Chapter Eleven- The Isolation
In this chapter I thought I would try and share with you the utter feeling of isolation and loneliness I have had many times, which I have thought about a lot in the years after my diagnosis. This isn’t to be dark and depressing, or for you to feel sorry for me- its simply to try and explain how many people suffering from mental health issues feel. I had these feelings of isolation all while I struggled to figure out what had happened to me and what that meant for the rest of my life. Never before had I felt so alone despite the number of amazing people I had supporting me.
What exactly was it that made me feel that way? The issue I had was that no matter how hard I looked I couldn’t find another woman who had postpartum bipolar disorder who had come out the other end. In fact I could barely find anyone with postpartum bipolar at all. When you start looking into mental illness and googling disorders like bipolar it’s very easy to get sucked into the dark side of it all. Forums that focus on scary thoughts, suicide, crippling levels of anxiety, broken marriages and lost jobs. They really frightened me. People connecting over their shared diagnoses but often not in a positive way. I always felt that people were wanting to dwell on every aspect of their illness and dissect the symptoms. There was no filter and so many times I had to shut my laptop, tears running down my face.
There seems to be a lot of focus on medication too- with people sharing every aspect of their medication journey. I do understand why this happens- but medication is so different from person to person and the internet is not the way to find this information. I always felt that it was so worrying that there was such a fixation on the illness itself and not the recovery. I would have given anything to find just one person who was functioning well in society, and who wasn't crippled by their illness.
As the years went by I continued to search for something positive and uplifting- that focused on recovery and hope. This whole process added to my feeling of isolation. No one around me could understand what I was going through and I couldn’t even find anyone in cyberspace either. This was six years ago and thankfully there have been some promising changes to what is available in terms of support (and I will introduce you to someone doing exactly that shortly).
In my opinion the single most important thing when you are recovering or learning to live with this type of mental health condition- is hope. Just the tiniest bit of hope and indication that it’s going to be okay. That you aren’t broken and that you can be a functioning member of society. If you had told me six years ago I would build an app for mothers and launch it on a global scale I never would have believed you. Because as far as I was concerned you could never really recover from the trauma of bipolar and interact back into society. I had read so many posts from people whose lives were in turmoil because of this illness. I couldn’t imagine going back to work let alone anything beyond that. I was told that there was no cure for bipolar and that managing it would be a key part of my life. Both of those statements are true- but they don’t mean that you can’t follow your dreams and live a fulfilled life.
In some ways bipolar disorder was like a bizarre foreign language and I didn't have the dictionary. No one else around me could speak the language whatsoever and as much as I wanted to I couldn't either. But the best way to learn a language is to learn it from others who can speak it, and actively speak it around other people. Which is what I started doing. It’s a very long process though.
I cant begin to explain the difference I felt when I did start connecting with similar people many years later. When I started seeing supportive and inspiring mental health accounts on social media. When I started seeing amazing people setting up programs and groups to support women suffering from postnatal mental illness. All I could see was hope- both for myself and for others. I wish that I had seen this when I was unwell. Despite these wonderful accounts and programs popping up, there are still so few. There are also still so few people talking publicly about their mental health experiences. Especially people who are now considered “well'“. Its human nature to want to sweep things under the carpet, and many would wonder what there was to be achieved from speaking about something they consider to be in the past.
The Postnatal Project
I want to introduce you now to Zelma Tolley- an Australian woman who heads up a wonderful online initiative called The Postnatal Project. Zelma is a social worker who experienced postnatal depression, and who is using her experience to helping rural women suffering from PND. In fact she has just won a Rural Health award in South Australia for her work. This is exactly the type of online resource I was looking for at the time of my recovery and I can only imagine the amazing impact this program is having. Here’s Zelma’s story.
Tell us a bit about your experience of postnatal depression and what your recovery looked like? What gaps did you find in your own experience of the health system/support system?
My first daughter was born in June of 2015 and I suffered with postnatal depression and post-traumatic stress disorder shortly after. Having a history of depression and anxiety and a professional background in social work, I knew exactly what it was. Unfortunately, this was not enough to find adequate support. I engaged with quite a few professionals short term but found that they misunderstood my experience and my goals as a parent. Solutions such a sleep training and ceasing breastfeeding were frequently offered as part of a treatment plan which I was not comfortable with. Recovery for me was taking ownership. I could have easily stayed in the place that I was. But I dug deep. And creating The Postnatal Project was a big part of that.
How did you go from feeling so unwell to starting the postnatal project- what drove you and inspired you over that time?
I created The Postnatal Project as an anonymous blog when I was still in the depths of postnatal depression. It's in my nature to help others and as a creative soul, I used my pain to form my own idea within the message that no parent should suffer in silence. I experienced a lot of stigma when seeking treatment and when discussing my postnatal experiences with others. This was also the inspiration. Eventually, I realised that putting a face to a name was much more beneficial. When I did this, as scary as it was, I felt so much more empowered. And I haven't looked back. I almost can't believe I would ever be ashamed of something as crucial as postnatal depression where silence feeds the suffering. The Postnatal Project has continued to grow and it's hard to pinpoint exactly when I recovered a few years ago now, but there's been a definite shift in the content and purpose. I now aspire to support parents to acknowledge and honour their emotional wellbeing. I've stepped away from retelling my story somewhat. It's less about my recovery and more about prevention and parenting support.
What advice would you give to any women reading this who are struggling after having a baby?
I actually talk a lot about the changes within motherhood. And this will not be your conventional advice and based on my own experience as a stay at home parent. Working parents will resonate with this too. But these days, the reason for a parent's struggle usually stems from very little support. Some might think that a partner who provides financially and a mother in law who pops over on occasion is a luxury. It's simply not enough. We were never designed to become a primary caregiver and parent in isolation all day long. We have been significantly let down by the picture that society paints parenthood to be. This leads to anxiety, depression and other symptoms and experiences. Under these circumstances, feeling like a failure can be a natural response. But my advice to parents who are struggling after having a baby in Western society is that you are not failing, you have actually been failed. As dark as this notion is, it opens up a conversation for positive change and assertiveness that only awareness can support. My advice is to demand the support that you need. You deserve it.
How do you juggle work and family- what does a typical day look like for you?
A typical day is at home with my two small children. My husband works in close proximity so he comes home for lunch which is lovely. In the evenings and on Friday afternoons, I focus my attention on The Postnatal Project. Having a small business and blog is very time-consuming and I do find that this balance works. However, I'm very open to changing this arrangement to better suit my mental health and the needs of my children should the change need to occur. I'm very passionate about being present for my children and strive to embrace their childhood as opposed to fill the gaps with my business.
What are your hopes and dreams for the Postnatal Project?
My hopes and dreams for The Postnatal Project are to continue on and continue to grow. At the moment, The Postnatal Project exists mostly online and I'm in the brainstorming and planning stages at the moment of offering face-to-face support options. I don't see myself ever stopping. I have found a lifelong passion and purpose. I am committed to supporting parents and decreasing the level of suffering that currently exists within this space. Although one day, I'd love to become obsolete!
Zelma Tolley is a social worker and Founder of The Postnatal Project. Zelma has a special interest in birth trauma, breastfeeding, gentle parenting and perinatal wellness. The Postnatal Project offers online support programs and digital products designed to enhance the parenting experience and support emotional wellbeing.
You can find out more about her offerings here:
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