Lifting the lid on shame of Perinatal Depression
“She put maximum effort into everything she did, she was a giver, not a taker. She loved entertaining, she was the life of the party … she had the most fabulous laugh…”
These are the words of Sue Cotton – mother of Gidget.
Hearing Sue’s beautiful, moving and haunting recount of Lou’s life hit a nerve…a really big FREAKING nerve. She could be describing me, except my laugh is always the loudest. I asked myself why someone so positive and loved would hide their pain from family, friends and even their mother. But I know why because I’ve been there. I feel compelled to open my heart and mind with ‘warts and all’ honesty in the hope that my story may help one person with the shame and pain of perinatal depression. I am so, so scared: scared of judgement, scared for my children but here I go…
I have been invited, over the years, to Gidget Foundation events – but in my cloud of kids and work I didn’t look up enough to know what it was and why it existed. This year a great friend asked me along and I just said yes! In the car on the way there, one mum asked what it is about. In my usual fashion, I quickly googled it! When I saw the words ‘perinatal depression and anxiety’ I had a shift – a moment – a sense of relief that (a) I wasn’t a complete lunatic and (b) this is now acknowledged. This IS a thing – it wasn’t just me! And there is this amazing group of people dedicated to raising awareness, providing support and much needed services.
Pregnancy for me was NOT glowing. Trust me, I felt super grateful, super blessed and super excited. I had so much appreciation and gratitude for the life that was growing inside me. I tracked the growth every week from nails to eyelashes but I didn’t feel great – I wasn’t glowing. I was in absolute AWE that our bodies can create these wonderful beings inside of us. If you haven’t picked it up already, I’m also super positive, love an exclamation mark, love a glass half full – particularly if it’s a champagne glass. The point being, my mantra is love, light, peace, happiness and fun!
So in 2008, I turn up at my local GP office – I cannot stop crying, just cannot stop, day and night. If I am going to be brutally honest, I felt like a foreign invader had set up camp inside me. More to the point, I was so certain, so certain that there was something wrong, really wrong. I was approximately 8 weeks pregnant with my third child and out of my mind! My first and second pregnancies didn’t feel like this. The hormonal FLOODGATES had opened. I was scared, I felt helpless. I said to my GP: ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do this for 9 months!’ This was a pregnancy we had planned. We wanted more kids, we had 2 absolutely beautiful ones, we fell pregnant easily and I had easy pregnancies. We were LUCKY! It made no sense. It wasn’t the baby I wanted gone, it was the intensity of the feelings. I’m not sure if this resonates with anyone but I felt as if there was a foreign being inside me and I just couldn’t wait to get it out. I look back on my first 2 pregnancies and there were some similar signs but I managed the negativity through exercise. This pregnancy was a different beast.
I walked away with suggestions on how I could tackle this hormonal surge and we were going to meet the next week. Friday and Saturday were the same – I really have never felt emotions that deep, raw, overwhelming. We had dinner at my cousin’s house that Saturday night and I did the typical ‘pretend’ to drink and don’t tell anyone what’s going on but I was not myself and to be honest I was still very, very scared. On Sunday morning, I woke up and I actually felt normal! My emotions had been SO crazy that I mentioned to my husband that being normal seemed weird!
We were due for our 8 week check on the Monday, my husband was working but at the last minute he decided to come with me. I told him not to worry as I know he hates Sydney traffic but he insisted (don’t you love the universe sometimes?). I went to my obstetrician for a regular scan and there was no heartbeat. It was a really sad day for us but also made us so, so, so grateful for the 2 healthy beautiful children we already had. I also put my craziness down to the fact ‘the baby wasn’t ok’. Weird right!?
So, 2009 comes around. We’re ready to try again and lo and behold we fall pregnant really quickly. Then the super crazy hormones are back and bigger than ever. I honestly thought I was going crazy – again!
I think I made it to about Week 9 and turned up at my GP sobbing – which I had been doing everyday for 3 weeks. TRUST me when I say I was not sad, I wanted this child – and that’s what I couldn’t understand. How could I be so sad and want this? What was wrong with me? I was lucky enough to have an amazing GP that held my hand the whole way, she really changed the course of my pregnancy.
It’s so hard to explain to people the power of the negative raging inside your head. I have one of the most supportive, caring, understanding husbands in the world but even trying to get him to understand was difficult. I would tell my divine husband about the horrible person in my head. I distinctly remember him saying to me, ‘honey you are the most positive person I know… you being down is still so far above anyone else.’
The easiest way I can describe it now is there are 2 voices in your head: the negative, mean one and the voice of reason. In any general situation, the negative voice might pipe up but the voice of reason will rationalize the situation and, I suppose, win! My negative voice during that pregnancy was so strong. I was frightened and did not like myself at all. I could hear both voices but the negative was the strongest. Safe medication, family support, GP support and a loving husband got me through it but every day felt like Groundhog Day and, every day that I woke up, I knew my battle was to keep the ‘voices’ at bay.
It seems crazy now but at the time I was tired, exhausted and physically felt sick all day every day. AND then I couldn’t sleep at night. I couldn’t wait to get to bed every night to turn off my brain but then couldn’t sleep so was left alone with the voices. Then I couldn’t wait for the sun to come up. I remember regularly pulling into my driveway and racing to the front door, the hormones made me so paranoid that I thought people were hiding in the back of the car or in the bushes! I have learnt since that my flight or fight mechanism was ON for the entire pregnancy. The funny thing is, once I gave birth my whole mental state changed. I was back to my positive, energetic self.
I haven’t spoken to many about my experience and yet many people speak openly about postnatal depression. At the time I don’t remember anyone talking about perinatal anxiety or depression and the reason is shame. I thought, “Why couldn’t I just be happy?”
I am lucky, blessed and grateful but I remember that feeling and I know that voice and its power.
Sue Cotton said Gidget commented on the doctor asking her about ‘feelings of suicide’ when answering the mental health questions. Gidget scoffed at that question and said ‘no’. Would Gidget have answered differently if she wasn’t with her mother? Would I have? My blood chills, my heart aches, because I probably would not have told the truth either, in front of my mother. And honestly, I don’t know if I was even in a state of mind to determine what my feelings were. I did realize I needed to SHARE, get over my ego, tell my story and speak up so other mums can hopefully understand that it is OK to not be OK. Please talk…
I want to lift the lid on the shame.
I’m not telling this story for sympathy. I’m telling this story in the hope that if there is someone else out there feeling crazy, nuts, paranoid with an overpowering negative voice that it’s NOT you. It’s the changes in your body and it will be OK with good help. It really will but don’t be afraid to talk, don’t be proud, be honest, because at the end of the day isn’t that what we would want for our children. It takes a village – not just for the kids, but for the mums too.