It was when I envisaged driving into oncoming traffic to put an end to my newborn daughter’s wailing that I realised I needed help.
At the traffic light, I deliberately released my foot off the brake as the red light beckoned me. The car behind me beeped as my car slowly rolled forward. A chorus of horns intensified and I slammed on the brakes.
Weeping. Shaking. Terrified. I phoned my parents and told them to come over immediately as I couldn’t look after my baby or be alone. And then I felt terribly ashamed.
The sound of my newborn daughter breathing made me feel paralysed with fear and claustrophobic beyond words.
And I couldn’t stop the morbid scenarios playing out in my mind; I imagined her falling down a flight of stairs, drowning in the bathtub or her skull being crushed by a tyre.
How would I be able to explain to my parents, who’d endured real hardships in life, that mine (which appeared textbook perfect in comparison) was falling to pieces?
My mother fled civil war-ravaged Lebanon in the 1970s with little education, no English and no money.
As a teenager her family was especially poor and during the war she witnessed unthinkable bloodshed and horror.
She lost siblings to illness that could have been easily treated if her family had access to modern healthcare. Life was hard, but she was resilient and determined to make the best of it.
She met my father in western Sydney; they wed soon after and had seven children in quick succession. Mother recalls giving birth to my eldest sister, where she laboured with no support from a loved one and didn’t understand what the doctors and nurses were saying during the delivery.
Dad worked hard and couldn’t offer a lot of help at home, but mother managed to feed and clothe us and get us a public education, and learnt to read and write sitting with us as we did homework.
Added to this was the burden of having extremely limited finances. Life was tough. Yet she approached it with a smile and a steely determination.
Compared to my mother’s, my life was one of luxury
In comparison to my mother’s life, mine was one of luxury.
On paper I had everything to prepare me for and guide me though motherhood: education, infinite amounts of family support, plenty of local mothers’ groups and playgrounds, a nice home in a nice neighbourhood and even a husband who enthusiastically changed nappies and helped with night feeds.
When my parents arrived at my house that morning, they were clearly panicked and concerned for my welfare.
I told my mother to just “take her away from me”, so she did and I left the house. I don’t know how long I was gone for.
When I returned, dad didn’t know what to say, so instead he made inappropriate jokes. And then what seemed like an interrogation began.
What was wrong? Why were my eyes red? Why couldn’t I eat? If was tired, why didn’t I just sleep? Everything was perfect, why was I shaking? My daughter wasn’t crying, why was I complaining?
The barrage of questions from my mother only worked to make me feel more despondent. It was impossible for her to fathom how I could be struggling when I was surrounded by the very best that modern life had to offer. But post natal depression doesn’t discriminate.
One in seven women suffers from PND
Having worked as a journalist for more than a decade, I am well-versed in the growing mental health challenges in our society.
I can rattle off the statistics with ease: one in seven women suffers from post natal depression (PND), while up to one in 10 new dads will also be hit by this debilitating illness. The cost to our society is nearing half a billion dollars.
I was equipped with the facts, I could explain the symptoms, but I couldn’t reconcile why it was happening to me.
Interviewees in the past had told me how they felt a “black cloud” followed them around, that life wasn’t worth living.
Not understanding their plight or the motivations behind the headlines of mothers abandoning or harming their children, I now concede I was rather judgemental, despite trying to be as empathetic and neutral as possible.
But until you experience the pits of despair, the anxiety that chokes you and renders you unable to sleep, eat or be left alone, the English language feels limited in its ability to illustrate how PND consumes you and spits out an unrecognisable version of yourself. It’s a vacuum-sealed emptiness.
Then there was the physical pain that accompanied my anxiety. Sometimes grief pounded over me in waves that left me gasping. Thrown into the mix was gastroenteritis, hot flushes, chest pains, nausea, reflux, weight loss and fatigue.
‘Just snap out of it, toughen up’
I was at a family function one day and tried my best to conceal how I was feeling. I went into a bedroom and sat on the bed crying for what seemed like hours.
When my mother found me, she screamed. “Grow up Antoinette,” she yelled. “Snap out of it and toughen up, life isn’t meant to be easy, crying doesn’t fix anything.” It only made me cry longer and harder.
With PND, not only do you experience symptoms similar to those who suffer from anxiety and depression, there’s also an added layer of indignity and guilt for feeling so futile at a time that’s meant to be a Hallmark celebration.
It’s assumed maternal instincts outrank all other adversities. And within my community, where family is everything, motherhood is unreservedly revered.
Celebrations and cultural rituals are plentiful in the lead-up to birth and the first 40 days of a child’s life. Except that they were the worst 40 days of my life.
But I asked for help. I shared my pain knowing I was potentially inviting judgement from others. Since then, a team of mental health workers have helped get me (and keep me) back on track.
My sisters, sisters-in-law and girlfriends played an enormous role, too. They would answer my calls at ungodly hours to calm me down when I was convinced I’d never get better. They would come over and force me to eat and drink when I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had a meal.
My mother is happy to have her daughter back, and my bond with my daughter now beggars description.
Once I started feeling better, I explained to my mother that the day she told me to “toughen up” made me feel so much worse.
Apologising, she said she didn’t know what to do or say, and was so rattled seeing her “strong, smart daughter like that”. She had wanted to cry, she said, but didn’t want to appear “weak” as she needed to be “strong” for me.
Months later, my mother still struggles to understand why depression struck me so hard, but witnessing my journey has revealed to her — for the first time — that PND is not about strength or weakness, fortune or misfortune.
It’s ruthless in its onslaught and uncalculated in its trajectory. And I’m lucky to have survived it.
You can find Antoinette on Twitter.