1-7 May: Maternal Mental Health Week

I was just scrolling through Facebook this evening, you know, doing some important web-based research, when I saw a post saying that it was Maternal Mental Health Week this week (May 1-7). According to talkingmums.com, up to one in five women experience mental health issues either during pregnancy or in the year following birth. Yet, out of these women, only 7% of them are typically referred for specialist help.

How many of you, like me, have suffered from PND, yet never admitted it to a doctor or health professional? How many of you out there are still suffering?

I’ll never forget the moment I knew for sure I was suffering from PND. Alison was only three months old and we had just discovered (or rather, the Public health nurse finally believed me) that she had a cow’s milk allergy. We had Ali put on special formula. She started gaining weight and became the happiest baby ever, sleeping through the night and everything.

I should’ve been happy, but I wasn’t. Relieved, yes. Happy? No.

All I wanted to do is disappear. I was just waiting for the right time.

I had this vision of having PND as standing over your baby’s cot with a pillow in your hand or wanting to throw your baby down a flight of stairs. While I appreciate that some women feel like that (and this doesn’t make you a bad person – you’re unwell and need help), I didn’t. I felt that my daughter was the most perfect person in the world and that she must have done something truly horrible in life to end up with a mother like me.

I didn’t know that PND meant looking in the mirror and being repulsed by the pathetic specimen staring back.

I didn’t realise that ignoring it wouldn’t make it go away. I ended up in the doctor with chest pains, shoulder pains, stomach aches and yet the doctor couldn’t find physiological reasons for any of them. She prescribed painkillers which didn’t seem to help. I always denied feeling down or depressed. Big smile on my face. Sure what would I have to be depressed about?

By May 2014, I could barely get out of bed. I wasn’t eating properly. I was crying all the time; it was all  I seemed to want to do. In order to get from one end of the day to the other, I had to measure my time in hourly units. Then half-hourly, and towards the end, minute by minute. If I can hold myself together for ten more minutes I’ll be grand, I would think to myself. But of course, I wasn’t grand – far from it.

When I took time off work, I considered my treatment options. I know it sounds ridiculous and shallow, but the thought of going on antidepressants filled me with dread. I wasn’t too keen on counselling either as my previous experiences were quite negative. But I knew I had to do something, so I started writing. Writing how I felt. Writing about my flaws. Writing about my talents. Suddenly, I felt liberated. I’m not recommending this course of action over medication or counselling, but writing was my saviour. It’s something I enjoy, am (reasonably) good at and writing my thoughts and feelings down helped me to own them, and then let them go.

Postnatal Depression has changed me into someone different to who I used to be. I am more sensitive now, and I hate myself for it. I’m still conscious of how people perceive me as a mother. In addition, I now have to make a conscious effort to look after my mental health, to recognise the signs of feeling sad or overwhelmed and act on them before they take over. I also have to be careful. I love helping people, but I have a tendency to internalise their problems to the point where they become my own problems. Sometimes I need to step back, say no and this is hard. I hate doing it.  But I have to remind myself that if I don’t mind myself, I can’t help others.

This week is National Maternal Mental Health Week, and while it’s great to have a platform to write about PND and mental health, the issue of maternal health shouldn’t be confined to a mere seven days of the year. We need to open up the conversation to all mothers, make them feel supported and not feel alone. When I published my long preamble about my experience with PND, I was convinced that either no-one would read it or that it would be dismissed as being a tad melodramatic. What I didn’t expect was the hordes of girlfriends, as well as women I’d never met, emailing me their stories and reminding me that I was not alone. Thanks to those women for validating my story and for making me feel that my depression was completely normal.

And if you are reading this, and you are silently suffering from pre- or post-natal depression, you are not alone either. Look after yourself and get the help you need. Trust me – even mothers who appear to be perfect can suffer silently.

You are worth the help. And after the fog lifts, life becomes so much simpler.

You are wonderful. You are beautiful. You are everything to your children, and they deserve you just as much as you deserve them.

But you can’t pour from an empty cup, so look after yourself.

A little bit of me.

My dad and I almost came to blows yesterday. He loves my blogs, but thinks that many of them are too disability-focused. ‘It’s not all there is to you,’ he said  while I sat there with my lips pursed tightly. What kind of armchair disability activist would I be if I didn’t write about the discrimination facing people with disabilities on a daily basis? I asked defensively. After the urge to have an Ali-style tantrum (she’s three, I’m thirty-one) subsided, I decided to select a few random facts to divulge about myself to you, dear  reader. You can thank my dad.

