One New Year’s Eve years ago when I was young, free and un-precious enough to cope without a roof or electricity, and with using a long drop, I took a trip with friends. We went to a remote camping site on a beautiful beach down a long unsealed road. We sat around outside our tents and chatted and drank cheap wine. We cooked dinner on a camp stove. As the night progressed, we went down to the beach. We were far from any light pollution and it was such a dark night that every time a wave crashed we could see it light up with phosphorescence. The waves crashed and lit up one after another after another. It was hypnotic sitting there watching the solitary light in the darkness. It felt like we weren’t meant to be there, it was a secret place not for people. In many ways it was. I was staring at the unexpected good that could come from a dark and unforgiving sea; a sea that in 11 years’ time would envelope me and become all I was for a while.
My second pregnancy was much like my first: difficult, occasionally horrendous and full of extreme experiences. A few months after my first baby was born I developed postnatal depression. I never saw it coming the first time. I never thought it would be me. In truth, I had just experienced the perfect storm of events that meant it was always going to be me. Experiences combined from my past and present. They swirled together and became like a train stuck on a track, hurtling towards a destination it couldn’t change. Towards the end of my second pregnancy unexpected complications reared their head. Anxiety soon fired its first warning shots. My ability to process things and to think clearly faded away. My inner workings became muted as my surface thoughts began to race. It hovered at this level for a few months: just below detection, but present in the background. It seemed like my responses were in line with events. There was just a little bit more below the surface that nobody except me could see. The past and present swirled together again in different combinations. The train started its journey, this time towards the sea.
When my baby was about five weeks old I felt myself flatten out over the course of the week. I examined my calendar and felt my chest tighten at the thought of doing anything in it. It was full of normal, regular things. Things I had wanted to do for months, but illness during pregnancy had prevented it. I remember not feeling ready for a newborn yet. I just wanted some time to process what had happened. When I took that time, it didn’t help. Everything was inaccessible. I was numbed. Flattened. Vulnerable. The online Edinburgh test for postnatal depression confirmed the obvious. I needed help.
Towards the end of the week my baby had his six-week check with the GP. She asked about me too and referred me to maternal mental health. Unfortunately, medication isn’t an option for me, because I’ve previously had serious side effects from two types of anti depressants. Instead, I have spent two years (so far) with a psychologist. It’s been like trying to put a puzzle together when the pieces are scattered and upside down and there’s no picture on the box. Nobody should have to tackle that alone. Many have no choice. I am relieved to have qualified for help as this experience was so much more than I ever anticipated. Without it this story would have a very different ending.
A few days after the six-week appointment I was alone with both children for the first time. We needed some things at the supermarket. Juggling them both out in the public gaze felt overwhelming, but I felt I had to get on with things. A harsh mantra of dismissiveness reverberated around my mind as I ignored my own needs and feelings - they were words internalised from societal conditioning. Exhausting notions and internal signals that I ignored as I ‘just got on with it’ and ‘sucked it up’ as I buried myself in bullshit. Depression and anxiety were with me 24/7 and it was hard work. I was frustrated with myself and just wanted to be better. Frustration drove me to internalise the harshness. The truth was my own vulnerability and the need to come back slowly and with kindness. I needed time to see that.
On the way home, I had the first of many panic attacks while driving. It felt like I couldn’t breathe. My vision tunnelled. It felt like the blood was retracting from my limbs. I was driving on the motorway at the time. It was terrifying and I didn’t know what was happening. It felt drastically unsafe. I spiralled from there.
The next day my confidence was shattered. I woke up feeling incredibly low and just burst into tears. Everything caught up with me that morning. All of the experiences I’d had, the ones I’d wanted but never got, the realisation I had full on PND and clearly some other bonus gifts. Outrunning it wasn’t possible any longer. The train had arrived at its destination. I found myself lying face down far out at sea. My hair floated on the surface at the mercy of the currents, while I lay under it unable to turn over and breathe. The water in my mind was dark and foreboding and it slowly seeped through and permeated every part of me. I was porous and no longer me. I was just a woman lying face down in the sea.
