Chapter Eight- Group Therapy
The response to the previous chapter was incredible. So many people reached out to me to say that they understood depression so much more after reading the analogies. Others who had suffered depression read the blog out to loved ones to help them understand. As terrifying and traumatic as those episodes were, I feel so privileged to now be sharing my words and making some sort of difference. Thankyou for reading. Han x
That day I learnt two words that I wish I had never needed to learn the meaning of. Rapid cycling….
Rapid cycling meant that I was experiencing bursts of depression in quick succession. According to Janet it was “something that can happen” and that I was “potentially reacting to the anti depressants”. So she gave me some new medication. Honestly at that point I would have taken anything she gave me, no matter how extreme. I still wanted to be admitted to hospital, and I would have felt the same there- please just try anything to make this stop.
When the second round of depression hit, I was in some ways better prepared. During my ten days of feeling back to normal I had reflected a lot on that awful time, and had been so grateful for every aspect of my life because of it. I went for so many walks in the sunshine and spent hours at a time lying on the floor with Alice, reading to her and cuddling her. I ate lots of delicious food. It's so true that you don't know what you have until it's gone.
So when I opened my eyes up that morning of day eleven, knowing that the dreaded visitor was back, I had a flicker of hope. I knew that it was possible to get better. Even though I felt like every part of my being had melted away, I knew that inside was the real me, wanting to fight her way back out again. So I focused on that flicker. Sometimes it went it out completely. Sometimes it flickered a bit higher. But all I knew was that I had to put my energy into that tiny light. The little energy I did have.
We had run out of public funding to get any more support through the mental health system, so we made the decision to pay for a temporary nanny to come and help look after us. The nanny that came was experienced in working with women with postnatal depression, and I felt so relieved. That at least this woman knew what I was going through and wouldn't judge me. I remember asking her a barrage of questions about the other mums she had helped, what their symptoms were and how long they took to get better. She kept telling me that everyone was different and that I just needed to focus on my own recovery.
She also helped with getting Alice into a routine. Nick had been doing the best he could but he was juggling so much, and was lost when it came to knowing when she should nap or go to bed at night. Her sleeping had deteriorated and it was causing me huge anxiety. This amazing woman felt to me like super nanny. She was so kind and gentle and slowly started building my confidence as a mother, even though it was slow going.
As you can imagine I was beside myself and wanted Janet and Kent to be doing more. They continued to tell me to be patient. To keep taking my medication. I felt like it wasn’t working and would have waves of being completely distraught- why was no one doing more to help me? They did however book me on a group therapy course called “Dealing with Distress”. It was run by the mental health team and the attendees were all women with postnatal mental health issues. Every Tuesday morning I would go- and our nanny dropped me off to the first few. You were encouraged to bring your baby along too- and they had childminders that looked after them in another room. The building was like a mental asylum from a horror movie. I often look back at this time and wonder whether they should have held it somewhere more pleasant. The floorboards creaked, the seats were ripped and the doors would get stuck as you tried to move your pram through. This was where Janet and Kent worked from too. A truly depressing place- particularly for someone suffering acute depression.
There were ten women in the group. We would sit quietly around the table not really talking to one another, apart from when we had activities to do. The strangest part for me was that no one disclosed what they were suffering from. It had to be something pretty serious if they were in the mental health system. I would look around the table and was able to clearly identify that every person there was quite unwell, but from what I was unsure. A couple of times women would storm out of the room. Some would cry. Some would be frantically biting their nails. We were from all walks of life, a range of ages and different cultural backgrounds. Such a cross section of society. My first hand experience that mental illness does not discriminate and that it can affect any one of us.
The sessions were two hours long. The first few I attended are a bit blurry. I think I was in such a bad state and my brain just hasn't been able to retain the memories. I do remember the moment I met a lovely mum in the second week. I will call her Ella. It turned out we both worked in HR and our babies were almost exactly the same age. We talked briefly about our lives before kids. Before long she was asking me for a coffee at her house. I cannot tell you how strange it was, being invited on a coffee date by someone you have met at a group therapy session for severely mentally unwell mothers. It was as if we were pretending that we were just meeting at the park, bonding over having the same buggy, and not this completely bizarre group. But I was so grateful to have met her, and going to the sessions didn't seem quite as awful when she was there. The sessions were focused on giving us techniques to cope with the various forms of distress we felt. Mindfulness was a huge part of this. For me my distress was the crippling waves of panic I felt, that came and went throughout the day. I am sure everyone else at the table had differing feelings of distress. I had always thought of mindfulness as a bit “hippy” and airy fairy. After going through these sessions, and implementing mindfulness techniques during that distressing period of my life, I can now say that, for me personally, it is a truly practical and effective method for dealing with stress and anxiety. (I will share more on this in a future blog post).
The first two group therapy meetings that I attended I was in the depths of depression. The second two I was completely well. That's right, the exact same thing happened as the first time- two weeks of depression. To the day. But again, like some twisted joke, I was only given ten days of wellness. The cycling of my depression worked to a very precise schedule. It would have been quite confusing to the women in the group seeing me go from the throes of depression to complete normality and then back again.
By the time the third batch of depression came around, I was definitely a lot stronger. I had my toolkit. I had the previous experience and I knew what it was like to feel well. This round we didn't get a nanny in to help. I did it on my own. To be honest I'm really not sure how I did it but I felt adamant that I wanted to try to get through it without having to pay for support. I don't think the third round of depression was any less severe and I was absolutely struggling every minute of the day, but it is amazing that with a few tools in your belt, it does give you some confidence to keep going.
Janet changed my medication again. As always I complied with everything she said. Meanwhile Nick was struggling with the lack of practical solutions, so much so that he even contacted a private psychiatrist to get a second opinion. Their response was that Janet was one of the most respected psychiatrists in the field of maternal mental health and it sounded like she was doing everything right. It was living hell, thinking that I was going to spend my life in these cycles. Only enjoying life for ten days at a time. I honestly didn't feel like I had a fourth round in me. Like a boxer splayed out ringside, feeling that if they go back in the ring it will surely be the knockout punch.
I spent about an hour a day speaking on the phone to my mum, while she was on her lunch break. Now I have a daughter I cannot imagine the heartbreak of hearing your child in such a bad state, and then going back to work as if everything is normal. I think now about all the mothers and fathers going through this right now with their kids- whether they are teenagers or adults. Hearing them at rock bottom, their voices lacking any hope or joy. Mum has since told me the most poignant and haunting thing I ever said to her when I was depressed was:
It broke her heart and it breaks mine looking back on it. I cannot imagine the pain it would cause me as a mother, hearing Alice utter those words to me.
Round three came and went. I enjoyed the ten days well and tried to make the most of them. I tried to prepare for what was to come, and I waited for the depression. But it didn't come. Day eleven came and went. And all the days afterwards. The depression was over. I have thankfully never had to deal with a single day of depression since then. It was as if the war was over, and normal life could return.
I (well more we) had survived the mania. We had trudged through three rounds of extreme depression. So when I discovered that I had in fact been left with some pretty high levels of anxiety, it didn't surprise me. And whilst anxiety is so awful in itself, as so many people know, it didn't affect me enough to stop me living my life, or stop me from being a mum. So in many ways I happily accepted the anxiety, because the alternatives were so much worse.
Nick and I could finally sit down and breathe. We could focus on our little baby who was nearly five months old. We could look forward to Christmas. However we had been through some serious trauma. We had experienced the trauma in completely different ways and there was a lot of hurt and painful memories.
But we did the only thing that needed to be done. We started to rebuild our lives.
To be continued.