A letter to myself

I found out recently that maternal mental health awareness week was happening this week (1-7 May), and it got me thinking. Having a child – whether you’re pushing it out, having it surgically removed, adopting or whatever else – is the most incredible life change. There is no amount of reading or research that can prepare you for the sudden weight of responsibility in keeping such a small person alive. It’s a 24 hour operation, and if ever there’s a time in your life when your normal defences are down, and you are vulnerable to a bit of mental pressure, this is definitely it.

Some people take to it like they were born to (the buggers), but others, like me, don’t. I suffered with post-natal depression in the months after Millie was born, and at the time I thought there was something wrong with me. I refused medication, I didn’t talk about it, and I pushed on through. My life and experiences may have evolved and moved on, but there are many, many more people out there feeling like I did then. Eighteen months on, I’ve written my new mum self a letter with some advice I wish I’d had the courage to ask for then.

Dearest Liz,

Hits you like a brick wall, doesn’t it? I mean, you expected it, but you also really didn’t, and it’s hard. It’s so very hard sometimes, and you need to acknowledge that; you don’t have to brave face it all the time.

We need to just set a baseline here – you’re doing a good job. You know why? Because you give a shit. I read this recently and it makes total sense. The very fact that you worry about Millie getting the best, and feel guilty about what you think she might be missing out on, makes you a good mum. If you weren’t you wouldn’t care. Take heart in that.

I know it’s a rollercoaster. I know that you can’t leave her sight for a second, and that sometimes when you do the cry you hear makes every nerve in your body jangle, and you need to take a breath before you can walk back in and paint on a smile for her. I also know that when she smiles back and kicks those little legs because she’s happy just to see you, your heart melts. I can see it in your face. She’s a powerful being, and personally I think mother nature makes babies that way on purpose. They have to be so delicious in order for you to take the hardship – they give you strength.

You need to draw on this strength when you are at your lowest. Those times when you think she’d be better off without you, and you want to disappear? That it would be easier if you just kept driving and never stopped? You’re wrong. You need each other, right now more than ever.

You are strong, you are doing a brilliant job, you are not failing her, she does not deserve a better mum. There is no one better than you to look after your daughter.

I know you can hear all this, but you don’t believe a word of it. You feel battered, exhausted beyond the realms of possibility, and like you’re falling at every hurdle. There are days when you feel disconnected, and have nothing left, and can’t summon the energy to look after yourself, let alone a baby. And that’s ok. There is no overnight fix, and for now just that you’re hearing the words is enough, but you must never, ever forget them. When you lay down on the floor on her mat just to get a better look at her and drink her in, or during the many hours you sit staring at her sleeping on your chest, tell yourself how great you are. When you look in the mirror and cringe at your reflection, or hold back tears because she’s been crying for hours, tell yourself again. The smiles, the contented naps, the giggles, are all because of you. She’s figuring out a lot right now and growing fast, so she’s got a tough job to do too. You are all she wants in the middle of all that; you’re her whole entire world. You must be pretty bloody special to hold that spot.

Now I’m nearly done. See that bloke on the other end of the sofa? The one holding his iPhone? Tell him. Tell him everything you’re feeling, and ask him to help. He won’t be sure how, because he can’t be when you don’t even know yourself, but you can’t do this alone. Plus he’s not a mind reader! Then tomorrow text one of your friends and do the same. It’s scary to be so honest when you’re breaking inside, but it’ll be worth it. BT once said it’s good to talk, and they weren’t wrong. It takes a village to raise a child, so start getting your village on board!

Finally, step back and look after yourself now and again, don’t try and do it all. Walking the dog is driving you insane so get someone else to do it, and stop thinking about the hoovering, and making people cups of tea when they pop in. In fact some days you don’t have to say yes to them popping in at all if that’s what you want! Let people do more for you, it’s not for you to look after everyone all the time. Focus on you and Millie, get fresh air, take more baths, eat all the chocolate.

Oh darling, when I think of you now it makes me quite emotional, and I just want to scoop you up and hold you. It will get better, and as that little girl grows you will too. I promise.

Don’t be afraid to put yourself first sometimes. Millie needs you to.

