I have been sitting on this blog post for well over a year, prodding it every now and again and then running away. It’s something I want to write about, and most importantly feel like I need to write about, but something about it just hasn’t been quite right. It hasn’t flowed right, hasn’t really felt like my voice, and has been a bit flat. I’ve edited it over 20 times and haven’t been able to put my finger on what felt wrong. Then the other day, I listened to a podcast with Glennon Doyle, author of the amazing book ‘Untamed’. She talked about the first draft of her book not sitting quite right, and eventually figured out that she was trying to write this book about being untamed in a very tame way. I realised I have been doing a micro version of that with my own blog post. I have been trying to open up and write about my experiences with depression and learning how to be vulnerable in a very un-vulnerable way, and it just wasn’t working. I was trying to talk about learning to care about myself (and, dare I say, love myself) from a place of looking back on something that has happened in the past and not something that is an ongoing process, and it’s just not true. I owe it to myself to be truthful after all these years of pretending to be fine at times when I wasn’t, and the truth is that the journey I have been on is very much an ongoing process and will probably always be part of the structure of my life. I am certainly in a much happier place than I have been in recent years and now feel able to put my words together, so here goes…
During the past two years I had my first official run-in with depression. I say ‘first official’ because it was the first time I was unable to continue powering through difficult times pretending I was ok, and eventually had no choice but to finally look it in the eye and give it a name. The past few years have brought a challenging combination of lifestyle stress, big changes, hidden emotional baggage and family health issues, all of which came together to become a load I just couldn’t carry anymore, and I broke down.
I was too scared to go to my GP and talk it through with someone I didn’t know very well, and who I didn’t know for certain didn’t think I was a useless human being (something I was already perfectly good at doing myself). Depression is a sneaky liar, whispering in your ear and telling you that you aren’t worthy of help at the time when you need it the most, in such a convincing voice that you have no alternative but to assume it must be true. I knew I needed help but didn’t feel like I deserved it, and managed to convince myself that I could handle being someone’s client by paying for private counselling more than I could handle the idea of asking for help. I feel unbelievably lucky to have already known a wonderful psychotherapist who ran a mother’s group I used to go to, and going to see her while I was crumbling felt safe. I fully appreciate how privileged I was to be able to scrape the money together to pay for a few sessions, and have no idea of knowing how long I would have struggled on before getting help if that hadn’t been an option. After stripping it down, layer by layer, I realised I had been feeling weird for a while, and agreed to go and see my GP as well. Sitting in that room, trying to articulate how I was feeling and wondering if I was making any sense, I was surprised by how quickly and easily he said ‘You sound like you’re depressed’. I didn’t want to believe it and insisted on blood tests to check for vitamin deficiencies which I thought could explain away most of my symptoms, but by the next week they had all come back normal. There was the answer right in front of me, which I had been avoiding for a long time – I was depressed. With that answer came another question… ‘If feeling like this equals being depressed, when have I felt like this in the past without knowing what it really was?’. There were probably times in my teens and early twenties that I’ll never know for sure about, but one answer came to me straight away, in a painful realisation. I was depressed a few years ago after my second child was born, but nobody (including myself) knew it at the time.
During that difficult time in my life, juggling a baby who didn’t sleep much at night with a toddler who bounced around during the day was my normal, and I was more physically and emotionally drained than I had ever been before. I remember sometimes feeling so utterly exhausted and empty that I felt like crying, except I was so numb nothing actually came out of my eyes. I did sometimes wonder if I might be depressed, but then told myself I was too tired to be able to tell. I would tell myself things like “When the baby starts sleeping and then I start sleeping then I’ll know whether I’m depressed or not”. The thought that I might be depressed was deeply uncomfortable and scary to me, and I judgementally saw it as a personal character flaw. Depression was something that unfortunately happened to other people, but not to me. However, it wasn’t nearly as scary as the thought that maybe I wasn’t depressed. My deepest darkest fear at that point was that there actually wasn’t anything ‘wrong’ with me at all, that I didn’t deserve any special treatment or extra help because parenting is supposed to be hard, and that if I wasn’t coping it was because I wasn’t a good enough mother or a strong enough person and someone would notice and take my children away from me.
I have read and found comfort in many articles and blog posts in recent years, but especially Melanie Golding’s article for Stylist magazine. She talks about the symptoms of depression and the regular condition of being a new mother being almost identical. How it’s so hard for health visitors and doctors to tell if mothers are depressed or not and mothers feeling like they have to ‘pass’ for being ok in order to not be considered unfit parents.
So here’s an idea… What if we instead treated all parents as if they could be depressed, and lovingly encouraged them to put looking after their mental health above anything else? Imagine what it would be like for emotional support to be given as standard as a preventative measure, rather than waiting for parents to hit rock bottom first. What if looking after yourself was the top priority, because when the people looking after the children are ok, the children are almost guaranteed to be ok as a happy side effect? If you go into almost any doctors surgery or hospital waiting room you will see posters telling you that if you’re a carer for someone with a health issue it’s vitally important that you look after yourself and have your own support. What if mothers didn’t expect to love every single second of mothering, and stopped feeling guilty about saying they needed a break to reset and recharge? Where do you expect a weary sleep-deprived mum to draw the line between struggling and struggling, and realise she needs some help? My heart aches with love and sadness for that sleep deprived and over-stretched version of myself, who was working so hard and struggling so much but thought she didn’t deserve any help. For thinking that she shouldn’t have been allowed to have two children if she couldn’t look after them all by herself without looking after herself. For thinking people would see asking for help as a sign of weakness and deem her an unfit mother. For not telling the whole truth about how she was feeling, because she didn’t want to bother anyone.
