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What is it like to have perinatal anxiety or depression?

At the Spinoff Parents we talk a lot about mental illness among parents. Today editor Emily Writes shares a group post that outlines the many ways perinatal anxiety, depression, and psychosis have affected New Zealand parents. We hope that anyone who sees themselves or their loved ones in these stories will seek help.

Content warning: This post contains a descriptions of mental illness. It may be upsetting to people who are struggling with their own mental health. There are helplines at the bottom of the piece – if you are in urgent need please call the Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO).

Mental Health Awareness Week runs from October 9-15.

I have shared my story of ante-natal and post-natal depression and anxiety before. What surprised me about my experiences was how I assumed I wasn’t sick because my symptoms did not exactly match the idea I had in my head about PND. I thought my child was too old for me to have post-natal depression, I thought ante-natal anxiety didn’t exist, I thought I was just too tired and motherhood was meant to be really, really hard. I hope that by sharing these stories from brave mothers, we will open a conversation about how different every experience can be.

I want to say, as a mother who is still medicated for PND, medication isn’t a weakness. It takes strength to seek help and to take help and to do what you need to do to get on track. Medication worked for me and it saved my life. It might work for you too, it might not. The most important thing is to take that first step and ask for help. Ask your midwife, your partner, your friend, your mum or dad, your sister, a kindy teacher. Just ask. Around 25% of women suffer from depression during or after pregnancy, you’re not alone.

If you see your GP or call one of the numbers below and don’t get a referral, please don’t give up! Please keep going. The mental health system is under-funded and under-resourced and sometimes it takes a while to get through, but you will. Also, some GPs don’t get it – so see another GP. You matter, your health matters, you deserve help. Look up “PND” and your area on Facebook to find a group where you can speak to other mothers to find out the best way to access professional help in your region.

If you’re someone who thinks someone you care about is mentally unwell, please talk to them about it. Please listen to them and stick with them. Provide practical help like meals and support with cleaning and taking care of the baby. Don’t take over with the baby, help her to look after her wee one. Set up a safety plan and ensure she keeps her doctor appointments and midwife appointments. Call and check in on her regularly and take walks where possible to get her out of the house. Stay with her if she needs company. Be the friend you would hope to have if you were struggling.

Dads, remember you too can get post-natal depression. It’s not a weakness. It doesn’t mean you’re not an amazing dad. It just means you need help to adjust in the same way a mum would. Consider how you would treat your partner or your sister or mother in this instance and treat yourself that way. Read this post about post-natal depression in dads and ask for help if it resonates with you. You’re not alone – about 10% of men experience depression after childbirth. When I asked for stories to share here, I was sent this one from a dad: “I felt angry after my second baby was born. I didn’t know why – nobody was doing anything to upset me but I just felt rage. I kept telling off my oldest child and I had a really short temper with my wife. I didn’t realise I was depressed because I wasn’t sad, I was just grumpy and furious most of the time that I was at home. I went on anti-depressants and it helped so much. I don’t get angry anymore like I used to.”

Below are some stories from mothers who have experienced perinatal anxiety, psychosis or depression. We are committed to sharing the stories of all parents here.

From The Spinoff Parents archives

Dear Mamas podcast episode 9: Anxiety and mental illness

Mothers like me: how I found support, love and community in a Facebook group

‘I’ve never had to fight so hard before’: How I battled PTSD after a traumatic birth

Post-natal depression in dads: If you’re not happy and you know it…

Emily Writes: We have a post-natal depression epidemic and it’s killing mothers

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I felt (still feel?) like my experience of PND didn’t seem to be like anyone else’s. I wasn’t totally devoid of feeling (although sometimes I was), I didn’t feel like there was no joy in parenthood (although sometimes the joy was hard to enjoy) and I could still manage to get through the day without totally breaking down (sometimes). Mostly, I got angry. And I couldn’t control it. It was always disproportionate to the situation at hand, of course. I would throw things across the room, kick or upend furniture, and caused a few dents in walls (and in my heart). Other people’s experiences of PND didn’t seem to manifest in this way, and that just made me feel more alone and like I wasn’t cut out to be a parent. It took me a long time to seek professional help, and now I take antidepressants. I didn’t want to – and still don’t – but in the meantime it seems to be helping take the edge off. I still have bad days and a general cloud, but the anger has subsided. It doesn’t well up in me like it used to.

*

When I had my first child I had undiagnosed (and fairly low-grade I thought) PND, which I went to my doctor at the time with. He fobbed me off to his nurse as he didn’t know about “women’s stuff”, but not before informing me I was way more likely to crash my car due to lack of sleep than the general population. On my way back (I’d had maybe two hours sleep) I was convincing myself that if I just crashed a little – into the side of a hill, just a tilt of the steering wheel – then I’d get to go to hospital and sleep. And honestly, that was the best thing I could think of just then. I just wanted to sleep in a bed, with no needy baby by my side. I snapped out of it, and got home and called my mum in Greymouth and asked her to come back and help. She did. We were fine. But I can barely remember those first few months without a feeling of dread. I was lucky in that with my second, I didn’t feel that way. It was the loss of control over my life, the constant measuring up, that did my head in. With my youngest, I was a bit wiser about it all (and he was easier to put to sleep, which helped).

