I’m celebrating an anniversary of sorts this month. This time last year, I was discharged from the Mother and Baby Unit of the local psychiatric hospital after receiving treatment for severe post- natal depression and anxiety. So a year on, what have I learnt about recovery from this dreadful illness?
- Recovery is a rollercoaster. One of the most difficult parts to grasp when recovering from post-natal depression and anxiety (PND) is that you have good days and bad days. The good days feel so good – when you finally feel like you again, with the weight of fear and sadness momentarily lifted from your shoulders – that the bad days that inevitably follow can be crushing. I’ve had this illness twice, so I know this is how recovery works. The difficult thing is believing during the bad days that the good days will come again. Because they do come again. And eventually you get more good days than bad days, until you hardly have a bad day at all.
- To recover, you need to accept that you have an illness. I never really dealt with my first bout of PND – I just took medication until the symptoms went away (although they didn’t, I just managed to hide them for a long, long time). This time, I’ve been encouraged to accept that this is an illness, it’s not who I am, and I’m not to blame. I don’t like having negative thoughts, or feeling anxious, but once I accepted that these things is part of the illness, and not part of me, I stopped beating myself up for being a terrible mother. Instead, I was kind to myself. When I was having a bad day, I accepted it as part of the illness and took time out to care for myself. Freeing myself of guilt and blame that this was my fault and I somehow deserved it has probably been the most important part of my recovery.
- You will grieve for what you lost. As you start to recover from PND, there’s a huge sadness for what you lost and what you will never get back. I remember feeling overwhelmed with grief on my son’s first birthday, because it was a reminder of what had turned out to be the worst year of my life. I wanted to be celebrating my son and his first year, but for much of it I’d been trapped in a world of fear and despair with a baby I felt nothing towards. Thankfully, my bond with my son eventually grew, but even that was painful, because it made me realise what I’d been missing out on for so long. I don’t think I’ll ever not feel sadness for what I, and my son, missed out on during that first, precious year of his life.
- You forget how bad it was. The brain is fascinating – just as this illness lives within it, it also seems to have a protective mechanism, because you start to forget what living with PND felt like. Which is surreal, because it was part of you for so long. I can talk about the symptoms, I can remember that it was the worst thing that ever happened to me, and I can remember the worst moments, but I’m detached from them now. I can’t remember how it actually felt any more. It’s like my brain has purposely forgotten the pain in order for me to be able to move on from it.
- You’re a different person at the other end. I don’t think you can have this illness and it not leave a mark within you. When I was ill, I used to think that the saying ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ was wrong. My confidence was shattered, my self-esteem was in tatters and I struggled to manage the most basic of tasks. I’m still living with anxiety now, so how could I be stronger from this wretched experience? And yet, now I’m recovered enough to be able to look back objectively at my experience, I can see that I’ve gained strength in other ways. I have more empathy towards others who are suffering. I now appreciate the simpler moments in life. I’ve learnt more about myself than I ever knew. And I’m also proud of myself, because I know that getting out of bed every day with this dreadful illness, and still managing to raise two small, happy children, takes more bravery than anything else I could imagine.
I don’t know if I’ll ever fully recover from two bouts of PND. But, to use a cliché, I do feel like I have found the light at the end of a very dark tunnel. And for that I will always be very grateful.