Back in the present day I found myself simultaneously trying to heal from two separate rounds of depression, focusing on getting better in the here and now whilst also reflecting and trying to retrospectively heal the damage from the last time around. I was offered medication, and was referred to the Gloucestershire ‘Let’s Talk’ service who assessed my situation and offered me some telephone sessions of cognitive behavioural therapy. It felt like it wasn’t doing any harm, but it also felt really impersonal and like it was treating my symptoms instead of getting to the root of the problem. I threw myself into the self-help approach instead, and put myself on my list of people to look after. I read books, I read articles, I started running, journalling, cold water swimming, and continued to build friendships and practice talking openly to make real life connections with real people. While doing all of this and learning how to be my true authentic self was doing me an enormous amount of good and making me feel significantly better, I was doing it all myself and still felt lonely and worn out. I needed a bit more help and finally realised that I deserved it, which is one of the most liberating things I have ever felt. I referred myself back to the ‘Let’s Talk’ team at the suggestion of my GP, and pushed for face-to-face high intensity CBT in the hopes that it might help get to the root of the problem. I found this second round and type of CBT much more effective, and it really helped to shift a lot of very old and limiting beliefs about myself that I was holding onto. I had an especially interesting experience with my therapist a month or two ago, where she asked me to examine the idea of ‘not being good enough’ more closely. She asked me to list all the qualities of a person who isn’t good enough, and I offered up suggestions such as someone who doesn’t show up for their children, breaks promises, doesn’t respect or care for others, is violent towards other people, etc. Then she asked me to describe a ‘good enough’ person, and I was surprised to find that much more difficult. Apart from things like being kind and compassionate, I couldn’t think of specific things that make people good enough. I believe that all human beings are worthy of love and support, and by simply existing, by being born and by living and breathing, you are automatically good enough. By my own argument it isn’t even possible for me to be such a useless human being that I am unworthy of help. Sometimes my behaviour isn’t good enough, which is uncomfortable to admit, but I am enough and I am worthy of the love and care I need (from myself just as importantly as from others) in order to be the best version of myself as a person and as a parent. My best parenting is great, my good enough parenting is in fact good enough, and my worst parenting comes out when I am over-stretched, under-resourced and am not looking after myself. All of my most awful parenting moments have happened when I was striving to be what I thought was a ‘perfect’ mother, trying to do everything at once whilst not having any of my own needs met. It has taken me such a long time to realise that bringing children into the world and caring for them doesn’t mean you have to become an empty shell of a person. No one will give you a medal for working yourself into the ground and having a breakdown, all in the pursuit of a completely unrealistic idea of perfection.
So, how do we get from breakdown to breakthrough? I’m still procrastinating about finishing this post, and keep adding to this bit and then deleting it, when really there might not be that much more to say. Maybe ‘finished’ is more important that ‘perfect’ right now (and if you’re a creative person that hasn’t read ‘Big Magic’ by Elizabeth Gilbert yet, go put it on your reading list). Speaking of reading lists, there are a couple more that really changed the way I think about a lot of things and are comparable in price to a prescription. I’ve prescribed myself a lot of books recently, alongside physical activity to get myself out of my own head, and some of them have been enormously helpful. If you’re anxious or depressed or interested in finding out why so many people are these days, I recommend ‘Lost Connections’ by Johann Hari. If you’re feeling a bit lost or disappointed or have lost touch with yourself and feel trapped in a lifestyle that doesn’t really suit you please read ‘Untamed’ by Glennon Doyle. If you have any other recommendations please get in touch and let me know, because as I’ve said at the beginning this is still something I’m working on.
I have held myself back, been the big scary person standing in my own way telling me ‘Don’t go ahead, it’s too dangerous, stay as invisible as possible because then you’ll be safe’. That version of myself had such authority and such a powerful voice that the rest of me has obeyed and stayed in the safe zone. If I don’t ever do anything scary or hard or put myself out there then I can’t fail or get hurt, right? That may be true, but it’s also not really living. But imagine the things I could do, the beautiful art and connections I could go out into the world and make, if I channeled all the energy I used for beating myself up and holding myself back, into building myself up and being part of my own support crew? Imagine if I was on my own side? What if there really is another way? Back in the midst of undiagnosed postnatal depression and hiding behind my children, I felt like a house that had been completely gutted. I felt like I’d been stripped right back to the bare framework of myself and have slowly been rebuilding, piece by piece, over the past five years. I am still doing a huge amount of personal work and the better I get, the further I have to fall on a bad day. But I am learning how to challenge my unhelpful negative thoughts, and have been working hard to develop new more constructive habits. I can often catch myself heading into a downward spiral and pull myself out before I get sucked in too far, or recognise that I can’t get out of a funk straight away and the best thing to do is consult my list and either do one of the things on it or go to bed as soon as possible to sleep it off. I’m on my own side now and know that I am worth taking care of and standing up for, because there is only one of me and I will be living with me for the rest of my life. If I can have a loving and kind ally whispering in my ear instead of a mean and critical bully, I know which one I’d choose any day. I’m ready to start doing instead of hiding, even if that means I don’t always get things right, and I guess that is my big breakthrough. I am finally willing to be myself and allow myself to be seen.