This is the fifth post in a series reflecting on my experience of postnatal depression. Feel free to head also to How It Is #1, How It Is #2, How It Is #3: What to Say and How It Is #4: On A Bad Day, and feel free to pass any of them around, if they’re helpful, using the share buttons below. You can see the whole series list here.
Depression isn’t necessarily about sadness.
A person may experience it mainly as tiredness, or difficulty sleeping or concentrating. It might bring a general sense of fragility. Or you might just feel blah.
My season of postnatal depression began, before my son was born, with a low mood. But things went seriously downhill when he was a few weeks old, and it wasn’t sadness that was the trouble. My brain just went haywire.
I felt like a stranger in my own head.
Before PND, I was the epitome of ‘people person.’ I was at my best in conversation. I would leave my quiet study and go and write my sermons or board reports in busy cafes for company. When I was at home alone, I’d have the radio on. I could talk (and listen!) for hours.
Now, it takes a lot of energy to follow a conversation. One big one a day is enough – one social contact a day outside the family. If I have two, my brain starts to run out of juice, I lose concentration and end up exhausted. I go to bed when the baby does, partly because by 8 o’clock I don’t have any energy left for anyone else.
Often, having music playing is too much busyness for my head. Often, I struggle to find words or arrange them into sentences. Often, I feel overwhelmed by conversation or social visits with lots of people at once. And by ‘lots’ I pretty much mean ‘more than one.’
The other big change I’m getting used to is another fundamental shift in personality.
One of my favourite things about being a pastor was the variety in the job. In any given day I might be involved in writing a sermon, doing pre-marriage preparation with a couple, visiting someone in hospital, emailing times a million, organising an event, running a meeting, researching kids’ books at the library, blogging and more.
I loved (most weeks) that there were so many different tasks and skills required. I loved the dash and juggle, the responding to the unexpected. I loved that every single day and week was different, and I couldn’t know in advance all the things that might arise. I was good in a crisis and quick-thinking with surprises.
The only way to survive now is to plan in advance (and be ready to cancel or postpone as necessary). One thing a day is what I aim for. If I also manage a load of washing I’m doing well, and if a meal gets cooked by my fair hand I deserve a gold star. The unexpected is my enemy.
Certainly some of that will be familiar to many new parents, as we adjust our expectations of what you get done in a day after cramming in six feeds/meals/cleanups, a few nappy and clothes changes and some cuddles and playing on the floor.
What tips me off that this is more than normal adjustment is the brand-new anxiety that is part of my landscape now. A sudden change of plans can require some serious deep breathing to cope with. If I wake up without a sketch of the day ahead, I’m in trouble.
Of course, according to Myers Briggs Type Indicator personality theory, some of what I’m describing is a normal way of being for half the population. Introverts are awesome! Organised, structured people are awesome!
I’m just not used to being one. And it’s this foreignness that is so disconcerting, and compounds the distress of the other symptoms. I’m a stranger in my own brain, and I don’t like it.
My draft was going to end there, but I was reminded yesterday how all that I’m saying underlines how lucky I am to be able to say it.
At least a dozen women have been in touch since I started these posts, to share their experiences of postnatal depression, past and present, almost all undiagnosed, untreated and undersupported.
I am very lucky to be part of this generation, living in this place, supported by a web of family, friends and professionals. It means I have the language to describe what I’m experiencing, and am surrounded by people who realise that it’s all part of the same illness, that it’s explicable and treatable and won’t last forever. That it’s not ‘milk on the brain’ as my Grandma was told, and that I don’t just need to pull myself together, as more than one woman has told me her doctor said.
This post is also evidence that things are not as bad as they were in my foreigner’s brain.
In the early days I had real trouble finding words in conversation. I even began stammering slightly. Now at least my words are back when it comes to typing. Thanks for reading these ones.
If reading this makes you concerned about your own experience, please make a call to your doctor or another health professional. You can read more about PND and other mental health matters at the excellent resources website Mothers Matter,
If you’ve found this post helpful, please feel free to share it around.
You might also be interested in these related posts:
A post on living in the gap between our expectations and the reality of parenthood