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My main symptom was washing my hands with such hot water, I’d burn them. I had an obsessive fear of food poisoning so I’d wash my hands at least twice after going to the loo and before and after handling food. I only knew I had a problem when the skin on my hands was hurting and I couldn’t figure out why. Finally it clicked that I’d been turning the water on so hot that my hands were being repeatedly, mildly burnt. I went to my GP and was referred to maternal mental health services. I was diagnosed with post-partum OCD. I was shocked! It’s so clear looking back now – my symptoms were classic – but at the time, I couldn’t see it.

*

I was never formally diagnosed with postnatal anxiety but I’ve had an anxiety disorder for about a decade now, and of course it flared up after baby was born. I had a terrible time giving birth (touch-and-go caesarean under general anaesthetic) and because of my wrecked body and the shock I was basically housebound for two months. I used to… not exactly hallucinate, but get hit with these vivid snapshots of injuries that might happen to baby. For example, carrying him up our steep driveway I’d get a flash of him dropped on the ground, bleeding, his head caved in. At night I’d see him too still in his bed. Driving, I’d see him broken in a car crash. What made it very strange was that for the first few weeks, maybe because I didn’t see the birth or get to hold him until after a billion nurses and grandparents had, I felt like he wasn’t my baby. It was like I had been entrusted with some other mother’s heart.

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I was diagnosed with PND in October 2016, seven months after the birth of my second child. I had known for a while that something wasn’t right, but it’s so easy to chalk abnormal behavior up to the day to day stresses of parenting. But I was drinking in the evening – a lot – and hiding it. I was also reacting to everything my children did, no matter how big or small. There seemed to be no middle ground of emotion. I was either apathetic or wildly reactive. Starting antidepressants helped enormously. But, as a gregarious person by nature, the two other main lifelines I found were counselling and building a village. Counselling sessions allowed me to talk about how I felt without feeling guilty, and guilt had been a huge problem as I felt like in my privileged position, I didn’t deserve to feel depressed. The latter I have constructed through my Playcentre community and two carefully chosen Facebook parenting groups with whom I feel I can relate to. I really believe that it takes a village to raise a child and a parent.

*

My panic attacks start with tingling lips and numb right arm, then a throbbing heart and tightening chest, and it’s usually then I notice I’m not breathing right, I can’t breathe enough, I’m probably going to collapse in front of the kids who are watch me kneel over on the floor grunting and frantically dialling the paramedics. I wish a doctor had recognised this as panic attacks three years ago, maybe I wouldn’t have progressed to full-blown panic disorder, which is basically having sudden attacks above with no warning, and waking up every morning with the sense of impending doom that I’ll never be “calm” again.

*

I saw a GP and he said “You’re just tired. That’s what parenting is like.” I was distraught. It had taken everything to pluck up the courage to see someone. My husband was furious and took me to a woman GP who immediately gave me a Maternal Mental Health referral. I was under their care for a month getting weekly counselling in a support group. My husband and that second GP saved my life. When the first GP told me there was nothing wrong I just thought “well, I can’t cope with this if this is what being a mum is – I may as well kill myself”.

*

From the Spinoff Parents archives

I looked at my child and I thought he was a stranger: My experience with postnatal depression

The black cloud: How I survived my postnatal depression to live again

I won’t suddenly be well: On the pain of not being the mother you want to be

Emily Writes on the couch with a clinical psychologist

‘Today I’m going back on my antidepressants’: A stay-at-home mum on tackling depression

I was extremely anxious, often for no apparent reason, for months following my baby’s birth. But I didn’t realise it was a “thing” – that it was an actual mental health issue, related to PND. I don’t experience it now (my baby is 16 months old). At the time, I thought I was just being irrational and overprotective and couldn’t understand why I felt this way. I didn’t seek help because I didn’t realise it was something I could get help for.

*

I was just so tired, I chalked everything down to being tired. I didn’t realise I actually had PND because I kept thinking ‘once I get sleep, I’ll be fine’. But I was crying in the shower every day and dreading the times my baby was awake or my husband was at work. I hated being alone but I hated being with people. I desperately wanted to make friends but felt like I couldn’t. Like going to a coffee group was far too much – I would stand outside and try to make myself go into a cafe and then I’d leave. And I kept saying it was just because I was tired. It took me far too long to realise I was depressed. I had therapy and now I am doing so well but I wish I’d got help sooner.

*

I had my first child in Australia where they do pre-screening for post-natal depression. The questions seemed almost funny to me at the time, like ‘would I worry if my house was not tidy’. I had never worried about my house being tidy in all my life. But later the part of me that can never admit to being less (and of course my ever self-critical gaze saw it as me being less), just told myself of course everyone feels overwhelmed, who wouldn’t feel overwhelmed? Who wouldn’t be bursting out in tears? Who wouldn’t be constantly constantly exhausted? Who wouldn’t feel anxious? I read one of the symptoms is sleep patterns changing. If you are a new parent whose sleep patterns haven’t changed then fuck off forever! I’m still not sure if I can bring myself to believe that everyone doesn’t feel this way. I hated the idea of giving it a label. I still do.
*
I was so tired. I know every parent is tired but I felt like getting out of bed was just the hardest thing in the world to do. I stopped getting dressed or bathing. At one point I went a whole week without a shower. I kept saying to everyone “Please, I’m so tired” but everyone just told me that’s what being a mum is. It was when one day I just ignored my child’s screams for an hour that I realised I was really sick and I needed help.

