I'm no stranger to depression. From as far back as I can remember I've had bouts of it, some severe, some just dragging out like a rainy British summer. So when I read about PND in a pregnancy book I felt sure that I would recognise it if it hit me. I didn't. The first time I realised something was wrong I was already on my way to familicide.
I was literally loosening the top of the gas bottle where my husband and baby were sleeping peacefully when it occurred to me that this was not normal. The thing is, I didn't feel depressed. All that was going through my mind was how nice it was going to be to have a really long sleep.
Depression in the past for me had always meant crying... And crying... And crying. This was different. It manifested as an underlying irritability. Everything and everyone was annoying. My temper was short and my tongue was vicious. And the layers of guilt piled up high on top of that.
The morning after that realisation I called the PND help group. Even then I was fighting to stay off meds. I wanted to be a "good mother" and breast feed for as long as possible. I was told that a good mother is one who is alive to see her child grow up and bottle fed babies grow up too. Too true.
And so began my journey to figure out what went wrong and how I could shift this depressive state once and for all.
My first glimmer of hope came from a talk I went to by a prominent nutritionist. He spoke about research they had conducted into PND and how the vast majority of cases we're deficient in omega 3s. This specifically affected vegans and vegetarians. I had been a vegetarian for 20 years. I put myself onto a high dose of omega 3 fish oils (yes, I had to do some soul searching and moral debating first) and I weaned myself off the anti depressants within 6 months.
During this time I did further research into PND and found four pervasive factors that contribute to your chances of going down this slippery slope:
The first is your perception of the birth. Well I definitely ticked that box. I saw the whole experience as the most traumatic event of my life. I had anger at the midwife for misunderstanding my needs and requests. I had anger at my husband for not having to go through it; for just getting to enjoy the good bits. I had anger at myself for being so traumatised that I was unable to bond with my baby. I had A LOT of emotional processing to do. I set out to acquire the skills to do that. I had no intention of spending years in a psychologists office rehashing the event. I wanted results, and I wanted them yesterday. Babies grow fast and there was one growing up in front of me needing me to be in my best possible state to raise her.
The second is your relationship with your mother. Research shows that women with a poor relationship with their own mother have a much higher chance of having a traumatic birthing experience and a higher chance of depression post partum. Tick again. My relationship with my mother was not horrific, more like not there. Again, I set about finding the tools for letting go of the past and any lingering hurt, anger and resentment. What I found was a way not just to understand the past but to actually come to a place of gratitude for everything that has ever happened, even the stuff we label as bad. A life of gratitude is a long way from a life of depression.
Number three is the instant and dramatic shift in values that you experience. It is like being kicked out of comfort zone so far that you have no idea what your comfort zone even looks like and no strength to crawl back in it if you did find it. It takes time and patience to form a new one and usually if the shift has been dramatic it means that your kids are coming out somewhere near the new top.
The fourth idea I came across much later, and that is the link between depression and fantasies. All depression has its basis in an unfulfilled fantasy and nowhere is a fantasy more thrown in your face than in motherhood. The moving pictures and glossy pages that fill your pregnant world are endowed with images of doting mothers, smiling sweetly down at their breastfed babies. They are not filled with bedraggled mothers wincing in pain as their babies latch into their cracked, bleeding nipples. They show you images of happy families, their white clothes blowing in the breeze as they throw their giggling baby into the air on the beach. They don't show you the mother who cannot leave the house for fear of leaking through the two boat-sized pads she is wearing to soak up the B-grade horror movies' worth of blood she's losing daily. They show you happy families snuggling in bed together doting on their newborn with their hair looking gorgeous and their make up already done. They don't show you the unshaven husband sleeping in the couch because to his sleep deprived wife his snoring is more like a log than a straw breaking that poor camels back.
We get sold a well-meaning lie. The truth is uglier and harsher, but real. And acceptance of reality is one of the cornerstones of emotional well-being.
I had to face a lot of ugly messy truths, including the one where I was a less than perfect mother. And that is true. And that is ok.
You see what makes me good at what I do is not that I was or ever will be the perfect parent. What makes me good at what I do is that I struggled; that I was clueless and afraid and I messed it up quite badly. The gratitude I have now for that depression is that I have great compassion and empathy for parents as they struggle with the daily messiness of parenting; That I can guide them through the darkest bits even when their torches are totally flat, because I've been there and I've walked that path in the dark and fallen in its many holes.
Parenting is not always a joy-filled awe-inspiring wonderful ride. Like all things in life it has a darker side. It is in embracing and appreciating the dark side that we bring the two together and create wholeness. It is in facing the uglier sides of reality that we go beyond depression and into gratitude. It is in allowing our children to challenge us and mould us and force us to grow that we really get the most out of parenting and life.
You see PND is a healing journey. It is an invitation and incentive to revisit your priorities, to reconsider your past to make amends and to let go of what is no longer serving you. It is an opportunity to heal and to move forward into your parenting journey without the baggage of the past. It is a gift to help you to be the best parent that you can be.