How It Is #2: My Story of Postnatal Depression

This is the second post in a series on my experience of postnatal depression. The first is here.

 

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Detail from The Three Ages of Woman, Gustav Klimt

 

I was quietly terrified about childbirth. So unknown! So dangerous! But I was very lucky. Despite a slightly rocky late pregnancy, I had a pretty positive labour and birth experience, and then a very happy first few days of SBJ’s life. (I like to tell people that childbirth really was fine, totally doable. There’s not enough of that in conversation to balance out the hard stories.)

The ‘baby blues’ affect up to 80 per cent of new mothers, as post-birth hormones take their emotions for a mountain bike ride, around days three-five. The baby blues are perfectly normal and pass on their own, but it felt great to get to day five without having been at all sad. I thought things were working out much better than feared, and the good care I’d been given had done the trick.

Until the hip check. In New Zealand, babies generally have their hips checked in the first few days of life to screen for congenital hip defects. In our region this is done by the orthopaedic consultants themselves, which is an unusally good service. By the time our appointment rolled around, SBJ had had his ears tested twice, had his heel pricked for the Guthrie blood test and been weighed and measured twice, so I was a bit blase about the whole thing.

It was also our first set appointment since we’d come home from hospital, so I was mostly focused on getting us out the door on time. I’d given no thought at all to what the test was about. So it was a shock, less than a minute after meeting the consultant, to hear that SBJ had a ‘clunky,’ dislocatable hip that ‘fell right out the back’ and he would have to wear a von Rosen splint for eight weeks.

 

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SBJ in his von Rosen hip splint, around a week old

 

What?! At this point (45 seconds after entering the room) the consultant moved on to the next baby, passed us onto a nurse, who left the room and told us to wait. Anyway, let’s cut the story short to say that the suddenness of this news and the adjustment to having my tiny baby fitted with an aluminium body splint that we weren’t allowed to take off for a second was the trigger for a very low day.

Which turned into a very low week. I knew that we were lucky SBJ had been diagnosed and treated early by skilled professionals. Without the splint he would have walked with a limp his whole life and needed surgeries through childhood. And I wasn’t really worried about the substance of what was happening; I’m a fan of medical care. It was just a very traumatic half-hour that I wasn’t prepared for, and it was enough to send me spinning.

And I didn’t bounce back. So having got through the ‘baby blues’ period unscathed, I entered the postnatal depression (PND, or postpartum depression, PPD, in North America) era, and became a stranger in my own head.

Everything else with SBJ went very smoothly. His father was a champion at looking after us both (the baby was a month old before I’d changed enough nappies myself to hit double figures), breastfeeding went pretty smoothly, and SBJ figured out the difference between day and night quickly, so was fairly settled through the night, just waking for feeds. All three of us bonded really well.

That’s worth dwelling on for a moment more, because one of the hardest things about PND for many people is that it often disrupts the attachment between mother and baby. This was not our experience, thanks be to God. As I explained to people at the time, SBJ and I were great. It was just the rest of the world I wasn’t so sure about.

In those early days, my experience was partly about feeling down and crying easily, but more characterised by easily feeling overwhelmed, not being very resilient if things went wrong, and feeling like my brain had gone on a sabbatical and left me behind.

 

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Anxiety, Edvard Munch

 

It was really hard to make decisions. Like: I know I need to feed the baby and I need to change him and I need to eat. Which shall I do first? That kind of every-hour-or-two decision was just paralysing. I would sit there holding SBJ, not knowing what to do next and getting more and more anxious.

I found conversation very difficult. It was hard to concentrate on the thread of a conversation, and more than a couple of people around at once was overwhelming.

Something I found particularly frightening was that things didn’t reset in the morning. Before, like most people, if I’d had a bad day, I would know that I’d get a fresh start when the sun came up. But that wasn’t true anymore. I would wake up, think about the day, and worry, while still in bed, about putting the washing on and juggling everything else – even when my husband was home and taking care of everything perfectly well.

I also had a lot of trouble arranging my thoughts and finding words. I lost the thread of my paragraphs. I started stuttering.

What was most disconcerting about all of this is how foreign it all felt. Before I was pregnant, I was a church minister, where I had dozens of projects and issues and conversations going on every week. I was a go-with-the-flow, good-in-a-crisis kind of person, and I thrived on people contact. I was articulate and smart. So who was this damp, sad, tongue-tied, frightened person on the sofa?

It was in this period that the Maternal Mental Health Service at the hospital were particularly wonderful. One of the team visited every few days, and we worked out approaches and solutions to things that were hard and talked through how we were all feeling. They would reassure me that SBJ was thriving and we were doing a good job. We were extremely lucky to have them.

I went steadily downhill for the first few weeks, and that’s when I started on medication, which I don’t feel like talking about right now, but maybe soon. Also to come: how to help, what to say, things that helped me get better, how I experienced God in the fog and more.

I’m open to your questions as this series continues, so feel free to ask something in the comments below, or offer your own experiences. And God bless all of you in the darkness right now.

