This post was originally written as a guest blog for MQ. MQ is a new charity, set up to transform mental health through research, to ease suffering and improve the lives of everyone affected by mental illness. To find out more visit www.joinmq.org
One of the biggest questions you ask yourself when struggling with a mental illness is “why me?” For many people they have witnessed mental health issues within their family, some have a history of problems themselves that cause them to feel it’s always been with them. Others experience difficulties following a trauma in their lives.
And for some, like me, it’s utterly, terrifyingly unexpected.
I’ve wanted to be a mum for as long as I can remember. It was never a question of if I wanted kids, only when. I did everything the “right way.” I met my husband when I was 19 and we’re both planners. Within six months we’d began to plan our future in quite vivid detail. But we’re sensible and we worked hard, saved money and planned some more so it wasn’t until the last year of my twenties that we were finally married, had a beautiful house and a long-awaited baby on the way. I felt that everything I’d been planning for my whole life was finally coming together. I didn’t know that, in fact, my very ordinary life was about to fall apart. That everything I thought I knew about myself would be transformed forever.
My son was born on 27 Apr 2013 after 12 hours of labour followed by a traumatic emergency section. The post-birth euphoria never came. Instead, I found myself tired, tearful and strangely on edge in a way I’d never experienced before.
I assumed all would be fine once the baby and I were safely back home but, instead, when I walked through the front door my whole world looked different and somehow frightening. I couldn’t shake off the anxious feeling and the people and objects around me didn’t feel quite real.
The next eight weeks were a blur of sleeplessness, tears and inexplicable nervousness. I looked at my gorgeous baby and instead of feeling love and protectiveness I felt only resentment and terror. Living with the guilt of those feelings is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Then one night, when my son was blissfully sleeping through, I couldn’t. I laid awake all night long, panicked and not really knowing why. I felt trapped in my own life, in my own mind almost, and I was convinced I’d made a terrible, irreparable mistake. The next night I couldn’t sleep either and so followed a week of virtually zero sleep and no appetite before I broke down at a baby group and some very kind people pointed me in the right direction to get help.
Being told I had postnatal depression felt like a sharp shard of ice through my chest. How can I? I’m not crazy, am I? I’ve never been depressed or anxious before. What have I done wrong? WHY ME?
Much as I wished it wasn’t true it became quite clear I was indeed suffering from intense anxiety and depression. The insomnia was soon accompanied by panic attacks, intrusive thoughts about harming my baby and myself, horrible derealisation and, finally, a feeling of such intense hopelessness I simply couldn’t see how I could survive the next minute, let alone the rest of my life.
I had no previous mental health problems, no family history and no childhood trauma. Mental health issues can affect quite literally anyone and they affected me. I was fortunate that I got the help and support I needed to begin to feel better.
During those dark months of recovery I was very bitter but now the fog has cleared I can see how lucky I actually am. I’m strong and well now thanks to medication and therapies that simply didn’t exist 50 years ago. They exist now thanks to the power of research. Thanks to scientists who studied our brain chemistry and continue to do so. Thanks to psychiatrists and psychologists who developed different talking therapies to help patients unlock the skills needed to help themselves. I’m grateful to live in this decade.
However, so much more research is still needed. Many areas of mental health are still largely a mystery to physicians. Depression, anxiety and other mental health problems are still something that is often managed rather than cured. And I want a cure. I don’t want to go through that pain and fear again, and I don’t want any other mother or father to have to either. I want to know why this happens. I want to know how to prevent it from happening. I want to know how to treat it and I want that treatment to be available to all, as quickly as possible.
The most vital tool for studying mental health is access to people who have experienced difficulties and are willing to answer questions or trial treatments. The first six months of my son’s life was an incredibly bleak time but if I can use my experience to do some good and contribute to finding some answers then some light can be cast on those dark days in my history.
Without the research that took place in the past I would not be happy, content and free to fully love my son now, and maybe research in the future will mean that, eventually, perinatal mental illness can be treated more successfully or even prevented entirely.