For World Maternal Mental Health Day I wrote to my daughter about my experience of maternal mental illness.
Growing up, I was no stranger to mental heath issues. My father had struggled with depression and anxiety all his life. I’d always been known as a ‘worrier’ and sadly the feeling of overwhelming anxiety became familiar to me from quite an early age. It meant that I grew up trying to treat anyone who looked as though they were suffering with empathy and an open heart. As I got older this matured into a healthy attitude towards mental illness.
Or at least I thought it had.
Because when I suffered from mental illness myself, I tried and failed, to deal with it all on my own. I fell into the trap. I didn’t want people to think badly of me. I didn’t want to appear weak or emotional or unstable. I didn’t want anyone to see me as a failure as a mother.
After giving birth to you I suffered with Maternal Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It was like being dropped in the middle of a game of chess with a Grandmaster and not knowing the rules. Too ashamed and stubborn to ask for help, I struggled to teach myself, but without someone to really guide me how could I do anything else but let it keep winning?
OCD is so far from the common misconceptions people bandy around and for some reason seem to think is fair game for ridicule. OCD is an insidious, unrelenting blackmailer who drains the life from you by manipulating every thought. Experiencing the full force of OCD during my pregnancy and the subsequent snowball effect after giving birth was particularly cruel. Already exhausted, hormonal, feeling the weight of responsibility and judgement of others, adding in a mental illness and my life quickly became really tough.
My journey out of that hellhole has been one of, if not the most difficult thing I have ever been through in my life. And our family was forced to come on that journey with me as they inevitably became tangled in the world of OCD too. You know how you often hear people say, ’My family were amazing!’? Well, as harsh as this sounds, mine were not, at least not to start with. How on earth could they be? They didn’t know what they were dealing with either! Like me, they were clueless, scared and angry and had no idea where to direct it all. We antagonised, vented our frustration on each other and it took us all a long time to get our heads around that. OCD tried to divide and conquer and it would have succeeded had we not asked questions, educated ourselves and fought back. Seeking professional help and using medication was the best thing I could have done. It allowed me to really fight back and I am proud of myself for that.
Today is Maternal Mental Health Awareness Day. It is an opportunity for many of us to raise awareness, to share our stories in the hope of ending the stigma and helping other people feel less alone.
If you ever find yourself in the same position I want to you remember a few things:
There is no shame. I repeat – there is no shame in suffering from a mental illness. There is no shame in saying you’re struggling or that you need help. There is no shame in taking medication or having therapy. Some of the wisest, most inspirational people in this world have been there too. To take care of your wellbeing shows incredible maturity and courage.
You deserve to live a happy life. And if you have become or are about to become a mother – to enjoy this special time. Mental illness is not something that you have to resign yourself to. I’m not saying that every aspect of mental illness can be solved easily but never resign yourself to having to live your life as it’s prisoner.
You don’t know it all. There are people who know much more about this than you. It’s their job. In fact you may go through a time in your life where a stranger may understand your mind more than you do yourself and that’s fine. Trying to cope on your own is like needing root canal treatment and deciding it’s too embarrassing to go to a dentist and instead to have a crack at it yourself. Seek the guidance of professionals who can help you and keep going until you find the help that really works for you.
Go easy on yourself. Seriously, just back off a little! Take care and be kind. (If I had a quid for every time I’ve heard or read that BUT… it’s so damn true! Beating yourself up only allows whatever you’re battling to gain a tighter hold on you. Treat yourself as you would your best friend.
If you find yourself in this position someday, I hope you can hear my voice. I want to reassure and remind you that you have a part of you that is greater than mental illness. There are people that can help you use that strength and resilience you have inside to overcome and heal. I promise you have that in you – even if you just don’t know where to find it yet.
All my love