  1. I’m a Taurean, so by nature I’m a teeny weeny bit stubborn. I was also born in 1984, the Chinese year of the Rat. Incidentally, my biggest fear in the whole world is rats. I mean I would rather die than come face-to-face with a rat. The scariest book I’ve ever read is 1984 by George Orwell solely because Winston was tortured into submission by rats. (Freaky coincidence, no?) Mum fuelled my irrational fear of rats: one day she was taking me off the school bus and a rat darted across the garden, making mum scoop me up in her arms and sprint to the front door. We sat on the kitchen table until 10pm that night, when mum had installed the sonar system. But I’ve never felt safe since.
  2. I’ve always loved reading and writing. I started writing poetry when I was eight and decided that it was a sensible career choice. I imagined myself on the side of a mountain somewhere, hair blowing wildly in all directions, jotting furiously in a notebook. When I was ten I won a poetry competition for a poem I wrote called ‘The Conceited Man.’ I’d come across the word ‘conceited’ while trawling through the dictionary one day (as you do) and knew I had to use it somewhere special. On the night that I collected the award I had to read the poem aloud to an audience of four hundred odd people, and it included the line ‘My dad’s a boaster’. Neither of my parents had heard the poem before and I could see them in the audience with gritted teeth as I recited it. It’s unlikely that anyone else understood me, but the folks heard every word. I spent the next ten years fobbing off people who asked for copies of it.
  3. On a related note, I can often get away with cursing under my breath because people can’t make out my speech. Except with my husband. That man hears  like a bat. Well, I can’t get away with it anymore, now that I’ve told you all. Whoopsie.
  4. When you think ‘woman’, you might be inclined to automatically think ‘shoe shopping’. Not the case with me, shoe shopping is my worst nightmare. I can’t wear heels, pumps, uggs, open-toe or strappy sandals. Which means that I either have to buy really crappy shoes from Tesco or clumpy granny shoes #sexy. I wore heels to my school grad and everyone thought I was wasted. If only I had been but being supervised by teachers doesn’t really scream ‘relaxing drinking time’ to me.
  5. I have a large brown mole on my left shin which is a birthmark and the only time I remember it’s there is when we go on a sun holiday and I have to cover it up. I may get it removed…that’s what I’ve been saying for the last ten years. But if I ever get abducted, this birthmark could help to identify me and save my life.
  6. I’ve spent the last couple of months trying to establish a writing career, but I’ve decided if it doesn’t work out I am going to dedicate my life furthering my research into the long-term benefits of chocolate. Well, someone’s gotta do it, and I’m more than willing to volunteer. I’m selfless like that, me. And if there are clinical trials involved, well… count me in. Seriously, my addiction to chocolate is embarrassing. If there’s not at least two bars of it in the press I begin to hyperventilate.
  7. I got away with not buttoning the two top buttons on my school shirt for six years. Still, I’d rather do a hundred buttons than face a single rat.
  8. I don’t wear or own makeup. I tell people it’s a coordination thing, but actually I’m just  too lazy. Showering is effort enough. And time is a precious commodity, my friend. I’m so busy doing my high-powered job (writing) that being clean is more important. Plus there’s no point in expensive makeup when there’s a three year old in the house – this lesson was sorely learned when she got her hands on my expensive perfumes. She smelt like she was going on the pull to the Bridge House.
  9. I don’t drink anymore. All it does it make me sleepy. I’ve never done anything remotely funny when drunk, so what’s the point?
  10. When I was ten and in fourth class, I told everyone that I was going for a major, life-changing operation that  would possibly cure my Cerebral Palsy. Bless them, my classmates believed me and went to impressive efforts to make me a box of goodies to make sure that I wouldn’t get bored in the hospital when I was recovering. Of course, it wasn’t strictly true: I was booked in for a botox injection that would loosen the muscles in my right calf, thus helping me to walk better. The injection was administered within ten minutes and I was discharged on the same day and back in school two days later with no crutches, no wheelchair and no casts, not even a measly scar. And then I wonder why people think I’m overdramatic.
  11. When I was in Transition Year I wrote a play called ‘Waiting for Anna’ which was performed by my fellow classmates. I went to an all-girls school, so some girls were cast in male roles. They were not impressed but they managed to be true to their characters. When rehearsal began, most didn’t realise I’d written it which led to some interesting insights into what they really thought of it. To be fair, they were gentle, but it was then that I realised that having a fragile ego as a writer would work to my disadvantage.
  12. Every time I chide my beautiful daughter for not eating her dinner, I have to remember that I only ate sausages and Micro Chips for dinner for until I was ten. I refused spag bol, lasagne, pizza, potatoes, veg, boiled rice, sauces of any description and stews (except mum’s sausage stew). Now I can’t eat any dinner without veg. So any mummies with fussy eaters out there, don’t despair: there is hope. Your child will be  fine.
  13. Two foods that I will never ever eat are eggs and tomato ketchup. The egg aversion was the result of a dodgy breakfast when we were on holidays in Galway when I was about five and Laura was a baby. Dad had cooked eggs and you could smell the sulphur down the street, and the memory of the smell is still potent. I’m not sure why I hate ketchup, but the smell of it turns my stomach. So much so that on my communion day, when the waitress unwittingly lobbed it onto my plate, I had a shit fit in the middle of the Bridge House and refused to eat my dinner unless the hotel would provide me with a fresh dinner on a fresh plate, and a clean set of cutlery. Also crisps, of any description: I think it’s the fat and the saltiness. My parents are so proud of me.
  14. Finally, I’ve had stitches put into my head twice. The first time was when I was swinging around in the playroom with my friend Aoife and one of us let go and I whacked my head off the window ledge. The second time I was fourteen and in Lourdes singing with a group of people when I fell over and whacked my head. I barely remember being bundled into  a wheelchair and being brought back to the hotel. My poor mother back in Ireland was half-angry, half-hysterical. Actually I’ve taken a lot of whacks to the head. My poor, damaged brain.

So yeah, that’s me, warts and all – the face behind this blog. Please don’t unfollow this blog and I promise I will send you chocolate (you know, if I haven’t eaten it first).