Surviving postnatal depression: “One day I woke up and didn’t feel like I wanted to be dead”

Samantha Valentine first wrote for The Early Hour while in the grips of postnatal depression. Now, a year on, she discusses the difficult journey she’s been on towards a recovery, of sorts…. 

Here we are. My baby is eighteen months. I feel ecstatic we both got through the first year alive and somewhat intact. I honestly feel like Wonder Woman!

The last I wrote was when I was in the thick of it. And to anyone out there, who is currently weathering the storm of PND, know, you will get through it. It will not be like this forever. Strap on your life jacket, dive into the dark waters, and swim. Swim hard, swim fast, even when the tide is against you, and you cannot breathe, swim. Because I promise you, calmer shores are ahead. You won’t be able to get the sand out of your hair, or the taste of salt water out of your mouth, even once on dry land, for some time. But these days of pure desperation WILL be behind you.

As a brief recap, or for those just tuning in, I gave birth, a wonderful birth, to my daughter in August 2017. I knew quite quickly she was in a lot of discomfort, but no one would take me seriously. The screaming, the writhing in pain, the inconsolable crying until she fell asleep ripped my heart out. It literally tore me apart, and I became obsessed with figuring out what was wrong.

These weren’t the idyllic newborn days I had read about. There were no box sets and “rooming in.” There were no snuggles and blissful hazy days. It was fucking chaos. In the midst of this, I suffered a secondary postpartum haemorrhage, about ten days after the birth. I nearly died. So throw a bit of PTSD in the mix with the anxiety concerning my precious newborn, and my nerves were FRAZZLED.

I don’t remember exactly when things started to feel better. They just did. Slowly. Incrementally. Until one day, I woke up and didn’t feel like I wanted to be dead. Huge progress. I remember, to the date, when I felt like my daughter was getting better. It was 21st December 2017.

It was the first day we went out in public, had lunch, went to shops and she seemed comfortable. She wasn’t screaming, she was content. It was the happiest day of my life since she was born. She was four and a half months old. It felt like an eternity. It was the best Christmas present I could have asked for.

Her milk allergy had meant she was in great discomfort, I was basically feeding her poison for the first seven weeks of her life. She was diagnosed with a cow’s milk protein allergy (CMPA) and was switched to an amino acid based formula, by a gastric paediatrician.

However, after six weeks on the new milk, her symptoms had improved only mildly. It turned out, the nerves from her stomach had been damaged by the milk and that would take a couple of months to settle. This was the light, at four and a half months, she started to enjoy life. And I can honestly say, she hasn’t stopped smiling since.

Naively, I assumed, that as soon as my daughter was better, I too would feel better. “Snap out of it” so to speak. I had never dealt with depression before, or anxiety to this degree. I was very wrong. Every time she cried, I thought I was going to pass out. Every time she got ill, I thought I might lose her.

I write these memories and thoughts down, and they sound ridiculous. But that didn’t make them any less real at the time. I was convinced I was being punished, for not appreciating her enough. I was convinced that I had done something to be tested. The guilt I felt on top was even worse than the initial anxiety. It was exhausting.

Slowly, these intense feelings started to diminish. Slowly, I started to trust that we weren’t going backwards every time she cried, but it was hard-wired into me to react disproportionately when she seemed upset. I knew it was disproportionate, but I couldn’t seem to stop the physical symptoms arising. The panic, the heart pounding against my chest, the numbness I would feel it in the back of my skull, I would describe it to my husband as “I feel cold inside, like my blood is cold.”

With regards to the process of “recovery” (I say this in inverted commas, as I don’t really know if that’s an appropriate word, I didn’t feel like I needed to recover, and I don’t know if you should fully recover from this kind of experience) there were various routes. I was prescribed citalopram (an anti depressant) to start, and at that point I probably would’ve taken anything that was put in front of me, if there was any chance of it making me feel better.

Except it didn’t make feel better, it made me feel worse, so they upped the dose. Nothing happened. Well I tell a lie, something did happen, I dry heaved every morning when I got up, like morning sickness. I also got awful night sweats, I would wake up drenched for the night-feed. It became second nature to change my t-shirt before I fed my daughter.

