Today is R U OK Day: "a national day of action on the second Thursday of September (13 September 2012), dedicated to inspiring all people of all backgrounds to regularly ask each other ‘Are you ok?'"
I had a conversation just yesterday that inspired me to write about this great initiative and to share a very personal story with you all.
Some describe depression as a black dog, others say it is like a fog, or a dark cloud. One friend described it as an abyss. For me it feels like a tunnel, spiralling down, dark and full of twists and turns. I was depressed after Josh was born. It took me a long time to figure out what it was and even longer to admit to it, but I was in a very dark place. I finally had almost everything I wanted - a gorgeous husband, a beautiful baby boy, and we had just bought our first home. I felt like I should have been happier than I was, and I hated that I didn't feel like I was "supposed to." I also worried constantly: I worried about whether or not I was a good mother, I worried about whether J was eating enough, whether he was warm enough, if he was happy, if I would be able to put him to sleep at night, how I would cope if I couldn't get him to sleep, whether he loved me and knew how much I loved him; it was constant and endless. I was so highly strung that I couldn't put Josh to bed at night. If he was even remotely unsettled (and he almost always was) I became a nervous wreck. I dreaded 5 o'clock when the wind down/dinner/bath/bed routine began because I knew we'd be up for hours, pacing the floor with a crying baby and I felt like we'd be doing that dance for the rest of our lives. There was no joy in any of it.
Despite that I still felt blessed, and that was an issue in itself. When I realised how close I was to having the life I always dreamed of, a sense of foreboding came over me and I became terrified that it was all going to be taken away. Worrying about the men in my life was more than I could bear, so I directed that anxious energy into worrying about myself. My hormones were wreaking havoc, and I felt like crap physically - no one had told me that pregnancy was going to have such a huge impact on my body - and I was sure that every ache, every pain, every little symptom was a major illness. After all, I hadn't really done anything to deserve the wonderful life I had, why would I be lucky enough to keep it? I was so afraid of everything, all the time. It cast a shadow over the first 12 months of J's life and there were times when I thought my husband was either going to leave or have me committed. I remember clearly feeling pretty low one day, and no matter how hard I tried, I could not muster any enthusiasm for anything. In frustration my husband pointed out that I was pulling everyone around me into the tunnel, that same darkness. It was a wake up call.
I wanted someone to see what was happening to me and to show me how to get back to the light. I didn't fit the textbook definition of postnatal depression so I never went to anyone and said "hey, I think I've got PND, can you help me?" I never talked about what was going on, I just couldn't verbalise it. Things really turned around one day when my doctor (who was frankly sick of seeing me) asked if I was happy. I burst into tears and admitted that actually, no, I wasn't. From then on I had to make a conscious effort and seek professional help to pull myself out of the tunnel and back into the land of the living, one step at a time. But it wasn't until I fell pregnant again that I started to feel like I had really walked away from it. It was brought on by a combination, and a culmination, of factors around the time Josh was born, and I was so scared towards the end of my second pregnancy that I was going to go to that dark place again, that I was determined to "get it right" the second time.
For the first few days after Charlie was born I was riding high on oxytocin and adrenaline and I felt like I had finally put the tunnel behind me. Then came the crash. Being on standby as a milkbar 24 hours a day had taken its toll and I ached all over. I wasn't able to spend as much time with J as I would have liked and he punished me for it. I hopped into bed with him one night to read stories and he screamed for Daddy and hit me in the face. I pushed on and read to him through my tears but it left me feeling like it was all just too damn hard. I had a similar thought the same night at 3am when Charlie was simultaneously vomiting and pooping on my chest... I felt that same familiar stone in the pit of my stomach, pulling me downwards, that urge to run and hide. But I talked about it. I told my husband what I was feeling. I organised a home visit from the lovely Yvonne Heavyside at The Family Zone. I took care of myself, and stayed in my pyjamas. I played with Josh, and napped with Charlie. I called my friends, and I pulled myself out of it.
The conversation I had yesterday revolved around that awful, gut-churning anxiety that I now know many new parents experience at some point. There were a few of us who all had kids around the same age and we had all experienced daily freak-outs about something during those early months of motherhood. Whether it was over taking baby out on an excursion, or settling a colicky newborn, or struggling with breastfeeding (or in my case, all of the above), we were all sitting in our houses, stressed and miserable at roughly the same time, feeling crap and alone. But we weren't alone, we just didn't know it. This revelation was both reassuring and heartbreaking at the same time - if only I had said something to someone I may have spared myself a whole lot of angst...
My experience with Charlie has been completely different, but it has taken a concerted effort on my part to stay out of the tunnel. It still comes rushing towards me at times, like when I watch the news, or consider getting on a plane, or when I hear of a mother getting sick and leaving her babies behind too soon. But right now I am OK, better than OK, and loving life. We were lucky - we made it through those dark days, but so many don't. And R U OK Day is for them.
If I've learned anything from this it's that there's no shame in asking for help. It's hard to ask for help, but it's harder still to live through depression and anxiety alone. Whether you need help, or you know someone who might, please reach out today.