After giving birth, I became convinced I was going to die. My journey with postnatal anxiety.

by 

Words: Michelle Bradley

As I lay on my sofa, three days after giving birth to my beautiful baby girl, I was suddenly overcome by the overwhelming feeling I was about to die. It came out of nowhere and hit me like the freight train, making me leap up and beg my husband to call an ambulance. That was just the beginning of a long and difficult journey through postnatal anxiety, an illness I didn’t even know existed.

Fast forward four months and I’m sat in my doctor’s office, tears streaming down my face as I recount the night before when I had dragged my husband and new baby out in the winter snow at midnight because the panic was too much to bear indoors. That night I admitted to my husband that I couldn’t go on much longer, that I needed help, that life was no longer bearable. The future stretched out before me and it was bleak and grey, and I could no longer see myself in it.

So why had it taken four months to get help? Why had my illness, which had manifested so early and so glaringly in front of midwives, health visitors and doctors gone on undiagnosed for so long?

The problem is in the language.

During pregnancy, you are likely to hear the term postnatal depression. The midwives will mention it in pregnancy classes, you will read a paragraph or two in a pregnancy book, you may even have heard of a friend or relative who has been through it. But you will rarely hear the term ‘postnatal anxiety’.

You see, the questions you are asked after birth to screen for postnatal depression won’t often ring true if you’re struggling with anxiety.

“Are you able to laugh and see the funny side of things?”

“Yes, but I feel like my heart is going to explode”

“Have you looked forward with enjoyment to things?”

Yes, but then it’s ruined by a panic attack”

“Have you felt sad or miserable?”

“Only when the anxiety gets too much to bear”

You see for me, I still enjoyed much of my life. I didn’t cry an awful lot. I wasn’t moping around. But I was consumed by panic and fear that dictated what I could eat, where I could go, and what I could do. I didn’t feel sad, I felt petrified. It wasn’t until the anxiety continued, zapping every ounce of energy I had, that depression began to kick in.

The good news is that anxiety is very treatable and with the right help, I was able to get back to a life I could enjoy again. The future was no longer grey and bleak. It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows either but a satisfying mix of grayscale and technicolour.

When we talk about mental illness, the language is important. While postnatal depression is gaining more awareness, it is just one of a range of perinatal mental illnesses that can affect a parent either in pregnancy or after birth. These are:

Anxiety

Obsessive compulsive disorder

Psychosis

Post traumatic stress disorder/birth trauma

If we don’t have the language to explain how we feel, it will be so much harder to get the help and support we need. Treating perinatal mental illness takes time but with the right help, life can get back to being rich and full again.

If you are struggling, please reach out for help. You can access free resources at www.wearepangs.com or www.pandasfoundation.org.uk. Please don’t suffer alone.

Michelle Bradley is the founder of perinatal mental health charity We Are Pangs and author of Pangs: Surviving Motherhood and Mental Illness. She is an active campaigner for better services for parents and lives in Northern Ireland with her husband and three children.

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