I first became aware that something wasn’t quite right when I was about eight months pregnant.
I was a student and still working part time and madly trying to get all my assignments in before the baby came. At the same time my husband was struggling with his own issues and wasn’t capable of supporting me as well.
I started feeling very sad – lonely and anxious too. Nothing like I had been expecting to feel just before the arrival of our baby. I normally feel pretty competent and capable, and I was desperately trying to hang onto that view of myself. At the same time I was avoiding thinking too much about the birth because it just made me feel more anxious. And I did my best to avoid admitting to myself that things were far, far worse than I’d expected them to be.
During the birth I was again overcome by the sense that nothing was the way I thought it should be. After a couple of hours of pushing, it became clear that my daughter was stuck. The emergency buzzer was pushed, and the medical team got my daughter out as quickly as possible. But something strange occurred: during this extremely intense and dangerous experience I just felt completely disconnected from my body. When I look back now it’s like I was watching it from outside rather than experiencing it.
My daughter’s traumatic arrival into the world caused internal bleeding in her head and she had to be taken to the special care nursery. The first few days of her life were very scary, but I felt a weird disconnection the whole time. Nothing felt real. I was really struggling to breastfeed, as well as struggling physically from the birth. I think I was still in shock. We stayed at the hospital for five days but I didn’t want to leave. I was petrified of going home and wondered why no one could see that I was not able to take care of my baby.
WATCH: Perinatal Depression & Anxiety Awareness Week. Post continues after the video.
Not long after coming home I had a home visit from a midwife. I told her I was very anxious and I didn’t think I was coping, so she referred me to see a psychologist. But I put it off: I was struggling so much at that point that I couldn’t fathom getting to an appointment. I was so disconnected from everything, and felt increasingly overwhelmed by a growing sense of fear and hopelessness.
Several weeks later my daughter was still very unsettled and wasn’t feeding or sleeping properly, and I now know how much my distressed mental state was affecting her. I went to a maternal health nurse run day program at my public hospital to address feeding and settling issues. This was the first time I answered the Edinburgh Depression Questionnaire honestly and admitted that I felt suicidal.
I started seeing the community psychologist and was referred to my GP, but I still felt confused by what was happening to me. Although postnatal depression was discussed, I wasn’t specifically diagnosed or treated, and my mental state continued to deteriorate. I couldn’t think clearly, nothing made sense, and I was becoming increasingly depressed and increasingly distressed because I felt like I wasn’t getting better. In fact, I was getting worse. My suicidal thoughts increased.
Weeks later my daughter was still struggling to sleep and to feed, so we were referred to a public health service (Tresillian) to stay for 5 nights. The health professionals who supported me there were wonderful and I finally started antidepressant medication. However, I had expectations that I would finally start to improve and I didn’t.
This led to my lowest, darkest point and coming under the care of the acute mental health team. That was my first step to getting better. I was lucky enough to be supported by a fantastic perinatal mental health nurse and a registrar psychiatrist on the team. With their help through weekly psychotherapy and aided by the medication, by the time my daughter was 6 months old I was stabilised.
Around that time I also became conscious – at last – of feeling a bond with my daughter.
Looking back, my most painful memory is of thinking that I didn’t love my baby. I genuinely believed that I wanted someone to take her away, and she would be better off without me. I didn’t feel any sort of a bond with her. I felt I had made a huge mistake – that I couldn’t be a mother, I would never love her, I wouldn’t be able to take care of her.
Remembering that now makes me weep. The love I feel for her is indescribable, and I finally understand that it was always within me and I was unable to feel it because it was trapped underneath this devastating illness.
I would not have survived without the unwavering support of my family and friends. It was frightening for them to watch me lose myself and suffer, but they held me together with their love. As my mind cleared, and I had a growing sense of understanding of this illness, I felt like I started to get myself back too.
During the darkest days I had felt like the ‘me’ I knew had completely ceased to exist. Being able to reconnect with myself and getting my confidence back had a huge impact on my recovery. I realised that I was coping, and that I had been through the worst and I could cope moving forward.
LISTEN: Peri-natal psychologist Kirsten Bouse discusses the varying ways post-natal depression can manifest. Post continues after podcast.
The PANDA Helpline was also crucial in my recovery. I felt so lost and confused and didn’t know where to get help. The PANDA counsellor there told me it’s OK, this is not you, it is an illness, and you can get help. Afterwards he emailed me to check in, and sent me contacts and resources. It was a relief having someone say you’ll get better – others have been through it and you will too.
It made a huge difference. But at the same time, when you’re in the middle of it it can be hard to believe. If I could say anything to anyone else who is struggling with becoming a parent, I’d say this: don’t be afraid or ashamed to reach out for the help that you need. The help is there. And don’t suffer needlessly. You will get better, you will find yourself again, and you will feel more love for your tiny human than you could ever imagine is possible. I found that so hard to believe when I was unwell, but it’s true.
Ashleigh is sharing her story to raise awareness as part of Perinatal Depression & Anxiety Awareness Week. Perinatal anxiety and depression is a common illness that affects up to one in five expecting and new mums, and one in ten dads. Although it can have devastating consequences if left untreated, this is a temporary, treatable illness and there is help available.
If you or someone you know experiences symptoms for two weeks or more that worry you and affect your ability to live day-to-day, please seek help. PANDA National Helpline 1300 726 306. You can also call BeyondBlue 1300 224 636 on or Lifeline on 13 11 14.