Chapter Nine- The Year After
I've taken a break from blogging over the Xmas and New Year period. Partly because Kite is just about to launch which has taken up most of my headspace! Partly because it was so emotional putting all of my words down for everyone to read and I just needed to regroup a bit. I underestimated how it would affect me- that by simply writing the words down would bring back those exact feelings.
Soon the blog will morph into stories of inspiring women who have gone onto succeed despite the mental health challenges they have faced, with a few posts about my own journey scattered along the way.
So let me carry on where I left off. At a point where my depressive cycles had finally subsided and I was starting to get back to normal- whatever that was supposed to mean. My new life and the new me very much struggled to fit into that “normal” box but I was determined to get there.
The year following the trauma of my postpartum bipolar was a difficult one, but it was a walk in the park compared to what we had already been through. The bar had been set pretty high in terms of trauma. I learnt an awful lot during that year that I thought I would share with you.
Sleep anxiety is actually a “thing”
I had never heard of sleep anxiety before having a baby. I believed anxiety was the same no matter the trigger. In the two years following my diagnosis I had it twofold. Firstly I was obsessed about getting enough sleep myself. One of the main triggers for a bipolar relapse is lack of sleep, so as you can imagine I became terrified of not getting enough of it . I decided that if it got to 11pm and I was still not asleep, then I would take a sleeping pill. That was on top of my normal medication which on its own made me sleepy. There were times where I needed to take one each night over the course of a few weeks, and then I would try and wean myself off them. I became very preoccupied by the clock around bedtime, and would frequently decline social events because of my fear of not getting enough sleep.
This then transferred onto Alice's sleep too. I spent so much of the day fretting about her naps (or lack of naps), worrying about how she would sleep at night, and feeling overwhelmed when she would wake early in the morning. I think my own sleep anxiety and that of Alice's became so inextricably linked that it was hard to tell which was more of a problem. There were times when Alice would refuse a nap and I would frantically rock her, shush her and pat her, trying to get her to sleep, and feeling quite desperate. In that moment I remember feeling so alone and helpless. I know many mums who have been there too, feeling this awful level of anxiety about their babies lack of sleep.
The sleep schedule I had in place for Alice was absolutely rigid. Her feeding routine became completely intertwined with the sleep schedule, as I was adamant her feeding had to be perfect or she wouldn’t sleep well. It must have been so stressful for anyone around me- especially for Nick and for family visiting. I couldn't relax at all during her naps. I just watched the clock for the whole time she was asleep. I didn't get any housework done, or put my feet up to watch TV or read a magazine. I was transfixed on the time. We couldn't enjoy outings as I was scared we wouldn't make it back for naptime, or that Alice would fall asleep in the car and it would all be “ruined”. Despite the stress I felt around sleep and feeding, it was a huge improvement on where we had been. My personality had mostly returned- and I could laugh and have fun with friends. I went out for lunches and we went to a few weddings. But behind it all the sleep anxiety monster constantly lurked. I know that this monster lurks behind the scenes of so many mums lives and many don't feel that they can talk about it, which only adds to the isolation.
Relapse paranoia can control your life
I became an expert on the warning signs and symptoms of Bipolar. Janet (my psychiatrist) and Clarke (my case worker) helped me with a relapse plan, which my GP also had a copy of. The only problem with the plan was that I became extremely paranoid about every single warning sign. My personality is by nature very talkative and outgoing, so when I would start talking in an animated fashion about something I would suddenly catch myself and question whether I was becoming manic. If I was out shopping and felt the occasional urge to spend money on unnecessary items I would stop and wonder if my mania was creeping back in. When the sleep anxiety crept in during the night I would be petrified that it was a depressive episode returning. I felt such fear that my bipolar would rear its head again that I was extremely preoccupied by the warning signs and by my relapse plan. I’ve had so many nightmares about having a manic episode again and it completely breaking up my family. Thankfully as time has gone by this has gotten easier, but I know I will always live with this fear to some extent. Maybe some fear is actually a good thing as it makes me determined to stay well.
