(Everyone’s struggle with depression and anxiety is different, unique to them and valid. Everything shared in this post is just my own personal feelings and experiences.) **Trigger warning – mention of intrusive thoughts and self harm**
“I just want to feel like me again”
My initial appointment with the doctor was a blur if I’m honest. When she asked me how I was feeling, for the first time in months, I opened my mouth and just poured everything out. “I just wanted to feel like me again” I told her through the tears. It was a release to talk, and although it didn’t feel like a good kind of release, it felt like the beginning of something that could be…better. Better than where I was at that point in time. There was something ‘easier’ about talking to a complete stranger. Less judgement. No preconceived opinions. She just listened and she understood. In that moment, she made me feel like I wasn’t going ‘crazy’ or ‘just overreacting’. She made my feelings valid and acknowledged how hard things had been for me and I finally felt seen. I felt heard.
“If I’m not okay, how can I make sure everyone else is?”
Having an official diagnosis of Postnatal Depression (PND), Anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) felt really daunting. I had been prescribed Sertraline, and while the thought of relying on medication terrified me, I felt at such rock bottom that I was willing to try anything. I had also agreed to talking therapy which felt equally as scary. I have never been good at ‘talking’ and opening up about how I really felt. I’d experienced a bit of a rocky childhood during my early teens with quite severe bullying (that’s a whole other blog post topic in itself) and it had really affected my self confidence and willingness to speak up. I am the definition of a people pleaser and tend to find it easier to keep everything bottled inside rather than show any vulnerability and run the risk of conflict and confrontation. Plus, I’m always ‘the rock’ to everyone else, the shoulder to cry on, the giver of advice and the one that shares the load. If I’m not okay, how can I make sure everyone else is?
I tried to be as honest as possible during my sessions with the therapist but I still struggled with being completely open and found myself rose tinting my feelings or things that had happened. I think she could sense this and so had me complete an exercise where she read out multiple sentences and I had to fill in the blanks eg “The thing I want most is ___” and “My biggest trigger is ___”. Once finished, she read it all back to me as a complete paragraph and it floored me. It completely summed up everything I had felt over the past few months, my fears, my anxieties, my triggers. To hear another person say it out loud overwhelmed me with emotions and I couldn’t even speak because I was sobbing that much.
“Things will get worse before they get better”
At the start of my therapy, I was warned that things may feel like they are getting worse before they get better because facing up to your mental health and making sense of your feelings is a complex journey and can often unearth other things that may have been buried away. I remember rolling my eyes at this and thinking how could things possibly get any worse when I was already on the highest dose of antidepressants, feeling like I hated myself, hated my kids and feared my husband was going to leave me? Surely it couldn’t get much worse than that…could it? Talking about my feelings had opened a Pandora’s Box (no wonder I used to avoid it like the plague) and I definitely wasn’t prepared for what was to come.
Whenever I had thought about PND in the past, I had always naively assumed it was just feeling a bit sad and not really bonding with your child, and likewise with OCD, that was just obsessively cleaning and everything having its particular place, right? The idea of intrusive thoughts wasn’t even remotely on my rader. I was a rational person who was able to control my own mind and knew the difference between reality and my brain playing tricks on me…or so I thought.
At my lowest point, I was battling these intrusive thoughts constantly, not that I would ever let on to those around me, even though they knew of my diagnosis and that I was taking medication and undergoing therapy. My mind felt as though it never switched off and like I had lost all control of it. I would wake up in the morning and if I couldn’t hear the sound of my children stirring, I instantly imagined they were dead. I would struggle to drag myself out of bed (even at the thought of such tragic events) due to sheer exhaustion because my brain had kept me up all night and the thought of the day ahead just felt too overwhelming. Most days, I wouldn’t even shower, get dressed or brush my hair. I had just lost all interest in looking after myself because putting on a brave face and looking after my children sapped away any scrap of energy I did have. I didn’t even recognise myself when I looked in the mirror and that then would lead me spiralling into thinking that my husband was going to leave me. I struggled with sensory overload and couldn’t cope with even just the sound of my 3 children playing all at the same time and I lost count of the amount of times I shouted at them or locked myself in the bathroom to cry. So many times, I felt so close to just walking out of the front door and not looking back. I was short tempered, irritable and shouted a lot, insecure, paranoid and resentful. I didn’t like myself anymore, let alone love myself; so how could anyone else? I resented my children for taking away my freedom and making me feel sp trapped and smothered. I resented my husband for being able to have the freedom to lead his own life away from home, going off to work and socialising with other people. But whenever presented with the opportunity to go anywhere myself, I struggled. My intrusive thoughts would tell me that if I went out, something bad would happen. Someone would snatch the kids or hurt them. If we went anywhere in the car, I became convinced someone would crash into us. If I would get a headache, instantly it meant I had a brain tumour. If my husband was late home from work or doing extra shifts, my head told me he was having an affair because I was just creating more and more distance between us and was horrible to be around. Every possible worst case scenario would play out in my head at the thought of going anyway and doing anything, so I just didn’t. And then ofcourse the mum guilt would rear its ugly head. It was constant. And it was exhausting. When people would ask if I was okay, I would just say “I’m tired”, because I really was. I was tired because hiding all of this from the people I loved completely drained me because I had convinced myself that if they knew the extent of it all, they would leave me.
“Is it still considered self harm if I don’t know that I’m doing it?”
Eventually, I found myself at a point where I just felt numb. I didn’t feel happy anymore, I had lost all interest in everything and completely lost my ability to focus. I would put the TV on and although I would be looking at it, I wasn’t really watching it. I was zoning out, playing out scenarios in my head over and over. Things I wished I had said, things I wished I hadn’t, the mum guilt of knowing my children deserved better than the version of me that they had right now. On the bad days, I found that I had started subconsciously pick at myself. My feet mainly. I didn’t even realise how bad it had become until one day, I noticed blood on my fingers and when I looked down, I discovered that I had picked all of my toenails completely off on one foot. It hadn’t even hurt. When I mentioned it to my therapist, straight away she offered to refer me to Harmless, an organisation which offers support to people experiencing self harm. I was shocked! Is it still considered self harm if you don’t know that you’re doing it? I became ashamed of my newfound habit and covered my feet away from anyone that might see them. Wearing shoes and walking became uncomfortable but I hid that through gritted teeth around people. I tried wearing socks all the time but even then, I would find myself subconsciously removing them and picking at what nails I had left, or my skin. It didn’t happen every day, mostly just on the ‘bad’ days. My therapist explained to me that it was a condition called ‘Excoriation Disorder‘, also referred to as chronic skin-picking or dermatillomania. It is considered a mental illness related to OCD and can be triggered by stress or anxiety and can be treated by medication or talking therapy.
I felt like I was not only letting myself down, but everyone else. I was failing at being a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend. As each day went by, I wondered if I would ever make it out of this dark tunnel I had so easily found myself lost in. Would I ever feel like me again?
Click here to read Postnatal Depression – Chapter One: I Needed Help