A long-term client of mine, Laced with kindness, has a beautiful campaign running for RUOK Day and the RUOK charity. Alicja has designed a necklace that serves as a beacon for starting a conversation. In Alicja’s words:
Jewellery often leads to a conversation. But what if we had a way to let others know we are up for a bigger conversation? One that could completely change their day…or maybe even their LIFE!
This necklace is encouraging us to start that sometimes tricky conversation and make a difference in the way we talk about and see mental health. If you are having a tough time and want to show your friends and family that you’d like someone to check in on you, if you are wanting to signal that you are available to listen, or if you have been touched by mental health and have a story to share, you can show your support and start a really important conversation by purchasing the RUOK Charity necklace. $5 from each necklace also goes directly to the RUOK charity.
Let’s lift the stigma and silence and together make a difference. RUOK Day is about having that conversation. Reaching out to your friends and family and letting them know that you are there for them and that they aren’t alone.
As part of the campaign Laced with Kindness has been sharing mental health stories over on her Facebook and Instagram pages.
I shared some of mine.
It was a condensed version of my ante-natal and post-natal depression and the events that surrounded my 3 years battling with the disease. It’s a story that I have wanted to share for a long time and when I started writing the piece I couldn’t stop typing. It was edited to share for LWK campaign but I’m going to post the whole thing here. It’s a long read. It’s an, at times, hard read.
It’s a story that I hope will make someone else feel a little less alone and a little more brave to reach out and get help.
If I could stop 1 person getting to where I did then it was worth hijacking my photography blog to share this very personal story.
“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 grew to be much bigger and broader than that.
I found out the baby’s gender so I could start calling her a her instead of an “it”. It didn’t help. I was worried that she would be born and I still wouldn’t love her.
We fell pregnant while we were living as expats in Singapore. We were on a 2-year contract for my job as a geophysicist, my husband was the “trailing spouse”. He was working from our apartment for his company back in Oz and he had a daughter back in Perth. We travelled a lot. I think in our first year there he did 50+ flights and I did 30-something. We didn’t have a whole lot of friends there, we were never home. We met a few couples who we’d have dinner and drinks with but it was a rather isolated life.
We had spoken about having a child together but the pregnancy wasn’t planned. It certainly wasn’t planned while we were living overseas and still had a remaining year left on our contract.
I was actually excited to have fallen pregnant. We had talked about it, I had a step-daughter who I loved, I knew I would be a good mother, I knew he was a fabulous father, we’d married 6 months prior and I had just turned 30. So it seemed like it was the meant to be.
The isolation and the pregnancy got to me though. We had a scare at one of the scans with a very high nuchal fold measurement so the baby was tested for Downs Syndrome. It came back clear. It seemed that each obstetrician appointment was met with fresh concerns though. I don’t know if the cultural differences meant they were overly cautious but I felt like there was always something on the verge of being not ok.
And then I realised that I hated being pregnant. I hated that my body wasn’t mine anymore. I suffered from crazy bad tailbone pain that had me working reclined on the couch with the laptop perched on my bump. I hated not recognising myself in the mirror. I hated the swollen legs, I hated the heartburn, I hated the fatigue, I hated the feeling of her moving. I hated that there seemed to be a distance between my husband and I. I was worried that I would hate the baby too.
I eventually went to see a psych and was put on a low dose of antidepressants. I don’t really remember if I felt much better? I must have.
She was born at 36 weeks. A complete surprise. My waters broke in the kitchen and it took me a while to realise what was happening. It was school holidays and my husband had arrived home the night before from Perth with his daughter who was spending the week with us. We had to find somewhere for her to go so he could accompany me in the birthing suite. It took nearly 3 hours to organise that with our friends and then register me at the hospital. So those hours I was in labour by myself.
When Jolie arrived she cried with no sound. I got a quick cuddle before she was taken to neo-natal to have her lungs checked. She was in there for 5 days. We could see her for an hour each per day (1 in the morning and 1 in the afternoon) and had to wear masks and plastic aprons and we couldn’t hold her for the first 3 days. I left the hospital and left her there. It was HARD. There were children in the NICU who had been there for 45 days though. Who was I to complain about 5? I didn’t let myself stop and think.
Our paediatrician said the strangest thing to us at Jolie’s first check after she’d been discharged “If she was Asian she would be ok but her features aren’t right for a caucasian”. She had fairly wide spaced eyes, drooped eyelids, a flat bridge on her nose and she was small (she was a month early though). She asked if we’d had genetic testing. We told her about the nuchal fold and the test that said all her chromosomes were complete.
