Baby Blues

So no prepared post this Monday sadly, due to a weekend of a potential postnatal depression.

I have been feeling really strong since the birth and actually didn’t get the usual weepiness attributed to Day 3 when milk typically comes in.

However, my anxiety kicked off again on Saturday and last night I felt so low.

I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t feel tired as is typical of new parents, I just felt numb.

I had to force myself to express as I just couldn’t be bothered and I feel terrible to confess that there were a few hours where I didn’t feel anything for my baby either.

I hope you will bear with me though as I have some posts in the pipeline; risk taking, expanding your comfort zone and a sonnet challenge!

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New Year: A Time for Reflection

Three years have passed between New Year 2016 and New Year 2019. These were the last time I felt strong in myself and confidently optimistic about my ability to strive into the year ahead, and the first time since.

Three years ago, I simply couldn’t imagine being where I am now. Given my recent trauma (little did I know there were still two cases of harassment to follow) I had certainly written off any possibility of getting married, buying a house was far from my mind and children seemed a dream away.

New Year 2016 was just before I hit rock bottom, the eye of the storm as I rallied from abuse and assault before plunging into deep depression just a month later.

The Power of Hindsight 

That same month I met my husband and, as I have said before, without his intervention I hate to think what might have been the outcome.

The sound advice given to mental health suffers is to NOT make any life changing decisions.

However:

I was suicidal and got married

Bought a house whilst struggling with depression

Had anxiety and had a baby

None of these actions where taken lightly, a lot of consideration went into each and a lot of love, peace and healing was gained.

I have been incredibly blessed.

Return to Work: What’s Good for Baby, What’s Good for Mum?

I have a new emotional expedition I hope you will join me on. 

The time is approaching for me to make a big decision: to go back to work, to extend maternity leave or to stay at home. I have a few weeks before I need to give a final answer and, as ever, this is my exploration space. 

Before We Begin

There are so many factors that go into every individual’s choice that the concept of a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of mothering needs to be exterminated. Unless you are outright neglecting, manipulating or abusing your child, there is not a wrong way to parent. 

I find it’s often women perpetuating these notions of right and wrong, I suspect driven by our own insecurities. We are desperate to be perfect, a desire fuelled by hormones, anxiety, love and the pressures of society (real or abstract). 

As ever, opinions are polarised, and the middle ground, although walked by so many, is obscured almost entirely by the prevailing opposites. In this instance, the two extremes are full time work and staying at home although a range of alternatives exist including working from home, being self employed, part time work and I am sure many more I have just never considered. 

Where I Am Right Now 

As I say, there are many, many things to consider, and I want to begin by acknowledging how fortunate I am to have maternity leave in the first place. I have the good fortune to live in a country that has statutory maternity leave, to be an employee and work for a company that I trust to uphold my rights. I am very blessed as not only is this not the experience of women in many other countries, it is not the security afforded to all in my own. 

Currently, beyond going round in circles about the choice and logistics of each outcome, I am aware of the implications of all options on my mental health and wellbeing. 

There have been great blessings to maternity leave but, as a workaholic, there have also been struggles. 

Therefore, there are not just the practical influencers such as finances, child care, the dog and our schedule as a couple to consider, but also emotional; family considerations, couple time and my own well being. 

Some might think it is selfish, but this decision is not just about what is best for baby, but also what is best for mum. 

Mental Health Hangover

For once I took my own advice! I took some time to rest following the emotional outpouring of my latest posts.

Beyond taking time to absorb the catharsis and recover from the anxiety and emotion of sharing something so personal online, the post had achieved what I hoped, a line drawn under that period of my life.

Of course, I haven’t forgotten, but I am no longer haunted by the events of those two years. I now feel able to purely look forward and embrace the new experiences that motherhood will bring. That was why I wrote that post in the first place, so I could welcome my baby without the experience being tainted by the negativity and, frankly, toxicity of that dark period.

Mental Health Hangover

However, I do have one last hangover from my mental illness. I just can’t think of a better way to describe it. It’s just one enduring element that I haven’t yet resolved. Recently though, I have been working on addressing my obsessive behaviour before baby arrives, as it was getting particularly extreme with nesting habits and to me represents the final phase of recovery.

