When writing this blog, I was surprised how therapeutic it felt to simply write the words down. For too long now I have lived in silence dealing with anxiety/depression and only a select few close to me know about it or understand it. I feel compelled to share my story because despite increased awareness around mental illness and a reduction in stigma, it still remains difficult for people like myself to open up about what it is like to live with it. I hope I can help other people to share their stories also, and to realise they aren’t alone.
Anxiety feels like my stomach is twisted, I have a tight chest, my heart is racing, my head is spinning, I can’t think straight and have trouble making basic decisions. Sometimes anxiety sneaks up on me and it’s just there. I can’t put my finger on a trigger and don’t know why it came about, but once it’s there, it’s really difficult to shake. Growing up my family struggled with communication, and I was taught to sweep things under the rug. Not intentionally of course; my parents just did what they knew from their own childhood. My dad has struggled with alcohol since I can remember, and I believe this was a major factor in the onset of my anxiety. Because I never saw my mum or dad talk about their feelings, I adopted the habit of bottling things up and struggled with expressing the emotions that I felt.
Somehow this anxiety didn’t seem to affect me socially going through the primary school years. I was very popular, confident, outgoing and made friends easily. But somewhere between going through puberty and moving onto high school the anxiety took a strangle hold on me. My confidence plummeted and as a young teen, other kids sensed this and I struggled to forge new friendships. Thankfully I found a small group who were genuinely good people and understood me. I quite often felt extremely nervous driving to school and as a way of trying to feel in control I would run over different scenarios in my head. Pubescent teens can be like a pack of hyenas who can smell fear like a rotting carcass from a mile away. They can be ruthless and for many years of high school I suffered bullying…Every. Damn. Day.
I remember walking down the corridor and feeling like everyone was watching my every move. It felt like I had to use effort to control my body and I wished I could just disappear right there and then. I didn’t know at the time that this was social anxiety. I ended up changing schools a few times and my anxiety peaked in year 11, where it became so debilitating that I would cry when I woke in the morning because I was so fearful of facing another day of school. I ended up finishing the last term of year 11 from home. I told my mum I didn’t want to go back to complete my year 12 as I hated the school environment so much. The next best solution was to complete year 12 at an adult education center in the city. It was the best thing I could have done given the circumstances. It was like a uni where you attended classes and on breaks you could do as you please; go to a café or a shop in the city, do whatever you like. The thing I liked most about that was there was no pressure to fit in, no agendas and no social cliques. Nobody judged each other, we were all there to achieve the same goal. Get it done. Just a bunch of people, some like me who had social anxiety, people with other mental illnesses, ladies that had their babies in high school and even some older people doing subjects as a hobby.
After year 12 getting my licence helped gain independence which eased some of my anxiety and life was pretty steady with normal ups and downs for many years. That was until I met my ex. I should have got out when I started seeing the warning signs, but my mum calls me the ‘Mother Theresa.’ I thought I could help him, I thought things would get better- but they didn’t. People don’t change who they are deep down in their soul. They can try and change on the surface to keep you happy, but that soul will keep rearing its ugly head. It took me a long time to realise I was in an emotionally abusive relationship. I was living with crippling anxiety and felt like I was constantly walking on eggshells. This in turn lead to depression and affected my memory, which is still a problem to this day. Every time I was faced with a confronting situation, my brain would just shut down. Completely blank. Very slowly, without me realising, he broke down my confidence, connection with my family, my friends and everything that I knew about me. I remember the day I left, I felt like someone who had been stuck in a concentration camp for years and had their one opportunity to escape. I had to escape the grip of his control and I did. I was free. But I was left an empty shell – a broken woman.
I spent the next few months digging deep, rediscovering my identity. I knew so clearly the type of man I wanted in my life and I’d never settle for second best again. That’s when my soulmate came into my life. He was the last step in my healing process and became my rock and the love of my life. Fast forward a little while – around the same time I found out I was pregnant, sadly my mum was diagnosed with stage three bowel cancer. She had to go to hospital for a bowel operation soon after, with six months of chemotherapy to follow. Prior to this I’d been suffering a bout of anxiety, but when my mum informed me of the news, somehow this bizarre effect came over me. It was like my body’s way of protecting the baby from an extreme case of anxiety and I couldn’t believe how calm and clear minded I felt about the diagnosis. I was completely there for my mum, but I felt as though my brain shut off my emotion towards it, in order to protect the pregnancy. Mum’s chemo finished about a month before I gave birth so I was thankful that she wouldn’t be going through that when bub arrived.
