Behind the tears: what depression and anxiety really feels like
For the biggest percentage of my life as a mum I have suffered with Depression and Anxiety. During my second pregnancy it started showing us signs we didn’t recognise until it was a full blown crisis. That may sound dramatic, but for anyone who has had this experience rattle through their lives, they know it is a crisis in every aspect of yours, your children and your partner’s lives.
So far I’ve lived with this condition for nearly 4 years, at times crippling and devastating, other times manageable, sometimes just a flicker of a moment. In that time I have done some serious soul searching, body healing and complete shifts in the foundations of my belief system. Having been in a desperate situation like I was, I am incredibly thankful for the journey myself and my family have been on. It’s been tough, challenging beyond belief and heart breaking. But it made us all stronger, bound us together in a way I never thought was possible back then. But I can see now that the very first step in this healing was my surrender and acknowledgement. Until I stopped fighting what I so deeply needed to not be true, I couldn’t truly heal. I would never be better unless I let go of the shame surrounding my condition.
I’m not the only one fighting this truth.
Women across the globe are suffering and many in silence because the stigmas associated with mental illness and parenthood are very real and discourage openness about the reality of parenting through these conditions. We have definitely come a long way in terms of support and acknowledgment of mental health issues in our current time, but we have a long way to go. Too many women believe their mental health is a direct indicator of whether they are a good mum or not, whether they were meant to be a mum or if they are good enough. It’s heart breaking to know that so many women suffer and question themselves with such vigour during their children’s precious first years of life.
Here is what it looked like for me.
No amount of wishing and trying seemed to work
It’s incredibly frustrating when I met people and they say things like “I felt depressed once and I just made the decision to get better” or “I know how you feel, sometimes I get anxious when I’m trying on a new outfit and don’t feel great”. That just gutted me every time. Sorry, but in my experience that doesn’t equate anywhere close to the reality of depression and anxiety. I wished, prayed and tried everything to get better and it just didn’t happen overnight. There are so many elements that go into healing the mind, body and soul when you’re in that state – it’s not a matter of deciding and making it all better. Secondly, true anxiety is crippling… it’s completely different to being anxious. It’s more like living inside your old body with the mind of someone you don’t know. This new mind is paranoid about everything, tiny incidents or potential incidents become devastating and filled with intense fear. All rationality goes out the window and it literally tears apart your daily life.
Questioning everything about my parenting
I’d spend hours every week analysing what I had done as a mum, how I behaved, how many times they saw me cry, how many times I yelled at them in rage, how often I just didn’t parent and let them go to do their own thing. I felt a tremendous feeling of responsibility for my children and that I had let that responsibility go. Like I was being the worst mum ever. Nothing would shake that feeling. And it’s probably at the core of what was feeding that monster, but all the guilt, self-doubt and paranoia just kept feeding the story in my head that I was doing a terrible job and that my children deserved better than what I could give them.
It fluctuates without any reasoning at all
When people say mental illness is cruel I second that a million times over. Maybe it's due to the destruction it can cause in our lives, our personalities, everything. Maybe it's because it actually feels like a beast all within itself, taunting us, testing us every day. Despite what some people believe, depression and anxiety don't always have you bed ridden, unshowered and a complete mess. There are days that crush you, days you're ashamed of yourself and days you don't have a care for anything or anyone. But then there are days that seem normal. The days when I woke happy, felt joy and actually felt "normal". Those days kept me going and reminded me I wasn't completely lost but they also teased me because they were often followed by a dark day. You can't always see the obvious signs as most of us become high functioning, learning to adapt, to hide even, all the symptoms on a daily basis while the battle is raging inside of us. Looking from the outside it's a very difficult condition to comprehend for most - even for those living it.
Things you know are good for you, you still can’t do
This can be applied to almost everything. You know daily exercise is good for you and will make you feel better, yet dragging yourself out the door literally is that - a mission to make it happen. Spending time with friends, making new friends, being social outside of being a mum felt crippling for me. I have always been social and loved to chat to anyone, but my depression and anxiety made me self-conscious and paranoid to the point I would avoid contact with people as it often just emphasised how far gone I was in my condition. Starting a spiritual practice was the best thing I ever did, but it took such a long time for it to be of benefit, because in every moment of stillness I had – I filled with a racing mind over analysing my parenting, fretting about tomorrow’s events and worrying about what I did the day before. It was like there was no space for peace in my mind.
Loneliness feeds the monster
The self-imposed isolation I went through in order to shelter myself frrm the anxiety or to make my life easier in the sense that being at home felt secure and predictable. That isolation created loneliness, with loneliness came guilt and self-doubt. Having too much time to sit in my feelings allowed all the big stuff that was feeding the depression in the first place, to have centre stage. The guilt and self-doubt riddled my mind most days of the week. It was unrelenting mostly and in a very strange way, I let that happen. I often found myself wallowing… exactly what I know I didn’t need but when the emotions get so big and heavy it’s hard to do much else.
On a daily basis I felt like the biggest imposition on everyone in my life. In particular my husband. He carried the weight of my troubles and our world on his shoulders and I don’t know how I could have made it through without him. I relied on him so much and reached out to him often in desperation despite having this sick feeling inside that I was breaking him, pushing him away, and hurting him. But I couldn’t not go to him, I was scared of what would become of me if I didn’t find shelter in his arms. So I guess in a way I selfishly stored that guilt surrounding the pressure I was placing on him, deep inside me so I could try and ignore it and let him help me heal. I didn’t know any other way.
The biggest and by far the saddest aspect for me is my memory loss. I look back to the years that I was at my worst and I have snippets of memory at best. It’s heartbreaking because this time was our little kids growing up and I feel I was in human form there, but not present all of the time. My mind was always somewhere else, worrying, stressing, thinking about what was coming next that I rarely was in that present moment whole enough to create a memory. On top of that, the physical pressure that these conditions places on your nervous system is profound. The stress, the imbalanced hormones and nervous system all lead to foggy brain, confusion and memory loss. And for anyone who like myself took the path of anti-depressants, many times they decrease your alertness and memory as well. Seemingly fixing one symptom only to give me a bunch more.
Convinced I wasn’t like everyone else
After experiencing some of the terrible lows I have had, it’s no wonder I was feeling like I was the only mum feeling that way. In my head I felt it was just me that struggled, just me that couldn’t get a grip, just me what couldn’t make it work. I didn’t pray for other mums to be unwell, but if one person had spoken up the relief would have been life changing. I prayed for another “normal” mums worst ever day to be my every day because I was convinced it could never be any harder than parenting 3 kids through depression. The daily challenges of being a mum were compounded by the fact that inside I was a shrivelled mess in every sense of the word. I could not comprehend that other people felt that way, no one I knew has ever said they have experienced this. Even after seeing a Psychologist I still felt that maybe I was the unique case… that I was unfixable. Part of this is the irrationality of the disease and how it turns you against yourself, the other half is not having my tribe. Not hearing from other mums just how tough it is. Depression and anxiety or not, I always seemed to hear the filtered version of how tough it was… not the raw, vulnerable and downright concerning version I was living every day.
Finding a me that I never new existed
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