I am proud to be talking about my journey through anxiety and postnatal depression. It was an incredibly challenging time having experienced it with both of my children, but, after having gone through it, I am now a better, healthier and happier person and for that, I am grateful. I hope that by sharing my story it will give hope to parents facing the same challenges that, even in the darkest days, recovery is possible.
After 3 days of being home with my new baby Leo, I had a visit from the Maternal Child and Health Nurse, Katie. I was instantly drawn to her warm smile and knowing eyes. Katie sat next to me on the couch as I attempted to breastfeed. She helped me relax, which helped me attach Leo, and she gave me some great tips. Before long, we began chatting about how Hugh and I had set up Leo’s room, and about my labour and the birth.
At the time, I was quite a private person, yet Katie made me feel comfortable enough to also share that mental illness ran in my family. Katie gave me a big cuddle and said she would stick a PANDA sticker next to my name in my son’s little green Health and Development Record book. This would remind her to take extra care of me at my MCH visits, as given my family history; I was predisposed to postnatal depression. I shrugged it off, little knowing how right she would be. Not long after, my mental state started to go downhill. I was exhausted, yet had trouble sleeping. “Sleep when baby sleeps” was just not happening. I was kept awake by night sweats and terrible racing thoughts.
“Could something fall into my baby’s bassinet and suffocate him?”, “Maybe his nappy is on too tight and could cut off his circulation”, “Maybe someone could break in to the house and kidnap him”, “Maybe he’s too hot, maybe he’s too cold”. These thoughts would play over and over in my mind. I had a constant sick feeling, which put me off eating, and I lost a lot of weight. I was irritable and angry, snapping at the smallest things. I soon began to isolate myself from family and friends. I would often close all the blinds, after my husband Hugh left for work. Hugh and the rest of my family noticed things didn’t seem right and urged me to speak to my Maternal Child Health Nurse or my GP. Yet I was too afraid that if I said something, I would lose my son.
Most days, Hugh would secretly call my friends and ask them to visit. They’d bring me lunch, make me tea, and even helped me start Leo on solids. They knew something wasn’t right, but I think they were too afraid to say something that might “tip me over the edge”. My sister would call me daily and calm me down. I felt comforted knowing she was on the line. My mum lived next door, and most days would come and just sit with me. I was afraid to be alone with my thoughts
Then one day, my mum came to visit and suggested we call the GP to talk about how I was feeling. I was lucky to get an appointment that same day. Yet I was still afraid to be honest with GP, so I went under the guise of him being unwell. Luckily, my GP saw through this. She asked my mum to leave the room and began asking me questions. I finally broke down and told her everything. She wrote me out a Mental Health Care Plan, a script for antidepressants and a referral to a psychiatrist.
When the psychiatrist diagnosed me with Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Postnatal Depression, things started to get better. I was put on medication to help with my anxiety. For the first two weeks it exacerbated my suicidal thoughts, which is a common side effect. My mum monitored me while Hugh was at work, and then it started to really help. I also saw a psychologist, with support under the Mental Health Care Plan. At first, I resisted this treatment. I was still too afraid to speak up about my scary thoughts. But as I began to trust the psychologist, I realised the therapy was helping me work through my issues. I was very lucky that Hugh came with me to my initial visits, and still loved me in spite of the person I had become. I now know that this treatment played an important role in my recovery – not to mention the love and support of my GP, my family and close friends. I only wish that I had spoken up sooner.
I really want to get the message across to anyone who is struggling: please get help as quickly as possible, so that recovery is not delayed. I can’t tell you the exact day that things started to shift for me, but I can tell you what I started to notice. For one, I began opening the blinds, one by one. I felt the fog lift, and I began socialising and making friends with new mums in my area. Most importantly, I saw my beautiful baby boy wanting his mummy so much. I realised how precious he is to me, and I felt an overwhelming sense of love and happiness that I longed for and, had so missed.
Fast forward four years and I felt I had recovered enough to want another baby. I was still having therapy but ceased my medication. The first four months after Lily’s birth was a very different experience to Leo, I felt bonded to her, I was getting out of the house, I was resting and I was practising selfcare. However, Lily was never a good sleeper, and, after about 4 months, it got to a point that she was up every hour and I was getting no sleep. I was a zombie. I then began worry that I might have PND again. Some of the symptoms I experienced were, heightened anxiety, not showering, scary thoughts, I lost my appetite, feeling flat, inability to laugh at things I used to find funny, feeling very panicky, dreading the day, not able to experience any joy and trouble sleeping.
I knew I did not want to get as unwell as I had the first time, and, I remembered that the earlier I sought help, the quicker the recovery. So, I made an appointment to visit my GP. The first time I had PND I resisted going to GP as I feared I would lose my son. This time I had learnt that that is not the case, in fact it is encouraged that mum and bub stay together. At the GP, I filled out a questionnaire which came back high and immediately commenced medication to help with my symptoms.
I also increased my appointments with my psychologist, checked in with my GP weekly and began seeing a psychiatrist to manage my medication. I would always call someone I trusted and felt safe with and tell them I was struggling. Family and friends would come over for lunch or a cup of tea, we would walk to the park, get a coffee, read stories together and put on silly music to dance with them in the loungeroom. I also attended a support program run by the local council which was organised by MCHN. I increased my appointments with MCHN – so rather than meet at every milestone, I would meet with them in between. It didn’t take too long before I was feeling myself again and, not to mention with the help of a sleep and settling consultant who came to our house to help Lily sleep better was lifechanging.
Leo is now 5 and Lily is 2. I love being their mum and feel privileged watching them grow. I have fully recovered from postnatal depression however, I am still managing my anxiety. I find selfcare is really important as well incorporating mindfulness into my daily life. I love that I can give back to the community by raising awareness that perinatal mental illness is treatable, and, recovery is possible.
If you or anyone you know is struggling from perinatal anxiety or depression please contact Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia’s (PANDA) national helpline on 1300 726 306.
Josie Smyth, a Melbourne mother of two experienced perinatal anxiety and depression with both of her children. Since recovering, Josie uses her lived experience to raise awareness, reduce shame and stigma and encourages affected people to seek help through her social enterprise Smiling after PND.
Josie has presented her story in a one-hour workshop to childcare and kindergarten staff, personal trainers, midwives, maternal child health nurses, obstetricians, in home support people and the media. Josie has also recently launched three top quality, loose leaf tea blends, carefully created to evoke conversations around mental health.
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