Modern Motherhood and Mental Illness Part II is part of a blog series uncovering the ups and downs of my personal two-year journey battling PND, PTSD and OCD. Please stay tuned for Part III in this series!
My doctor expressed his concerns that I was not bonding well with our newborn baby. I recall sitting in his office completely unimpressed, pointing at Elias saying, “I have to look after that thing.” OMG. Did I just call my precious baby a thing? Clearly, I was not that giddy loved-up mum who just about elevated off the floor because she’s so besotted by the fruit of her womb.
I thought the parasite days were over once gestation had finished. Squeezing milk out of my boobs 24/7 proved that this was NOT yet over and in fact, the slavery had only just begun. I will add that breastfeeding for the first time in the public eye was a monumental event, one that I’m convinced every news channel were broadcasting all over the country. It’s hard to play it cool in public with a pair of ballooning breasts that emerge every hour on the hour, awaiting an agitated baby or breast pump to release the pressure and make everything in the world right again. On top of that, sleep deprivation can make you do strange things. Like putting undies in the bin instead of the wash basket and breast milk in your husband’s cereal.
We lived in a tiny studio flat and Elias’ bassinet was strategically located next to my bed so I could watch him breathe while he was sleeping. When you’re an overly anxious mother who’s well versed in tragic infant deaths as foretold in the media, you can’t help but fearing the worst. Seemingly, babies die all the time – why would Elias be exempt? I constantly had images flashing in my mind of Elias getting wrapped up in the cot sheets and being strangled or smothered to death. As I approached his bed each morning, I often anticipated that I would find him dead from asphyxiation.
I have discovered there’s a fine line between a normal amount of concern that every parent experiences and obsessive worry. Concern for your new baby (especially if it’s your first) I believe is completely legitimate, whether it’s the smallest detail such as a nappy that’s suspiciously too tight (no judgement for those mums who use velcro) or big things like the risk of SIDS. No matter is too minute to phone a friend, seek knowledge from our hypothetical buddy Google or, trying my parenting method, a la “wait to see what happens.” Don’t worry folks, I have a PhD in trawling through online parenting forums. I got this.
On the other side of the coin is a little pickle called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), that can present in different ways. I always thought OCD is when someone excessively cleans, checks door locks or aligns objects a certain way. Well, it is that too, but OCD is a spectrum and the symptoms can vary in themes and severity. As time went on, my obsessions would not only increase but switch between violent thoughts to health anxiety or Hypochondria. Dr Google and I have become well acquainted over the last few years, our relationship becoming what I would call ‘complicated.’ Every time I Googled my symptoms, sudden death was lurking around the corner ready to take me away to the Land of Worst Case Scenario.
Into Elias’ second month, we decided to move out of the studio flat and into a 100% legit house with doors and walls allowing separation between parents and offspring. It’s one thing to be Australian; it’s another to actually live in a two-bedder built in the 70’s on a house-o street in Western Sydney. Those old shabby houses were constructed of building materials about as useless as gingerbread, except it wasn’t as fun as gingerbread because if you ate the fibro walls, you would probably die of asbestos poisoning. The stray cat piss fumes would seep through the floorboards and propagate a nasty funk in every room, as a poignant reminder that cats really hate humans.
I will say that moving house is a BIG DEAL. It’s something I have done many, many times, and it is nothing like aged wine. It does not get better with time and you run short of creative ways to bribe your friends to help. You have to clean the house you leave, and then the house you move into, pack and unpack boxes, disassemble, load, unload and reassemble furniture, disconnect and reconnect utilities, make settlements with the old landlords whilst dealing with the incompetence of new real estate agents. It’s exhausting, expensive and can be a trigger for emotional upheaval, especially for those of us who are vulnerable to stress and are trying to push through PND. Ladies and gentleman, may I present the real reason why bubble wrap was invented.
In a wonderful act of irony, Tommy also started a new job the same week we moved, because why have one big stressor in your life when you can have two! Following the move, I started to get strange dark thoughts in my head – thoughts about harming Elias. The OCD had taken on a new form that was not only incredibly scary but also confusing. I was finally bonding nicely with squishy Elias and that was made evident by the excess baby spam on my phone and Instagram feed. There was a record of every angle, every expression and every little nuance that Tommy and I could refer back to at the end of every day.
My first response to the violent intrusive thoughts was fear. Thinking about hurting Elias on this side of the birth was something I hadn’t experienced before, so naturally, it struck a deep sense of terror in me. This time, I wasn’t afraid I would actually hurt him – I knew for a fact that I would never cross that line. My newest fear was that I would go mentally insane, lose complete control and wind up in a mental institution. Several years ago, I watched a documentary on mental illness and since then I developed a phobia of a sudden descent into madness before being wrapped up in a strait jacket to forever dwell in a white padded cell.