As ever, by starting to write about it, I have been able to unpack this particular episode, and no surprise it’s rooted in the events of three years ago.

I have had obsessive episodes since starting school, but this one in particular is derived from an overwhelming notion of contamination. Now that I have actively thought about how my anxiety is manifesting (in obsessive cleaning rituals), the connection between my behaviour and the past seems obvious. Survivors of abuse, assault and rape, frequently refer to feeling dirty, a natural consequence of the violating trauma experienced.

Obsessive Behaviour

In the back of my mind I know that the object of my obsessive focus it is not dirty, that placing something on a surface does not immediately contaminate everything else in contact with that surface, for instance, chairs that are positioned on the floor, as chairs usually are, however, my brain doesn’t get satisfaction from cleaning the floor, the chairs must be scrubbed too along with any other floors I might have encountered whilst gathering cleaning products, and sometimes, the products themselves. At this point, as you can imagine, the cycle of percieved ‘contamination’ is agrresive and interfering with daily life. It also affects marital harmony, for as patient and understanding as Samuel is, by the umpteenth cleaning cycle, even he is beginning to get frustrated. I mean, I am frustrated too, it would be wonderful to be able to pick something up and put it down somewhere else without concern for what had previously been situated there. It’s one of the reasons we still have unpacked boxes from moving a year ago – it just takes so long for me to perform this cleaning ritual on each item.

This is why it is a hangover, I don’t view my house in the same terms as the items I’m moving into it. For instance, the dog goes out for a walk, plays in the garden, lays on the floor, the sofa, on her dog bed, and I simply mop the floor and wash her blanket. If she has found something especially delicious and nasty (she is very fond of a dead seagull) then she is bathed and paws washed off. Thus, the dog, the house and the humans in it, get muddy, dusty, dirty and are cleaned in the usual, typical and healthy way. No environment is completely sterile and not expected to be. This is the normal practice of hygiene, it’s dirty and it gets cleaned as part of generic housework.

However, because my recovery only really began following the move, whilst our current house holds no bad memories or associations, the flat we rented was full of my toxic baggage. Whilst, it was filled with the happiness of newly-weds, it was also where I gradually shed the negativity of the previous year and finally finished my degree. Therefore, whilst the house we now inhabit is regarded by my compulsion as clean, the things being moved in from the flat, are not. They are contaminated by the past and therefore the ritualised cleaning has developed, not so much for the items themselves, but for my mental recovery.

Yet this is not a healthy recovery, it is merely replacing one kind of mental illness with another. Having identified (to myself) the source of and outlining the nature of my obsessive behaviour I hope to review the steps I am taking to address it.

 

Time Out

I have posted previously about the importance of taking time and the impacts as well as benefits blogging can hold for mental health.

I did not intend to be absent for so long following my latest posts, but as a result of exploring such intimate trauma, the cathartic release was accompanied by a period of unpublished contemplation. Although such breaks in blog content are not recommended for successful blogging, it proved both sensible and necessary for self care and revealed an element of personal progress.

In the past, breaks in blogging have resulted in an acute sense of anxiety, that trying to ‘cut it’ as a blogger was going to be futile and that I had no voice. I am grateful to those of you who have diligently followed my blogging meanderings and gave me the confidence to share my story.

This was not done out of a notion of having a unique perspective or experience with mental health or rape culture, but from the belief that the narrative surrounding both needs to change and that dialogue is the only way to make that change. I felt I couldn’t shy away from partaking in that dialogue just because the story I had to share was my own and I feared comments, doubt and judgement. I hoped to empower and encourage others that they have a voice, that is not just entitled to be heard but also believed.

Writing the post felt like a counselling session with myself, an  opportunity to explore not only what had happened but also why, without assigning blame or chastising myself, just a chance to acknowledge the events in their entirety.

This is what I love about blogging, the ability to verbalise, reflect upon and then (through the act of hitting ‘publish’) to actively send thoughts, words and hurt away from yourself. I feel like I have expelled one of my strongest demons, one of the most potent predators for my mental health, the trauma now trailing as whispers of grey smoke behind me, not as a black smoggy shadow hovering at my shoulder.