PND had well and truly arrived. And it brought some friends: PTSD and agoraphobia. They were like the the school bullies who you’d try to avoid, but they’d always find you somehow. It felt like there was no escaping my tormentors. PND and PTSD became tightly intertwined. Both had anxiety and depression as a symptom. Depression and anxiety would take turns. Often it felt like they were both competing for space to get through the door. Whoever shoved through won that day, or hour or week. PTSD had the bonus of also making certain memories feel disjointed, confusing, and filled with danger. The anxiety used to make me clench my jaw and grab my hands like I was searching frantically for something safe that wasn’t there. It spilled over into many aspects of my life. Anything associated with the memories could bring it all bubbling to the surface. It made me want to avoid those things. It was an unprocessed mess: eggs smashed on the floor before they were turned into cake… although in truth I carried the smashed eggs around with me all the time. They seeped through my fingers and got on everything. Agoraphobia came because it was an ordeal driving with extreme nausea while pregnant. The agoraphobia was only ever related to transportation. My mind got stuck in a time that no longer existed and it twisted that time and added danger.
The day after my first panic attack was one of my lowest points. I realised I wasn’t even able to leave the house to go and get my son from kindy. I could feel my chest constricting at the thought of driving or even leaving the house. I felt far too fragile to try. Even leaving the bedroom felt impossible. I thought I might stay that way forever. I genuinely feared that I
would be stuck permanently, never able to go far from home. When you can’t access anything that feels like you, anything familiar or reassuring, it’s so hard to see that it will be ok. The sea was all there was.
Many days just like it followed. Some were worse. Some I thought I might drown in. Other days I felt almost fine. Some days I could support those around me and other days I needed a lot of support myself. I never knew what the forecast was going to be.
My husband stayed home with me on that low day. He helped me to hold hope where I felt none. I knew that if I didn’t manage to get my eldest boy from kindy then the feeling of failure would crush me. So I asked him to help me find a way. He spent the day just being with me. We talked, and I felt safer for a few seconds. He gently convinced me that I could do it and that I would recover. He believed it. That mattered. The glimpses of safety I felt enabled me to vaguely hear the message. That day I managed to walk with my husband and baby to kindy to get my eldest son. I didn’t have a panic attack. Although I experienced the most fragility and vulnerability I have ever known, I felt able. Kindy was a kind and safe place. Everyone was welcoming and warm. It was the best place to start. I knew I had a path forward. I would just do one thing at a time until I was well again.
I set myself driving goals as I felt able. My aim was to regain the places my mind blocked me from getting to. My world expanded slowly but surely. I took a lot of breaks to work on other things, but I always came back. I used to send photos of where I was to my husband and a close friend. They became my team. They always made me feel able, through kindness and a complete absence of condescension. They never tried to force me into anything. They believed in me. They kept this up until I could hold that notion for myself.
As the months rolled on I found myself pulling away from most of the people in my life. I just didn’t feel like I could do others. I was embarrassed about my driving issues. It was such a barrier. It made my anxiety sky rocket. Sometimes it was too hard to go out and try and
play the role of being me. For the time being, freedom and being in the world were not mine.
Pulling back was sometimes a helpful tool. Keeping things simple helped to keep my mind quiet enough to start to heal and function. The space enabled me to fall in love with my baby during my darkest time. It was just like they said it would be. We looked at each other one day and we connected through all the mess in my mind. We both felt it. It was beautiful. Later on the disconnection with other people became lonely. I was ready for all of my life to return, but it wasn’t there anymore. Luckily there are some good, understanding people in my life who came back when I indicated I was ready.
Getting well didn’t just magically happen. It was a lot of factors coming together, just as becoming unwell had been a lot of factors falling apart. The whole process of recovery was very much two steps forward, one step back and anything but linear. It was mostly a process inside my own mind that nobody was party to except me.
Last winter things took a step back when I got very sick with pneumonia. I didn’t get out much for a few months while I recovered, and I became quite isolated. I had been improving, but I found myself sinking back into depression. I sunk a little too deep and found myself somewhere I never want to be again. It scared me. I made it clear to the people who needed to know what was going on and we made a plan to help me. I made some changes to my life and some future plans that I feel excited about. Everything I’d been working on started to come together. I wanted to see people again. I started to feel joy, freedom, and appreciation for ‘normal’ as it returned.
