'If she died, everything would be OK ...'
Early intervention is important in treating post-natal depression.
Postnatal depression (PND) is something most mums worry about at some stage of their pregnancy. Will I get it? How will I know if I have it? What's the difference between 'the baby blues' and PND? And with PND affecting almost 16 per cent of women giving birth in Australia, chances are many of you reading this have experienced it in some form.
I've been incredibly fortunate not to have experienced PND, but wanted to write about this very important topic, so I asked my friend Nat to speak to me about her experiences. Nat was in my mothers' group when I had my first baby, and I remember our first meeting as if it was yesterday. Going around the circle of frazzled and shell-shocked new mums, each sharing our experiences of the first few weeks of motherhood, I remember Nat being a bit teary. But then I remember nearly every mum being a bit teary, as we all recounted our last weeks of lost sleep and over-whelming fatigue. In the weeks that followed I remember Nat struggling with breastfeeding, but I too remember many of the mums struggling with it, some putting on a brave face and others honestly sharing their frustrations with the group. And I remember, in the months that followed, Nat bravely sharing that she'd done the test for PND and had rated a very high positive. Soon after that we moved interstate and, while we've kept in touch online, I never knew the depths of what Nat went through during that time we met each week.
I so wish I'd known, so I could’ve been there for her. When she spoke with me about her experiences I was in awe of both her strength in overcoming it and in sharing her story so openly, so it might help others. It's so important that we shine a light on depression, so people know the signs to look out for and understand that they're not alone in going through it. So I thank Nat for being so open with us and I hope her story impacts you as powerfully as it did me.
Nat, tell me about your experience with your first child, Ella, and how you came to be diagnosed with PND.
I had a relatively good pregnancy which ended in a difficult labour and emergency cesarean. Looking back, I think this may have been the start of my depression, as I felt like a failure and blamed myself for not having a natural birth. From the day Ella was born I would get teary. I blamed it on the fact that I'm a really emotional person and was so happy to have a girl, which I desperately wanted. I had problems breastfeeding and Ella wasn't sleeping well - she would only catnap during the day and I found I got angry with her. I remember swearing at her and calling her names. Although I never felt the urge to hurt her, a couple of times when she woke after a 10- or 20-minute nap I'd find myself thinking "If only she died of SIDS, everything would be OK". I would cry when my husband went to work and feel scared to be left alone with her - not because I was scared of what I would do to her, but I would just feel scared that I had to look after this baby all by myself. I just felt so overwhelmed. I also wondered why the hell I'd had this baby and wished that I hadn't - I'd ruined my life. I just wanted to go back to a job where I only had to work from 9am-5.30pm, five days a week. My colleagues all had lunch breaks, weekends, annual leave and sick leave to look forward to - I didn't. I'd lost my life for the next 18 years.
All the mums in my mother's group seemed so happy with their babies, but I just seemed to struggle so much. The other mums didn't want to part with their baby, but I couldn't wait to pass my baby onto my parents for a break. I didn't realise that these feelings weren't normal, and that other mums wouldn't be feeling like this. Believe it or not, although I was aware of PND, and in fact had expected to get PND (due to a family history of depression), it didn't occur to me that I had it.
I was also petrified about how I would cope looking after 2 kids, how on earth would I manage them both.
Ella was around nine weeks old when I started having this funny feeling in my chest whenever she cried, like I couldn't breathe. I didn't know what it was. I told my Mum about it and she told me to go to the doctor and get checked for postnatal depression. So I did the Edinburgh test and it turns out I had a fairly severe case, and I was prescribed some medication.
I had no idea you were going through any of this. It just goes to show you never know what people are dealing with behind closed doors. How did you feel when you found out you were suffering from PND - was it a relief to know there was a reason you felt like you did?
The day I went to the doctor, I was still in denial and struggled to accept the medication. Even though I trusted my doctor I still didn't really think I needed them, because I thought I wasn't depressed. I was still only crying because I'm just an emotional person and was so happy to have a little girl. It took me a week and a lot on convincing by the doctor, my mum and my husband to accept I had PND and to start taking the medication.
What was the treatment and how quickly did you notice a difference?
Anti-depressants were prescribed and I noticed a difference within about a week after taking them. It wasn't until I started feeling better, not crying, not having panic attacks and ugly thoughts, that I realised I had been suffering PND and all these things I experienced weren't normal. I remember a few weeks after taking the meds, my husband and I were taking pictures of our baby and he said, "It's so nice to see you smiling again."
I often still think about those dark thoughts when I wished Ella would die from SIDS. I feel so, so guilty and thank God that she didn't. I almost feel too guilty to tell people out loud - but at the same time I do tell people as I want them to know how horrible this depression can be.
When you were pregnant with your second child, Heidi, were you worried you'd get PND again? Did you know to look for the signs this time?
I was very aware that the chances of me getting PND again were very high. I made sure my midwife knew and I also reminded myself of coping mechanisms when the next baby came along. When Heidi was born I knew the signs to look for, so although I was pretty teary during my pregnancy and after Heidi arrived, I didn't have any panic attacks or bad thoughts, and thought I'd escaped PND this time.
This time, though, the depression came in a very different form. Rather than me thinking horrible things and feeling regretful, this time I suffered more from paranoia and excessive worrying – about everything, but mainly the health of my new baby. For no real reason, except that she slept a lot, I constantly worried that Heidi was disabled or might have brain damage. Heidi was a very sleepy baby and rather than enjoying my wonderful sleeper, I spent the whole time worrying. Since my first baby hardly slept at all, I assumed this wasn't normal. She also didn't feed well and was slow to put on weight. After reading a chapter in a breastfeeding book, it mentioned that babies with Down syndrome had trouble putting on weight. So I googled it for all the symptoms and started convincing myself Heidi had them.
My mum picked up on all this and once again sent me to the doctor. Again, I denied I had PND, I didn't realise it could come in the form of excessive worrying, so it wasn't a sign I'd been looking out for. I eventually came round and accepted that I had it again, and started on anti-depressants for another 12 months.
This time I found it harder to accept I had PND, as I was embarrassed about it. I was embarrassed as to why all these women can have babies and cope wonderfully, yet I obviously wasn't cut out to be a mother and couldn't cope. Once the medication kicked in, I was able to accept it and not feel SO embarrassed – but there is a little still.
What advice would you give to those who are currently going through PND, or to those who think someone in their life is going through it?
To seek help and to talk about it - it's more common than you think. Get in touch with a support group for PND sufferers, as it does help to know that you're not alone and there are others that have those same feelings. Sometimes you just need someone else to say, "Oh, I feel like that too" and not judge you.
And accept help where offered. I never feel guilty about taking a break from the kids if they stay overnight; it helps me recharge and be in a better mood when I see them again. I still get frustrated with them, but I know all mums have bad days from time to time.
If you feel you may be suffering from PND, please seek help and speak to your GP, or contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36 www.beyondblue.org.au
Have you experienced PND? Please share your story in the Essential Baby forum, as the EB community is a wonderful avenue of support.