Please be aware some content contained in this story may be a trigger to those experiencing perinatal mental health issues.
The below story was written in August 2012, when the darkness of my postnatal depression remained a constant companion. My writing about such experiences was to show other mothers they are not alone in their thoughts and feelings, and that there is hope when such darkness descends upon your life… No one should have to walk this path alone.
So late yesterday afternoon I found myself in the shower, standing under the hot, steaming water, willing the darkness away... begging it to go away. It had engulfed me from the moment I had awoken and its ugly weight had been bearing down on me all day. I was tired, but mostly I was angry. My tolerance level was non-existent and every little thing was driving me unnecessarily crazy. What on earth was going on? By the time my husband arrived home from work, I was wound up so tightly I was ready to snap. A pressure-cooker of negative emotions, I needed desperately to escape before I completely lost control and hurt, yet again, those I loved the most.
Having been diagnosed with postnatal depression when my little man was 8 months old, my treatment was focused specifically on getting my everyday life back to some degree of “normalcy”. For me this was through a combination of therapy, anti-depressants, and an improved overall diet. For months I had suffered insomnia (awake for 4-5 hours every night, whilst my baby slept soundly), decreased appetite, weight loss, anxiety, and severe depression. As time moved on, I began alienating myself from family and friends, socially masking the intense emotions and frustrations consuming me from the inside out. My husband was the recipient of the worst of my outbursts, my screaming and yelling over ridiculous and inconsequential things. Why were the knives put in the fork section of the cutlery drawer? How dare he just stand there while I accidentally burnt all the bacon for breakfast (his “inaction” resulting in my having a complete meltdown – crying, banging pans, etc – what soon became affectionately known to my family as “Master Chef meltdown” moments). What would it take for him to understand the severity of my situation? Did I have to end my life for him to grasp the true gravity of how miserable I’d become? These were the thoughts going through my mind thousands of times each day. Month after month, I saw myself act out in crazy and terrible ways (like the frypan example above) and scream hateful and hurtful words. And all the while, during those precious few rational moments I was thinking, “This is not me. This is NOT me!”.
Such foreign reactions and emotions create havoc with your life and family. How can you escape such intense emotions when they’ve been simmering beneath the surface of your skin all day? The simple answer is: you can’t escape. A vicious tug-of-war begins with one side willing for an escape whilst the other wills you to stay and make everyone around you suffer too. This “fight-or-flight” feeling has definitely become my warning sign. It rolls over my body like a tidal wave, literally from my head to my toes, and I can feel myself reacting, pulsing with fear and anger at a cellular level. I want to run. I feel the urge to just run away, be gone from this place, and never look back. I don’t care about leaving my husband behind, my children, my pets, my home. I don’t care if I ever see any of them again. I just want to be anywhere else but here… in this moment… today. This feeling is a loud and clear indicator for me of pending disaster. I have to act immediately if I want to prevent it bubbling to the surface. And as a new mother to a sweet little boy, it is a terrifying and confronting reality: if I lose control of myself now, my actions will not only have negative implications for me, but for my baby, my entire family, and whoever else may be witness to the event. It is a lonely and exhausting mental trap, and lately I’ve felt its suffocating force every single day.
So yesterday, as soon as my husband walked through the door from what I know would have been a gruelling day at the building site, I immediately started moving toward our bedroom. "I'm having a shower," I grumbled as I pushed passed him, leaving our little man playing quietly on the lounge room floor. "Sure, babe. Whatever you have to do", came his reply. He knew I’d had a difficult day. Let’s be honest… it’s impossible to hide such an irritable, dark mood during phone conversations - the complete disinterest in speaking (or even answering the phone), the bleak tone of voice, the pure exasperation of having to answer even the simplest of questions are not things easily disguised from your partner. He is the man who knows me best, after all, or at least he thought he did. My mind was so muddled by the time he arrived home, even his understanding made me want to lash out. I wanted so badly for him to be hurting as much as I was hurting. Just for once, I wanted him to deal with the brutal force of the pain and agony I was feeling. Why should I have to suffer through this battle field alone? Why couldn’t he feel the pressure, the failure, the complete and utter helplessness I feel? Why does he get to go to work, speak with other adults and do adult things, while my life consists of sitting at home breastfeeding, rocking, crying… suffocating! I was just so damn angry!
