IN HONOR OF MATERNAL MENTAL HEALTH AWARENESS MONTH THIS MAY, WE WILL BE FEATURING GUEST BLOGGERS, EACH OF WHOM BRING THEIR OWN UNIQUE EXPERTISE AND PERSPECTIVE TO THE DISCUSSION. IT IS MY HOPE TO HELP EDUCATE AND NORMALIZE THE EXPERIENCES OF ALL MOMS.
Guest Blog Post: The Black Coat
By Jo Muirhead
My son is just about to turn 16. It’s been a long time since I was in the moment of him being a 2 year old, or a new born. I love him dearly and I know without any doubt that I am the best mum for him. I am so grateful for the opportunity to be a Mum, and today that includes being grateful for the years of post-natal depression and post-natal anxiety.
In my gratitude please don’t think for one minute that I would wish this on anyone. I would not. There is nothing fun, memorable or pleasant about the burden of blackness that you wear as a heavy coat.
In writing this piece, it is my hope that during maternal mental health awareness month that there will be a woman who will seek help who may not have sought help; that there will be family members who can help mums and dads seek help, knowing that to ask for it, when you are in the middle of post-natal depression and anxiety is almost impossible and that health professionals can get beyond their ‘professionalism” and see the pain that is in front of them and choose to do something about it.
I was 27 when I had my son. Like many new mums I was excited by this new birth. I was excited to become a mum, and my husband at the time, we were excited by this new addition to our family. I was your normal overachieving, Type A personality, and I had a history of risk factors so I had made sure that I explained this and had spoken about these during the ante natal period. I was “risk managed” right up until hospital discharge. I didn’t know what to expect – I had read books, gone to classes, watched videos and listened to the horror stories of the friends and family who had gone before me. And like most new mums I wanted to get this right – I wanted to do right by my new child.
I remember very vividly being told by the nurse that my son would have to stay with me in my room that night, as I would be going home tomorrow and I needed to learn how to care for him. I had been in hospital for 2 days, and on day 3 I was going home. I remember saying something along the lines of, you have to be kidding me I have no idea what I am doing. I didn’t sleep at all that night; we tried to breast feed, that still wasn’t working, someone kindly gave me a nipple shield ( OMG they are fun aren’t they); someone kindly told me that I needed to start “ controlled crying” and promptly left the room.
And I remember needing to go to the toilet really badly so picking up the child who was kinda attached to my breast I stood up trying to work out if I’m supposed to take him to the bathroom with me after all he was feeding and surely that wasn’t sanitary – but in the end it didn’t matter because my bladder had no control so I sat in the puddle while he fed until I could work out how to detangle myself from what was going on and clean myself up.
As soon as I put my son down he cried. And this was when I first discovered the Black Coat. The coat of darkness that would form over my head, my emotions and my body. It was a heavy coat, like pure wool that you have worn in the rain. It wasn’t comfortable, it was a burden, it was heavy and it was layered with guilt and shame.
The next day my husband and I met with a pediatrician who apparently informed us that our son would need surgery when he turned 1. I have no recollection of this conversation, and I remember my husband at the time, telling me that I wasn’t listening and that didn’t I understand that our son needed surgery I just remember my husband sometime later retelling me this needed to happen and me feeling the black coat of guilt and shame gather around me some more.
Now this coat of darkness doesn’t come on and off like you would a normal coat. No, once this is on, it is on, and it simply wraps itself around more of you each time you sense it. For me there was a very real sense of darkness forming over my mind. My limbs didn’t want to work, and my brain simply didn’t want to function. I didn’t think this was right – but hey everyone tells you this is what being a new parent is like so just get on with it.
My son cried a lot, usually from around 6pm till all hours. He had colic and nothing seemed to work. I was convinced that breastfeeding was the key, so despite my breast tissue being so big it made it difficult for him to breathe, and despite the milk flow being so forceful that he couldn’t keep up, I did what I was told and that was “breast is best”.
I kept at it; the breast feeding Nazi’s kept encouraging me to keep at it. So he cried, and I would cry. I cried a lot. Usually at night when we were trying to feed; when he was asleep; I would sit on the floor rocking back and forth terrified he would wake up and start crying again, and feeling guilty that I didn’t want my son to wake up.
I would cry in the shower; I would cry preparing food; I would cry driving to medical appointment. I could cry and cry and cry. The Coat of darkness didn’t stop the crying, in fact the coat of darkness encouraged it. The tighter the coat wrapped itself around me, the more I cried.
It wasn’t until I took my son to see a pediatric chiropractor did she take my hand and tell me that breastfeeding wasn’t for everyone and that I had not failed my son. I cried and cried and cried. There were not too many people in my world however who were happy with my decision to take him off the breast. But somewhere inside of me, I saw this was a positive choice and something I could do to look after us.
The crying reduced, funnily enough so did the colic and now Dad could help with night time feeds. The crying for me however changed. Instead of crying, I just lived in a fog. You see the Black coat had wrapped itself tightly around my emotions and now I just felt numb. I knew how to smile; I knew the words people wanted to hear; I knew how to keep the nurses happy, and the grandparents pleased with our progress. I knew how to get dressed, and to go out and to play. I knew how to act the part. But I wasn’t there. The Coat of blackness had created this impenetrable barrier between me and the world.
I wore that coat of blackness for two years. I have very few memories of this time. All I know was that my marriage didn’t survive, and that coming out of this depression was one of the most amazing days of my life.
Yes I did seek help. I saw a psychiatrist, who knew immediately I was depressed ( it would not have been hard to diagnose I think I started the initial consult by crying) . What was news to me, was that I had also suffered with this thing called anxiety. I had no idea that what I had experienced were panic attacks and that that fear of not being able to leave the house, well that’s not normal!
He asked, "Why did you wait so long to come and see me?"
My answer was, "Why did I have to wait until I was well enough to know I needed help? why didn’t all those well-meaning people help me find you?"
Today I am happily married to my second husband, and my son’s father and I have shared custody for him since he was 2. We were one of the first people in our city to do shared care, and to be honest I am so proud of us – for we have done this well.
I know this coat; but it’s now firmly on its wrack. And yes, it has come to visit since then, but it has never come to stay. Even when the black coat of depression wants to come I know that it won’t last –and that soon the sky will be blue again.
Jo Muirhead is the Founder, Director and Principle Consultant of Purple Co (www.PurpleCo.com.au), a team of specialist consultants dedicated to helping people with a disability or injury reclaim their lives through work. Jo is passionate about the health benefits of work and truly believes that everyone has the right to meaningful and rewarding employment. Purple Co grew out of this belief as a truncated form of PURpose for peoPLE. Jo also provides mentoring and coaching services to health professionals in private practice (www.JoMuirhead.com), helping them grow profitable and sustainable businesses through doing more of the work they love, the way they love to do it.
Find Jo Online at: http://jomuirhead.com
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