This expulsion resulted in the acknowledged hiatus, but rather than being accompanied by anxiety, I have experienced a tranquility that has been absent for many years.

I am still surprised by feelings of contentment and happiness which reminds me that my healing is not yet complete, but the opportunity for expression that blogging has provided me has brought about positive changes.

Understanding Your Triggers

Personally, I think it is really important to try and gain understanding of the underlying triggers of my mental health. Counselling and active listening support is geared towards searching experiences and triggers to try and tackle the root of what makes an individual react to stimulus the way they do. I’m not necessarily expecting to find any answers to ‘why’ certain things make me feel a certain way or experience flashbacks like those I described yesterday and often the trigger itself can be pretty illusive. For me it is about being proactive with my recovery and using these negative episodes towards positively exploring and improving my mental wellbeing.

I have shared several of my coping strategies with you before, especially relating to work and anxiety, and the importance of reflection to help you become aware of how certain stimuli make you feel so that you can understand and prepare for encountering that trigger. Recovery is hard, but finding the strength to keep on pushing and stretching the boundaries your mental illness is trying to inflict and delving into these painful and emotional episodes and experiences is a great step in regaining control when it feels that your mind is invading and imposing itself on your daily life.

Reflections from Yesterday

My latest post stemmed from a reoccurrence of physical and emotional reactions resulting from past trauma. Time had lapsed considerably since I last experienced these particular responses and it came as a surprise, which surprised me more because though I have never expected to not be conscious of this trauma, I had thought that it had stopped encroaching on my marriage and daily life.

Why with the time that has elapsed and with the slow yet steady progress in my recovery am I suddenly back to flashbacks, recoiling and responding as if I were still in that negative situation?

As I said above, the triggers are often illusive, which makes delving into them rather difficult. What I have surmised at this stage it is most likely connected to the pregnancy. It is after all a particularly significant change; physical, emotional and mental.

I hope that unpacking pregnancy as I explore my personal trigger  (for this particular instance at least) will help demonstrate how you can gain understanding, and hopefully begin to feel in control, of  your triggers.

Assessing Triggers

1.Hormones: Menstration, Pregnancy and Otherwise

Mentally during pregnancy there are a whole host of hormones flying around which in turn generate a lot of intense and varied emotions. Beyond pregnancy it is very common to have hormones impact upon mental health. For women especially (although men experience fluctuations of hormones as well) mental health can be strongly affected by their menstrual cycle. Certain contraceptive methods have been frequently discussed in relation to menstruation and mental health, but I have not researched this enough to feel confident to comment on this area yet. My own personal experiences would however lean in favour of this and I would love to hear your thoughts and stories.

2. Intimacy

Regarding my personal experience, intimacy plays a big part. Mental illness to one side, it has been a significant part of my recovery  from that trauma to be confidently intimate with my husband. If I can react so strongly to the man who I married, the first I had encountered to put my needs above his, and who I trust most in the world… it’s not surprising that intimacy can be such a strong trigger.

Again let’s look at this from within and without the context of pregnancy.

For me, pregnancy is the current trigger for recent expressions of trauma and intimacy is a factor in this. I am fortunate not to have a partner who bemoans the decline and physical barriers to intercourse. In fact as someone who experienced coercion and assault for this reason in the past, I don’t even want to contemplate the impact that situation would have on my mental health.

Of course, there are many ways to be intimate during pregnancy that do not involve sex. In fact, intimacy doesn’t need to be physical at all although it is snuggling, cuddling, kissing and so forth that we associate with the term most. These physical displays of intimacy can also be affected by pregnancy as there are many scenarios when being touched and having contact can be uncomfortable.

Insomnia, vivid dreams, restricted sleeping positions reduce snuggling and by extension not being able to sit comfortably on the sofa, let alone cuddle up watching a film. Then there’s the hot flushes and hot summer days (like this one!), finding your own skin oppressive without the addition of the loving hands of your partner.

Then there’s other people’s hands. I don’t get it… I had people touching my stomach before I even had a bump (not that having a developing human inside you warrants any uninvited anything at anytime).

Short story, someone tried to touch my bump recently, missed and hit my breast instead…

People touching you without cause or consent is not just a pregnancy problem. There are many individuals who are very tactile and there are many who are not and we all need to do better at being aware of other people’s boundaries and respecting them.

