Almost a year ago, in February 2017, one of my dearest friends was having her hen party in Dublin. It had been in my diary for months, flights were booked, everything was paid for and it was no doubt, destined to be a roaring success. Except when the time came, it turned out I couldn’t go – my baby boy, who was 4 months and still breast feeding, took ill – the first time he’d been sick and apart from the fact that I knew there’d be no chance of him taking a bottle of formula when he felt so horrible, I also knew I didn’t want to be away from him. I text the bride’s sister who’d organised it, as well as my lovely friend herself and as soon as I did, I was surprised to feel a massive wave of relief wash over me because in not going, it meant I didn’t have to be out of my house, it meant I didn’t have to leave my husband’s side, I didn’t have to make decisions by myself, sleep by myself – things that I’d been doing for 3 decades but which were now horribly overwhelming. I realised that I only felt safe when I was at home and when my husband was there to reassure me that I was doing ok at motherhood, personhood, life.
At the time, I blamed feeling down on the extreme exhaustion I was suffering as a result of my son waking up anywhere between 3 and 6 times a night, and running after a not-even-two-year-old all day – and I’m sure that was a big part of it – but fast forward 10 months to early December 2017 and nothing had changed, except that on top of the general feelings of being useless, worthless, lonely, tired, bored, boring (I could go on and on and on….) I also started having panic attacks. Well, only two, truth be told, but having not had any before in all my life, this to me, was an alarm bell. I spoke to some friends about some of what I was feeling and everyone seemed convinced that it’s all part and parcel of having children, a job and a life. I spoke to my husband about it too. About what was going on in my head, the breathlessness, the occassional claustrophobia and we sort of came to the conclusion that I just needed to ‘get out of my life’ more often, i.e. see my friends more, have whole days by myself, write more, read more, run more etc. but deep down, I knew it wasn’t as simple as that.
Having never talked properly, frankly about this to anyone before, I knew that an increase in dark thoughts, lack of motivation to do more or less anything, (completely alien to someone who just about bounces out of bed most mornings) frantic restlessness and panic at the thought of doing anything as little as getting my children dressed in the morning, meant the time had come to talk to someone professional and to face it head on.
I booked an appointment with my doctor but was more than a little concerned that she’d brush off what was happening as simply life as a mother of two very young children. Thankfully though, she listened attentively, asked me a series of questions to ascertain exactly what I was experiencing and concluded that I was, in fact, suffering from anxiety and depression. The relief I experienced in that moment all but knocked me over. She told me that this was fixable and together, we could find a way of making me me again. She put me on a wait list for counselling and offered me medication. At that point, though, I said no – I was worried about the side effects and concerned that I’d somehow become dependent on them and if I’m honest, I couldn’t quite accept my new label of ‘depressed’ and to take antidepressants seemed like a massive shift in my sense of self. But a few days later, I had my biggest meltdown yet and decided to give the medication a go. By this point, my diagnosis had sunk in and I’d been able to research the drugs offered so it seemed sensible. And of course, if they were a complete disaster, I’d simply stop taking them.
So here I am, 3 weeks after being diagnosed with depression, taking anti-depressants, waiting for them to kick in (apparently it can take a while to feel the benefits) and looking forward to receiving counselling and figuring out where all this is coming from. I feel a mild sense of panic in my chest at the thought of Christmas being over and normal life resuming. I’ve come to rely a lot on my husband since he’s been off for the festive period, to get through the logistics of each day and I know that when he goes back to work, I’m going to struggle a bit (a lot) but on the plus side, I’m going back to work too – to a job I love, to familiar faces, a supportive department and temperamental teenagers who bring stress, yes, but also a lot of brilliance into my life and of course, with that, a sense of purpose and self-worth.
I’ve thought about writing this on and off since being diagnosed – there’s still a big stigma attached to mental health issues, particularly with something like depression which we sort of expect people to shake themselves out of and I was a bit worried about what people from work would think if they read it. But in the end, I’ve decided to share this for a couple of reasons. First of all, for me, this is a sort of exorcism – it’s New Year’s Day and it seems apt to write about it now: 2017, the year I had depression, 2018, the year I beat depression (I can’t wait for that to be my story.) Secondly, the facts of depression, or more specifically, post-natal depression – which I’ve now absolutely no doubt I’ve had for the best part of a year – are little talked about. For example, I didn’t know that more women experience depression after their second child than after their first, nor did I know that it’s more likely to kick in after the 6 month mark, not in the early days, so this, I suppose, is my way of getting that information out there. Thirdly, there’s no automatic provision of post-natal mental health support offered on the NHS so women often don’t know what’s normal and where to turn if they feel they need help. So if you’ve recently had a baby, or know someone who has – perhaps you’ll use this as a reminder to be extra vigilant. As wonderful as motherhood can be, and as incredible as I think my sons, I have never felt anything close to the isolation and alienation from my life as I have in the last almost 3 years since becoming a mother. My life has changed beyond recognition, obviously but what that actually means in real terms has perhaps naively, been a massive shock to me and I think to some extent, that has contributed to my depression. Please be mindful of the people you love who’ve become mothers – even if it’s been a year and they look like they’ve got all their balls in the air, a little bit of extra care and attention, taking them for a day out without their baby, or spending a night in front of the tv with them if they can’t make the pub, a random text sent on your lunch break can go a long, long way.
Hopefully you’ll have read this with a renewed awareness of depression and the ‘face of depression’ but if you know someone who’s been diagnosed with depression and it feels a bit weird and awkward knowing this about them, don’t worry about it, it probably feels weird and awkward to them too. Please don’t worry about the next time you see them, I promise they don’t walk around under a dark cloud, nor are they likely to start crying at the drop of a hat. They probably laugh just as often and just as easily as ever and will still, to some extent, have the capacity to be a good friend, a good listener and good company. Depression doesn’t make a person who they are, it’s just something that has to be tackled sometimes.
Unless it’s a very close friend or a partner dealing with depression, you have no responsibility in helping them manage it – they’ll be dealing with it themselves, in their own way so if talking to them about it isn’t something you’re comfortable with, then don’t. But equally, if you do want to talk about it, give it a go and just gauge their response in case it’s hard for them. Personally, I’d be happy to discuss it and put an end to the stereotype of a depressed person being a quiet introvert who can’t leave the house, let alone hold onto a job or relationships anymore. That stereotype is wrong and quite frankly, unhelpful. Depression, in fact, doesn’t discriminate, it’s not fussy. It doesn’t matter if, like me, you’re lucky enough to have pretty much everything you’ve hoped and worked for. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a great partner, close friends and family, holidays every year, food on the table, a roof over your head – it doesn’t matter if you’ve never sat in a dark room, listened to emo music, or thought about hurting yourself. It doesn’t always happen to ‘that sort of person’ nor does it always manifest itself in that way. It can creep up in the least likely of people; the party people, the ones who like kareoke and fancy dress, the ones who crack jokes or who offer others a kind word and a shoulder to cry on. It can happen to anyone, any time and when it does, like me, it might not be obvious for a long time that something’s not right. It might even make sense to a certain degree, to feel that way because of whatever is going on in your life at that time but if you take anything from reading this, please remember that no one is too happy, too fun-loving, too lucky to be depressed, it doesn’t work like that.
So here’s to me and my fight and the return of my zest for life. I’m not making any grand New Years resolutions this year, I’m just planning on sort of slipping into 2018 as oppose to taking it by storm, I’m planning on slowing down and taking stock and learning how to simply, be ok.