Each year, approximately 100,000 Australian families will be affected by perinatal anxiety or depression, according to the Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Awareness (PANDA), which runs an awareness week every November.
That is "up to one in five expecting or new mothers and one in 10 expecting or new fathers" who will experience anxiety or depression; I am one of those people.
The number of Australian families touched by perinatal anxiety or depression is vast.Credit:Snapvillage
Despite the seemingly never-ending morning sickness I’d been saddled with, I spent the first half of my pregnancy in relative bliss. Each week, I happily checked in with the pregnancy app I’d downloaded to find out how big my baby had grown.
From a raisin to a mandarin to an avocado, this new human I was creating grew and grew inside me. The bigger he became, the lighter I felt. Like many new mothers, I happily built up stockpiles of tiny clothes and warm blankets.
I visited op shops during the day, because this is where you’ll always find the brightest woollen jumpers for little bodies. At night, I placed my hand on my tummy and sang soft songs to the mystery inside.
But the excitement I felt at what lay ahead changed dramatically just after the start of my second trimester.
One night, I was hit by a rush of anxiety so sickening I could do nothing but bunker down beneath my sheets and will myself to respite of sleep. I reasoned that such feelings were normal, and I’d feel better in the morning.
Spoiler: I did not.
Instead, it marked the start of an excruciating three month journey through intense perinatal anxiety, the manifestation of which was punctuated by my own lifelong tussle with generalised anxiety disorder and OCD.
I was plagued by endless, irrational thoughts of self harm which became so debilitating that I also experienced brief moments of suicidal ideation. I couldn’t eat and I had difficulty sleeping. My mind was like an overstuffed warehouse of thoughts and fears, and I felt myself lost inside it as if in a maze.
If this sounds extreme to you, please know that it’s far more common than you might think. The theme of PANDA Week 2018 is “I wish I knew”, and in that spirit I’ll share what I’ve learned in the hope it might help others.
I wish I knew that antenatal anxiety and depression were real
I basically expected to develop some form of postnatal anxiety following the birth of my baby. I prepared myself for it and briefed my partner on what kinds of things to look out for. But I had never really heard about such things striking during pregnancy, so when it did I was completely unprepared.
At first, it didn’t seem to me like I was "allowed" to seek help for something that seemed so silly – I didn’t even have the baby yet, so how could I possibly be struggling already?
I recognise so much of my pregnant self now in PANDA’s factsheet on antenatal anxiety, such as the presence of panic attacks, the development of obsessive or compulsive behaviours, increased irritability and a lack of joy in normal acts of happiness.
I wish someone had made me aware of these things earlier on so I hadn’t felt so frightened and lost when they arrived on my doorstep.
I wish I had known how to ask for support from my friends and family earlier
One of the most profound sources of help for me came from Miki Perkins, a journalist at Fairfax. I had found an article she’d written in 2015 for PANDA Week, and I reached out to ask for her advice. I remember exchanging instant messages with her one night as I walked endlessly around my neighbourhood (one of my usual responses to managing general anxiety).
She was kind and encouraging, and she gave me hope that there was light at the end of this dark, wretched tunnel. It was easy to talk to her, because I knew that nothing I said would be dismissed by her as "crazy" or "weird".
So often, what keeps us from reaching out to our loved ones is fear they will judge us or tell us to simply "get over it". Talking to Miki gave me the courage to reach out to those closest to me, but I wish our society were collectively more aware of the psychological risks posed by pregnancy so such steps didn’t seem so insurmountably huge.
Wouldn’t it be great if perinatal anxiety and depression were more widely understood and even acknowledged so general members of the public felt confident in respectfully offering support or enquiry to pregnant people and new parents?
I wish I knew that I would one day recover
One of the most terrifying things about anxiety is the inability to see a way through it. In its grip, it feels impossible to imagine how one could possibly ever feel normal or safe again.
There are large chunks of my pregnancy that I can barely remember, because I was so lost in the fog of my own mental swamp. I have one stark reminder in the photograph that stares out at me from my driver’s license.
It was taken on a day when the panic was washing over me in endless waves, a day I seriously considered driving headfirst into a tree.
Instead, I went home and called my doctor. I spoke candidly with her about what was going on and booked in to see a psychologist who specialised in perinatal anxiety and depression.
I told my partner how bad things had gotten and I tried to breathe. I didn’t make it back to me overnight. But all of these steps helped light the way home.
You might not feel like there’s hope right now, but I promise you that there is. Whatever point you might be at in your pregnancy or journey as a parent, there will come a time when you look down at your baby and feel nothing but the joy that feels so far away right now.
You are not alone. You will be okay. And you are much stronger than you realise. I wish I had known that, but I can help by making sure you do.
Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia (PANDA): 1300 726 306
Beyondblue (24 hours): 1300 22 4636
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