The doctor thought she heard a heart murmur so that was checked but all was well. Jolie failed her first hearing test but passed the second.
I was still worried that I didn’t love her enough. I obviously couldn’t fulfil my expat contract on maternity leave so when Jolie was 6 weeks old we moved back to Perth. I was dying to move back home. We had no visitors in the hospital when Jolie was born. My parents and sister had flown over to see her when she was 4 weeks old (they had the trip booked for her due date) and I had already taken her back to Perth for a visit. I just kept thinking when we get home, we will be back amongst our friends and family, back in our own home, back to what we know and love. Everything will be ok.
But we came home to a new life. A life we didn’t know. A life I didn’t know. I didn’t know how to be a stay at home Mum. I was a successful, respected, scientist. I didn’t want to be the one who decided what everyone had for dinner every freaking night.
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 started back at work a few days a week. I loved being back where I thought I belonged. I slipped right back into it and made plans for a work trip to PNG. But the evening I was due to fly out I had a different sort of panic attack. The taxi pulled in the driveway and I couldn’t get off the couch. I was literally frozen. I was scared that if I got on that plane I wouldn’t come home. I was scared that I’d fly to Sydney and start a new life there. I had to cancel the trip, I had to tell my employers that I wasn’t ok and I gave up work.
I’d talked about running away before. I didn’t think they needed me. I said over and over that my sister should be Jolie’s Mum because she was so maternal and I just didn’t know what to do.
I felt like I had worn a mask for the first 6 months of Jolie’s life. I felt like nobody knew who I was anymore. I felt like I didn’t know who anyone else was anymore. I felt like a shell of a person.
We hosted a family get together when Jolie was about 5 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 wits 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. My anti-depressants obviously weren’t working.
Because Jolie was born overseas we didn’t have a mothers group, we didn’t have a community nurse. We had no official support system. When she was due for a health check at 6 months I called my friend to find out where we should go. When I finally sat down with a health nurse she asked how I was going. I told her I’d had ante-natal depression and was still taking medication. I filled in her questionnaire again and she referred me to the community mental health nurse. “But I am already on medication,” I said. She said I could be doing better.
When the mental health nurse came and we sat down with a cup of tea and I told her the story above she said to me “Oh gosh, with all that you have been through no wonder you are struggling”.
The flood gates opened.
Someone had told me that it was ok to be feeling like I was. Someone told me that I was normal.
Someone 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!
The next month was really hard. Although a higher dose of antidepressants did help and I started seeing a psych, it didn’t help to find my place in the world. I slept all day, my apathy was high. I talked more and more about running away. I cut myself to make myself feel something. One day I drove to 2 chemists and bought a packet of Mersondol from each and then bought a 6-pack of Smirnoff Blacks. I sat a street away from our house and sculled a drink. I had had a good day with Jolie, I’d had a good day with my step-daughter. I was ok saying goodbye to them and having them remember me as I was that day. But I had argued with my husband and I didn’t want him to remember me like that, I wanted him to know how much I still loved him. So I drove home, parked in the dark garage and sat there crying until he came to find me.
It wasn’t that I wanted to die. I wanted to escape. I didn’t want to be living my life anymore.
I went to hospital 2 days later.
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.
One other thing significant thing that happened while I was at the MBU was Jolie’s diagnosis. A nurse asked me if we had had her genetically tested because she thought she looked a bit different. I lost it. “SHE’S FINE!” I kept saying. “We had the amniocentesis”. But the geneticist paid us a visit and it turns out she does have a genetic disorder. She has Noonan Syndrome and suddenly, in my head, she didn’t just need a mother anymore, she needed ME. She needs me to understand this, to teach her and support her.
Learning the psychological theory and putting it into practise though is a whole different thing. The hospital was only the start to my road to recovery. I saw a psych regularly for the next 2 years and eventually came 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 I 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 realise that I suffered from imposter syndrome my whole professional life. I never felt like I really belonged. I always had to prove myself in a man’s world. And panic attacks now are usually focussed around that feeling.
I am a whole lot better at asking for help these days. 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.
It may be the hardest thing you ever say but next time someones asks #RUOK and you’re not, try saying “Hey, you know what? I could be better.”
You are not alone.
I am so very grateful for all the support from my family and friends, social workers, counsellors and psychologists who helped me (and still help me) through these years. I met some wonderful people in both hospitals. Thank you to my friends who welcomed me back with loving arms when I eventually returned.
When I look back on some early photos I have the vacant eyes but in almost all of them, I look like a happy mother. Please check in on the people who on the surface look like they are doing ok. Please show your support by donating to RUOK Day or buying one of Laced with Kindness charity necklaces and become part of the conversation.