This is the second post in a series reflecting on my experience of postnatal depression. Feel free to head also to How It Is #1How It Is #3: What to Say and How It Is #4: On A Bad Day, and please pass any of them around, if they’re helpful, using the share buttons below.

You can see the whole series list here.

 

What is postnatal / postpartum depression really like? Check out this series for some insight | Sacraparental.com

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21 comments on “How It Is #2: My Story of Postnatal Depression”

  1. Alex Reply

    I wish I’d known. I wish we lived closer. I wish I could’ve helped.
    Hugs to you anyway xxx

  2. Robyn Ryan Reply

    “Sweet sweet Thalia” … I remember Matt letting us know you were “down with PND”, BUT I did NOT realise “how it really was” for you … You “appeared” to be “doing so well” as a new Mum. “We are all told how tired we can get” so I was “thinking my goodness with her busy life she’s amazing” … Little do we know – until told – how “bad it is” … I send YOU one of my BIG HUGS & I wish I had been “better at getting along side” … I was “told/suggested” to write a journal way back then but I didn’t … reading this/yours brings back such a lot of memories … I’m sure it must be a great help to be able to write about this <3

  3. Larraine Reply

    Wow. Big hug from me too. So so hard to get your head around when it was so foreign to to your PreBabyThalia experience of how life is/can be and how you approached it. We just don’t realise what a fine balance those hormones maintain and what effect a really small change in concentration can effect until it hits close to home. It makes me wonder what evolutionary purpose PND must have? In the sense that most chemical changes occur for a reason – I really can’t see the point.

    I remember when my nephew (now 28 & a bachelor of sport & exercise graduate) was born & being told he had “clicky hips” and was similarly in a brace for n months. It was the first time I’d come across the condition & really didn’t know anything about it. When he was 6 weeks old, their entire suburb was badly flooded & they had little more than 10 minutes to grab what they could (which largely consisted of stuff for the baby and not much for the parents!) and get on the truck which was evacuating residents. At the time, I wasn’t at an age where I had any concept of the existence of PND, and now that I think about it, I am just amazed about how my sister-in-law and brother coped. They didn’t get back in their house for weeks and weeks and weeks, by which time they had lost so so much in terms of possessions (which reminds me of your post from earlier in the week), but they had each other & that was all that seemed to really matter.

    I can’t help but feel a bit angry about the way you were told. I know doctors are busy, but too busy for a bit of compassion over a positive diagnosis? Grrr. Three cheers for your lovely hubby and three cheers too that you are in a place where you can begin to write about some of it. We love you Thalia, and yes, you are all the things you have described in your pre-baby description, but now you are enhanced even more with depths of understanding and compassion. That doesn’t mean you don’t still need love and care yourself, though, so have another hug on me! Blessings.

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Thanks, Larraine.

      I think the evolutionary purpose is an interesting question. I guess hormonal things are very finely balanced, so, for instance, you need HcG to maintain a pregnancy, but the high levels of it also lead to nausea for lots of women. So all the hormonal activity you need for milk, attachment, etc, could just easily get out of whack.

      What I wonder is whether modern industrialised life has made it harder to get through. Some traditional societies place way lower demands on new mothers – they don’t even get out of bed for months, say – and of course isolation is less common in them too.

      I guess I also wonder why we know so little about PND and how to prevent and treat it. Seems like a strategic area for our health research dollars.

  4. Hannah Drew-Crawshaw Reply

    Hello Thalia, Bekah emailed me the link to your blog post. All I can say here is “ditto” and thanks for your honesty. Not sure how this bloggy stuff works (I’m so last century!) but if you can see my email address then drop me a line. Love Hannah DC

  5. Caroline Reply

    (((Thalia))) I hope the fact that you can now write about this means that you are coming out of the other side of the fog.

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Thanks, C. I’m definitely heaps better than in the period I’m describing. At least halfway back to ‘normal’ now, and making good progress. Long climb, though.

  6. Judith Knight Reply

    Hey Thalia, thanks for being so brave and writing about your experiences. I’m not sure if I did have PND (I never had a diagnosis as such). I certainly had depression for about 6 years (missed a lot of my 2nd year at uni, and took a year out in the end when I should have been doing my 4th year), but the first 18 months of D’s life consisted of sleep deprivation I think most torturers would be proud of – I do recall having some extremely low moments. I don’t remember so much of the fog you talked about (not knowing whether I was awake or asleep I definitely recall), but I do remember just thinking on much more than just one occasion that I didn’t know how I could go on… We finally got a diagnosis of reflux for D when he was 13 months old, having been told categorically many times that he didn’t have it, that wind didn’t exist and that it was colic and he would grow out of it at 3 months, 4 months, 6 months, a year (you get the picture!) – and that was the reason he wasn’t sleeping – he was in so much pain in the feeding/throwing up cycle! That’s the point at which he finally slept through the night for the first time. Hey ho, you live and learn, and never again will I be afraid to be labelled a neurotic mother :-/. I’m just glad we’ve both come through that time. Big hugs. x

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