I didn’t really know I was depressed. That sounds almost silly, looking back, but I don’t think I could fully grasp the severity of what I was feeling. I was eighteen years old and unable to process my own thoughts; I felt worthless and hopeless but kept up this façade of happiness, because that was who I was known as. A teacher in school used to call me ‘smiley’ as a nickname. I was the happy girl, who could always take a joke, laugh at herself, didn’t really even let boy trouble get her down most of the time and who always looked out for her friends and wanted to make everyone else happy. I knew that I had struggled a bit when I was even younger – I stopped eating more than around 300 calories a day until my periods stopped, I panicked I would be infertile, cried to my mum that I thought I was fat and was scared of food and she encouraged me to eat very gently – but I had left that behind I thought. So as I sat in my room, slicing so deeply into my arms that, when I was done, you could see the fat bubbling in the wounds, I wondered what the hell I was doing, but couldn’t stop – it felt so right, and so necessary. I had cut myself before, but never like this. I don’t know how many minutes or hours it went on for, I just know that when I was done I could barely move my arms from the sheer agony and that there was blood everywhere.
When you live in halls of residence and have left a trail of blood around the whole flat, it is quite hard to get away with it, and so I was sent to see the university counsellor. This was an initial session and she suggested I book onto a course of therapy / counselling; as I sat there sobbing I only had one thing to say to her, “I’m not crazy. If I come will they think I’m crazy? Will they take my children away from me?” She was a little confused, seeing as I didn’t have any children but, for me, that’s what it has always been about: children. From a young age I knew that, above anything else in life, I wanted to be a Mum. I was petrified that, if it was on my medical record that I had self harmed, when the day hopefully came that I was a Mum, someone would come knocking on my door and say “sorry, not fit!”and take my child away. I realised a few years later that that was ridiculous, but my fear was so genuine that I left her office that day and never went back.
The worst thing I did was hide my scars from my family for a year. It made me feel so much worse. When I realised that the secrecy was only compounding my misery I decided to bite the bullet and tell my parents what I had done and how I had been feeling. I was amazed by how much better I felt - instantly. I still suffered with depression for another couple of years afterwards, but it was so much easier to begin to process my emotions when I was no longer hiding them. I even got a tattoo on my left arm, which has the worst of the scarring, of the lyrics of a song that inspired me to speak to my parents – Roger Alan Wade’s “If you’re gonna be dumb, you’ve gotta be tough.” I decided to think of my self harming as a silly way of dealing with some very real and serious emotions and, now that I’d done it, if I wanted to be happy well I damn well had to be tough and face my depression head on.
I finished uni and I fell in love; properly head-over-heels, sickeningly in love. Jonathan and I got engaged after six months, married in under two years and, fourteen months married, we decided to try for a baby and were fortunate to quickly fall pregnant. It was everything I had ever dreamed of; I was realising the only dream that had remained a constant my whole life: I would be a Mum. During my very first appointment with my midwife she was taking my blood pressure and she looked at me and said “why do you have scars on your arm? You’ve not hurt yourself have you?” My stomach dropped, I hadn’t hurt myself in years, I thought it wouldn’t matter, was she going to tell me I was unfit to be a mother? I was happy now, would my past ruin my future? I shook my head, my face burning with embarrassment. She shrugged, “good.” That was it. Panic over. I went home and cried to Jonathan, and he reminded me that which I already knew; no one wants to take your baby from you. I was so worried that that wasn’t enough, I called my sister too: “Rosie, they would only want to help you. She was asking because they want to know you’re okay. Don’t worry.” My big sister has always been my rock - I was calm again.
As my pregnancy progressed I was well aware that depression can come back and I was ready for it. I was ready to spot the signs, I was ready to tell Jonathan if I felt myself slipping into a dark place, I was ready to get help this time as, it wasn’t just me to look out for anymore, I had a husband and a child who needed me.
I have been pleasantly surprised by my own mind since Harry was born. I think I almost expected to have post-natal depression. I figured it was bound to come back but, as of yet, it hasn’t come knocking. That is the funny thing about PND I suppose, it doesn’t follow a pattern, it can take anyone as a victim; the woman whose never had a single issue with her mental health can find herself in the absolute worst of states and someone, like myself, who has struggled previously is passed over, spared the anguish this time.
Maybe, in my case, my mental health can be boxed separately to motherhood. Issues with my mind were part of my life long before my husband and long before my baby, so I certainly don’t propose that motherhood is responsible, but in concentrating so hard on not falling back into that all-consuming darkness of depression, I had missed anxiety creeping up on me like a bad smell. I have always been anxious, only motherhood has accentuated it: I no longer have just me to be anxious about, I have the most precious life in the world to worry about, and worry I do.
At times my anxiety can feel so vast, like I will never overcome it and, at others, I get this surge of confidence, filling me with hope that, actually, this won’t be the way I feel forever. Unlike with depression though, I have sought help and am feeling pretty positive. Maybe that is where motherhood links up best with my mental health; without being a mother I would probably have allowed my mind to take control of my life once more without seeking help. Because of Harry, I’m making sure I get the help I need as his happiness is paramount to me – happy mum, happy baby.
The most important thing I have realised though is that my mental health, past and present, is not indicative of my ability to mother. We have a beautiful, happy, healthy baby boy who I adore spending my days with. Along with Jonathan, he is the reason I am happy and I the reason he is. I am doing my absolute best and I’ve realised that my best certainly is good enough.
Written by Rosie Phillips
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Women talking unashamedly about their mental health and parenting innit.