It felt like the water released its grip. It let me turn over and look up at the sky. I looked around and there was total darkness, yet somehow there was light where there had been none. Phosphorescence was darting around an otherwise dark and unforgiving ocean. A beacon of real, tangible hope. Phosphorescence was what I would never have known about or appreciated if it wasn’t for my time in the sea. Something wonderful that only I saw.
The actual truth was making its first reappearance in my life. A reality where I recovered and came out better than when I went in. Where I enjoyed things again and was free. All of the things that led me into the sea will be left behind and replaced with things that will lead me into life. Hope and truth and freedom were returning. The water trickled slowly out of my mind and everything became clear. Back on that horrible day where I couldn’t get in my car, I never could have conceptualised a future where I came out better than I went in. I can now.
Now, I am standing at the end of PND, and closer to the end of PTSD. There are still hard days and weeks. There are still things to tackle, but they are fewer and much less bad. Only a few puzzle pieces remain unplaced. There were many wonderful and liberating moments that indicated the end was in sight. Moments where life was returning and appreciation for normal things was bringing me joy and cause to celebrate.
Almost two years on, I managed to drive the whole way down the motorway. I cried with relief and felt the freedom coursing through my veins. I whispered to myself through my tears “it’s finally over” and I triumphantly thumped the steering wheel. I felt the tension leaving my shoulders and my body felt different as I breathed deeply for the first time in months.
On another occasion, I found myself standing in a room full of people chatting and just being the person who I thought was lost forever. I was myself. I felt at ease. I was confident. I took a moment to just look around and appreciate how far I’d come.
The first time I got on a plane as I let go of agoraphobia was amazing. I remember what it took to manage it. It was objectively the worst flight I’ve ever been on leaving Wellington just after a cyclone, but the absolute best because I did it. The friend who came with me managed some of the most wonderful dark humour during the relentless turbulence. We cackled inappropriately. It was strangely joyous.
Good things have come from this experience in a way I never expected. I would never want to repeat any of it, but I’m pleasantly surprised by where it’s led and continues to lead me.
One autumn day I lay on my sister’s sofa and finally said out loud to someone what I wanted from my life and what some of my goals were. I wanted to write for more than just me. It became a really positive driver of mental wellbeing and is something I love. I went on to figure out the eternal answer of ‘what do I want to be when I grow up?’ Writing led me to the answer. It’s something I never would have come to if I hadn’t had these experiences. I found direction and purpose and the confidence to go through with all of it because I needed to in order to recover.
I turned the spotlight on the internalised harshness and dismissiveness I’d absorbed from wider society. I couldn’t have just ‘got over it’ or ‘got on with it’. Those notions denied my experience, swept me under the carpet and epically misunderstood everything about mental illness. It wasn’t even what I believed. I realised my frustration with myself was a hinderance not a help because it led to a harshness that I would never have directed at anyone else. Over time and with much effort I started to internalise kindness and empathy instead. This was a notion that was actually helpful. I formed a more realistic, kinder narrative about myself. Acceptance was the reality I needed. I started to treat myself like I would treat my friends. This is becoming the truth and it’s changing my life.
My family has faced many challenges over the last few years. Things have not been smooth. Being kinder to myself enabled me to look objectively at our overall situation and find the way forward. I gave up the idea of being ‘normal’ and grabbed onto the idea of being us. Acceptance brought peace. Things are still overwhelming at times. That’s ok though, because things just are overwhelming sometimes. The way forward for us was to build and strengthen the many good things that we have, and to be sure of ourselves. We are building something that we all believe in. Something based on kindness, acceptance and some epic problem-solving skills. We have each other’s backs, and everyone is accepted for who they are.
Thirteen years ago on the beach that New Years Eve, I wandered back to my tent in the small hours. I left the phosphorescence behind, but held the memory in my mind’s eye for many years; a memory of something unexpected and beautiful that came from the sea. I look back to that period and remember a former life of liberation and very few responsibilities. I used to covet the freedom and comparative ease of that time during a period when I felt I had neither. Now I hold close to my heart this time where I regained my freedom and found things that I never would have discovered or appreciated had it not been for the sea. Life is everywhere again, and I’m amongst it. Free. Living. Breathing. Here. There will be phosphorescence for me, even in the light. It’s a gift for only those who have known the darkness of looking face down in the sea.