Me xx

Post natal depression 

October 10, 2016, is World Mental Health Day, and though people are talking about this whole subject much more now than in previous years, it’s still far too much of a taboo, so I’m sharing my story so far. If any of this identifies with you or someone you know, please talk about it xxx

I finally realised I had post natal depression when Millie was about four months old. I was out for a drink with a friend and she commented on what a great job I was doing with my daughter, and I tried to say thank you but burst into tears instead. I was so embarrassed, but I just couldn’t hear it. A great job was the total opposite of what I felt like I was doing.

I thought I knew all about PND. I work for an NHS trust that provides both mental health care and health visiting services, so I’d read the blurb, written the advice, and as a mum I’d sat through the appointments, checks and been asked the questions. I knew the signs, but I’d just been ignoring them. I thought it wasn’t going to happen to me.

I knew something wasn’t right, but I found it incredibly hard to face up to that, or speak to someone. I’d gotten through the ‘baby blues’ stage, where the most attention is paid to the risk of PND, and was getting more sleep, had a good routine with Millie, I’d built confidence in knowing what she needed and when, and I had lots of family and friends to support me. So why was it so bloody hard?

At the time I was not only managing a small person, but also doing quite a lot to help care for my husband’s grandmother, who suffers with dementia and had some time in respite before moving to a care home, and we also have a dog. The dog is a minor point to many but she was my tipping point. At the end of every marathon day juggling feeds, naps, changes, appointments, phone calls and whatever else, I’d get through the door exhausted to see a hopeful little furry face. She was someone else who needed something from me and it was just too much.

When I got to the point of saturation, I got angry. Not necessarily at anyone, but just lashed out. I did a lot of shouting and crying in the car, which Millie was often audience to. Sometimes she was the source of my exasperation and I lost count of how often I’d raise my voice at her and say ‘I don’t know what you want!’. Sorry pumpkin.

My other outlet was the shower. I’ve spent a lot of time crying in the shower, telling Millie how sorry I was, how much I’d failed her, and that she deserved far better than me. Millions are bringing up children every day and doing an amazing job, and yet after only four months I thought I’d fucked it all up, and should probably just leave.

I know I’m lucky to have been blessed with a child, and I know there are people fighting much greater battles than me. But in the midst of all this I’m afraid that knowledge meant jack shit and didn’t change how I felt every day, it just made me feel more guilty for feeling it at all.

There’s an analogy I read that really hit home for how I was feeling; pouring from an empty cup.  When you always trying to give yourself to others and fill their cups until yours is empty and you’ve nothing left to give, and no one’s giving anything to you either.

There was too much going on so my brain just clocked off for a bit. I couldn’t concentrate on anything, or be bothered to speak to anyone, and became very withdrawn. I’d feel incredibly low and couldn’t see how I was helping anyone.
I eventually went to see a GP, was prescribed anti depressants, which I didn’t take. Even as she was printing the prescription I knew I wouldn’t. I felt like taking them was giving in somehow, which I know is bloody ridiculous. I also still didn’t talk to anyone, which is even more ridiculous, and just pushed on.

Christmas came and went, and then in the New Year my cloud began to lift. The festive season brings such disruption to routine that I was distracted, and as things around me began to settle I felt much brighter, and was able to enjoy life more. I can’t say there was anything I did really, but things just felt easier after a while.

I think depression skews your coping mechanisms long term, and I’m definitely still dealing with that. I’ve always considered myself to be pretty strong emotionally, and in almost every job interview I’ve had I’ve confidently told people that I thrive on crisis, and perform best under pressure. I know now that the opposite is true after having a baby!

My job can be pretty full on, and has certainly been stressful since I went back to work six months ago, as well coordinating childcare and home, friends, family etc. The treadmill of life has been whacked up a few notches and I do struggle to keep up! Now I’ve felt depression I sometimes can tell that I’m dancing around it again, which I suppose is good as a warning sign, and I know I need to act rather than just ignore it now.

With hindsight I think my case was pretty mild, but I don’t really know, and it definitely didn’t feel mild at the time. I’ve heard and read stories from people who suffered far worse experiences than me, and it can be devastating to deal with. What I do know is that you can’t face it alone. Now when I’m feeling low I try and talk to people more, and it really does help, and in fact just hearing from others online and feeing less alone is a huge support. Not letting anyone in just isolates you further, which is the last thing you need. I also love long hot baths and finding time to read. You have to make it about you sometimes!

Although those crappy inspirational quotes that flood social media are annoying, some of them really are true. You can only take life a day at a time, and sometimes you just have to let things go and focus on what’s important. And actually, I’m pretty bloody important. ❤️