They continued to increase my dose and my symptoms, accordingly, increased with severity. I started to believe there was no fixing me. And I asked to be taken off citalopram. They agreed it didn’t suit me and I began the slow process of decreasing the drug.

It is extremely important to wind down off any anti depressant slowly. The side effects waned as I decreased the dosage, until I was drug free and I felt a sense of freedom. Not a cure, but at least I was fully myself, whatever I was feeling was ME, it wasn’t a drug or a side effect, it was all me. And THAT I would work with.

Next up was CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). After six sessions I was switched to a high intensity CBT therapist who worked with more complex cases. I have had CBT in the past, and it worked a treat. This, however, took a lot of digging, a lot of repetition, a lot of work. There were days I resented the work, I resented the fact I had to do it in the first place, I resented my brain, I resented it all.

It was all a bit “woe is me” at times. I was also allocated a parent infant therapist, who was one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met. However, neither of us quite understood why I was there, as I had no problems bonding with my daughter. I loved her, deeply.

In my darkest moments I was always grateful for this. I was a prime candidate for not bonding, or not wanting her. But I did want her, I wanted every inch of her, I just wanted to take away her discomfort, and now I wanted to be a better version of myself, so I could be the best mother I could be.

However, it got me out the house and I liked the lady, so I continued going until, I just didn’t one day. And that was quite freeing. As I dropped the drugs, as my CBT sessions ran out, as I decided not to continue with parent and infant therapy, I realised I was ok.

The stilts, the scaffolding, the support, were slowly taken away, and I was still standing. Better, I was doing OK. I say OK, as I wasn’t flying, I was just OK. And that in itself felt like an achievement. These services were there not to cure me, but to help me; to support me, until I no longer felt like Bambi, and I could actually walk, unaided.

The recovery from depression is not linear. I’d have days, weeks, months when I was doing well. Then out of nowhere, something would trigger a bad day. No reason or rhyme. Accepting those days are still hard. But they’re less severe and they are further apart. I just have to ride it and trust it will be fine.

The greatest healer? It’s a bitch, but it’s time. Time and patience. Patience, my goodness, have I learned patience. And patience, has taught me to be a better mother. I was the world’s most impatient person before this journey. Mother and husband will testify. And in some sick, masochistic way, I wouldn’t have our path to here any other way.

I have grown, I have learned and I understand certain things, on a deeper level than I would have before. I am a patient and gentle parent. I’ve explored and searched areas I never wish to return to, but maybe I have become richer for the experience. I don’t look back on those early days and miss them, in fact I’m glad they are behind us, but I don’t begrudge them either.

I don’t feel recovered, like I say, I don’t know if it’s something you recover from, it’s just a part of my story – I guess you just accept that chapter in your life. I don’t particularly want to “recover” from it, as to recover means to be the same as you were before. And I don’t want to be that person.

This person I am now, may be a little easier to panic, or get anxious, but she’s much more understanding and she is much more present. Enjoying the simplest of things. A slower pace of life, and a bloody marvellous little girl. That girl smiles from ear to ear from the minute she wakes to when she goes to sleep at night. With the odd whinge here and there of course – she is a one-year-old, after all.

They say from pain you grow, you learn. And I found myself being driven to help other women. I trained in hypnobirthing and started my company blume, teaching group courses at PAUSE yoga studio in Leyton. Some have said they’re surprised that I’ve chosen a career in something that was so close to the pain I’ve felt. But to me, the suffering wasn’t the birth. It was what happened postnatally.

I took hypnobirthing classes when I was pregnant and I couldn’t wait to bring our child into this world. I loved every second of my birth and the bond it brought me and my daughter, despite going through a depression. That closeness made me want to push through.

I don’t doubt hypnobirthing had a part in my recovery. It also makes me aware, realistic, and compassionate to support women on the other side of birth, so I arguably feel more qualified to help, as the understanding is there from experience.

Birth is just the beginning. We must build our village, our tribe. Surround ourselves with people who will hold you, and hold you up, until you don’t need to be held.

Photo credit: Nicola Arber