Mental Illness Pre-Natal, Post-Natal, and During-Natal by Clare Reid
The two women in this story are both mothers with mental illness. I am one of them. Even writing that introduction and attaching it to my role as a mother feels incredibly daunting. Perhaps that’s why I wrote myself in the third person; it helps me keep it at a distance for a tiny bit longer. Okay, grace period over. I’m here to tell my story with anxiety, depression, and PTSD before falling pregnant. There are a lot of wonderful stories that have circulated our screens about post-natal mental illness but my experience, and that of my wonderful friend, Emily, started long before the second stripe showed up (or the digi-stick read ‘preggas’).
My diagnosis was made in 2010 when we got the news that the love of my life had terminal brain cancer. At 23. I fell into this incredible darkness the night of his treatment fundraiser – convenient timing, right? I just couldn’t see past his death and I couldn’t see a life for myself any more. They called it anticipatory grief laced with separation anxiety. While Ben’s illness remained fairly asymptomatic for almost a year after diagnosis, my sadness got deeper and deeper. It was only when his symptoms progressed and I took on his role as carer, did I really feel connected to myself again – kind of ironic in a cruel way. I guess it was because I had a purpose and, while I don’t intend to gender this trait, many women I spoke to in a similar situation also feel this same sense of calm when nurturing a loved one. It wasn’t a burden or a chore, it was a total and full expression of love and I was good at love. While I was still aware that he was on a journey towards death, I didn’t feel sad at all. It’s like I felt totally in control of making his death a beautiful, dignified experience. Maybe that’s the key word, control. But then he did die and I laid with him for hours and hours until my body betrayed me (damn this flesh vessel) and I needed to go to the bathroom. When I came back to him, I saw that he was just a body, discoloured and pinstriped with dark lines like a road map of our lives unlived. That body was not my husband anymore. And I collapsed. For months.
The rest of that year was a blur of sleeping pills, visitors, counselling, and epiphanies. I also spent a period of that time in total fear of going outside. My mum would drive me to therapy with my head completely curled into my chest, wearing Ben’s clothes, and twisting his wedding ring around a thick chain into my throat. I refused to see anyone who wasn’t around during the last few months of his life. I was scared of the dark and I developed a neck twitch. It’s like I couldn’t understand what ‘Tuesday’ meant anymore or why it mattered to eat or wash.
While my PTSD was diagnosed after Ben’s death, I had struggled with depression and certainly anxiety from a very young age. At a doctor’s office one day in Perth, I started to explain the experience of Ben’s illness and, as the GP got ready to dispense another pack of Lexapro with a clear conscience, my mum said: “when she was in year three, she refused to go to school because of a 5 x tables test. She was so anxious that she physically couldn’t go. It was the same for each high school exam and all through Uni. Also, when she worked at her first advertising agency she had severe insomnia. And …” Okay, we get it. Life-long affliction.
For Emily, her struggles with mental illness also began early in life, “My journey with mental health issues started at quite a young age during a time of family trauma, though I was not necessarily aware of what I was dealing with at that time. This progressed into social anxiety, depression and some body dysmorphic behaviours as I progressed into my late teens.” Emily began to self-medicate with drugs which triggered even more severe anxiety attacks, hand cramps, and twitches.
“After leaving behind that lifestyle, I fell pregnant with Lily unexpectedly,” explains Emily, “and my mental health issues spiraled out of control. I became suicidal very quickly through the pregnancy, which was exasperated by the fact that I felt a deep sense of shame about my mental state.” I too felt this sense of shame Emily describes. One, because it was only two years after my husband’s death that I was now expecting my first child. And two, because I had no idea if I could care for a baby, considering I still felt like I was existing in a state of repair.
Emily and I both chose to continue with our pregnancies and have our daughters. I don’t say this as a statement of heroism. I think it’s just as heroic for women to make an alternative choice that’s right for them; even more so in some cases. Thankfully, we had agency over our bodies and our lives. While I never considered abortion, I often meandered between a deep, even spiritual, connection with my growing child and an anxious need to take my body back, without her in it. I distinctly remember sitting in my aircon-less Excel hatchback shortly after I had found out I was pregnant, crying uncontrollably and trying to push the pregnancy out with my stomach muscles (like a reverse Kegel exercise). I thought that if I pushed hard enough I could rupture something in there and the baby would just go away before I had to tell anyone; before it had to be real. I feel my throat tighten as I remember that night and even more so as I give it permanency on this page. It’s this tightness that I can now recognize as an anxious need to protect my child from anything that might harm her, something like this paragraph even.
