I don’t even know where to start with this article. In fact, that’s part of the problem I suppose. But I see people talking or posting about their experiences with depression, I marvel at the amazing difference RUOK Day and organisations like the Black Dog Institute are making in dispelling myths about depression and creating an awareness of what it means… and I feel like I have a tale to tell.
First, let me make it clear that I don’t suffer from depression. I know many that do, and I am constantly amazed by their strength of character, to keep wading through the mire despite the ongoing challenges. My condition is a little bit different. Probably even less understood, if that’s possible. Like depression, it can be so hard to even recognise that it exists. And it affects millions of people, just like depression does.
Many readers and pretty much all of my friends and family know that my husband and I had a pretty traumatic experience with my daughter’s birth. People often ask how we got through it – I understand, they picture themselves in my shoes and realise what it would have meant to them. They say we were so brave, strong, any number of things to be able to wrap their heads around it. We weren’t brave or strong, we were just thrown to the wolves.
Years later after I had processed a lot of what happened I finally went to see a councillor, a recommendation from the social worker at the hospital to all parents in the NICU. It was – well, enlightening would be an epic understatement. I had no idea that PTSD – or even compounded PTSD – was so incredibly prevalent in parents of prematurity. In fact, I hadn’t even considered it a possibility. In a Duke University study of 30 parents, 29 showed 2 of the 3 major symptoms of PTSD and 16 had all 3. Obviously this is a small sample size, not to mention that it was performed in 2009. More quality research is desperately needed on this, given that prematurity affects the parents of 8% of babies born in Australia. Further, this could conceivably affect other groups, like the parents of lost, chronically or terminally ill or stillborn children.
After that first session I took stock. The councillor had tested me for Anxiety, which I had clear indications for and PTSD which I presented with 2 of the 3 symptoms for. A knot I had been cultivating gradually over the past 5 or so years in my stomach released just a tiny bit. Enough for me to notice it existed. I had carried this around for so long, I hadn’t even seen it. PTSD was for war veterans that had seen inhuman suffering and anguish. But then, maybe that’s some of what my experience was too.
It slowly dawned on me that not everyone feels knots in their stomach all the time. That not every parent imagines the worst case scenario several times a day – some too upsetting to actually write in print. Not every parent feels jittery, or the need to make constant conversation to cover the underlying nervous energy swallowing them whole. If depression is a large black dog lurking in the shadows, anxiety is a small white yappy dog, living off the sniff of its host’s frenzied heightened intensity.
I cast my mind back to those days in the hospital on my own, away from my toddler, waiting for my unborn child to pass away and to the visitors that said ‘I don’t know how you are coping’. I didn’t know either. I was numb. I was watching Law and Order and Wallabies reruns, creating a schedule for myself, embroidering Einstein quotes to pass the time. I wasn’t really coping, I was existing. Which was probably not a bad thing because the worst was yet to come. For the better part of six months (and in some ways beyond) there were never-ending emergencies, literal death defying moments, sickness and death all around me. Looking back I reacted to things I wouldn’t normally, like the thought of starting breastfeeding or a nurse forgetting to note down my baby’s every detail while I was away. And I gave no reaction to news that should have shaken me to the core – like my child being intubated before my eyes, or the death of the child in the next crib. I was all over the place, despite my efforts to keep it together. I was consumed, and no one knew.
Anxiety is not about visibly being a basket case. I am sure so many people would be absolutely shocked to know that its part of my everyday life. Its not about not having it ‘together’ or not coping. Anxiety lurks in your inner sanctum, its the voice that second guesses your every action. It the overwhelming feeling of panic at the thought of a new task, and it doubles down on the fact that you could never show weakness to the outside world because that would confirm your inner most fears – that you are failing. It’s also a pretty confronting challenge to face as a writer, because a run of the mill gentle incline suddenly becomes Mount Everest when writer’s block appears. And like depression, you cannot just work your way through it. All my life, if I’ve faced something that seems insurmountable I’ve taken the same approach. Head down, bums up. Get through it – no, not just get though it, work through it. Harder and harder until you get there. This time, that just makes things worse. More overwhelming.
A lot has changed since that first counselling session and I am a lot better than I was. So, why am I writing this? Well, firstly, because its part of my life and its part of parenting (and life in general) for many many others. Secondly I’m writing this because no one else is. Or at least, not enough people. These conditions thrive off secrecy and fear of judgement. So if I say it out loud, and if more people say it out loud, maybe we can start making life a little easier for everyone. Parenting, and life in general it seems, are fraught with judgement in every sense and the more we can unveil the reality of our daily struggle, the less of a vice grip these conditions will have over our lives.