Depression and anxiety: with a toddler 

So far in this mini-series of blog posts about my mental health I’ve talked about how my struggles first came about, how I dealt with it then and  how I feel I’ve begun to tackle it now. But I’ve mostly avoided discussion about one pretty major component in it all; my daughter Millie.

If I boil it down my main problem was being overwhelmed with too many things to worry about on a day to day basis, and of course Millie is a huge part of that. There were days when I really struggled to just get to the end of the day, and I was so frustrated, but I knew that her demands weren’t anything out of the ordinary and the problems were mine.

As time wore on and I felt lower and lower, and I began to feel disconnected from her. If I tried to say no to something and she protested, I gave in instantly. I normally feel guilty if she watches any TV or if she eats something I think is unhealthy, but I just went with the quickest and easiest option instead. I was lacking the mental energy to cope with most things day to day, and that included Millie.

That’s actually quite painful to admit to. Obviously she was never neglected or open to harm in any way, but if I’m honest our emotional relationship suffered for a time, because I had just begun to go through the motions. I had to remind myself to get more involved with her; smile when she did something funny and looked at me for a response, sit with her and cuddle while she watched Peppa Pig for the millionth time, and just not let it go when she refused to do more important things like clean her teeth.

I had been signed off work and had decided to keep Millie in her routine of spending two days a week at nursery. She also spent a day a week with my sister in law, and my Mum and Dad would help out and take her for odd days too. If anyone was able to give me a few hours to myself, I took it.

I was drowning and constantly dreamed of ways out. I often fantasised that I could book somewhere and go away to just be completely by myself, because all I wanted was for everything in my life to stop and leave me alone. I particularly remember a day when my sister was off work after an operation and couldn’t drive, and we were going to visit her. She lives about 20 minutes from me and I packed Millie and the dog into the car, and cried the whole way there. I genuinely considered what might happen if I asked my sister to take Millie for a few weeks and just drove away.

Afterwards I felt ridiculous and incredibly guilty. I felt guilty because I knew I was letting Millie (and everyone else) down and giving her far less than she deserved from her mother. I felt guilty because other people were coping with more children and more complicated lives than me, and yet I was crumbling. I felt guilty because there are people who would give everything to be parents, and I was wishing my daughter away. I felt like a failure.

One day my Mum popped in to see us and Millie saw her at the door and immediately went to get her bag and shoes as if she was going out, and then cried when she realised her Nanny was staying in the house with us. That was a bit of a slap to be honest, because I realised just how accustomed she’d gotten to being taken by other people, and how my company was wasn’t enjoyable for her.

I slowly started trying to spend time with Millie one on one. We often do things with others, and I thought it would be good to be together, away from home (because we both go a bit stir crazy when we’re in for too long), with no expectations.

We went to a local play café, we went to the farm, we went to the forest. I tried to let go of everything else in my head and just see her. I would sit with her and talk, play, or do nothing, just watch her. Forget my worries about what she was eating, what else was going on that day, everything.

You know what I realised? I need her. Dear God, do I need her. All the time I had been pulling away from her, and yet when I began to let her back in, she was the one healing me. When I focused on her I could smile because I was happy, and laugh because I wanted to, not because I thought I should. Children are such unaffected, joyous little souls, and I was getting to share that, and see things the way she did.

She doesn’t give a shit if I didn’t shower today, or if she had spaghetti hoops for tea three times this week. Everything she does is interesting to her, or fun, and when I began to just follow her lead, I saw it that way too. I would come home from our times out feeling lighter, and a little at a time I was genuinely enjoying life more, in all aspects.

Millie and sleep have never been great pals and in the last few months she’s spent a lot of nights in bed with me, then more recently we’ve moved her bed into our room, and this has also been really wonderful. It’s meant her sleep has settled and she no longer wakes nearly as much at night, which helps with my sleep deprivation, and I love being so close to her. Laying in the dark and listening to her breathing is very relaxing, and always makes me feel comforted and warm. Then in the mornings she doesn’t wake crying, I roll over and she’s right there, all bed head and chatter.

Now I continue to make time from myself away from everything else, including Millie, because I know I need it, and I know it’s ok to have that. I also continue to make time for just the two of us, because it seems to centre me a bit, we always have a great time, and I know one day she’ll be grown and gone, and I will be fantasising about our lives now instead.

I’ve read a number of times that having time away from your kids makes you a better parent, and it’s so true. If I have time to refuel myself I can give her everything when we are together, and I’ve accepted that now. I’ve realised that I can’t learn to manage my mental health issues without her, so from here on in, it’s a team effort.

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Depression and anxiety: how it all began 

Towards the end of the summer last year, I began to realise I was having problems with my mental health. I’d had 10 days off work and spent them very wisely, with a trip to see relatives in Ireland and lots of time with my husband and daughter. I felt relaxed and happy, and yet I was dreading coming back to work, more so than I’d ever felt before. On my first day back I felt like a complete outsider within my very friendly team, and it took me a few hours to actually speak to anyone properly. It was very unlike me, but I put it down to work being particularly stressful at the time, perhaps a bit of post-holiday blues, and just carried on.

