“I need you to come home.”
One of the hardest sentences that I have ever uttered.
I was in the Mother Baby Unit at King Edward Hospital (a mental health unit for new mothers and their babies) and my husband was on a work trip over east. I had been admitted on his 40th birthday and I didn’t want to impose on him any more than that. But I needed him. Even though he would be at home and I would still be in hospital, I needed him closer. Our daughter was 7 months old, I was completely lost and I needed him home.
It was harder to say those words to him than it was to ask my obstetrician for a referral to a psych when I was 6 and a half months pregnant.
It was harder to say those words to him than it was to tell my psych that I didn’t love the baby and I hated feeling it moving inside me.
Why do we find it so hard to ask for help? Why don’t we want to impose on the people that care for us the most? Why do we feel like we have to be strong? When someone asks us if we are ok why do we find it so hard to say “You know what? I think I could be better.”
I didn’t know that I suffered from anxiety until I’d be diagnosed with depression. Even though I distinctly remember my first panic attack when I was 6 (I wrote my name on someone else’s work and was scared of getting in trouble), even though I was taken to hospital twice by ambulance while at uni from stress-related panic attacks, even though I was prescribed beta blockers to present my work to my professional colleagues I didn’t think of myself as mentally unwell.
When I first realised that there might be something going on I was pregnant. So I didn’t relate how I was feeling to my general mental health. I just needed help loving my baby.
But it actually grew to be much bigger and broader than that.
Jolie was born while we were living overseas. She was 4 weeks early and spent the first 5 days of her life in the neonatal ICU ward. The paediatrician had concerns about her growth, features and her heart but all tests came back normal.
We moved home when she was 6 weeks old. I was dying to get back home. We had no visitors in the hospital in Singapore, I missed our friends and family and I missed Perth. I had been taking anti-depressants since I was about 6 and a half months pregnant and I just wanted to get home so I could start feeling better. It didn’t work like that though. It was not such an easy fix.
In the early stages of my depression, it was mainly about attachment with Jolie and struggling as a stay at home mum. But gradually the symptoms and the effect they had on my relationships grew.
I struggled with basic decisions like what to cook for dinner. I resented that I had to make the decision for the whole family every freaking night.
I talked about running away. I didn’t think they needed me. I said over and over that my sister should be Jolie’s mother because she was so maternal and I was so lost.
We hosted a family get together when Jolie was about 4 months old. My cousin was visiting from New York so we got all the cousins together for a BBQ. I distinctly remember sitting there and not knowing what to say to them. These people, who I had literally grown up with, who I had spent every Christmas with for 30 years. I didn’t feel like I had anything in common with them. The mask that I felt like I had been wearing with Jolie was now on for other people too.
I stopped answering my phone and replying to messages from friends, those who I had missed so desperately while we were away. I became a champion sleeper. I would get up for visitors when I thought I had to put on a face but as soon as they were gone or I was with people I considered “safe” I would crash again.
My apathy grew and I retreated. I Just. Didn’t. Care. I didn’t care that my daughter was on the other side of the door crying. Her dad was there, he could help her. I didn’t care that my family went on outings without me. I didn’t care that my husband was at his wit's end trying to get me to engage. I didn’t care that he was left to do everything. I just wanted to sleep.
The apathy grew into anger. If I wasn’t sleeping I was shouting at my husband. I didn't know who I was anymore. I would look at the picture on the wall of our wedding day 2 years earlier and I didn't recognise the girl who was in that either. My anti-depressants obviously weren’t working.
At Jolie’s 6-month check up the health nurse expressed her concerns and put me in touch with the community mental health nurse. She upped my medication and opened the floodgates to my grief over Jolie's birth. She said to me “Oh gosh, with all that you have been through no wonder you are struggling”.
She told me that it was ok to be feeling like I was. She told me that I was normal. That I wasn’t alone.
She told me that having a baby 4 weeks early all on your own in a different country and leaving her at the hospital and moving home when she was so little to a different life wasn’t part of a normal run of the mill life and I COULD NOT BE OK WITH IT!
Things still didn’t improve a whole lot though. I was seeing a psych but it wasn’t enough. I was admitted to the Mother Baby Unit about a month later… I had started cutting myself and had taken steps towards a plan to end my life. It wasn't that I wanted to die. I wanted to escape. I didn't want to be living my life anymore.
I was in the Mother Baby Unit for 3 weeks. And it changed my life. I learnt about myself and my relationships with others. I learnt about Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and it made so much sense! I could change my reaction to things! I was in control.
Learning the psychological theory and putting it into practise though is a whole different thing. The hospital was only the start of my road to recovery. I saw a psych regularly for the next 2 years and eventually come off my medication. Unfortunately, my marriage didn’t survive and I took a backwards step when Jolie was 3 and went back to hospital. This time for 2 weeks as an inpatient and 2 weeks and an outpatient and saw a psych for another year.
I still suffer from anxiety. It’s more manageable than it was. I know myself a whole lot better than I used to. I know my triggers, can sometimes manage it on my own with mindfulness and journaling and I realise when I need to reach out.
I am a whole lot better at asking for help. Not just help with my mental health but help of all kinds. I don’t have to prove myself to anyone. I don’t have to do it all, be it all.
You don’t have to prove yourself to anyone either.
If you are struggling to relate to people that you are close with, if you have a shed-load of apathy, if you can sleep all day or if you are just so bloody angry, please know that you are not alone.
It may be the hardest thing you ever say but next time someone asks #RUOK and you’re not, try saying “Hey, you know what? I could be better.”
Asking for help is bloody hard but, please, please try.