3. Consent

Touching of bumps, accidental breast taps and being hugged when you don’t like hugs are just examples that can be swapped for any of an entire plethora of interactions. The topic of consent could provide content for entire blog sites, here I’m going to frame it in the context of control.

I find that control is one of my biggest triggers, in fact it can usually be found a few layers beneath the surface of triggering situations and events that I identify.

Feeling in control is a driver for lots of behaviours, and is particularly relevant to mental illness, especially anxiety. I certainly find that my anxiety is fed by scenarios that I cannot plan for, surprise or sudden events or feeling overwhelmed by the amount of potential outcomes, variables and so on.

In the course of writing this post I have concluded that the factor of control is the trigger for my present experience. At the beginning I mentioned an awareness that the pregnancy was likely influencing my flashbacks. But pregnancy is a very broad subject and whilst for some the physiology of being pregnant can be a trigger for various reasons, I knew for me that it wasn’t the pregnancy itself that was triggering the flashbacks but something associated with it.

Behavioural responses to the flashbacks (and by extension the trigger) began about two weeks ago. So for five months of gestation this pregnancy was not impacting  my mental wellbeing.

What changed?

Over the past couple of weeks I have moved from researching pregnancy, nutrition, exercises and so forth, to focusing on birth. For the first time I am contemplating what my version of a birth plan is and what that entails and looking in depth at the dynamics of delivery.

That’s the key phrase right there: dynamics of delivery. That is not the biology of giving birth, but the interactions and interventions that the majority of birthing women contend with.

Most of these belong (and will feature) in another post, but there is an aspect I want to end with. Whilst there are a lot of women who are content with their birthing experience there are a growing number who are not and from where I am looking, it seems in many instances to boil down to consent and, thereby, control.

As a first time mum labour is a completely unknown entity, and even for women expecting their second, third or fourteen child, the labour and birth experience come with no guarantees. Every woman,  pregnancy and birth is unique which is what makes it beautiful and daunting at the same time, with potential to impact (positively or negatively) upon mental wellbeing.

There are certain interventions in a medicated delivery that are now so routine they have become automatic, challenging notions of choice, consent and control.

Just as I am aware that I have an increased likelihood of postpartum depression because of my mental health history, I am aware that physical examinations may pose as a trigger for me because of past trauma.

I intend to explore both of these aspects more fully over the final months of this pregnancy in preparation for myself and as part of an investigation into mental health during pregnancy.

 

How It Didn’t End

Trigger Warning: This post contains references to rape, assault, and suicidal thoughts.
This is a personal story being shared as part of personal recovery.

Two and a Half Years Ago

In moments of particular emotional stress I seem to regress back to the time of a previous abusive relationship. I hate that it happens and it actually hadn’t occurred for months until last week. During these moments I seem to get very disorientated as to where I am and who I am with. I start confusing facts and memories and muddle Samuel with aspects of my abusive ex. It’s stupid little things, mainly revolving around food for some reason. Food seems to have been one of the greatest impacts that my ex had on me, until a few weeks ago I actually hadn’t cooked anything for over two years. Whilst he hated everything that I made, I am still not sure why the relationship had such a drastic and lasting impact on this aspect of my life.

In the general I start muddling likes and dislikes, subconsciously remembering things about my ex and projecting them on to Samuel. This is not the only way that the past invades our marriage. In more severe instances I will actually flinch when Samuel approaches and recoil if he touches me.

None of this is conscious. I am not afraid of Samuel. He is the one man that I feel safe around and the one person that I trust completely. I wasn’t even aware of the flinching until recently when he observed that I had started doing it again. I can’t even imagine how it must feel for him when this happens and I hate the fact that my ex still lurks in my subconscious and even now infiltrates my marriage. Especially when, I at least, am certain that if it wasn’t for Samuel, I wouldn’t actually be here at all.

From Anxiety to Suicide

As I have become increasingly aware of my mental health over the past few years, I realised that anxiety and suicidal thoughts have been constant shadows. I  developed anxiety in childhood and contemplated suicide on a number of occasions throughout my teens. Creative writing seemed to maintain an equilibrium and although I  experienced panic attacks which at times culminated in suicidal thoughts, overall I my mental health was stable.

