Postnatal Depression, Regular Old Depression, and How Mindfulness Saved Me
Listen to Editor in Chief Gabriel Nathan read this story:
I lived all of my adult life without the understanding that I was mentally unwell. I never really understood the depths of what mental illness actually was, what it really meant for me, and the dangers of just pushing forward. It didn’t occur to me until after a breakdown what had happened to me, how it got so bad, and how much it was actually affecting my life both as a person and as a parent. There were times where I knew something was wrong, but fear of what might happen would get the better of me, so I stayed silent. I always thought I was a bad person, not someone that needed help. My recovery was unintentional, at the time where I was at my lowest and felt like my life was over, I now realise it was only just the beginning.
I remember having an anxiety attack at thirteen and not knowing what it was. As I stood in the corner of the room, I fell back a bit into the wardrobe door, it jabbed into my back. I felt lightheaded, my hands were sweating and my heart was beating fast. I was trying to breathe but I couldn’t and as I tried to calm myself down I felt like I couldn’t feel my body anymore. I’m not sure how long it lasted but I felt exhausted after and never told anyone. These episodes continued as I got older. I kept how I was feeling to myself and got on with teenage life as best I could. I had counsellors and social workers, but I didn’t see the point in talking. I felt like the adults were patronising, and didn’t like retelling my story every time I got a new social worker. My first meeting with my school counsellor he told me it’s likely I’ll grow up to have an addiction, so I left and never returned.
I suppressed my emotions by finding my escape in other people. As a teenager I wanted to be out all the time, getting drunk and not wanting to go home became a familiar pattern. I hated being alone. I couldn’t bear the thought of being by myself; sometimes I scared myself, other times I hated myself. Either way, I wanted nothing to do with myself.
I remember my depression would cycle round, most days were sad and I would cancel work or college just to stay in bed and cry, other days I was very manic. In one particularly manic cycle I booked a holiday to Spain with a boy I’d started dating, thinking it was nothing more than harmless fun. The following week my whole life came to a screeching halt. I found out I was pregnant. From there everything happened very quickly. It’s as though I went into autopilot. I was eighteen and before I knew it, we were moving in together, starting this new life. I felt trapped. I pretended to be happy because I was paranoid that people would think badly of me if I told the truth. I felt an obligation that I had to make it work.
I remember the first time I thought about suicide. I was sitting in the hospital, on the edge of the bed in the dark. I looked over at the baby I had given birth to hours ago; I felt empty and numb. I wanted to leave, and as I sat there knowing I wasn’t allowed, the realisation hit me that I have to live with this person and this baby forever, there was no running away, this was it. Silent tears rolled down my face, I wished I could go home to my mum and pretend none of this had happened, that I wasn’t in this relationship, I didn’t live at that flat, and I didn’t have this baby.
As the nurses and father handled my baby boy, I felt disconnected from him and wished I could just disappear. It was then that I took the invisible descent into the darkness. I was gone—postnatal depression had taken hold of me and nobody saw a thing. I went home and began my life as a mother, and felt nothing was mine anymore. I was just a mum in a house with no freedom. I wanted to be better, I wanted to be like a good mum and love my life but the truth was I hated it.
The years that followed had ups and downs. By now we had two children. After four years I ended the relationship, and I struggled as a co-parent. I found myself living alone for the first time and that frightened me. My love for my children had grown but was hindered at times by my depression. When they would go to their dad for his weekends, I found it hard to fight off the demons in my head. I was no longer busy without them, I couldn’t be alone in my house. Wanting to escape those feelings, I turned to alcohol and substances when they’d leave. I became an unreliable friend, an absent daughter, a tired mum. My anxiety worsened, I couldn’t speak to clients at work, and I piled on debt.
After a year we had to leave our home, we were made homeless and sent to live in a B&B. For over a year we lived in our room, nicknamed “Shed” because it was out the back of the main building, in the car park. I felt increasingly suffocated and I’d lose my temper with the kids or breakdown and sob in frustration over little things. I didn’t feel safe there. I thought long and hard one night about what I could do to help myself and the kids. I decided to apply to university to be a social worker. I wanted my sons to be proud of me and not see me as a failure. I wanted my own home and money.
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I’d think back to being a child. I remember sitting down with social workers and thinking when I grow up I’ll help kids like me so much better than you are. I felt like I’d found my purpose and our way forward.
But it couldn’t last. Soon after, I found out my grandmother was being abused in her care home, which sparked a conflict within my family that would never be resolved. After she passed away I felt so much pain and guilt, I quit university and sunk into a deep depression.
I stopped eating, sleeping, and communicating with the world. Bills went un-opened, housework piled up, I cried non-stop for months. I felt like I’d lost everything. I was back here again. One night after sitting with heart palpitations, convinced I was going to die of a heart attack, I began pacing the room. Certain that my kids were better off without me, I got down on my knees and begged God to take me away. All the years of pain and sadness I had kept bottled up all came flooding out. It felt as though I was throwing up but there was nothing; something else forced its way out of me. It went on for a while, howling cries between dry heaving and deep sobs. It’s like something took over me, with nothing left in me I had no choice but to just let it happen.
Afterwards as I lay there on the floor in the dark. I felt paralyzed, like the whole world had just stopped, silence. I was empty. I realised it was the first time in my entire life I actually felt a moment of peace.
The following day I left the house to go to the post office, as I was in there I started to feel overwhelmed by all the people in the queue. As I looked towards the exit, a book that had been left on the shelf with the pencil cases caught my eye. I felt a pull toward it, left the queue, and picked it up. As I read it, I felt like someone was speaking directly to me. The book was titled “The Mindful Way Through Depression.” It was an eight-week mindfulness based programme to do at home. I can’t explain the feeling of Knowing, but I absolutely knew I needed this book, so I brought it and left. From that moment my life was changed forever. It happened bit by bit, but as I embraced this new way of living, things began to shift inside and out. I started paying attention to how I was feeling, my triggers and my responses. The programme helped me find a new way of dealing with stress and frustrations. It took me a long time to get used to the meditations but after a while my brain fog started to lift. I felt myself feeling more energised and positive. It allowed me to find the space I needed to deal with my problems. In the past I would always ignore meditation as a solution for my mental illness because I wanted a quick fix. This time it was different, it was like a paradigm shift.
When I was in that dark place, I never imagined that I would be well. It didn’t seem like an option or a possibility. Before I was just coping, not truly living. But I never knew that.
As I worked on myself and healing my heart, I released old energy, past hurts, and old patterns of behaviours. It healed my relationship with my sons, I no longer felt disconnected, unstable, or lonely. I found peace in my heart and a true love for life. I felt immense gratitude for my life and everything in it. I learned the most about my mental health in this period of my life: I understood that because I had never felt peaceful, I had never known I was unwell.
There were bad days along the way and things that really knocked me, but I kept the focus on getting well on my own. Self-care became my priority, I started to read more, exercise more, and my appetite returned. I was hooked. As I educated myself I was able to understand my emotions better, I then had an urge to teach these practices to children so they didn’t experience what I did. I saw the success mindfulness and meditation had on my children and so I completed a youth mindfulness teaching programme with the aim of teaching it to children in schools, better than social workers had done for me.
I am strong and empowered now. I feel like a solid, whole person. Last year I made the decision to take my children out of school so I could teach and travel with them. The lack of freedom I’d once felt from them was only temporary. I’ve returned back to my dream of having my own business with determination and passion to make it a success.
I still have days where I struggle but I remember I am human. I take a moment to breathe and be mindful. It often feels like meditation gives me the space to deal with life rather than fix it, and that is liberating.