt well enough to have a second baby, and I have had no feelings of anxiety or depression this time round. Instead, I am thoroughly enjoying the madness of the first few months of baby number two.

My advice to other women would be to talk, whether that is to a GP, a friend, a family member, anyone who will listen in the first instance. Then put some structure around your recovery. There are professionals to help. Treat it like a physical injury that you must tend to for your long-term health as well as the long-term happiness of your family. Having PND does not make you a failure and it does not have to define your experience of early motherhood.  

“I felt like I had lost control of myself” – Fenella

I had postnatal depression between 2012 and 2014. At first, I didn’t realise I had it. I was very snappy and shouted at my partner a lot, and I was extremely anxious all the time and felt like I was a horrible mum. I loved my daughter so much but I wasn’t sleeping when she was – instead, I chose to clean and tidy up, so I was always tired. I also took on some extra work to make money as I was on normal statutory maternity pay and I wasn’t used to having such a small income. I felt so alone, and that nobody would ever understand what I was going through, even though I had the support of my husband. I wanted more help but I didn’t dare ask for it, because I felt like this would be admitting that I was a complete failure at being a mum. I put on a lot of weight and my hair was falling out – I just felt like I was falling apart, like I wasn’t ‘me’ anymore. It even led to anxiety attacks.

I love my daughter so much and I never felt anything negative towards her, but during that time I would get angry at the noise of crying. I was just angry at myself, and blamed myself.

postnatal depression
Postnatal depression: “I felt so alone, and that nobody would ever understand what I was going through”

I went to visit my GP as I couldn’t understand what I was feeling – I felt like I had lost control of myself. At times I wanted to disappear for at least a few days, so I knew I needed to talk to someone. The GP said I had postnatal depression and suggested that I go and speak to someone, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to feel like a failure.

I didn’t want to take any drugs, either. I just wanted to feel like me again and I felt like only I had the power to do that. Looking back, I would have spoken to someone, but I was too stubborn.

Eventually I started to exercise, and it wasn’t until I went back to work 11 months later, where I had some ‘me time’, that I started to feel normal again. However, then I had the pressure of finding an affordable nursery – my mum was helping out, but she had things to do as well, so I felt like I needed to do it all on my own. I didn’t talk to any friends or family because I honestly felt like no one would understand. I felt too weak.

My advice to anyone who feels the same would be to get some sleep. Sleep deprivation is a form of torture in some countries, so being deprived of it can have a detrimental effect on your mental health.

Ask for help and don’t feel how I did, like a failure for asking. I wanted people to offer but I must have painted a good picture that I was coping well, so no one did. Also make sure you see your GP and tell them the truth about how you feel, and if they offer you help, take it. There is no shame at all in accepting support.

I would also say to speak up – if I had done so earlier, I would have realised that I wasn’t the only one feeling the way I did. You could join a support group or network.

Don’t ever feel like you have failed. We put too much intense pressure on ourselves.

If you or someone you know is affected by postnatal depression and wants support or information, you can visit the NHS website here

*some names have been changed

This article was originally published in March 2018

Images: Unsplash, iStock