Bede, Matt and Ellen Chisholm.
Postnatal depression (PND) or postnatal anxiety (PNA) does not discriminate. It can hit any mother at any time, no matter their personality type or background, so I’ve now learnt.
Women who have never struggled with anxiety or depression can be cut down at the knees after giving birth (or months later even), as well as those who have struggled with mental illness all their lives. Men can also experience PND/PNA, so we must keep the momentum going, we must keep talking about it, as ‘normalising’ anxiety and depression will ultimately save lives and rid the taboo.
This is why I’m sharing my story.
I have battled small bouts of anxiety all my life. I often get wound up when I am challenged, i.e. exams, a new job etc. I’m a ‘type A’ personality, so it’s important to me that I ‘nail’ everything and succeed in all I put my mind to. It can be exhausting.
Before the birth of my first son Bede, I only had one other episode of anxiety that was deemed as ‘serious,’ and even then, it was nothing on what I would eventually experience in the future…little did I know. After this first bout, I discovered running was my ‘medicine’ as it helped keep my mind strong and in check. For 12 years, I made the effort to run four/five times a week, and it worked a treat for my mental health.
But, I then fell pregnant and all of a sudden I didn’t feel like running anymore. My body was constantly hungry and sore, and although exercise had previously been so ingrained in my life, I just didn’t want to do it! I wanted to sleep, eat and wallow in self-pity because I felt so ill. I felt like I was doing the right thing by listening to my body, but in hindsight, this was probably my first mistake…my natural ‘hit’ had now ceased.
Fast forward to early September 2016, and here comes the baby! Like most labours, it was difficult. I didn’t sleep for 48 hours and I was in ‘active labour’ for 27 hours. My son’s head was stuck against my spine causing crippling pain above and beyond the contractions and things weren’t progressing, so eventually, I had to have an epidural. Things calmed down once the pain subsided, so the midwife ‘went in’ and moved my boy’s ‘trapped’ head. I could then push. After 1.5 hours of pushing and a second-degree tear, Bede Dennis Chisholm was born.
The birth wasn’t at all a ‘magical’ experience for me like it is for some. It was horrific. The real kicker was the fact I was severely sleep deprived, gave birth at 2:27am and was then booted out of hospital at 5am, 2.5 hours after giving birth. I was bleeding, I couldn’t walk, I was utterly wrecked, but had to somehow get off the bed, have a shower, get changed, fit my new baby into the car seat (I was worried about exposing him to the cold night air) and direct my mother an hour north to a birthing centre where I stayed alone for three days with my boy (my husband was overseas, that wasn’t much fun either).
Beautiful baby Bede, just minutes old, having skin-on-skin time with Ellen.
Looking back, I know as soon as I was told by the midwife, “once you’ve been able to pass urine, you’ll need to leave…” I was in serious trouble. I needed sleep and some breakfast. The pressure of being forced out with a brand-new baby, combined with the fact my body had just been through its biggest physical challenge ever…I had nothing left. I was spent, and my anxiety levels went through the roof.
I was severely ill for around nine weeks. The longest, and most terrifying weeks of my life. Instead of ‘enjoying those new-born cuddles,’ I was scared of them. I was scared of my gorgeous baby. Scared I wasn’t good enough for him, that my anxiety would never fade, and I would never be a good mother, scared that because I was so anxious, I was ‘screwing’ him up. I was anxious about being anxious!
I was worried my anxiety was affecting my milk supply, I was anxious about doing the washing, cooking dinner, changing a nappy, going outside, seeing people…EVERYTHING. My thought process was completely irrational, it made no sense.
My brain was malfunctioning.
I was fortunate enough (yes, I look at it as a blessing now) to have experienced anxiety before, so when these ‘old feelings’ came back - I knew what they were. As soon as I got home from the birthing centre, I went to the Doctor and got myself some anti-anxiety medication, however it took about three weeks to kick in…those three weeks ‘waiting’ for the drugs to take effect were hell. That’s the only way to describe it, pure…hell.