As the months wore on I was having bouts of sadness and feeling low, cancelling plans to see friends, and days where I struggled to even speak to people. Usually these things would shift or pass, but they were happening more often, and lasting longer. Christmas came and went, and then at the end of January this year, the situation came to a head.

Quite simply, I didn’t care anymore. I wrote in a blog post at the time that I felt like I was running and running on a treadmill and hadn’t ever considered just turning the speed down; I was completely mentally exhausted from just trying to keep up with every day. I was also very sleep deprived and getting up multiple times at night after having failed at trying to ‘sleep train’ my daughter, which really wasn’t helping. I’d completely lost the ability to deal with anything remotely stressful, like my brain had just shut down. If someone asked me a complicated question I’d struggle to answer and just stare at them. I was very sad and low, crying a lot (hiding in toilets became a regular activity), getting frustrated and angry a lot, forgetting things and having to constantly apologise to people for getting things wrong at work. In short, I was a mess.

I knew something wasn’t right, but I didn’t know how bad it was, or what to do about it. I clearly wasn’t coping well, because a few friends both in and out of work noticed I was struggling and helped me realise I needed to speak to someone and ask for help. I feel incredibly grateful because I think without the nudges I had from these lovely people, I’m not sure I would have been able to do it. To say you can’t cope with life is a very awkward conversation to have with anyone, and it was hard.

I was craving simplicity; trying to figure out if I could afford to quit my job and start again somewhere. If I could go away for a few months by myself so I didn’t have to think about anyone else. At the time Trump had just been elected and the news was rife with stories about him – stories that I would normally want to read, discuss, argue politics about – and I actively avoided it all because I couldn’t deal with it.

A big part of how I ended up this way, is that as well as being terrible at saying no to things, and thinking I had to take responsibility for other people as well as myself all the time, I have a particular issue with judging myself by higher standards than anyone else. I don’t know why, but somehow I always tell myself to just keep going where I never would expect the same of others. Had I been sat opposite anyone saying the things I was then, I would have taken them along to the doctor myself, but I needed to be told rather than give myself the same break. Thanks goodness for other people’s honesty!

Some people’s experiences of asking for professional support for mental health issues aren’t great, but the day I went the locum doctor I saw was incredibly understanding. She explained how our brains use adrenaline to kick start the ‘fight or flight’ response in stressful situations, and then afterwards your hormones return to a base level. Mine had not been returning to base level, meaning I was trying to operate in a crisis mode continuously, which is just not sustainable. It was a perfect illustration for how I’d been feeling, and I was incredibly relieved that someone got it, and also that it wasn’t all in my head! I was prescribed anti-depressants and signed off work to try and get some space and rest.

Before I went to see my GP the idea of not working for any length of time scared me, I worried about how it would impact everyone else, and what on earth I was supposed to do with myself while I was off, but with hindsight it was absolutely the best decision. I was spinning too many plates, and trying to operate in the same way as I always had before having a child, giving everything in my life the same importance as I did before.

Between trying to give full time effort to work as a part time member of staff, care for my daughter myself or arrange her care around my husband’s shifts, ensure the dog was walked and looked after every day, help care for my husband’s elderly grandmother, and keep up with housework, seeing family and friends and all the other trappings of life, it was too much. When I write it down it doesn’t seem like a very long list, but I was trying to put in more time and energy than I had to all of these things and inevitably failing. Something had to give, and the most obvious candidate was work.

I’m happy to report that, three months on, I’m feeling completely different. There was a time when I felt like I’d lost sight of who I was, and couldn’t be sure I’d ever get back to feeling better again, but I have. Right now I’m relaxed, happy, and with a far more positive outlook. It’s not a quick turnaround, and I know I’m not done yet, but I’m back to work and starting to get some normality back. I’m starting to get myself back, which right now feels really good.

Shameful as it is to admit it, I didn’t want to face what was happening initially. I felt I had to keep going, I couldn’t rest, that I was stronger than anxiety and depression, and it wouldn’t happen to me. Frankly that’s all bullshit, and it can happen to anyone, at any time. I’m glad it did, because I had to crack somehow in order to learn how to make some changes. Not the easiest of learning curves, but certainly one I’ve made progress on.

I’ve also learned a lot. I work for the NHS in a mental health trust and I thought I knew about depression and anxiety, but I didn’t really. I was surprised to find that my main issue has been anxiety, taking responsibility for and worrying about so many different things that it led me down a path to depression, and apparently the two often go hand in hand.

I’ve come to realise that I can say no, that looking after myself isn’t selfish, and sometimes I need to come first, otherwise I won’t be able to put anyone else first later on. I can tell you that I’m a better wife, mum, daughter, sister, friend, colleague (etc) and a better person overall for looking after myself. And I’m happier, which in the end is all I really want.