In this part of the story, I’d like to interject and add that the most effective and research-based treatment for OCD and most anxiety disorders is called exposure therapy. And it is literally that. You expose yourself to your worst fears until they become neutralised, thus eliminating any feeling of anxiety associated with those thoughts, making it easier to dismiss and ignore them. This, I only recently discovered last year through six months of intense Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Previous to that, I suffered silently. For Y E A R S.
When I was about 10, I watched this show called Emergency 911, where a distressed mother called the emergency line about her child that was choking on a chicken bone. From that moment on, I developed a fear of choking whilst eating, even to the point where I couldn’t swallow food properly. I even went for digestive testing, but the symptoms were psychosomatic. It seems the OCD had developed at quite an early age, and yet, no one including me was privy to this until only now. Over TWENTY YEARS later.
Back to the story: the violent thoughts eventually let down, however, I couldn’t stop myself from constantly checking on Elias when he was sleeping. I would walk into his room and check that he was breathing about five up to eight times a night, carefully inspecting the surroundings for any objects that may accidentally fall into his bassinet and kill him. Though I am significantly better in this area, to this day I still am tempted to check on Elias multiple times a night just to be sure he’s alive. Is this standard ‘concerned parent’ behaviour or obsessive? I’m really not sure. Only recently I had a strong urge to check on him because he had slept past his usual wake time and that might mean something is terribly wrong. Because that’s what OCD does, it tells you your worst fear and tricks you into believing it – over and over again.
A few months after the house move, I started venturing out beyond baby life with a home-based business. I think this was about the time my confidence had well and truly overshadowed my ability to make sound and wise decisions, tipping me yet again into the land of WTF Are You Doing. Baby brain is one thing, but this is a whole ‘nuther level of overly optimistic. I was like Lloyd on Dumb and Dumber, who chooses to ignore the odds (it is well known that 95% of start-ups fail) and go straight for the jugular.
I also picked up two days of casual work to help pay the bills as being a SAHM living in Sydney is nearly impossible for those that would actually like to be able to feed their family. While I was juggling motherhood, growing a biz, studying and slowly transitioning back to work, we needed to move house AGAIN. The bubble wrap emerged and we spent one week, a few hundred dollars and a lot of energy moving from 2147 to 2147.
Before we moved house we had a minor incident that swiftly turned into a life-changing event. Elias had a minor cut on his finger. It was so minor, it took us forever to work out the source of the bleeding while he was sitting there laughing and clapping with blood covering his face and hands. After three visits to the hospital and many failed attempts by doctors to stop the bleeding, it became apparent that something was not quite right. On Thursday 17th September, 2015, Elias was diagnosed with Haemophilia. We didn’t even know there was such a thing as a bleeding disorder until that day the Haemo Clinic staff terrified us with their fancy medical talk, to which I could only comprehend the words “incurable” and “lifelong.”
Two days later we moved house and things escalated from bad to worse. They say it takes time to come undone and that’s certainly true. Going bat shit crazy doesn’t happen overnight, trust me, I’m at expert at neuroticism. This boat was sinking and as the year was winding up, I was coming undone.
Coming to terms with Elias’ blood disorder as well as accepting, managing and preventing any slips, trips and falls became my next mission. I was on high alert 24/7, which meant relaxing would never happen again for a long time and anxiety would be moving in with me. Spontaneous panic attacks started to come at the most inconvenient times such as eating out at restaurants and meeting with mums and bubs group. Fortunately, I was in the type of group where we could freely and openly share what was on our aching hearts; tears, ugly cries and all. “We’re all a bunch of Looney Tunes,” one of the mums once said to me. I felt touched by my dear friend’s comment. I had found my place amongst a bag of mixed nuts, and none of us were in denial about it. It was both authentic and glorious, something that I believe every mother about to lose her shit desperately needs.
At this point, the physical manifestation of PND and OCD became crippling. Weakness, muscle and joint pain, IBS and extreme fatigue meant meeting all mumsy KPI’s would be a constant struggle. Often, I’d be too tired to lift the pram out of the car and just ache all through my body, but somehow lay awake at night consumed with worry about what could possibly be wrong with me. Cancer? Lymes? Multiple Sclerosis? Hysteria? I had lost a lot of weight from excessive worrying and obsessing over my health, Elias’ condition and what the bleak future would hold. Being skinny wasn’t a good social move either, as I received many disapproving looks and comments from friends. I gained 72kg and tonnes of compliments when I was pregnant (‘scuse the pun), but when I lost weight it seemed that everybody demanded an explanation.
