My daughter, Ella, was born in 2009 and it was a defining moment in my life. Not in a "when you finally figure out what 'cake by the ocean' actually means" kind of way - more of a "you will never, ever be the same" kind of way. And for me that has meant both amazing and not-so-amazing things.
Ella is a happy little soul who at age two told me "When I give you a cuddle, it feels like you're me and I'm you." Mind you, the other day she also asked me apropos of nothing: "Mum, have you ever eaten currants and wangs?" I still have no idea what that means.
I love my daughter more than anyone (she doesn't know but I say the same to her little brother Henry and also my husband) but our first year together was tough because I suffered postnatal depression (PND) and postnatal post-traumatic stress (PTSD).
Some background: after a fairly easy pregnancy I had a half-brilliant, half-terrifying labour resulting in an emergency Caesarean and a turbulent, extremely stressful stay in hospital. When we finally returned home I remember lowering myself carefully into an armchair (abdominal stitching!) and thinking "Goodbye to all that!"
Wrong. What followed was almost a year of undiagnosed postnatal stress disorder (like post-traumatic stress but following birth) and postnatal depression.
What was that like? Strap yourselves in. Overwhelmingly, my PND made me feel like an utter failure. I was ashamed of my inability to cope with adjusting to life with my beautiful baby. I felt almost constant self-loathing, of not being "good enough" as a mother, wife, daughter, friend - everything. My internal monologue as a new mother unrelentingly screamed "You're shit at this!" My internal monologue as a comedian answered with "It's ok: of all the things you've tried to do, who knew this would be the thing you're shit at?" I'm so thankful the comedian part of me was still there because I know that on some days, it saved me from destroying myself.
My PND made me feel like I was living my life through gauze. The depression was like a detachment, a distance - it was as though I was observing my own life instead of being present in it. I was there but at the same time I was absent: not in a scatter-brained way, it was more like a total absence of any day-to-day feelings. I knew I loved Ella but in that first year I didn't feel like I was ever truly there with her: I kept waiting to feel "normal" with her, to not feel surprised every time she looked at me or cried or fed or even woke up.
"Doesn't sound that bad," you may think. Trouble was, I also felt that way towards everybody in my life, every single person I came into contact with. My husband, family, friends. My PND manifested as a complete disconnection with the world. At a time when I really needed to identify and acknowledge my feelings and connect with others in order to process a) my difficult birth experience and b) my life as a new mother who felt like she was failing in that role ("You had ONE job!") I couldn't do any of that. Imagine drowning and having one of those floatation-thingies juuuust out of your reach. For about a year. Yeah, that.
On top of the PND was the postnatal PTSD, which I had no idea was even a thing until I was diagnosed with it. While the PND was detachment and self-loathing, the PTSD was distress and unfiltered rage. I experienced regular, traumatic flashbacks to the hospital which made me feel like I was under attack from my own brain: I couldn't stop the images and conversations playing on a loop in my head. Often they'd happen in the wee hours while my husband slept and I was up feeding Ella: my brain would start playing a scene and I'd feel an almost uncontrollable urge to scream, fling my daughter aside and just run. Flashbacks would also be triggered by things like seeing someone in the street who looked like someone from the hospital or hearing a song that had played in the delivery room. I felt like a prisoner locked inside my own head.
And the rage? Well. I use "rage" instead of "anger" because the feeling was so raw, so burning and intense. It stemmed from repeatedly not being listened to in hospital (midwives and obstetricians take note) and outside hospital, it appeared whenever I felt - surprise, surprise - like I wasn't being heard. So while on one hand I couldn't connect with the people around me, if ever I felt like I was trying and they weren't hearing me I would explode. It made me irrational, unreasonable - pretty batshit crazy. Imagine being on a hair-trigger so fine that you felt like you could swiftly and confidently rip someone's face off at any given second. Hi! That was me.
On top of all this, I didn't feel like I could talk about any of it. To anyone. Not even my husband, who - to be fair - was nonetheless across the fact that something was amiss. I hated myself too much to help myself and I was so deeply ashamed of feeling so rooted at a time I should've been feeling joy that I hid everything behind a mask of "nothing to see here." Like the Crowded House lyric: Smiling as the shit comes down.
So after almost a year of undiagnosed PND and PTSD and despite the love I felt from and for Ella, my husband and my family, the despair I felt trapped in began to get the better of me and I started thinking about dying. Not on stage, which as a comedian was how I usually thought about dying. I started thinking about what a sheer relief it would be from all this misery to just...opt out. Initially I didn't think about the specifics of how I'd go, it was more like a fantasy in which I'd imagine how at peace I'd feel, how much more ultimately beneficial it would be to everyone around me if I just disappeared. Better off dead.
I distinctly remember driving on the freeway one day, seriously assessing the angle at which I should steer my car into the side of the truck I was driving alongside to ensure I'd write myself off but spare my baby daughter in the back seat. That seemed like the best "out" for me - that's how damaged I was and how much pain I was in.
It is to this day difficult and extremely upsetting for me to recall that time in my life.
Thanks to a blunt but necessary ultimatum from my husband, who acted solely out of love and to whom I am forever grateful, I saw my GP and began a conversation that lead to counselling and finally, recovery. Don't be fooled, though: it wasn't as easy as that; I'm just insanely over my word count and I need to tell you how this story ends.
It wasn't immediately "happily ever after" - counselling was confronting, challenging, and arduous but it saved me. If you are reading this and you are suffering, have courage and seek help. You. Can. Do. It.
I remember starting to emerge from my depression at the same time I was watching some Chilean miners emerging from being trapped under ground on the news. I imagine we felt quite similar - thankful, a bit vague, squinty, in need of reacquainting ourselves with the world. Overall: a good feeling, one worth not giving up for.
My experience changed me profoundly and believe it or not, as awful as it was I'm glad it happened. I appreciate happiness differently now. I believe that to know true happiness you must also know despair - one helps define the other. I worked that out all by myself before Pixar made Inside Out - I saw that movie with Ella and you can bet your arse I appreciated the punch line of holding Ella's hand while Joy and Sadness figured out that they were an intrinsic part of each other - like my kid once told me: "you're me and I'm you."
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