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Postnatal depression I felt disembodied for so long but suddenly I was back in my own body

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Jessica Friedmann talks to Viv Groskop about the terrifying years she experienced after the birth of her son

Jessica Friedmann thought she was managing well after the birth of her son. Then suddenly her thoughts took a dark turn. I had to come back into hospital two weeks later for a checkup and I realised that all I wanted to do was get out of the moving car. I was feeling as though I couldnt handle being alive any more and that it would be better for Owen if I wasnt.

Friedmann, 30, has written an extraordinary account of extreme postnatal depression as seen from the eye of the storm. She lives in Canberra, Australia, with her husband, Mike, 34, who is in the Australian air force. Their son, Owen, is four. The period of feeling foggy, as she calls it, dates it back to Owens early weeks. Friedmanns experience is at the sharp end of things. While the NHS suggests that the baby blues usually dont last more than two weeks after giving birth, Friedmann was ill for, she estimates, two and a half to three years.

She says cautiously that now she is fine. She had anticipated that she might feel fragile during her pregnancy. But when I was pregnant, I felt strong and vibrant, she says. I had experienced depression in the past and I was worried that I would feel resentful about sharing my body with another human being. You know, the idea of feeling colonised, of having another person growing inside me But it felt intuitively right and I felt safe.

Similarly she imagined she felt confident during and after the birth, despite some complications. I had to have a caesarean because he was breech I had a haemorrhage. But afterwards I thought I was OK. It turned out my uterus was inflamed and so I was on a course of antibiotics.

As her physical symptoms improved, her mental health deteriorated. A couple of weeks after he was born, I went from feeling euphoric to feeling good to feeling not good to feeling desperate quite quickly. Antidepressants helped, but did not fix everything. That got me up to half-speed. I thought that was as good as it was going to get. I felt so slow and tired.

Jessica was part of pilot programme in Australia where mothers can be monitored by a psychiatrist after birth. This helped to sort out her medication. Because she had had depression before, she was also seeing a therapist. But despite all this, she still felt at a loss as a new mother: You can read as much as you want, but you dont know what having a child is going to feel like. I didnt know it was ordinary to be in that much pain or to be so tired that I just couldnt function.

But while these things are normal and usually fairly transient for new parents, she realised that her symptoms were more serious. For me the key tell for depression is that I stop sleeping. Its a kind of interrupted sleep. In the early days, instead of getting sleep between Owens feeds, I would stay up all night and be awake. At the time I thought it made sense. That kind of sleeplessness is common if youre experiencing depression. Its a sleeplessness that is like agitation.

It got worse as she found herself heading into the world of what therapists call postpartum mood disorder. I started having intrusive thoughts. Although at the time I didnt have the language to express that. Its compulsive thinking about violence towards yourself or towards your child. You are thinking things that you dont want to think. But the majority of new parents dont have those thoughts. Or at least Ihope they dont.

Jessica
Jessica Friedmann. Photograph: Heather Lighton/Scribe

Her mother took over the care of her son for a while. At one time Friedmann had the urge to walk out of the window. Recovery was slow: Depression is very isolating, so I felt so grateful that I had so many people around me who Icould ask for help.

Friedmann realised she was getting better when she felt more in control of her mind. It was almost like a light came on. I had felt disembodied for so long and suddenly it was like I was back in my own body. I felt as though I were present in all my senses in a way that I hadnt felt for years. It was like falling in love or wearing glasses for the first time.

She now has a close, easy relationship with her son, but still worries about the impact on him. I think hes a very resilient child. From the beginning when I was in such a bad way, I just followed him and his needs. Ididnt try to put him in a routine. We had a period of separation at one point. But theres a lot of love and trust between us.

She says cautiously that anyone who is depressed should also get help for whoever is looking after them: Mike didnt talk for years about whathe was going through. Because hewas so worried about me. But if youare the caretaker for someone witha psychiatric illness, looking after yourself is not selfish.

Her advice to her earlier self would be to be more realistic about the caesarean. I wish I had known more about the effect it has on your body. The whole too posh to push thing makes it seem like its supposed to be awalk in the park compared with avaginal birth. I didnt really realise that its a major abdominal surgery thattakes six weeks to recover from. Ithurt a lot. It was scary.

Most of all, though, she says she wishes she had been kinder to herself. Although when you are in the grip of a psychological crisis, the idea of having a self is nebulous. And the idea of kindness to that self even more so. I look back at those months now and its all just a fog. I wish I had known how to simultaneously be experiencing a psychological crisis and be an advocate for myself. But that is almost impossible. I think mental illness is such a bear trap because in any other crisis you can articulate what is going on. But I couldnt. She sighs, realising the impossibility of what she is wishing for. Then she jokes: Maybe a series of flashcards would have helped?

She hopes her book about this experience will help others feel able to say Im sick when things become too difficult to manage. Her story, she says, is partly one about severe postnatal depression but its also about the complicated business of starting out in family life while feeling overwhelmed something which happens to everyone who has a baby.

Theres nothing straightforward about parenting, she says. Its grief, sorrow, exultation.

Things That Helped by Jessica Friedmann (Scribe, 12.99). To order a copy for 11.04,go tobookshop.theguardian.comorcall the Guardian Bookshop on0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of 1.99.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/may/13/postnatal-depression-i-felt-disembodied-for-so-long-but-suddenly-i-was-back-in-my-own-body

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