"Everything went black" – one mum on her battle with postnatal depression 6 months ago

"Everything went black" – one mum on her battle with postnatal depression

Today, May 4th, marks World Maternal Mental Health Day.

This day is designed to draw attention to essential mental health concerns for mothers and families.

In Ireland, as well as many other countries across the world, as many as 1 in 5 new mothers experience some type of postnatal mood and anxiety disorder. Unfortunately, these illnesses frequently go unnoticed and untreated, often with long-term consequences for both mother and child.

And postnatal depression does not discriminate. Women of every culture, age, income level and race can develop perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, and symptoms can appear any time during pregnancy and the first 12 months after childbirth.

And while there are effective and well-researched treatment options available to help women recover, the problem is often that so many are afraid to seek help, worried it will make people think of them as unfit mothers, or someone who doesn't love motherhood or their baby. 

"As mothers, we are always so hard on ourselves"

Linda Garvin is an Irish mother-of-two and an Ambassador for Ireland’s organisation dedicated to ending mental health stigma, See Change. 

She suffered from severe postnatal depression, anxiety disorder and panic attacks after both her daughters were born, and admitted herself into a mental health unit in order to get help.

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Today, Garvin, through her work with See Change, is helping to challenge the stigma and discrimination that surrounds mental health difficulties.

Here is her story:

"I have suffered from bouts of depression ever since my late teens or early twenties, often it was seasonal, with episodes occurring during the darker months of the year. And so when I was ready to start a family, I meticulously planned my first pregnancy so that I would have my baby at the start of summer, maybe, I hoped, minimising the chance of depression."

Garvin's daughter was born in the early summer of 2007, and for the first few weeks, she says, everything was amazing.

"I almost couldn't believe it, just how smoothly it all seemed to go."

Everything went black

But then, suddenly, things changed.

"One day, when my little girl was just four weeks old, I suddenly got that dreaded feeling – like everything just went black. I remember going to bed early that night, hoping I was just tired or something, and that sleeping would fix it. But the next day, when I woke up, it was like a light had been switched off. I felt like I couldn't breathe."

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Trying to describe what depression feels like, she says:

"If you are familiar with the Harry Potter books, depression, to me, feels like you have encountered the Dementors. It's like every bit of joy and happiness and hope is literally sucked out of you, and all you feel is darkness and nothing. It is all-consuming."

A few days went by, Garvin says, and she just kept just muddling through, hoping that maybe this was just the Baby Blues that everyone kept talking about, that it would just be a few days, then it would be all over.

"But days went by, and nothing. I felt so helpless. It is one thing suffering from bouts of depression when you just have yourself to look after – when I could retreat to bed and just sleep and sleep, which is all I felt like doing. But when you are a brand new mum, and you have this tiny infant to look after too, well, it was terrible. I barely functioned during the day, just counted seconds until it would be bedtime and I could go to bed again."

Worried what others would think or say, Garvin explains she didn't ask for help or tell anyone how she was feeling for the first few weeks.

"I was terrified to tell anyone. I didn't want them to think I was a bad mum – even though I felt like I was. But I was so scared people would think I could end up harming my daughter. Or take her away from me. I was terrified of this."

After a few weeks, Garvin says she decided she couldn't do this alone, and went to her GP for help.

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"I told him I know this is depression, I have had it before, I know this feeling, and I needed help."

However, her GP brushed her off, saying it was 'probably just Baby Blues' and to just make sure she looked after herself – and sent her home.

"I was devastated – I really felt like everything was black, here was this beautiful baby, and while I did love her so much, I still felt no joy, no happiness, no nothing."

Eventually, Garvin says she sought the help of a different GP and finally got the help and medicine she needed to start healing.

"It didn't happen overnight, and for a long time, I felt like my medicines weren't working – but slowly, but surely, things started getting better. I felt like I could breathe again, like there was light."

However, Garvin says it was only when she got pregnant again almost three years later that she realised she might have been better after her first bout with postnatal depression – but not well.

"Suddenly all those happy hormones started flooding in and now I realised, I might have been better, much better, but I hadn't been fully well, not until now."

Support system in place

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Garvin explains that when she fell pregnant again almost three years later, she made sure she had a support system in place.

Just like the last time, the first few weeks after her new baby girl was born, Garvin says she felt great.

"And then, almost four weeks to the day after she was born, the same thing happened again. I went from good to feeling all black – literally overnight."

This time, Garvin says she sought help from her GP straight away and got medication. However, this time, they didn't work the way they should.

"I know that for many women, it can take a few weeks for the effect of the medicine to kick in, so I waited and waited, yet felt no different. A friend of mine, trying to cheer me up, said 'oh, just wait until your baby smiles, then you will feel joy' so I clung to this, waiting desperately for my baby girl to give me her first smile. And yet, when she did, I felt no different. Everything was still black."

Gravin says in the end, she made the decision to check herself into her local mental health unit for a week.

"It was such a blurred feeling – I felt so guilty for leaving my baby, but also almost a sense of relief. I needed to get this space, to get help, for myself – but also for my children."

After a week, Garvin says she came home, and although not perfect, better, and grateful to have gotten the help she needed.

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When she got home, she got calls and home visits from her mental health team, all of which aided in her recovery and feeling better.

"I was lucky, I had an amazing support system around me and got help. And I know this isn't quite as easy for everyone, and all I can say is that sometimes we have to keep persisting, keep pushing. Talk to friends, talk to family, and stop feeling like we have to do it all ourselves all the time, or worry that we are failing as mothers just because we struggle."

Garvin is keen to point out how crucial it is for new mothers to have support, and to get help when they need it.

"Things can snowball and escalate so quickly, it is so important that we are believed, that help is there, support is there. Motherhood is overwhelming, and we are so, so hard on ourselves. I genuinely felt – believed – I wasn't a good mother. And to be able to get the help and finally realise that I was, it was everything."

Garvin says of her work with See Change that she feels so passionate about getting the conversation out there about maternal mental health, and ending the stigma.

Today, Garvin says she is good. And while she has had a few shorter bouts of depression over the past 12 years since her second daughter was born, she has been completely well for the past three years.

"For me, I know it will always be a case of keeping it at bay, of looking after myself and my mental health – always. And so I have some strategies that I now know works. For instance, for me, I know that sleep is really important, and I need to make sure I get enough. And the same goes for fresh air and getting outside every day. I try to keep a positive mindset, and practise gratitude, write down things daily that I am grateful for."

She adds:

"There is so much light at the end of the tunnel, and it is just so crucial that mums are told this, and get the help they need. When I think of all the memories I have made with my children since then, it just brings it all home to me, how grateful I am for the help I got, that we are where we are today. And so I wish new mums would get to hear this, to be told: 'know what you are living for.'

For anyone who might be experiencing post-natal depression currently:

  • Contact Aware on 1800 80 48 48 if you are experiencing depression
  • Contact Parent Line on (01) 878 7230 for parental support, information and guidance
  • Contact Samaritans on 116 123 for round the clock support
  • Contact Pieta House on (01) 6282111 if you are experiencing suicide distress
  • Visit yourmentalhealth.ie for nationwide listings of support services

Increasing awareness of maternal mental health will help drive social change with the goal of improving the quality of care for women experiencing all types of postnatal mental health conditions, and reducing the stigma of maternal mental illness.