My personal experience of living with postnatal depression and anxiety, is one of sheer heartache, living on autopilot, and living with the constant feeling of having to fight for my life at any moment.
When my first child was born, I literally felt like I had been ripped apart, stitched back up again and then expected to carry on a few marathon nights of no sleep whilst caring for a screaming hungry newborn. That was the beginning. The beginning of the resentment, the overwhelming feeling of being trapped in a hell of my own creation.
I went undiagnosed for the first 18 months of my eldest son’s life. I struggled to bond with him initially, he cried a lot, and was later diagnosed with reflux. When I found out I was pregnant again 10 months later, I went into denial. I had only just started to bond with Darcy, he was finally settling and sleeping for extended periods of time, we were actually beginning to do fun things with him as a family, and he was enjoying it! I was looking forward to progressing in my career and the prospect of returning back to work. The thought of returning to 9 months of vomiting and constant nausea had me riddled with anxiety. Not to mention I was still dealing with and processing the traumatic birth, negotiating my return to work and now all of a sudden, I was about to experience it all over again.
On my first day back at work I had to tell my boss that I was pregnant again. Prior to going on maternity leave I had just managed to secure a leadership role in my organisation. I felt pressured to prove that I was ‘deserving’ of the role and felt expected to return to work full time. I managed to negotiate part time hours, although I still had a full-time workload to get through. I was trying to deal with Darcy’s transition into childcare for the first time and I was experiencing morning sickness all whilst leading a high functioning team. In hindsight, this would all be my undoing.
I tried so hard to show everyone that I could do it all. That I had my shit together. I let the fear of letting my colleagues and my team down get in the way of my own health and wellbeing. I didn’t want to deal with the impending birth of yet another baby, so I threw myself into my work, my husband and my son.
The second pregnancy flew by. At 35 weeks I developed a serious chest infection, but I tried to keep pushing on at work for fear of being labelled unreliable. It was no surprise that the last few weeks of my pregnancy I struggled physically, and mentally. I went into labour at 38 weeks whilst I was spring cleaning the pantry like a lunatic.
After Vincent born, I was now a mother to an 18 month old and a newborn! Life was hectic. Vincent struggled to feed well, he too had reflux and cried for a lot of the day. It made getting out of the house difficult, and because he was so highly strung I was constantly on edge.
During the first few months of Darcy’s life I was severely sleep deprived, I had lost my sense of self and I was mourning my old life. The relentless crying and unsettledness had me doubting my ability as a parent. The anxiety set in almost immediately, it started with irritability, all-consuming frustration of letting go of control over simple tasks like not having bottles washed by a certain time, etc. Paranoid about leaving the house in case he starts crying in public and I wouldn’t be able to calm him down.
The sleepless nights, and waking hourly led to the fogginess, I was unable to make decisions about simple things like what to eat or wear. Forgetting where things were, or not remembering the trip into town that I just drove. I eventually arrived at suicidal thoughts. Self-harm, as a way to escape my current situation. I used to imagine as I was driving into town that if I just drove into that tree, then maybe I would injure myself, just enough to end up in hospital and have people take care of me and I would be able to sleep. These thoughts became worse after the birth of Vincent. To the point of visioning what tree and how I would do it.
When Vincent was about 8 weeks old, I was sobbing uncontrollably on the bed after a full 48 hours of no sleep, I let it all out to my husband. I knew that what I was thinking, and feeling was so far from my normal, I knew that I had to get help immediately, or I would miss out on too much of my life and my kids.
My husband came with me to the GP where I was diagnosed with severe postnatal depression and anxiety. I got into a local perinatal depression and anxiety support program that works with families, including children and partners. I decided to go onto medication and to try psychotherapy. I visited my counsellor and psychiatrist fortnightly for 12 months. Slowly, the medication enabled me to think more clearly, it allowed the fog to lift so that I could utilise the tools and strategies that my counsellor and I talked about each session.
After 4 months of intense psychotherapy and determining the right dosage of medication I was able to focus, and really start to get excited by my future again. The depression and the thoughts of escaping left me. I still had a lot of work to do on my anxiety and stress, but I was able to see the light and most importantly, I was experiencing joy with my boys. A joy that I had never felt before.
Thankfully I was in a position where I was able to extend my maternity leave, thankfully when I decided to return to work at just part time they were more than accommodating in allowing me to return at a reduced role for 12 months until I could build back up my capacity to lead a high functioning team.
From my personal experience of motherhood so far I have really learned that it’s ok to be struggling. It’s ok to feel like you have made the worst mistake of your life. It’s ok to admit defeat and accept help in whatever form it comes.
I know that not returning to my leadership role, doesn’t make me a failure, it doesn’t make me any less capable than any other of my colleagues. It means that I’m in charge of my wellbeing, and I’m committed to putting myself first. At the end of the day, that’s the message I want to send to my children. That for me to be the best mum I can, I have to put myself first.
Now my boys are 2.5 years and 16 months and whilst I still take each day at a time, I finally have that feeling of all consuming love in my heart that all mums talk about. It bursts when they smile at me, and even though they still don’t sleep through the night, when I wake up to them during the night, I’m not overrun with fear and anxiety.
I truly believe the saying “Your biggest breakdown can lead to your biggest breakthrough”. Now that I am on the other side of this experience and have my life back again, I have launched my own business that supports mums to create their own wellbeing strategies. My personal story might be unique to me, but the reality is, that so many women will experience a similar journey, but we won’t often talk about it.
The biggest part of my healing journey has been talking about my struggles, my challenges, listening to other women and their experiences and their heartache. I am such a strong believer in owning your story and not being ashamed to share it. Every mother deserves the right to speak up about the struggles of parenthood and to reach out for help when it all gets too much.
Bek Hawker is a Nutritionist and Wellness Coach, supporting busy, overwhelmed Mums to achieve their wellness goals.