I’ve been sad a lot lately. Life has thrown us a few curve balls this year and 2016 hasn’t been quite what I hoped for or expected. It’s hard when life doesn’t go your way and I can sometimes find myself slipping back into my old woe-is-me ways of living in negativity and fear. Therapy is brilliant but sometimes you still have to work at rewiring those thought patterns long after you walk out the therapist’s door.
Suffering losses or hardships is difficult for anybody, of course, but dealing with negative emotions can be even tougher when you’ve experienced mental health issues in the past. Measuring the distinction between a normal, human reaction to a difficult event and a more serious dip in your mental health can be incredibly tricky. The reason recovery took so long for me was because I’d lost the ability to recognise a normal emotional response. If I had a bad day with Caterpillar, or felt stressed at work, I would often fly into a panic. Am I ill again? Will I feel suicidal again? Is it coming back? When, in reality, I’d simply had a bad day – same as anybody else.
This is because postnatal depression and anxiety is so bloody terrifying. There simply aren’t enough words for how frightening the feeling of “losing your mind” can be. You’re powerless, helpless and often hopeless. It’s easily the worst thing I’ve experienced to date, and that includes my miscarriage. I may have managed my day to day fears to a point that I happily consider myself completely recovered, but that doesn’t mean the fear of becoming ill again has gone away. And most survivors I speak to feel the same. I’m confident about managing my anxiety symptoms but I definitely don’t want to have to. This fear is so great that it’s easy to understand how we sometimes become afraid of any human response which isn’t peace or joy.
To compensate, during recovery, I over-analysed. I had recovered by using CBT to challenge all my fearful thoughts so when the time came to simply live my life again, and trust that anxiety wasn’t around every corner, I found it tough to let go.
Eventually I found a practical solution, almost a formula, consisting of two questions;
- Have I been consistently low for a week or more?
- Has something happened in my life that anyone would find hard?
Part of the medical definition of depression is feeling consistently low for a period of two weeks or more with little or no relief. “Little or no relief” is key. When I was at my sickest, I couldn’t get joy from anything. You could have given me all my favourite things in the world and surrounded me with all my favourite people and I still wouldn’t have gotten any relief from the darkness. And this is a good way of ‘checking’ your mental health. It’s pretty rare now that I’m consistently sad even for an entire day, let alone a fortnight. Maybe I’m crying one morning about something but then I pick Caterpillar up from school and he instantly makes me laugh. Or maybe I’ve had a truly terrible day but I find myself really enjoying my favourite TV show after Caterpillar’s bedtime. If you can easily find joy in things, alongside feeling sadness or anger about something you’re going through, I figure that’s a great reassurance that you’re actually doing okay.
Similarly, if there’s a good reason you feel bad, a reason that would translate to anyone, then again we can cut ourselves some slack and be assured that it’s probably not the black dog coming back for a bite.
If you’ve always been mentally well, it might seem strange that I question these things, that it even crosses my mind. But mental illness can leave it’s mark and, importantly, dent your confidence in your ability to handle what life throws at you. However, it also teaches you some great coping strategies. I actually believe I’ve dealt with the miscarriage better now than I would have had it happened before I had Caterpillar, PND and therapy. I’m stronger and I have strategies in place for dealing with my emotions.
In my opinion, the final hurdle of perinatal mental health recovery is learning not to fear your emotions. I still lived in that shadow way after I was clinically well. But that’s not a full life. Sadly, human lives include pain and loss, and hiding from those feelings is not really living. So very slowly I’m teaching myself to embrace sadness, in the same way I do happiness, and not to run away. Because feeling sad is absolutely fine, and sometimes expected, but it doesn’t mean I’m ill and it doesn’t mean I can’t find something every day to also feel happy about.