I thought about ending it all.
I never made a ‘plan,’ and I don’t think I would’ve done it, but these thoughts did pop into my mind. I thought I was a burden to everyone in my life, and that my pain would only ease if I wasn’t around. I genuinely thought my phenomenal husband would be better off raising Bede without me, and he would find another woman who would look after my son better than I could. Now the thought of any other woman being with my husband and taking care of my children sickens me to the core! But when you’re mentally unwell, your thoughts are not real, they’re not rational…they’re tainted, and they’re dangerous.
I was so anxious I couldn’t sleep. I was taking sleeping pills to get some form of rest. Napping when the baby naps? Huh!? That didn’t happen for me, I couldn’t nap in the day, and could only sleep at night - medicated.
BUT…I still woke up to Bede half sedated when he needed me in the night, I still fed him*, I never stopped being a mother, and I am so proud of myself for that. I would sing, read to him and make funny faces…even though I was dying inside, as I knew it was good for his development…
* I pumped in the morning and used that at night so he got the least amount of drugs in his milk as possible, or else I gave him formula. I knew I had to take these medications if I had any chance of getting better quickly, but I was so worried about what that would do to my baby, luckily it was for a short period of time, plus the Drs said it was okay…and needed to be done, so I had to trust that. I almost gave up breastfeeding I was so worried, but thankfully I didn’t (I wanted to breastfeed) as I soon came right and ended up feeding him for 11 months. He hasn’t been affected by the drugs at all and has hit all developmental milestones earlier than the norm. He rode a proper pedal bike at 2.5 years!
Being a new mum and waking up continuously throughout the night is difficult as it is, but try doing it when you feel so down, so anxious that you actually don’t feel human.
People have asked me what I did to get well, here’s my formula:
1. Medication. I needed to be medicated to take the edge off and get some sort of clarity. I couldn’t exercise for six weeks after the birth, so my usual ‘run to clear my head…’ just couldn’t happen. I needed something else to get me through those initial weeks.
2. Exercise. Once I was six weeks postpartum, I started walking…and slowly, but surely, got back into running and then some functional fitness. I bought three nursing sports bras from Cadenshae, and my sister gave me some of her old Cadenshae hoodies to help get me out as well. I felt secure in that maternity activewear and its practicality allowed me to feed discretely anywhere, while being fully supported properly while exercising. I now had more confidence to head outside and get those ever-so-vital endorphins pumping.
3. Support. My family, my parents, my husband, my sister and my besties saved me. They surrounded Bede and I like a shield, and I felt safe and protected through their love.
It was at the six-week mark that things started to shift. The drugs had kicked in, and they took the edge off, but my running…the thing I had used my whole life to manage my anxiety, was back. At nine weeks postpartum I finally felt like ‘me’ again, and I started to feel the magic of motherhood and the overwhelming sense of love so many people had told me about. FINALLY.
Now, I am nailing #mumlife (if I do say so myself)! Bede is my little champion. I just ADORE him, and although my PND/PNA ruined the first few months with him…I’m lucky that’s all it got. Some women experience this for years, so I count myself as fortunate.
Bede and Finn Chisholm.
I love Bede so much that we tried again 10 months later for another! Finn Nicholas Chisholm was born on April 16, 2018 and he is an absolute fire-cracker. We will be trying again in a year as well…I want a girl! ;)
If you, or anyone else you know isn’t feeling well after becoming a mum, know that she WILL get better. Get her to a Doctor; get her out exercising and support her in any way you can. Anxiety and depression are killers, but there’s a way out with the right treatment…always hold onto the light, and never let go of hope…your baby needs you.
You’re the best and only mum your baby will have.
You ARE enough.
Written by Ellen Chisholm.
If you're concerned about yourself, or someone close to you, please visit the PADA New Zealand website. Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Aotearoa can help you find the best support systems in your local area.