After bub arrived it felt like groundhog day. I was sore, I was struggling and I felt physically broken. I was so utterly caught up in the process and feeling overwhelmed, I didn’t have the ability to just sit and soak up this new baby fantasy that so many talk about. My anxiety quickly crept up on me again and I was upset with myself because I didn’t feel overwhelming love for this new little person that has come into my life. It almost felt like I was in a state of shock. I didn’t have time to think, it was just go, go, go. To rub salt into the wound further I felt really hurt that nobody seemed overly concerned with how I was feeling. Every question was about the baby. We struggled with breastfeeding for the first six weeks and I felt myself cracking under pressure I put on myself to try and make it work. Feeding was painful and I hated being stuck to a pump for most of the day. I felt ashamed that I was hating breastfeeding and it was such a negative experience for us. I felt pressure from many people around me, and society in general, and I remember breaking down one day after seeing the Maternal and Child Health Nurse (MCHN). I put a lot of unnecessary pressure on myself, and time and energy to try and force the issue for a lot longer than I should have… and it took a great toll on my mental health.
For the first six weeks I isolated myself because of this. We also had some day sleeping troubles- bub didn’t like to sleep in the pram, so the thought of attempting to go out was just too much to bear. Because I didn’t take bub out much he wasn’t used to being in the car and struggled to sleep. So when I had to go to a foreign place for my fiance’s work lunch, I was extremely anxious. As soon as I arrived to park at the shopping center, I started to feel it creeping over me. I was already on edge as bub had been crying most of the way there. I felt lost in this place and didn’t know where I was going. I felt the sweat beads forming on my nose and I felt overwhelmed and dizzy. In the end my fiance had to come and get me to help calm me down. In an attempt to gain control of the sleep situation, and in a similar way to the breastfeeding issues, I spent hours of my time trying to find solutions to the problems we were having.
I would Google till my eyeballs hurt and would tirelessly sift through forum threads and articles whilst on hold to the maternal health lines. My MCHN convinced me that I should try out mothers group and I went twice. Both times I went my anxiety was through the roof because I knew bub wouldn’t sleep in the pram. Seeing all these babies sleeping perfectly in their prams made me feel even worse whilst I was walking around the room rocking my bub like a mad woman trying to get him to sleep. I went a second time, but was very unsettled again. I knew he needed to be fed toward the end but I couldn’t get out of there quick enough. I went to my car and cried whilst I bottle fed my bub. This was the last straw for me. I rang my fiance and I got us on the waiting list to go to the Mother and Baby Unit at Mitcham Private Hospital, otherwise known as ‘sleep school.’
When I got the call saying there was a cancellation and to come in, it was a massive weight off my shoulders. It also said in their information that they could help mothers experiencing post-natal anxiety and depression so I felt like I was going to get the help that I desperately needed. We were there a total of five weekdays and they only had one one hour group session with a psychologist. I felt this special connection with this lady and I felt like I could talk to her so I requested to see her again alone. When she visited my room I poured my heart out and basically told her my life story of anxiety and depression. She said she wanted to organise for me to be admitted the next day to their Perinatal Mental Health ward. She told me people stay there as long as they need. It could be three days, it could be three weeks, months even. She made it sound wonderful and I felt like I was making the right decision to stay rather than go home with my fiance.
Once I was taken upstairs to the ward I started to freak out. I looked around my room and looked in the bathroom. It was cold and sterile. There was nothing on the walls, there was no shower screen or curtain, not even a bin liner in the bin. I realised pretty quickly that the rooms are suicide proof. I cried to my fiance and told him to take me home, but he told me I needed to get help and that it was the right place for me to be. He was genuinely concerned that my problems were starting to get out of hand. To make my anxiety worse, bubs cot was in my room, and with the techniques I’d been using to settle him, it was virtually impossible to implement them without being in his own room.
I spoke briefly to a psychiatrist and in the blink of an eye he put me on to a new medication. I asked the nurse for details and she just told me it will make me feel better. They constantly fed me Clonazapam as well as my normal anxiety/depression medication and the mental health nurse was constantly checking on all the patients. There was no way my anxiety was bad enough to need what is basically a tranquiliser. I feel like they force them down your throat, over medicating patients to maintain control. I legitimately felt like I was going to go insane if I stayed there a minute longer. Being in that place made me feel insane. All I wanted to do was be at home together as a family. I felt extremely angry at my fiance for him telling me I should stay there and I needed the help. I understood his concerns and I knew I needed help, but it was not the place for me. The next morning I rang him from the bathroom in tears. I begged him to come and pick me up and he did. It was hard for me to leave as I felt pressured by the staff to stay – even though its voluntary admission. I had to be firm with them and told them I know I’m going to be much happier at home and I know I can get the help I need from home.
Since leaving there I have improved so much. I have finally learnt to let go and stop trying to control the situation so much, and through that my anxiety has eased greatly. I also went up on my anxiety medication (I was on the lowest dosage throughout pregnancy) and that has made a huge difference. I definitely have situations that test me almost every day, but I now feel like most of the time I have control over the situation, rather than feeling like the situation is controlling me.
In regards to Post-Natal Depression, as a society if we can nurture new mothers as much as we nurture new babies, we could see big changes. Nothing can prepare someone for parenthood, but if we have a strong and empathetic support network, I know we would cope a whole lot better. Just like any other parent out there, there are highs and lows, good days and bad days. I’m just going with it, enjoying the ride and now stopping to smell the roses where I can. If my story can connect to just one person, and help them feel they aren’t alone in their struggle, then this blog has served its purpose.