This week is Pre & Post Natal Depression Awareness Week. Every week is something ‘awareness’ week of course.
Pre & Post Natal Depression Awareness Week is important though, because pre and post natal depression isn’t something people talk about enough. Everyone knows it exists, whether you think it is just ‘the baby blues’ or whether you know it for the black hole of darkness it is, but no one talks about it. Which is a tragedy, because it's 2016 and women are still taking their own lives due to a treatable illness, and talking about PND is probably one of the best things people can do to encourage women suffering from it to seek help and support.
PND is possibly one of cruellest jokes played by nature and society. When you are at your most vulnerable; sleep deprived; physically drained by pregnancy and/or child birth; nipples cracking and bits sagging; already terrified of the responsibility of keeping this tiny monster alive, when everywhere you look there are new and alarming ways for it to try and die on you if you just do one little thing wrong- that’s when Mother Nature says “Ha ha, girl! You think this is bad? I’m going to mess with your hormones even more than I already have, and we’ll see how you like them apples”. At the same time society keeps telling you how happy you should be; how grateful you should be for your healthy baby; that you have now fulfilled your prime function as a woman and you need to get on with it, ideally with a smile on your face, you miserable cow, because don’t you know there are lots of women who aren’t as lucky as you, and look how shiny and jolly other mothers are, in their white sparkly t-shirts without baby sick on them, so clearly you are the one messing up if you don’t feel like that.
Pre and post-natal mental illness, usually in the form of depression, anxiety or psychosis affects one in five mothers in the UK. That’s 20% of us. If you’re sitting at a Mother and Baby group with twenty women, that means at least four women there are suffering (and you really suffer) from some form, as well as enduring terrible coffee and wondering how many grubby children have put that toy in their mouth before your baby picked it up.
And yet nobody talks about it. Women talk about almost everything else, especially after childbirth. It is not unusual to describe intimate details of your labour to someone you have known for about five minutes: you describe if you tore or were episiotomied, and how many stitches you got in your bits, but no one feels they can say “I feel so wretched alone. I don’t know if I can do this.” And it is this silence which allows PND to perpetuate its vicious circle- like many mental illnesses, it makes you feel alone and isolated. The more alone and isolated you feel, the more depressed you become, so the more isolated you feel. You’re not alone though. You currently have a horrible illness, but you are not alone.
The months spent in the grip of PND are hazy here now. Time does that. Amongst the blur of despair and darkness and tears, some memories still stand out though. Walking the streets at 2am in tears, pushing the pram, trying to get the baby to sleep before being stopped by two kindly police officers, concerned about what a woman and baby were doing out at that time and frantically wiping away the tears to smile brightly at them while proclaiming cheerily “It’s OK, I’m not a prostitute or a burglar you know, just trying to get the baby to sleep!” was a particularly unfortunate night. The worst memory though is the loneliness; the inability to tell anyone what it felt like; the conviction that no one else could possibly feel like this, because no one else was such a horrible person as to feel so utterly wretched when they had this beautiful baby. And then finally meeting a literal life saver in the form of a sympathetic and understanding health visitor, who immediately realised what the problem was and organised help and support. She is amazing. If she ever reads this, hopefully she will know who she is, and know what she meant to one very broken mummy.
If you think you have PND, there is help there and you can get through this. Start by talking to someone, be it a partner, or a health visitor or GP, or a friend. Tell them how you feel, and tell them honestly. If your GP gives you a PND questionnaire at your six week check, be honest when you fill it in (lying on it to prove how well you are coping was not the smartest idea). If you have no one to talk to, or you’d rather talk to someone more detached, an organisation called PANDAS (http://www.pandasfoundation.org.uk) offers telephone and online help and support. Their fabulous motto is ‘It’s OK not to be OK’. If nothing else, remember that.
Get out the house; go for a walk; go to the grim Mother and Baby groups. If your PND is mild, the endorphins from the gentle exercise, and the vitamin D from being outside might be enough for you to start to feel a little better. The M&B groups are daunting, but you can also meet amazing people there. And if everyone else in the room seems to be coping better with life and babies and everything else than you, keep repeating that ‘1 in 5 women suffer a post-natal mental illness’ statistic- you might feel like you are the only one there who is struggling, but there will be at least one other woman there who feels the same, and is probably looking at you and wishing she was coping as well as you are. Also, grab a handful of the Good Biscuits as soon as they appear, because there is always one mother who thinks her special snowflake should absolutely be entitled to eat as many Good Biscuits as he likes, instead of making do with the Rich Teas like the other toddlers. Don’t make friends with that mother. You have enough problems; you don’t need women who don’t respect biscuits in your life. You’ll probably find the woman who looks aghast and is muttering under her breath about the biscuit thief is a kindred spirit though.
If your GP thinks you need anti depressants- take them if you want to. Equally, if you want to try other things first- go for it, but don't rule them out. Just because not all women need anti depressants to get over PND doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take all the help that you can get, if you need it, and if you do take them and some judgy woman claims she cured her PND with yoga, give her a wedgy with her LuluLemons. That’s nice for her and all, but everyone is different and there is no one cure fits all- some people get over a cold with honey and lemon drinks; some people’s colds turn into chest infections and they need antibiotics to get better. It’s exactly the same. Also, if your GP or health visitor wants to refer you to a specialist or a support group, listen to them. They didn’t spend all that money on medical school for nothing.
Try and get a break. Yeah, OK, ha ha ha. That’s one of those helpful parenting tips like ‘When the baby sleeps, go for a nap’, that make no mention of what you are supposed to do if your baby never sleeps EVER! Try and look after yourself though. Eat something. And if someone offers you practical help- take it. If you don’t want to leave the baby with them, ask them if they could help with the endless laundry; or maybe make some food for the freezer, so you can still eat when you are too exhausted to cook. Don’t feel you are failing- if someone has offered to help, it’s because they want to help you, so let them.
If you think your partner or sister or friend or daughter might have PND, you can help them too. Ask her to tell you honestly how she feels, and then let her talk. Really listen to what she has to say, don’t offer platitudes or suggestions, that’s not what she needs. If she hasn’t already seen her GP about this, when she has finished talking and crying, gently try and encourage her to get some professional support. Don’t ask her how you can make her feel better- ask her what you can do to give her a break. Let her know that you care about her, even if she doesn’t care about herself very much right now, and keep telling her the PANDA motto ‘It’s OK not to be OK’ and reminding her that SHE IS NOT ALONE.
And keep talking about it. PND is never going to go away, but if we keep talking about it, maybe by the time our daughters are pushing 8lb beachballs out their bits, if they are affected by it, they will always know they are not alone, and they will know it is OK not to be OK. And here’s a glass of Pink Sunshine Wine to all those mummies who have been through that dark place, and all those who are still there- remember, YOU ARE NOT ALONE. #PNDAW16
Finally, if you want to do more to support help for PND, then 35 brave ladies are doing a Super Obstacle Race, to raise much needed funds for PANDAS’ work: