Disclosing mental health diagnoses is rarely a comfortable experience. I have had depression nearly all my life. When I was in junior school I would look at other children and wonder why they were happier than me.
When I was a teenager I hated the world and so self-harmed. After the births of my children I experienced post natal depression, and, in my late twenties/early thirties I was diagnosed with clinical depression. Up until my mid-thirties, I perpetually felt like my head was a dead weight. It was a half flesh and bone, half cast iron. So dense that it cut off all peripheral light and so heavy that it prevented me from looking upwards.
But it was in my mid-thirties that I began to be more honest about how I felt. I began to admit to the sorts of thoughts that kept me awake at night, particularly the feelings of inadequacy I had around parenting. As a parent, it was difficult to admit, but I had to confess to thoughts such as, ‘I wish I was dead’, ‘I sometimes think of ways to kill myself’, ‘sometimes I wish I had a serious illness then all responsibility for my fate is taken out of my hands.’
Some reading this might have very strong opinions about the idea that a parent would think of suicide. But the thoughts of suicide were a consequence of years of untreated depression eventually resulting in my feelings of inadequacy as a parent. I had experienced post natal depression with my daughter, but my son had been born two months early and so the experience of depression after his birth was instigated by particularly traumatic circumstances. When he was born he couldn’t breathe and was taken straight from me to be cared for in an incubator.
After a year and a half of me trying to manage episodes of crying, over eating, not sleeping, sleeping too much, not caring, caring too much and self-medicating with alcohol, my marriage to my son’s father culminated in a series of arguments which rendered us both (despite marriage counselling) unable to continue with the relationship. Because my health was bad, because I needed to get well, both my son’s dad and I made the decision that our son should live with his dad. But instead of this decision allowing me the time and space to get better, my health instead deteriorated.
People I didn’t know very well assumed that, if my son didn’t live with me, then somehow I must’ve neglected him. Even people I did know – friends, some family – and who knew I was a good mother, failed to understand how I could have left my son with his dad. When I tried explaining my depression and how childbirth had made it worse and how I wanted to get well for my children, those friends and family suggested that, where children are involved, you have to just pull yourself together and get on with it. Meanwhile, the people I didn’t know very well had more ammunition when depression was mentioned; as though their presumption that I was in some way neglectful of my son had been validated by my confession of having depression. It was as though they thought people with depression were somehow less of a capable parent than those without it.
These judgements, presumptions, criticisms, stayed with me for a while. They became bigger and heavier until the dead weight in my head collapsed into me and I could cope no more with the thoughts.
The lost role of being a mother to my young son combined with people’s judgements on my decisions, meant that my thoughts of self-harm and suicide grew and grew. Eventually, when I was referred to a psychiatrist, I felt so ashamed that the first time I spoke about it I was barely coherent because it all came out in one prolonged and agonising sob. The psychiatrist, however, gave me the first positive insight on my step to recovery: ‘What you’ve done,’ he said, ‘is sacrificed your own needs for the needs of your son. That’s not selfish or neglectful, that’s selfless and an example of excellent parenting.’
This first conversation led to many more. And the more I spoke about the thoughts and feelings I had, the less hold they had over me. The big thing here was that, no matter what other people’s opinions were on depression, no matter what their opinions were on my son living with his dad, because I had spoken about it so much, because I no longer felt as though it was somehow indicative of me being a bad parent, other people’s opinions no longer affected me.
Whether you want to talk about your own mental health problem or need advice on how to speak to someone about their mental health, check out our top tips for talking!