After my son was born, I was diagnosed with severe postnatal depression and psychosis. Increasingly suicidal and only barely functioning, I was hospitalised twice in 12 months. Recovery has been slow, gruelling and incredibly humbling. Without doubt, it's been the toughest few years of my life.
If you've been diagnosed with postnatal depression and you're wondering what recovery feels like (or if it's even possible), I'm writing this for you. I've been there. And this is what I want you to know.
• You're not a burden, not to your friends or your family or your child. They're not better off without you. We all have moments in our lives when we need to rely on and ask for help from others; it's simply your turn. Asking for support when you need it, and accepting it when it's offered, is one of the bravest things you can do.
• Getting better isn't linear. There will be days when you will feel as though someone has picked you up from a hard-fought point in your recovery and thrown you backwards. The tears will be close to the surface, your heart will hurt. You won't have fallen as far as it feels, though, and it becomes just that little bit easier to get back up.
• Have a "bad day" plan ready. Know who to call when you're feeling low, and then pick up the phone: call your GP, or call the PANDA (Post and Antenatal Depression Association Inc.) helpline, or call your partner or your mum or your best friend. Venture outside with the pram and feel the sun on your face. Leave the housework and other non-essentials and be kind to yourself. The bad days do pass. And you'll see them less often as the months go on.
• If you feel as though you've lost your hope, let others carry it for you. Let your family and your friends and your doctor, psychologist, psychiatrist (or whichever professional you're engaged with) hold it for safe-keeping. Let them believe that you'll get well. Eventually, you'll believe it too.
• At times, you'll wonder when you'll start to feel like yourself again. And the truth is that you won't. Not completely, anyway. You can't help but come through the other side of PND changed. You'll see the world differently. And it's hard to explain, because it will vary for everyone, but you'll find there's a richness to life, an appreciation of the simple pleasures and a knowledge of the rhythm of sadness. And that knowledge and appreciation builds resilience, a steely inner strength you'll draw on, for years to come.
• At some point, as you start to feel better, you'll realise just how ill you were. With the clarity of recovery comes a deep and incredibly painful awareness of the time you've lost. I couldn't remember most of my son's first year and the grief I felt was immense. But the sadness lessens gradually as you seize the present. And as you look to the future with hope and health.
• You will fall in love with life again. It will happen slowly and then one day, you'll be dancing with your little one in the lounge room, or swimming in the ocean, or tasting coffee – actually tasting it instead of gulping it down – and you'll smile and know that you're getting there.
• Over the last 12 months I stood on the Eiffel Tower with my husband, watched dear friends and family get married and have children, and saw my own son developing into a cheeky, heart-stoppingly gorgeous preschooler. And I've thought: "I could have missed this." While that feeling of sheer terror, joy and relief is near impossible to capture with words, I think this comes pretty close: I'm just so glad I'm here.
If you are distressed, you can call the PANDA Helpline on 1300 726 306 (10am - 5pm AEST Monday to Friday). You can also visit their website for information on PND symptoms, treatment and recovery.
For after-hours assistance you can call Lifeline: 131 114.