What I learnt about motherhood and PND on the psych ward

The "myths of motherhood" still need challenging.
The "myths of motherhood" still need challenging. Photo: Shutterstock

I am standing at the barre in pointe shoes, ready for my adult ballet class, when I feel the ground jolt beneath me. It's my body's violent, unsubtle, reminder that I forgot to take my antidepressants the night before, an experience I have come to know as "withdrawal shocks". 

The music for class begins, and the buzzing, which starts in my head and ripples through to my toes, has its own tempo, appearing every few minutes as I bend, and stretch and spin. Taking those tiny pills has become such a part of my every day routine that when I forget, and when those buzzes once again wrack my body, it's a surprise. And it tugs me right back there, to the beginning, when I was a brand new mum with severe psychotic depression.

It's been five years since I first felt those shocks as an inpatient, withdrawing from an antidepressant on a mother and baby psychiatric ward. I was admitted with my nine-month-old son, suicidal, broken, bereft, tapering off a drug that simply wasn't working. Nothing was. My heart had fallen out, motherhood had left my life, and my self, completely unrecognisable and my entire body ached with fatigue. 

A day out with family during my hospital stay.
A day out with family during my hospital stay.  Photo: Supplied

When the nurse took me to my room in the hospital, my home for the next three weeks, I climbed into bed and sobbed until my chest hurt. I should have been going to mothers' group and pushing my son on the swings. Instead I was on a psych ward waiting to be seen by a harried registrar, yet another doctor who couldn't fix me. 

That I couldn't just be "fixed", that recovery would take time, was one of many things I learnt about motherhood, postnatal depression, psychosis, and recovery during my weeks in the mum and baby unit. Here are just some of the others:

The "myths of motherhood" still need challenging

"Breastfeeding should come naturally." "The love between a mother and her baby is instant." "Becoming a mum is the happiest most fulfilling thing you'll ever do."

For so many mothers, trying to live up to these pervasive myths only leads to a crippling sense of inadequacy and failure. I know now that not every mum bonds with their bub straight away and that it's okay not to feel completely fulfilled by motherhood alone. But as a new mum I couldn't understand why my own experience didn't fit with my expectations, with the narrative society had lead me to believe was "correct". And it broke me.

I eventually realised that being a "good-enough mother" a term first coined by English paediatrician and psychoanalyst DW Winnicott is far more realistic than being a "perfect" one, but it was a brutal truth to accept.

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Postnatal depression and anxiety is really hard on partners

As we adjusted to life on the ward, to psychiatric assessments, to medication doled out in tiny paper cups and sessions on mindfulness and CBT, our partners had to adjust, too. 

Many found themselves in the strange new role of "carer", a bewildering, emotionally and physically exhausting reality as they juggled parenting and work and hospital visits.

If you know someone experiencing postnatal depression or anxiety, make sure you also check in on their partner. Their heart needs holding, too.

There's no shame in asking for and accepting help

While our stories, our backgrounds, our symptoms, were all different, there was one thread common to all of the mums on the ward with me -  a sense of shame that we were there, that we needed help. 

For many of us, being admitted to hospital followed a long period of suffering in silence, leading, eventually, to a crisis point. There is no shame in not being okay, in not coping and in seeking help. 

If you give one piece of advice to the new mums and dads in your life, please, make it that. 

Sometimes you might just find friends in low places

You're not really supposed to make friends on the psych ward and they tell you not to exchange contact details with other patients. The reasoning, of course, makes sense - your focus should be on your own recovery, not supporting other mothers in theirs. 

I did make a friend, however, a tentative, gentle connection with a woman whose baby was around the same age as mine. We spent hours doing loops of the park outside the hospital with our prams, trying to work out why our brains no longer worked the way they used to. We learnt one another's lives over terrible hospital coffee and in the group therapy that tore us open and helped stitch us back together. We promised to stay in touch "in the outside world". And we did, and we still do.

There's such power in finding someone who can sit with you, in your pain, and make space for you, without necessarily knowing the answers. Connecting with another who's been through the same thing, whether it's at the same time or lived experience from the past can be validating in the most therapeutic way.

What helps will be different for everyone

Not long after I left hospital, I saw the film Silver Linings Playbook starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. The scene where Bradley and Jennifer are talking about the various psychiatric medications they've tried, and the different side effects that come with them, felt oh-so real, a raw reminder of just how trial and error recovery from mental illness can be. But it's not just the dose and kind of medication - or whether meds are needed at all - that will differ from one patient with PND to another. 

Despite swearing that if anyone "made" me do art therapy I'd pack my bags and leave hospital, to my surprise, in that little art room, my thoughts settled - ever so briefly.

For me, recovery took two hospital admissions, the right combination of drugs, support from friends and family, my GP, a skilled psychiatrist who helped piece me back together, and time - years, in fact. For some women it's mindfulness, regular exercise, or moving in with family for help with bub while you catch your breath.

Working out what helps can be frustrating when you simply want to feel better and get on with your life. But it's worth the wait - I promise. 

If you are suffering from anxiety or depression, or know someone who might be, contact BeyondBlue.org.au (call 1300 224 636), LifeLine (call 13 11 14 or chat online after hours), or PANDA National Helpline (1300 726 306).

12–18 November 2017 is Perinatal Depression & Anxiety Awareness Week. For more information visit PANDA