At 30 weeks pregnant, I was diagnosed with antenatal depression (you can read my diagnosis story over at Mumsy Midwife). I can’t describe what a crushing blow it was. Even though on some level, it was a relief to hear that there was a reason behind my debilitating mood, hearing those words made me feel like a complete and utter failure. I thought it was my fault. I cursed myself for already being a ‘bad mother’ and was determined – for my sake and Pickle’s – to turn things around as quickly as I could.
Although any form of perinatal depression is more common if the patient has a history of mental health concerns, it wasn’t something I had ever experienced before. I didn’t really know how long it was likely to last, and how I’d feel on the medication I’d been given. I wanted to feel like there was a light at the end of a tunnel, but without having an accurate measurement for how long the tunnel was, it was difficult to feel hope was coming any time soon. However, I knew what I could do to help myself feel a bit more like myself again. I knew I needed to make myself feel a bit more proud of my achievements (however small!), I knew I needed to get some better nutrition and I knew being honest and open with my friends and family would make me feel less alone…. So I made myself an action list of things I wanted to do – some daily tasks, some weekly or some one-off – that I hoped would pull me out of the depression cloud quicker.
Daily: Get up early, ready for a full day
It would have been oh-so-easy to have wallowed in bed when my maternity leave started. Without anything to get up for, I could have easily wasted the day sleeping (or at least trying to), curling up with a blanket and trying to pretend I was somewhere – or someone – else. But I knew if I was to do that, I’d only get to the end of the day and berate myself for another day ‘wasted’ and feel like even more of a failure for not doing anything. Before I went on maternity leave, I’d been driving LPD (Little Pickle’s Dad) to the train station first thing in the morning as he was still recovering from a broken shoulder injury which was preventing him from cycling himself. Even though LPD was well enough to start cycling himself again, I asked him if I could still take him in the mornings. It meant I HAD to leave the house at 7.30am every day so I’d roll out of bed just minutes before needing to leave and take him whilst still wearing my PJs! But at least, I was up. And it would have been silly to go back to bed.
Daily: Eat properly
My diet had become so poor when I was at my lowest that it was the main reason that prompted me to go to the doctors. I’d gotten really concerned about the effect on baby Pickle. It wasn’t like I was purposefully not eating, but my appetite was so little and I was finding myself so anxious and busy that the idea of food didn’t seem like a priority, and was quite nauseating. It quickly became my routine that once I’d returned home from dropping LPD off for work, I’d eat breakfast. It didn’t have to be anything fancy, and was usually just a bowl of cereal but it was WAY better than nothing. I always found lunch a bit trickier (more effort involved!) but I soon found some quick go-to meals that may not have been the healthiest or most nutritious, but again, was better than nothing.
Daily: my Bullet Journal
Whilst on maternity leave, I found out about bullet journalling and for that brief period… it was a god send. It was not only something to creatively pass the time with, but it was a brilliant way to set myself goals or challenges each day to make me feel productive and useful. There’s something immensely satisfying about ticking things off lists, isn’t there? And having a clear task list each day kept me focused and motivated.
I have to confess to have not kept up with it since Pickle was born (although, part of me thinks I really should to help keep on top of household chores and the like!) but even if I never write in my bullet journal again, it really did play a huge part in my recovery, especially as I was so proud of it! It truly was a thing of beauty.
I told my Mum pretty much straight away about my diagnosis. I think I emailed her as to begin with, it was pretty difficult to say out loud. The next time I saw her, she gave me a little gift bag. Inside, I found four balls of wool, two sets of knitting needles and a knitting pattern. She simply said ‘I’ve always found knitting relaxing, so I thought you might like to try and knit something for Pickle.’ It was such a thoughtful and amazing gift. I spent a few hours with her as she taught me the stitches and techniques I needed to know, and before I knew it, I had a tiny set of knitted mittens. I was hooked.
I soon moved on to making a baby hat, followed by a cardigan. Because knitting was quite new to me, I really had to concentrate on what I was doing and getting it right, meaning that I didn’t have any spare head space to think about anything else – perfect. Escapism at it’s best, with an added sense of achievement at the end.
One-off: finishing work
Although the Doctor offered to sign me off work, I declined. I knew I needed to finish work but somehow, the idea of being deemed ‘unfit’ for work didn’t sit well with me mentally and I felt the strong urge to do things on my terms. Not the best in a financial sense, but money really wasn’t my priority at this point.
I spoke to my line manager and told her that I needed to finish work as soon as possible but wanted to ensure that my work was handed over properly and smoothly. We arranged for me to take a long break over the Easter holidays, with a few days back at work to tie up loose ends and write up proper procedure notes. She managed to arrange for my maternity cover to start a little earlier and I had a couple of days with him to do a handover.
Rather than go off sick, I used up my remaining annual leave which gave me the flexibility to work the odd day if I felt it was needed which put my mind at rest. Part of my growing anxiety which definitely contributed towards the antenatal depression was a sense of inadequacy and ‘failing’. If I’d have just left my job in disarray, I think it would have continued to worry and niggle at me. At least this way, I had some sense of peace and closure.
I also hoped my line manager would respect me for wanting to ensure I didn’t just cut and run. I don’t know whether she did or not, or what she thought at all really, but I hope it made my earlier than expected finishing time more palatable.
It’s worth saying here for anyone in the same situation as I was: the HR department at my work place were amazing. Speaking to them was incredible as they made it so clear what all my options were and made me feel like this was more normal than I felt it was. She told me that women leave earlier for their maternity all the time and how on earth could we be expected to know how we’re going to cope in those final stages so early on? I obviously can’t promise all HR teams in every organisation will be the same, but do go and speak to them if you feel you can!
Constant: my friends and family
It might not sound like much, but the combination of all of these things, really helped me get back on my feet and feeling more like myself again, but I absolutely couldn’t have done it without the amazing support of my WONDERFUL friends and family. I will never forget coming home from work early after my diagnosis, my eyes ridiculously puffy from all the crying, and finding the most wonderful care package on my doorstep. It was a whole bag full of food, treats, bubble bath, dry shampoo… topped with a little card from my best friend, WHO LIVES 45 MINUTES AWAY! My friends and family were always there when I needed them. They knew when I needed a good chat, or a good hug or even just a bit of space.And no one was more understanding or more supportive than LPD. Little Pickle’s Dad. My husband. My rock. My world. His positivity and non-judgmental attitude just made everything so much easier. For a man who has put up with a lot from me, his patience seems never ending!
I can’t profess to be an expert in mental health, far from it, but the combination of all of these things definitely helped me get back to normal as soon as possible. If anyone reading this is feeling the same or suffering from antenatal depression, it’s definitely worth the time to think about what YOU need to feel good about yourself. Be honest with yourself and realistic, seek help and support and take it one step at a time. I firmly believe that no two people are the same, and with mental health, there is no one-size-fits-all remedy but I promise you, things will get better.