Medication is my friend
When I started medication I always thought it would be a very temporary fix. That I just needed to become well and I could go back to normal (take one women's multivitamin per day and the odd dose of panadol). I quickly learnt from Janet that the recommendation was that I take medication for the rest of my life. That without it my chances of relapse were high. It took a long time to get my head around this fact as it seemed so extreme. I didn't want nasty chemicals going into my body, but I sure didn't want a relapse. So I became a diligent medication taker. I bought a small fishing tackle container and measured out two weeks at a time and put a pretty sticker on the lid. I still use this now. During my recovery I've also learnt that medication isn't for everyone, and that the side effects can vary greatly from person to person. But it has thankfully worked for me, and because of it I have not had a relapse in five years.
Going from a successful career and a happy life, to dealing with a severe mental illness at the same time I became a new mother was extremely overwhelming to say the least. My illness caused me to feel like a completely different person, who for all I knew was here to stay. It shook my confidence as a mother and a wife, it took away my mothering instincts and it made me feel dulled and stupid. This is so common for anyone with a mental illness, particularly with a postnatal mental health struggle. It takes mums a long time to recover and to rebuild their confidence and bond with their baby. This can be extremely isolating as it is not a topic of conversation that others find comfortable. I absolutely felt this way. I didn't want to vocalise how unconfident I felt as I was scared others would think I was an unfit mum. I also felt that I would never be in a position to go back to work- that my brain didn’t function the same. The self doubt was awful and over time my confidence returned, including how I felt about myself as a mother, and eventually I did return to my career. But it was a constant battle and that self doubt sometimes comes barging back into my life.
People will feel awkward around you
Mental health is an awkward and uncomfortable subject for a vast segment of society. It's difficult because it is an unseen illness and it is almost impossible to relate to if you haven't been through it. Many people see it is scary and unpredictable. And because of this many people have absolutely no idea what to do or say. I was always very open about my struggles, but there were people who were very uncomfortable with me being so open, especially about an illness such as bipolar. Not wanting to meet my eye or wanting to change the subject as quickly as possible. Many people responded with comments like “oh I knew someone with depression they had to leave their job” or “oh it's pretty common isn't it...so how about this weather we have been having..” To be fair a lot of the awkwardness was probably in my head too...being overly sensitive to the reactions of others. But there were times when I just wanted to be swallowed up into a hole during a conversation, and I could see that the other person wished the same thing.
Googling makes things worse
I was a chronic googler before kids. So it wasn't surprising that once i had been diagnosed with bipolar i searched and searched for cases similar to mine. To find other mums with the same experiences. I could only find horrifying stories of multiple hospitalisations, divorces, suicides and broken relationships. It was like google unearthed this underbelly of mental health..one with no hope. In the five years since having Alice things have changed so much. Instagram and facebook is a great way to connect with mums with similar experiences. There has even been a book written about postpartum bipolar- the only one currently- by a wonderful woman called Dyane Harwood who I have had the privilege of connecting with since starting my Kite journey. These social media contacts and publications would have made a huge difference to me. Without them I spent many hours each day searching for stories of people who had gotten through this. I googled medication. I googled relapse rates. The moral of the story in the end was “stop googling”. Find a better, more reliable source of information. Like a counsellor, support group or medical professional.
The fear of having another baby
Once Alice turned one the question of “are you planning on having more kids?” started popping up a lot more frequently in conversation. Every time my heart would skip a beat and I would feel an overwhelming wave of anxiety. I was absolutely adamant that I could not go through that again. I didn't feel like our marriage could survive that again. I couldn't put my little girl through that. So even though my heart wanted more children (at least one more) my mind and my gut was screaming “NO!”. Nick supported me through this time and I’m sure a lot of the time he felt exactly the same.
Soon friends starting having more children. Mums in my antenatal group started having their second baby. One had twins. I would think of having another baby and feel momentarily excited, before the wave of terror would hit me.
This is so common for women who have suffered postnatal mental illness. The fear of history repeating. As many of you will know we did in fact go on to have another baby. I plan to write another blog post on that experience but essentially it required a lot of input from the maternal mental health team where we live. But the intense fear was still there...throughout the whole pregnancy and the birth, and the weeks afterwards.
Like any illness there are so many adjustments you have to make on the road to recovery from an illness like postpartum bipolar or postnatal depression. Sacrifices you make to stay well. Adjustments to your routine and changes to the way you think about yourself. Looking back on that first year of wellness I can pinpoint one thing that made a huge difference. The support of my husband and the love of my friends and family. Everything else becomes insignificant. Including the ignorant views of others, the judgment and the prejudice. I say insignificant, but that doesnt mean those views and those people dont hurt. It is just a lot easier to face them with the support of the people you love.