Every anxious thought would start like this: “What if [fill in the blank]?” It’s actually really hard to reason with yourself when all anxiety wants to do is win an argument you didn’t even start or want in the first place. “What if you’re sick forever? What if Elias hits his head and haemorrhages in his brain? What if he gets snatched and goes missing? What if you have an incurable disease?” Anxiety and depression was a stage five clinger and so I needed to turn to professional psychologists. I was going to go to a private mental health clinic, one that even smelt like a sterile hospital and looked sophisticated as heck.
Let’s just say that in hindsight, you don’t always get what you pay for. Sometimes you get more, but in this case I got less. Way less. And that can be really frustrating when you’re sick and just need help. I believe the main reason why so many depressed patients commit suicide is lack of timely intervention. I’m not saying there’s a shortage of highly skilled professionals or facilities that can treat and manage mental illness. On the contrary, there is a plethora of private and public services out there. But what I have experienced is the inability of practitioners at popular and well-funded clinics to promptly recognise a specific condition and then treat it appropriately.
Everyone I have met in the mental health profession has good intentions. And I appreciate that psychologists spend many years and hours in theoretical study as well as clinical practice to be sufficiently trained in treating mental illness. But I also find it disappointing that I went through four different therapists, both clinical and non-clinical, to finally find one who knew how to treat OCD. We have come a long way as a developed society in proactively treating mental illness, as well as advocating for those who silently suffer. But, there are still gaps in the system and plenty of room for improvement. With increased funding, research, education and professional development, we will get there!
So. The final straw that completely sunk me was an exchange at a very sweet and innocent baby shower. Tommy and I had spent the entire preceding night in hospital getting treatment for Elias, involving a few trips back and forth from home. I wanted to be a ‘good friend’ to the expecting mother by making an effort and attending her little tea party. In actual fact, I pushed myself way beyond my limits despite everything that was happening at the time and thought I could wing it if I just put a happy face on.
I was so depressed and anxious, and yet I had to fake it as I didn’t want to be a downer to my expecting friend during a very special time in her life. It seems even pretending everything was ok wasn’t satisfactory because I had another mum – a total STRANGER – very brashly tell me off for having the audacity to look inconsistent to the way she believed I should look. She had a go at my hair, the way I did my make-up and the clothes I was wearing.
FYI, this is how my hair, make-up and clothes looked that day. Shocking I know.
I occasionally read about these types of mums that slam other mums with no hesitation, but I had never met one before. To be honest, I didn’t even think they really existed, I thought they were just urban legends in wildlife documentaries. After trying to process WTF just went down, I left in tears and cried like a little girl all the way home. I was gutted that a human being, a mother, could so brazenly spew out molten-lava venom-words all over a sister like that and think absolutely nothing of it.
From this, I have learnt about letting go and holding on.
Friendship is so important in human development, because it brings us comfort and compassion, which cultivates an environment for us to trust, grow and become better versions of ourselves. So, if you have to mask your feelings of despair/depression/worry/anxiety/fear around a certain circle of friends, THEY ARE NOT YOUR FRIENDS. It’s time to let go. Life is way too short to hide behind a façade and pretend everything is peachy when it’s not.
I am a very social person. I love a good party, especially if it involves food, friends and a box of cask wine. But, this time has shown me that true friends will walk with you way beyond the ‘feel good’ days and into the deep, dark and sunless valleys. These kinds of friends are a rarity but gosh, when you find them, hold on and nurture that friendship! How you define ‘nurture’ is up to you, but for me it means spending quality time together, chatting over coffee or wine and tagging each other in memes.
Recently, I have had the sheer pleasure of helping other women in similar situations, and I tell you what, it’s powerful when we come together and say it how it is with #nofilter to mask the ugliness that life can sometimes bring. Life is NOT easy, and yet we put more and more pressure on ourselves to live up to this expectation of being perfect. I call BS on this one. Nobody is perfect, in fact, the human race has perfected the art of stuffing things up. I’ll leave that political/social/cultural debate for another day 🙂
I will finish up on this: Please remember that there is always hope. A close friend whom I dearly love reminded me of this in my darkest hour. We will all lose hope at some point in time, even the strongest and boldest of us. But that’s when we turn to our faith, family and friends for love and support, and to help us renew our hope daily when it all dries up.
Who in your circle of influence needs hope? Go ahead and be that friend to lift someone else up and encourage them in their time of need. And don’t be afraid to refer to professionals too, that’s really important! But a simple word, a kind deed, a text to say you’re thinking of them can make a difference in someone’s life. Indeed, it is more blessed to give than receive, and I can guarantee you will leave with a profound feeling that no one or nothing can ever take away.
This story concludes in Part III. Please click here to read Part I.