Today is the last day of mental health awareness week and the theme has been “connect.”
Since early on in my experience of mental illness the internet has been a source of connections. I’ve searched for information and found webpages written by others and I’ve recognised my feelings in their words. I’ve blogged about my own experiences and heard from others that they found my words useful. In the past year I’ve connected with groups on facebook and their support has been a lifeline. Sharing our stories can make them seem a little less scary and we can find ourselves a little less alone. So here’s another chapter in my story.
I have bipolar. I’ve been “out” about that diagnosis for as long as I’ve had it. It has helped me understand what went on for me and explain to my friends why I acted the way I did. Bipolar is easy for me to write about. But that’s not what this post is about.
Last year, something different struck me. Suddenly, like a huge tree falling in the heart of my life. The fact that it came so suddenly, and that it happened only hours after one of the happiest moments in my life, made it somehow more awful.
That night, our daughter had arrived. After years of hoping and planning and dreaming. After months of carrying, loving, waiting and wondering… she arrived. She was placed, warm and wet, on my chest. She was turned away so I couldn’t see her face, but I reached up and held on to her slippery little arm and felt a rush of joy and adoration. Then she was whisked away for a short time, and the drugs which should have helped during the birth finally kicked in, and things became a blur, and exhaustion settled in.
It had been a long week. I’d had contractions four nights in a row, and then our baby arrived and cried and fed and cried through the fifth night. Gradually the fuzziness of the drugs wore away, but instead of the joy returning, darkness began to seep in. Within a day it seemed to have spread through most of my being. I ached with it.
At first I told no one. It made no sense. We had our beautiful baby at last. This was to be such a joyful time. I tried my best to be joyful. I acted the way I had expected to act as a new mother but it seemed to take so much effort. I felt like there was there small part of me that was still able to notice how beautiful our daughter was, how amazing, but that part of me was dragged down by the weight of the darkness that was taking over.
At some point in the first few days I managed to tell L something about how I was feeling, and I was relieved to find that she didn’t recoil in horror. I was even more relieved to realise that she loved our baby so much she could love her for both of us.
During her first few weeks I breastfed our daughter, I cradled her in my arms, I bathed her gently, I sang her lullabies. I did everything I had expected to do but felt nothing that I had expected to feel.
Sometimes I felt as though I was looking through a window at the happy scene of how things were meant to be. We announced Windhorse’s arrival, “we are very very happy to share the news…” because L was so very very happy, and I wanted to be. And because birth announcements aren’t meant to read “One mother is over the moon with joy at the arrival of our baby and the other is sad and numb and falling apart. Baby is doing well…” That’s just not how things are meant to be.
L encouraged me to talk to a couple of friends, and eventually I did. On the phone one of them listened to me talking about how distant I felt from my own baby and said “that must be heartbreaking for you.” And I wept, because it was. Heart breaking. And then I realised that must mean that I had a heart. And if I had a heart that could break, maybe I had a heart that could love again.
We told a few others that I was struggling but mostly I didn’t want people to know. I didn’t want to have lots of people asking me if I was feeling ok, or giving me advice or telling me things would get better. I just couldn’t bear it.
After a few weeks I we contacted the maternal mental health team and I started taking antidepressants. The psychiatrist I saw said that the role of hormones was sometimes overemphasised in postnatal depression, but in my case he thought hormones were the cause. In the past I have had experiences of severe mood changes linked to hormonal changes and the timing seemed to line up with the pattern of prolactin levels after birth. I also went back to an art therapist I’d seen in the past and I found the art therapy process immensely helpful.
Slowly, things started to get easier. As I went through the actions of being a loving mother, I felt my heart catching up. The darkness started to drain away and the full range of emotions flowed back in to the space it opened up. After about six months I still felt sad but I felt back within the range of normal emotions.
It has been fifteen months now. There are times when I still feel a little numb around the edges. There are days which are really, really hard. But mostly I feel alive and I am filled with amazement and delight as I watch Windhorse learning about the world around her. Today she got up onto her feet without pulling herself up on something. Then, after watching some older children intently, and trying several times without success, she suddenly managed to put the lid onto a felt pen! Witnessing these tiny, wonderful feats, my heart is full of love for this determined little person.
It has been hard writing this post. I feel apprehensive about hitting the “publish” button. I feel like my experience makes no sense and no one will understand. But then, mental illness never does make sense. It can happen to anyone and at any time. Even when you think you’ve got what it takes to overcome it, it can come up from behind and hit you in a new way.
There’s something else that makes no sense. Hope. Even when you think you’ve got nothing left, it can come up from behind and open you up in a new way.
I’m going to finish this post with some pictures I did in art therapy, and a poem I wrote years ago. L found it and read it aloud to me tonight. If someone reading this is in a dark space at the moment, I hope a glimmer of hope will find you soon. Arohanui. Hang in there.
A korimako is singing,
but the sky is still dark.
Why do you sing, foolish bird?
maybe the sun won’t rise today
maybe the sun
has forgotten the way to the sky
maybe the sky
has given up fighting the clouds
maybe the clouds
are heavy with tears
maybe the tears
will blind the sun
maybe the sun won’t rise today;
the sky is still dark
but a korimako is singing
“The sun will rise again.”