My experience of postnatal depression was largely rooted in intense anxiety. This is the third of three posts about the worst of my anxiety-induced symptoms (insomnia, intrusive thoughts and derealisation/depersonalisation) and how I managed or overcame each of them.
I thought I knew a fair bit about anxiety before I became ill. I have friends who have struggled for years and I’m a worrier myself by nature (or I was, more on that another time). I knew people who had panic attacks and knew all about the breathlessness, lightheadedness and racing heartbeat. Although caused by a mental issue, the symptoms of anxiety and panic that I was aware of were very physical in nature. I thought that was “all” anxiety was.
So when, less than two months after my son’s birth, I found myself living in a permanent dreamlike state and couldn’t see a way out I didn’t immediately attribute that to the anxiety I was familiar with. I simply, terrifyingly, thought I’d gone insane.
Derealisation is so, so difficult to explain to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. I’ve been staring at a blank screen for several minutes now trying to put the horror of it into words that makes sense to Joe Healthymind. “Living in a dream” is often used but that sounds too pleasant to me. Even the most vivid dreams aren’t that scary, until you can’t wake up from them. For me, it was like my mind was locked in an utterly impenetrable, clear Perspex cage. I could see and hear and taste and smell everything, my body and senses were connecting with the world just fine, but the rest of my mind was not.
Absolutely nothing felt real. Nothing. I might as well have been watching a film of the world, and my life it in, while I sat – cold, panicked and alone – in a black room in another dimension. And the more I tried, the more I struggled to get back to myself, to the core of who I was (and via her, to my family, friends, house life and my baby, oh God my baby) the further I seemed to drift away. The more I panicked, the less connected I felt.
Through it all I went about my life. I got on the bus, I went to baby groups, I met friends for coffee. I carried on. I saw my parents, I smiled and laughed but inside my head I screamed, “I’m not really here! This isn’t me! You’re talking to a hologram right now!”
I could hold and kiss my son, and show all the affection in the world but I couldn’t truly feel that love because I simply wasn’t there. I wasn’t on that same plane as him. I was locked inside my mind, utterly alone. There is nothing lonelier than derealisation because it’s just you and your mind in that clear cage, you can’t get out and no way can anybody else break in.
Everyone I loved began looking a little odd to me. Intellectually, I knew I loved my husband and parents and brother to bits but I couldn’t get to them. I would look at my dad, with whom I’ve always been close and connected to, and he would seem a little like a stranger. In hindsight, no wonder I felt I didn’t love my baby at that point. If I wasn’t capable of feeling connected to my parents who had been in my life forever how could I expect to connect with a small, adorable stranger who I’d only just met? But I didn’t have the emotional distance to think that at the time. I just thought a mother’s love should be powerful enough to easily smash through some Perspex.
(I’m still not sure Joe Healthymind is going to understand any of this by the way, but, hey, I tried.)
And then, finally, an answer. Whilst scouring the web for anxiety solutions I came across Paul David’s website and book – At Last A Life. For the first time there was an explanation, and an actual word, for what I was experiencing.
“Depersonalisation occurs with anxiety because you are so used to watching yourself, questioning your illness, day in, day out, that you start to feel detached from the outside world. Your mind has become tired and less resilient through watching and worrying about your symptoms. It has been bombarded with worrying thoughts and becomes fatigued. When our limbs tire, they ache. When our mind tires, we feel these strange feelings of detachment from the world around us, experiencing an almost dreamlike state, convincing ourselves that we are going mad or losing it. You are not; your mind is just so very tired and just craves a rest from all this introspection of oneself.” Paul David, Anxiety No More
This explanation made completely logical sense. When we’re struggling with anxiety our minds are constantly worrying, turning and ruminating. We’re preoccupied with how we feel. We’re living every moment in that high alert “fight or flight” state of adrenalin that we’re only really designed to use for short periods of conflict or survival. It makes perfect sense that our minds would be considerably disconnected from the outside world when we have used up all that time and energy focusing only on our scary thoughts, worries and symptoms. So I wasn’t crazy, my mind was just very tired and derealisation/depersonalisation was it’s way of protecting me.
Just reading and understanding this brought me a great deal of relief. The derealisation was still there, of course, but at least I knew why now. I learnt how to manage it and I used much of the same technique I’ve used for managing the rest of my anxiety symptoms – get comfortable being uncomfortable. Accept that things don’t feel real for now, and acknowledge why, but try to just sit with that knowledge and uncomfortable feeling – without judgement. Get used to the feeling, get familiar with it.
Anxiety can be a strange and awful thing. You feel uncomfortable so naturally you try to find an answer, you try to fight against it or run away from it, and yet that is the worst thing you can do. The best thing you can do is just be in it. Accept the uncomfortable feeling, let your mind sit alongside it and know it’s only temporary. The more we accept it, the less we care or let it impact our lives, the quicker it begins to lift. By stopping running and fighting we are giving our minds the break it so desperately needs, and once it’s rested you can connect externally again. Unfortunately, this takes time and practice but it’s easily the best solution I’ve found.
Caterpillar is my only child so I only know what being a new mum feels like with PND. Even without, I imagine the shock of a change that huge leaves you reeling a little and life looking a little odd in it’s newness. Things are going to always feel a little surreal I suppose. But I’m very happy to be connected again – to hubs, my family and my awesome son. And, vitally, to myself.