Helen, May 22, 2019

"Sometimes we know someone might be struggling, but we say nothing because we simply don’t know what to say."

1 in 4 people will suffer from a mental health condition in their lifetime. I am one of those people. There. I’ve said it. Out loud. 

I’ve thought long and hard about sharing this. A huge part of me wants to stay silent, to keep it private, to pretend that things like that don’t happen to people like me. But I know that by doing that I’m not playing my part in breaking down the stigma that still surrounds mental health. The stigma that makes sufferers feel ashamed and isolated. So I’m sharing my story in the hope that it will help others who are suffering in silence to speak out and ask for help.

So here goes....

It seems that me and childbirth don’t mix very well. After giving birth to my son Will, I suffered from severe post-natal depression (PND). I’d never experienced depression before and was pretty clueless about what it entailed.

When I say severe, I don’t mean feeling a bit down and tearful, which is perfectly normal for lots of new mums. I mean the can’t-get-out-of-bed, can’t function, can’t leave the house kind of depression. It hit me like a bus, rendering me unable to do even the simplest of tasks. With the help of the right medication I eventually recovered and life went back to normal. Almost as though it had never happened. 

Fast forward 5 years and we started to think about having another baby. For years I was adamant that I’d never risk it again. But time is a funny thing. The memory of just how bad it was had faded, and I told myself that I probably wouldn’t get it again. This time I knew what I was doing and we could spot the early warning signs and nip it in the bud - right? Wrong. 

A few short weeks after having Martha the depression set in, and it was every bit as bad as the first time. I couldn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t sleep. I felt utter panic from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to bed. I went from being a sociable person with lots of good friends, to someone who couldn’t leave the house or talk to people. This time it lasted for 5 months before I felt myself again.

Heading back to work

And before we knew it, it was time to go back to work. Martha had settled in well at nursery and I was looking forward to the next stage in our journey. It just so happened that around this time I’d started (at the instruction of my doctor) to come off the anti-depressant medication I’d been taking, and with hindsight I now know that was a big mistake. I’d only been back at work for one day when the depression returned with a vengeance. I didn’t think it was possible, but this time it felt worse than ever before.

I had to tell work what was going on, which was really difficult for a number of reasons. In 20 years I’d never had any significant time off sick before, and it felt wrong, like I was a failure and letting everyone down. I’d never had to tell work about my previous PND episodes because they had both occurred when I was on maternity leave. But this was different.

Now I had no choice but to come clean and tell them about something that deep down I was incredibly ashamed of. My boss was unbelievably supportive and has never put any pressure on me to go back, which has made a massive difference. I know how lucky I am and that many others are not so fortunate and suffer terrible discrimination in the workplace when they open up about mental health conditions.

I couldn't have coped without support from friends and family

I won’t go into all the details of what happened during the 7 months that the depression lasted this time. It’s still too raw and I’m yet to process everything that happened. 

One thing I do know is that I couldn’t have survived it without my family and friends. Loving someone who is suffering from depression can be hard and lonely. They don’t behave as they normally would. Sometimes they can barely string a sentence together, but I was surrounded by people who told me over and over that they loved me regardless of that.

I was lucky to have friends who would text me every single day to check in with me, even if I didn’t reply. Just knowing they were there and not giving up on me was a huge comfort. Other friends invited us round for meals, weekend after weekend, even though we couldn’t reciprocate, because they knew we needed to get out and because Mark needed support too.

And I suppose that’s why I wanted to write this post. It’s pretty terrifying, admitting to everyone the very thing that you’d rather nobody knew about. But I believe if we all keep silent, we are only adding to the stigma and making it harder for others to admit they are struggling and could do with a bit of support.

Always Ask Twice

If someone you know is behaving differently, just ask them if they are ok. Life is full of those superficial conversations where you ask people how they are, but you’re not REALLY asking. We all have them. If people asked me at the school gates or in the supermarket how I was, I’d probably have answered “fine thanks, how are you”? What I wouldn’t have said is that today was a good day because I’d managed to get out of bed to pick Will up from school, but that it had taken me 30 minutes of psyching myself up to leave the house.

But who knows, maybe one of those days I might have felt able to open up, and that’s how we can all support each other. Sometimes we know someone might be struggling, but we say nothing because we simply don’t know what to say and don’t want to pry or make things awkward. I’ve done it myself, lots of times.

Now that I’ve had a glimpse of what’s it’s like to be in that very dark place, all I would say is that it’s ok to not have the right words. If someone had said to me, look, I don’t want to pry, and I don’t really know what to say, but if you ever need someone to talk to, or just some company and a friendly face, I’m here for you.....well that would have done just fine. 

Be kind

I consider myself to be fortunate because the episodes of depression I’ve had were post-natal and came to an end. It was horrific and traumatising, but I’ve been able to move on from it. Many people struggle with depression and anxiety on a daily basis for their whole lives, and those people are warriors. They deserve admiration and compassion, not scorn and discrimination. 

So I suppose what I really want to say is be kind. Nobody knows what is really going on in someone’s life. If you have a friend who is suffering from depression and doesn’t reply to texts, or cancels plans at the last minute for no apparent reason, hang in there with them. And if you’re suffering in silence right now, please, please ask for help. You are not alone and you are loved more than you know.

Share your story

Too many people are made to feel ashamed. By sharing your story, you can help spread knowledge and perspective about mental illness that could change the way people think about it.