*

I was so focused on my physical health in pregnancy, I didn’t realise I needed to look after my mental health too. I cared so much about my weight and the babies scans – it became an obsession. I couldn’t stop weighing myself and reading advice online. I was convinced there was something wrong with my baby. That it was dying inside me and there was nothing I could do. Because I outwardly looked happy and healthy, I got lots of compliments about how well I was handling pregnancy. This made me want to hide how mentally sick I was even more.

*

I loved my baby more than anything and I thought PND was wanting to hurt your baby so I didn’t realise I had it. For me, I loved my baby so much that I thought she should have another mother who was better. A mother she deserves. I was not that mother. So I thought if I died my partner would find someone else to raise her with and she’d be happy. I told my GP one day and ended up taking medication as well as doing yoga and some other self-care things. I am now much better.

*

I had PND and PTSD after the birth of my first child (I tried bleeding to death mid-C-section, which apparently you’re not meant to do). I’m usually a super upbeat, positive person, so the PND really blindsided me at first. My symptoms included hyper-vigilance (not daring to sleep for fear that my daughter would stop breathing), utter exhaustion, non-stop crying, failure to bond with my baby, and an overwhelming sense of guilt at my inabilities as a mother.

I think the thing that I found hard was identifying that I was, in fact, experiencing PND and not ‘just’ general exhaustion after a massive, life-changing event. Everyone told me that having a baby would be hard. My life would change forever. I’d become exhausted. I’d be emotional. It would be intense. It would be challenging. So for quite a while, I thought that my PND was  ‘normal’ – this was what all new mums experienced after the birth of their first child. It wasn’t until my husband (who has experienced depression throughout his life) finally convinced me to go to my GP and fill out a questionnaire that I realised what I was experiencing was PND.

When it came to having my second child, I tried to prepare myself for experiencing PND again. I thought I’d be all over it this time, but no. What blind-sided me this time was the fact that my symptoms were entirely different to those experienced the first time round. This time, my symptoms included feeling a sense of hopelessness about myself and my relationship with my husband. I became chronically anxious and consumed by insideous thoughts. Again, seeing my GP and getting some medication for this was really helpful for me.

These days, I’m super open about experiencing PND, and needing medication and therapy to get me through. I’m always surprised at the number of people who have experienced PND (or who are experiencing PND) but who are too shy/ashamed to talk openly about it.

If you think you might be depressed you can fill out the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale as a baseline tool. You should also contact your GP; if you’re pregnant talk to your midwife as well. Postnatal depression can happen at any time from conception till your child is two. If you feel unable to see a GP on your own, please ask someone to go with you. 

Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Aotearoa and Mothers Matter are great communities for support. Mother’s Helpers runs in Auckland. Here is a list of support services specifically for parents needing mental health help.

Where to get help:

Northland DHB Mental Health, Whangarei: 09 430 4101 ext 3537, Kaipara District: 09 439 3330 ext 6701. Far North District:  09 408 0010 ext 4720, Mid North District:  09 430 4101 ext 5871

Maternal Mental Health, Auckland – 0800 43 43 44 or 09 623 4671 or extension 26740 maternalmh@adhb.govt.nz

Maternal Mental Health Service, Counties Manukau – 09 265 4000 whirinaki@middlemore.co.nz

Maternal Mental Health Team, Waitemata – 09 488 4634

Maternal Mental Health, Bay of Plenty – 0800 333 061 CAMHSAdmin@bopdhb.govt.nz

Maternal Mental Health, Palmerston North – 06 3508184 ext 9680

Maternal Mental Health, Taranaki District Health Board – 06 753 6139 Extn: 8545

Early Intervention Maternal Mental Health Service, Waikato – 07 834 9346

Specialist Maternal Mental Health Service,  Wellington Capital and Coast – 04 801 2960

Post Natal Support Network Nelson Inc – 03 5483555 postnataldepression@clear.net.nz

PND Marlborough Charitable Trust – 03 579 5443  pndmarlborough@gmail.com

Otago Mental Health Support Trust – 0800 364462 or 03 477 2598

Southern DHB – Maternal Mental Health Service – 0800 443 366 or (03) 470 9429

Mothers and Babies Service, Canterbury – 03 337 7708

PND Canterbury support – supportgroup@pndcanterbury.co.nz

Lifeline – 0800 543 354

Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

Depression Helpline  – 0800 111 757 – this service is staffed 24/7 by trained counsellors

Healthline – 0800 611 116

For more information about support and services available to you, contact the Mental Health Foundation’s free Resource and Information Service on 09 623 4812 during office hours or email info@mentalhealth.org.nz

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