Mental health awareness week: Fearful of the Night
“Life has a way of getting us with a left hook in the gut, right when we least expect it.”
I’ve fought the weight of depression throughout my adult life and I know what a lifeline it can be to read stories of hope for brighter days to come. So – in hopes it reaches someone who needs it this mental health awareness week – I wanted to share an extract about anxiety and postnatal depression from When We Remember to Breathe, because in it Michele Powles articulates beautifully and bravely why it’s so important that we are all open about asking for help and that we are all on the lookout for signs those around us need help too.
Fearful of the night
After a week of being overwhelmed, I have been taking stock. I have been looking up more. Breathing out more. Being grateful that it is a sunny day.
It’s a good reminder; it’s not always easy to find the happy in such simple pleasures.
I remember sitting on the couch with my firstborn – him tucked, tiny and warm, in my arms – and seeing the midwife look at me sharply when I spoke about feeling disappointed that I’d ended up in emergency surgery during his birth. I cried. She watched harder, looking for signs that this wasn’t just a passing display of sorrow. (I think of you at work with all those babies and mothers, and guess this is something you do a lot – the looking and checking and guessing.) In my case, my midwife was looking to see if my tears might come to dictate the next months of my life, turning into postnatal depression and anxiety.
I was lucky. They didn’t.
Instead, some months later, I watched my strong, fearless friend dissolve under the weight of her own anxiety and depression. Her shell melted, that’s what it seemed like from the outside – the thing that had held her together just let go, as the nights pressed down on her and her brain refused to switch off. She became fearful of the night. Instead of sleeping, she tumbled into a long, silent tunnel of doubts that seemed like it would never end; her serotonin raced lower and lower, and the cocktail of neurotransmitters we all possess changed and altered her reality.
In retrospect, there were probably signs she was heading into darkness, and we all missed them: the baby was breach and my friend is naturally anxious; she didn’t feel listened to when things started to go wrong and the birth didn’t go as planned. But, in the tumble that is childbirth, this all seemed like the mess of normal life. Because this is the one unifying thing we return to again and again, isn’t it? The mess of parenting, the scramble to just get through the day without anyone dying.
But it was more than that for my friend. I didn’t see that her expectations and secret fears about motherhood had ratcheted her natural anxiety to breaking point – no one did. Because she didn’t want them to.
I remember so clearly watching it all unfold from the outside. I remember the phone calls and the tears and that she was so lost – so utterly alone and lost despite having people around her to help. Despite that this baby was adored and so, so cherished. I sat in her lounge and held her baby while mine played on the floor. I put both babies down and held her while she dissolved again and again. I thought that was what I was supposed to do. I thought that was all I was supposed to do.
I was wrong.
Her doctor told her that she had postnatal depression at her child’s six-week check-up. She didn’t believe him. Wouldn’t: there was no darkness, no dread or terror. But he was right. And when she finally allowed herself to return to him, her doctor gave it to her straight: she needed medication and she needed it now.
He was right.
Light returned. She slept. Her life changed.
When I think back to that time, I first remind myself that I am lucky: that I am loved and held and that when I slid out the end of pregnancy, my serotonin levels were in good order.
Still. Although I am not one of the almost fifteen percent of New Zealand mums to be diagnosed with postnatal depression, that doesn’t mean I have been immune to the pressures of life coming at me. Despite privilege, despite serotonin – sometimes – life has a way of getting us with a left hook in the gut, right when we least expect it.
You and I have talked about the house build, that thing so many people seem to do when they already have the big life stressors of small children or looming birth. And I’ve hinted at the pressure of writing about the process on a national stage: each week, putting a slice of myself up for people to celebrate, or, as is so often the case, tear down in the comment section of the newspaper. But I didn’t tell you about the fallout.
Today, thinking about my friend – about the crushing reality of depression – I allow myself to be real about that building time. It wasn’t pretty.
I say it again: I am privileged. We are so lucky. So very lucky. We have the money to build a house, my husband and I have paid work, we have the skills to participate in our build and enable us to afford something many others can’t. We have a beautiful family, full of love.
But, to make the build work financially, we had to throw everything at it. My husband worked full time and then went to the site until three a.m. most nights. We got babysitters because they were cheaper than builders and had date nights till midnight together, laying on primer and colour, and stuffing ducting and cubic meters of insulation into the framework. My mother came up for a week here and there so we could have more building date-nights, and so I could write and the kids wouldn’t shut my laptop on my fingers. I sold our old house myself to save on real-estate fees and then we house-sat for almost three months. When he wasn’t working on the house or at his job, my husband was overseas and I was left moving all of our possessions to a new house-sitting place every week or fortnight to save on rent. And we got burgled, twice.
We have a new home. We are so lucky. So, so lucky. But basking in today’s sunshine, I freely admit it was too much for me.
The night-time, when the kids were in bed, was darker than it should have been. I didn’t have post-natal depression, but, like my friend before me, I desperately needed to sleep, and I couldn’t. My brain became tangled in a mess of fear over what was about to happen on the site, what was happening with my children as they negotiated living in a new place so often, what would happen tomorrow or next week or next month. I was sure my husband was about to die in a plane crash/motorbike accident/building-site accident/gang-break-in gone wrong/crossing the road. I was sure my children were suffering and that I was the problem and should just go away for a while so they didn’t need to watch me cry. I lost weight. I felt guilty that I felt these things. I was fine. I could cope. I decided that I needed to push them down and just get through it.
I was crying five times a day. In the supermarket aisle (secretly, silently). In the car outside kindergarten (messily, quickly). In the living room of a stranger’s house (hopelessly, loudly), when the children were asleep in borrowed beds and my husband was still away.
It was my friend who came over when I sobbed down the phone to her. My friend who I had watched dissolving, who came to my rescue. Her regimen of anti-depressants and sleeping pills had had an almost immediately positive effect for her, but, when she came out of the initial stages of her depression she was still dazed that everything had gone wrong so quickly. However, faced with me melting in front of her, she wasn’t lost or dazed – she was amazing. ‘This is too much,’ she said to me. ‘It’s too much for anyone.’ She gave me permission to collapse properly – to collapse in front of someone, instead of in secret. And, for me, that helped immeasurably. I was still scared of the terrifying future out the front door. But I could tell her about it. And from there, I found I could tell a couple of other friends about it, so I didn’t have to sit in it every night, alone. For me, too, there was an end-date to the madness: the build would finish; I would stop having to pack and move and write about houses. My friend laid all that out for me. Then she gave me permission to talk and melt and be a mess anyway.
Now that I am sitting in the sunshine looking forward again, I am thankful for good friends who believe that talking is important. Who don’t let me hide. Who encourage me to cry and call me on my crap with open hearts willing to hear it all. I am glad I’m not fearful of the night anymore and that I know where to turn should it ever start getting too dark again. I am thankful to have seen anxiety and to have been able to move through it without getting stuck. I am grateful the sun is out and my children are well, and while there are still All Of The Things on my to-do list, I can work through them one by one. I am glad to have my nights back. Although I guess that means something entirely different when you’re a doctor.
Image courtesy Fabian Moller on Unsplash