By SIMON BRIGGS
While most personal stories about the impact of PND tend to be from the perspective of the sufferer, I’ve been asked to give you a glimpse of what it was like for me to support my wife, Anna, through her illness and the enormous impact it had.
Like any parents-to-be we were thrilled at the prospect of starting our new family. We’d been to the ante-natal classes, baby-proofed the house, bought the pram. And when Sam was born I was thrilled.
I remember those first days it all being a bit surreal. Especially when we took Sam home, walked in the front door and then Anna and I looked at each other and joked ‘ok, we have a tiny person in our house – what the hell do we do now?’
But overall, it was a joyous time for me and the sickly sweet paternal feelings more than made up for the lack of sleep, the crying and those horrific smells and substances that became a constant in my life.
I think the real impact, which the ante-natal classes can never prepare you for, are the fundamental changes in life and relationships that comes from having a new person in your world. It’s the little things – a trip to the corner shop had to be planned with military precision and social events transformed from unplanned random nights to specific catch ups at specific times.
In some respects you lose a bit of who you are and while I found this transition manageable, Anna really seemed to be struggling. I initially put it down to a general lack of sleep and baby blues and hoped that it would pass. But it didn’t. Over the first month or so, while to the outside world Anna kept up the pretense of being in control and happy, I saw my lovely vibrant wife steadily become more withdrawn and upset.
The calls to my work with Anna in tears started almost as soon as I returned after paternity leave and these became more and more frequent. It quickly got to a point that when I saw our home number flash up on the phone I had a sense of dread over how bad it would be. There were days Anna would be crying so hard she couldn’t speak so I just had to drop everything and get home.
This got steadily worse until we got help and Anna was admitted to hospital. I think even though we got to this point and it was diagnosed as PND it was still really difficult for me to understand why she couldn’t just snap out of it – we had everything going for us. I know in hindsight that sounds awful, but there’s still a huge amount of ignorance and stigma surrounding mental illness and I certainly fitted right into the ignorant category. Mental health issues had just never touched me before.
What made it worse is that PND is so out of context. If you lose a loved one, grief is a legitimate response. But when your mantelpiece is full of congratulations cards, what right do you have to be upset?
The real eye-opening moment for me was the first day when Anna was in hospital and the psychiatrist interviewing her asked Anna if she had any suicidal thoughts. Now in my head I’m thinking “no, obviously not; next question”. But Anna paused to give it real thought. And it was that pause that was like someone smashing me over the head with a sledgehammer.
So I’d had my epiphany and was utterly terrified. I was watching my wife fall apart while desperately trying to get a better understanding of PND. Bear in mind that as a typical bloke I assume that I can fix anything.
I also recognize that as a typical bloke my enthusiasm far exceeds my actual ability to do so. But even I knew that this was something I couldn’t fix; it’d take time and more importantly it would take the support of a whole network of people, both for Anna and me.
Impacts on me…
So Anna was in hospital and for the first week while we waited for a bed in a mother/baby ward I was taking time off work to look after Sam, make trips to the hospital and keeping the day-to-day running of the household going.
After a week Anna was admitted to a mother-baby unit so at least she could have Sam with her and start the process of getting well and I could return to work to try to reduce the rapidly expanding backlog. But logistically this was a tough time for our family.
The mother-baby unit was the other side of town (you take whatever bed is available in those circumstances) so I’d get to work in the morning, drive across the city after work and then back home usually about 10pm. And repeat the next day and repeat the next day and repeat and repeat and repeat. And this went on for the four weeks Anna was in hospital. While it was critical to me that I supported Anna and Sam as best I could, it was an incredibly emotionally and physically draining time for me.
Impact on work…
Understandably, my productivity at work during this time went down significantly. I was really lucky and extremely grateful to have an understanding employer and colleagues who were able to take up the slack for me. I have no idea what I would have done if I hadn’t had that safety net, because being able to support your partner like I was would have been so much more difficult if I had have had a less understanding employer, I was self-employed, or perhaps just held a job that didn’t allow any flexibility.
In hindsight, the thing that helped me cope throughout this time was by forming my own safety net and certainly from my experience the only way to do that is to ask for help.
One of the main things that that got me through was that I talked about it with people, which was fine for me as I’m quite an open book in that respect.
But I’d chat about what was happening with work colleagues, friends, even some clients if I thought they were interested.
And what I found was it didn’t actually matter if they had any appreciation for PND or mental illness; what mattered is that they saw I was struggling and helped out where they could.
With some it was logistical help – cooking meals for me; some it was emotional support – asking me how I was; and others it was just them allowing me to rant at them about how crap things were. It all helped.
It’s interesting, when times are tough I don’t really analyse how I’m coping at the time, I just tend to get my head down and get on with it which may or may not be a good thing. Obviously at the time I recognized how hard a time it was for Anna but had little appreciation of the enormity of the effect it had on my life.
I think this view mirrors society where we still broadly see PND as a ‘woman’s issue’ but the supporting of a partner, loved one, friend or work colleague through the illness makes it issue for all of us. So, if you have a friend, colleague or family member who is a new parent just ask them how they’re really doing and offer support where you can. It may be all they need to hear.
And for those of you who are new parents or parents to be, my advice would be that:
– PND doesn’t discriminate and can affect anyone no matter what your circumstances.
– Learn the signs of PND before you have a new baby so you are at least aware of what can happen
– And ask for help early if you see the signs or are struggling.
Winston Churchill, who himself suffered from depression, said “if you’re going through hell, keep going”. We did, and with the help of others were lucky enough to come out the other side be the happy little family we are today.
2. Dads who already have mental health difficulties, current or past, may find things get worse at this time.
3. If Mum has postnatal depression, Dad is at greater risk of depression and anxiety too.
4. Although being a dad has its unique challenges, the warning signs of depression and anxiety are generally the same as for at any time in adult life.
5. Seeking help is vital, as a dad’s wellbeing is crucial to the wellbeing of babies, siblings and mums. A good GP is where to start, or you can call (or connect with online) great resources like howisdadgoing.org.au,PANDA,BeyondBlue, Mensline or Lifeline.