When I'm feeling this far under the weight of my postnatal depression, the only option I have is to place myself in "timeout". I can't be around people. I can no longer pretend to be okay with the world when I am so clearly not. And most of all, I can't stand myself when I'm feeling and acting this way. I can't look at myself in the mirror without feeling disgusted by what I see, the ugliness of the person I've become. I can't budge the ever-present guilt of the damage such intense and bitter moods are causing my family. This is not their fault. This is NOT what they signed up for. And when I’m thinking rationally, I know it’s neither my fault nor what I signed up for either. But how can I deny it is me acting this way? It IS my resentful, spiteful voice cutting like a knife through those I love. It IS my brain struggling to find a way to end this constant pain, those feelings of worthlessness, incompetence, being a “fake” in my everyday life. It IS my physical body wanting to run away and abandon my family when that terrible “fight or flight” feeling kicks in. So to combat such moods when they arise, I've had to find a sanctuary within our home to which I can escape when my emotions are at breaking point. And that sanctuary for me is the shower. It is the one place I can truly be on my own, in my own space, alone with my own thoughts. In the simplest of terms, it is the only place I truly feel safe when the world around me feels so claustrophobic and threatening. In the shower, in that simple glass cubicle, I know I can’t hurt my family with the raging storm taking residence in my body and mind, and my pain and anger can ebb and flow away with the running water down the drain.
The difficulty for me continues to lie in identifying my moods before they reach the point of no return… that dreaded “melt down” phase. Every day, particularly on bad days, I monitor my thoughts, my actions, and my reactions, just to make sure there’s not something more sinister lurking beneath the surface. It is so incredibly clear to me now why depression and anxiety become a vicious cycle for mothers with postnatal depression. You suffer for so long with the negative thoughts and feelings of inadequacy, the terrible moods and outbursts. Then ever so slowly, you finally feel able to exercise a small degree of control over the direction in which those dark moods may shift. But all the while, you are anxious about it happening again. If your mood is even a little off kilter the dread of what might happen creates another episode of stress and panic. Until again, you find yourself listening to the negative thoughts and feelings of inadequacy but this time for not being able to “get on” with your life when things are going well… and so the terrible cycle continues! Of course this is not always the case. Some days see a small win over the outcome of such moods, and if enough small wins occur in succession we find ourselves hoping that one day this lonely inner-battle with the postnatal depression beast will be over once and for all. It’s a roller-coaster ride of emotions, requiring incredible strength, grit, and pure determination.
Fortunately yesterday, for both myself and my family, a well-timed late afternoon shower provided the tension relief I desperately needed to make such a mental shift and I was able to get through our evening without further problems. I was still tired, but the anger had subsided to a lesser degree of agitation and my husband was cautiously considerate of not encroaching too much on the space I desperately craved. It's an awful and upsetting situation to find yourself in... standing under the shower, water beating down on you, begging for the heat and steam to ease the rage and tension you feel within yourself. All of this just so you can walk out and face your family again - without the fear of losing control, or worse, having a complete emotional, mental, and physical breakdown.
The hardest thing to admit though is that yesterday was probably a better day for my son and I than previous days had been. We went grocery shopping together and also picked up some great winter-sale purchases. I enjoyed a latte and scones at a nice cafe while he ate his morning tea, we laughed together and had (it seemed) a wonderful time. To anyone else looking in on our world at that moment we would have been the picture perfect example of what a mother-son outing should look like. Yet I felt the full force of my postnatal symptoms the whole time. My mask was firmly in place all day yesterday, and by the time we returned home it was suffocating me beyond belief and I was physically and emotionally exhausted. The reality of this feeling is horrifying. How can a mother even say such awful words out aloud when speaking of their relationship with their baby? The overwhelming guilt I feel whenever such days occur is heart-wrenching. My inability to reconcile my intrusive and negative thoughts with my positive “mummy” actions is debilitating. And what of the impact such thoughts and behaviour must be having on my son? I can’t even bear to think about it. My only wish is somehow my little man doesn’t feel the full extent of my inner struggle. Surely he must know how much I love him and want to protect him from the horror story I’m currently living? I find myself worrying constantly about his short journey so far in this life and the longer term effects my postnatal depression may have as he grows. But then I remind myself to look at us… really look at us: the unconditional love in his beautiful eyes when he glances at me, the warmth in his embrace when we hug, the delight in his giggles when we play. And it’s then I know we are going to be okay.
So for now, I will continue putting one step in front of the other each day. Even if my days need be taken minute by minute to achieve this, I will keep on going. I will cross my fingers that my son’s memories of these days spent with me are not tarred with the same ugly brush as mine have been. That he grows into an emotionally-grounded young man, fully aware of the depth of his mother’s love and all she would sacrifice for him in a split-second. The resolve I feel to achieve this simple goal for him gives me the strength, courage, and determination I need to simply be the best mother I can be for him… in this moment… today. And when those feelings again become too heavy to bear and the dark clouds begin descending, well… I’ll always have my shower.
If you, or anyone you know, are experiencing perinatal mental health issues please contact your GP or one of the many support services available:
PANDA 1300 726306
beyondblue 1300 224 636
Lifeline 13 11 14 (24hr)
About the Author:
Rani Farmer is a perinatal wellness and parent educator and founder of Hands Holding Hands – passionate about fostering secure attachment relationships between caregivers and their children. Rani’s interest in parent-child attachment began at university and re-ignited when diagnosed with postnatal depression/anxiety after the birth of her first child. She has a deep understanding of how everyday challenges can put strain on couples and parent-child attachment relationships.