The stresses and pressures of starting university had no qualitive impact, but when I entered into a relationship during my third year, the panic attacks started becoming more frequent  and started to interfere not only with my studies but my daily life. I would struggle to leave the flat, attend lectures and had no concentration for studying. My grades started to fall.

There is still so much of that relationship that I just don’t understand. To ourselves and, to my knowledge, to others we seemed a perfectly happy couple but when we disagreed it could become very vicious. Lots of couples argue, some even fight, and there were wrong-doings on both sides. But (I realise with the power of hindsight), as the relationship developed, he began to get subtly manipulative. What really should have been an alarm bell for me was when we’d had a discussion about what would happen if I became pregnant and he told me that he would feed me abortion cookies if I was adamant about keeping the child. I have no idea what he planned to put in these, or why I didn’t recognise this as a severe lack of compassion and respect for my body or my rights, but a few months down the line I was going to learn exactly how little right he considered I had over my body.

I paid for missing that warning. It is an example of what can be very difficult for many listeners or observers to understand, that individuals experiencing any form of abuse do not always recognise it as such, especially if it is not physical and escalates very gradually. I don’t know why I stayed with him or how I missed these earlier signs, but eventually it evolved into stalking, coercion and, eventually, rape.

At that point, I finally packed a bag and walked away, ending up homeless for a few months and fortunate to have friends who were able to let me stay for a couple of weeks at a time.

When I found a new flat, I thought that everything was behind me. Although my grades and university attendance had suffered, I was entering my final year with a recoverable average. But then I was sexually assaulted on my way home from work on Halloween and harassed by two individuals for the following six months.

These events had an accumulative effect and my anxiety reached a point were I was relying on adrenaline to function. As I mentioned above, my panic attacks are frequently accompanied by suicidal thoughts and these were growing increasingly invasive.

Deciding Not to Die

I was fortunate to have not developed a plan and that my encounters with suicide remained contemplative and not active. I believe this is due to the timing of meeting Samuel.

Samuel and I first met in the last few months of my degree, just as my dissertation was falling due. My coping mechanism is avoidance, which is very far from ideal when you have 12,000 words to produce and are rapidly running out of time. I had not been taking care of myself at all over the past semester, I wasn’t eating proper meals and my flat had no heating throughout Edinburgh’s experience of February. Samuel and I had just started dating and he suggested that I stay with him and his brother so that he could make sure I ate whilst I spent the last two weeks before my deadline finishing my dissertation.

I have very little recollection of what occurred over those final two weeks. All I know is that despite what felt and appeared like focused hard work, I did not have a dissertation at the end of them.

After a final weekend of very little sleep and a 12 hour long panic attack, I was at crisis point. Alone in the living room of the flat Samuel rented with his brother, I was hysterical and exhausted, feeling that I had let everybody down, feeling unable to face my family and feeling that I had no way out of the situation. The fear and desperation in what felt like a frozen moment was agonising.

Perhaps my subconscious intervened.

Through a renewed panic attack with my chest tightening and feeling unable to breathe, I stumbled to Samuel’s room.  It was still early in the morning and he was asleep, but suddenly, for the first time since I was 13, death no longer felt like an option.

Samuel didn’t physically say or do anything that changed my mind, he simply represented a future beyond that moment of immense despair. As far as I am concerned, he saved my life.

‘my suffering reached a critical mass of desperation: either I was going to kill myself or a completely different way was going to be revealed’
(
Women Food and God, G. Roth, 2011, p.24) 

Because of the pause that seeing Samuel, the person who had provided me with a safe space, had created, and with suicide not being an option in that moment, I suddenly had to do something else. I finally reached out to the mental health support services at the university and the medical profession and together they opened up an alternative future.

I didn’t submit a dissertation in 2016, and I almost had a complete relapse when I finally submitted something and graduated in 2017. But by that time I was married and now am expecting a baby, and living a life that following my experiences of 2015, I had given up all hope of ever having.

If you are seeking mental health support, the Samaritans are free to call from any phone, any time, on 116 123. You do not have to be suicidal to call them.