For Emily, a 43-hour labour (yep, you read that right) and a traumatic birth with her daughter Lily, contributed to a diagnosis of post-natal depression 12 months later. “I struggled to adjust to being a new mother, Lily was a difficult baby in terms of sleeping and I felt incredibly isolated. As a result of my withdrawn behaviours, my friendship group was limited and even these friends were at a totally different life stage to me. I felt too disconnected to reach out,” says Emily.
That’s the thing, before you’re a mother you can totally justify closing yourself off. You can spend days calling in sick for work, watching Netflix, and binge eating or not eating at all, whatever expression your illness takes. Hell, you can even ditch your whole life in a garage sale and start fresh on an island off the coast of France if you really want to. But when you become a mother, those choices are gone, or severely limited. You’re now totally responsible for two lives, yours and your baby’s. You have to be stable, consistent, and always available. And that’s completely frightening for someone who has experienced debilitating mental illness BB (before baby).
So, while Emily withdrew and disconnected herself, I did the exact opposite when my daughter was born. I was the picture of new-mummy-momentum. I had no problem breastfeeding, I was completely in love with my daughter, and I invited people over for cups of tea while I kept up witty banter about my late night TV finds with a baby who refused to sleep - 90210 OG was the best by far!
But I now recognize that momentum as a form of anxiety too. In Sarah Wilson’s book, First, We Make the Beast Beautiful, she categorises this as anxiety’s cruel irony # 2, “The more anxious we are, the more high-functioning we will make ourselves appear, which just encourages the world to lean on us more.” (pp 31).
While I wasn’t diagnosed with post-natal anxiety, I certainly experienced it. As soon as my daughter was born – literally the moment she was draped onto my chest – I felt the most overwhelming love and need to keep that love as safe and as close to me as possible. I would wake up in a cold sweat and a total panic that my daughter was dead. I would visualise her being hurt in the most horrific of ways. I would check on her constantly and I hated her being out of my sight. I know they say that a lot of this is normal but it can also be frightening and debilitating when you’re in the grips of a thought cycle you can’t break.
My daughter is now three and I still have moments when I think myself into a panic about her future health, happiness, or safety – the golden triangle of parenting anxiety. I do manage that anxiety now with prayer (or meditation, or talking to the universe, or whatever you ascribe to), a whole lot of support, and with a continuation of medication. You see, I was on anti-anxiety medication when I fell pregnant and I chose to continue taking that medication during my pregnancy and throughout breastfeeding. While I tossed up mentioning medication or not, I think it’s important that we start talking about the times we’ve put ourselves and our health first. Yes, it’s for our kids so that they have reliable, happy mothers, but it’s also for ourselves (shocking, I know). That may mean that you need to attend treatment or simply that you need a day off to do … nothing! For me, it meant that I needed to stay on the dose of medication I was on and not risk a repeat of symptoms or a withdrawal. It was the right decision for me and my health at that time and I’m proud of seeing it with certainty, even during a period of such uncertainty.
So, where are they now?
I don’t plan to wrap up this brief insight into our lives with a beautiful bow, saying that everything is perfect now and all of our hardships have led to the people we are today and blah, blah. But, distance has given us both the clarity and confidence to talk about mental illness and motherhood without fear or shame (okay, there’s still a little fear and shame hanging around). In a conclusion-cliché of sorts, I will say that both of our daughters are widely kind, empathetic, mature kids who are growing up with mothers who provide them with stable, predictable, nurturing homes.
I also have no shame in using this space to brag about my bestie, Emily, who went on to complete her Bachelor’s degree as a young single mother, is now a change manager for a global mining company (I’m still not exactly sure what that is, even though she’s tried to explain it to me many times over a glass of red wine), and a ridiculously talented floral artist for her side-hustle business, Lily and Leather!
So, there you have it, a short dive into our stories as mothers with mental illness. Mothers who are also capable of asking for help and mothers who are ready to hear your story because what I know for sure is, we’re not alone in this.