This past week was Mental Health Awareness Week and thanks in part to my experiences since becoming a mother, the effort to destigmatise mental illness is something that speaks to my heart. To this day I do not know whether the natural disaster that ripped through my brain following the birth of The Eldest was Post-Natal Depression or an anxiety disorder, but I do know this. That shit fucked.me.up.
I was traumatised by her birth which took 23 hours in total. Three hours of unsuccessful pushing, a spinal block, an episiotomy (plus a third-degree tear. Do I get bonus points for that?) and some enthusiastic yanking with a sizeable pair of salad tongs passed, before our pointy-headed-sodding-back-to-back-beautiful-little girl was born. Thank goodness the doctors were right when they said that her pointy-head would return to normal as otherwise that would be something else that I would bear on my conscience. Because that was the thing – I bore my failure to push our daughter out of my fanny all by myself, heavily on my conscience. I felt like I had failed, I was weak, inadequate, unfit to be a mother, and that by having to have a “assisted” birth, I was somehow not qualified to be considered “woman”. My experiences left my fanny feeling like it had been hit with a NutriBullet for months afterwards, and rendered my mental health even messier.
A piece about the pain, guilt, the misery, the feelings of inadequacy and failure, the flashbacks, the resentment, and the at times all-consuming anger of the first few months of motherhood, was one of the first things I wrote about for this blog, and yet I have not published it. I find it almost a compulsion to talk about this time whenever I meet other mums, particularly new mums, because I am so keen that no other woman should ever feel as alone as I did in the first six months of our daughter’s life. But that blog post remains unshared. Is it judgement I fear? I don’t think so. Perhaps it just feels too personal, or too self-indulgent? Or perhaps, having moved on in my life, it just doesn’t feel that relevant anymore. This week however, Mental Health Awareness Week has prompted me to give this thought yet again, although this time from a different angle.
This year, the focus of the week is on the effect that mental illness has on relationships. I’ve done an awful lot of navel-gazing on the effects of undiagnosed PND or anxiety disorder, or whatever tsunami it was that flattened the carefully constructed version of myself that used to exist, but perhaps I have not given enough thought to the effect my craycray days had on the people around me.
On the “husband”, who watched me suffer in labour, helpless, powerless, and who had to twice beg the doctors to come and assess me when the agency midwife said they would not listen to her. He cried. I know he did. But he also remained strong and present and forgiving for the months of turmoil that followed. It wasn’t easy for him – he found the adjustment hard – and then he also had to live with me. A crazy women who basically made no sense. I look at photographs from this time in which I am smiling, and yet I know that the smile was only surface deep – underneath was someone constantly on The Edge, someone exhausted by thoughts, someone smiling but all too aware that she wasn’t happy. What must that have been like to live with?
On our beautiful daughter. This is hard to say but every day I look for signs that she has been affected by those dark days. I hated her baby days, and I look for signs that she is insecure or doesn’t feel loved – she gets quite anxious when the people around her are sad, upset or angry and I wonder whether I have caused that anxiety. I wonder whether her flashes of anger are attributable to the times when I sobbed and screamed at her to take a bottle because my nipples were burning with thrush. I felt like I was suffocating under the pressure of being the only one who could provide food for her – perhaps she learned her anger from me in those moments.
On my parents. I told my mum a little of what I was feeling at the time. I still don’t know whether they picked up on the depths to which I had sunk but I was so thin, I didn’t eat properly for months, and I know they worried.
The danger of all of this introspection however, is that it feeds into the narrative where I was at fault. Of course I rationally know that this was not the case – I was ill. My brain was broken – not beyond repair of course, but broken nonetheless. I know other people suffered too and it would be so easy to slip back into the guilt.
But what if I don’t? What if, instead, I change the narrative and look for the positives?
What if I linger on the fact that thanks to my experiences I am now more empathetic, more patient and more forgiving? And while people around me still wreck my head at times, I am much better at stopping and looking at things from their perspective. I hid my shocking mental state from everyone so I have realised that it is not possible to always know what is happening in someone’s head. And there are times when everyone needs to be cut some slack.
What if I linger on the closeness that I now enjoy with our daughter? What I learned about myself in those difficult first six months I believe has helped make me a more reflective, thoughtful, appreciative parent than I might otherwise have been – it hasn’t come easy, I’ve had to really work at it, and my bond with our wonderful little girl now makes my heart sing.
What if I linger over the joy that our son has brought me? Even on the days when everything went wrong, and everyone was ill, and no one was sleeping, I knew that it was infinitely better than what had happened the first time around. I remember bumping into my incredible midwife one day in the street a few months after the BSCB was born. She asked me whether I was enjoying him and it dawned on me that yes, yes I was! The pride and euphoria I felt at being able to feel and say that is impossible to describe.
So I wonder, what would it be like to live in a world where mental illness warranted no more or less judgement or curiosity than a broken ankle? This is why weeks like Mental Health Awareness Week are so important – because as uncomfortable as it feels, until there is no stigma, we have to keep talking.
But also I wonder whether it is possible to change the narrative – to turn something awful, something sad, into something good and thankful? This is what I want to do now.
And I want to remember to thank the people who loved me until I was me again.
For Ray, Ada, Zach, Mum and Dad.
This piece was inspired in part by the words of Sarah Willis, writer of “Changing the narrative”, a piece included in Issue Two of The Fourth Trimester Magazine. Thank you for making me think.