When it all falls apart

One new mother of twins shares her story of postnatal depression
By Fiona Ronquest-Ross

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I had always felt a bit sorry for people who lost it in public places. So what was I doing in a restaurant, sobbing uncontrollably, hardly able to walk, and babbling like a drunk? I was in this state because I hadn’t recognised the symptoms of burnout, hadn’t heard the loud, clear message my body was giving me, saying, “Slow down, I can’t keep up this pace”. My body had taken over and simply forced me to slow down.
 
Looking back, I suppose there were four main factors that contributed to my breakdown. The first is my personality. I’m a classic A-type – intensely competitive, over-achieving and a perfectionist. As a child, I wanted to win all the prizes at school; as an adult, I wanted to have the most fulfilling relationship, run the most amazing organisation, look great, and have the perfect home and garden. Lesson one: being a perfectionist is not a bad thing. However, wanting to do everything, immediately and 120 percent well can cause a few problems.
 
The second factor was that I had had twins nine months previously. They are gorgeous and adorable, but lots of work. So now, in addition to everything else, I wanted to give my children the best start in life. Only, I was going to have to do this on less than five hours’ sleep a night. Lesson two: babies bring all sorts of extra pressures. It’s crucial to make some time for yourself, because if you fall apart, everything falls apart.
 
I never complained, and this was the third factor. Our family is from stoical Scottish stock, and I had learnt to say firmly: “I’m fine, thank you”, even when I was feeling terrible. I wouldn’t even admit to myself that I was feeling sick or tired. I followed my parents’ mantra of: “Pull yourself together and get on with it”. Lesson three: it’s okay to admit that you need help.
 
And lastly, I contracted a virus, which developed into bronchitis. True to type, I took very little notice, and over the next three weeks my bronchitis worsened until one night my sister-in-law came over and said with concern: “I hope you don’t have whooping cough.” I Googled the condition and learned that it is highly infectious, has no cure and lasts for three months. You can imagine the effect of this on my “new-mom-anxiety” – not only would my children die, but I would be responsible for their death. Lesson four: take care of yourself and don’t ignore signs that all is not well because “I don’t have time to go to the doctor”.
 
Thoroughly alarmed, I took myself off to the doctor for the third time in a week. I saw a very logical, clinical doctor who, with all the best intentions, treated the symptoms (acute bronchitis) without enquiring more holistically about my life. He prescribed the usual adult dose of cortisone and cough mixture, took a sputum sample and explained what the drugs would do. But he didn’t explain the side-effects; that overdosing on the cough syrup would cause palpitations and insomnia and that, since I already had a high level of anxiety, cortisone would cause more sleep deprivation. Lesson five: your doctor knows only what he is told. Tell him all he needs to know to treat you effectively.
 
The final straw
 
As a result I had insomnia – for three long nights. On the first night, I thought about my 10-year plan, made a list of the hobbies I’d like to develop, and then started writing a section on “how to recover after a hard-drive crash” for our organisation’s operations manual. This was a perfectly natural thing to do since my hard drive had crashed the previous month, but not at 2am.
 
During the second night I planned a new garden design, improved the tool storage in the garage and went over some finer points of interior design. I also wrote key points for a radio interview my partner was due to have on that Monday. What I didn’t do, was sleep.
 
The next morning I called my doctor and he told me to halve the dosage. I had another night of insomnia, and this finally resulted in the collapse I suffered in the restaurant. So now I know what happens during a nervous breakdown. I cried hysterically for five hours, then vomited for three, experienced paralysis of the limbs, then nausea, paranoia and delusions for the remainder of the night. My eyes swelled up like a giant bullfrog’s because of fluid retention and I couldn’t even keep down an electrolyte solution. It was as if I was a drug addict having a full-scale withdrawal.
 
Reaching out
 
I was lucky. There were plenty of willing hands to help out. My sister, our nanny, my mom and my partner all rallied round and helped me get through what was a very frightening experience. Three weeks after the collapse, I felt more clear-headed about what had happened and why. Through some time off, leaning on my support network, lots of yoga, some long Reiki sessions, taking a natural serotonin supplement, continuing my daily walks and consciously trying to relax, breathe out and be in the moment with our babies, I’m starting to feel like a new person. It has been a transformative experience – I feel like a snake that has shed one skin and is learning to
wear another.
 
 
Get help
 
Do you:
 
  • feel sad, suicidal, overwhelmed and exhausted?
  • feel angry, frustrated, anxious or out of control?
  • fear that you may harm yourself or your baby?
  • feel you have lost interest in your appearance; have a low libido or little interest in sex?
  • feel you lack self-confidence or the ability to think clearly or concentrate?
  • no longer have control of your appetite?
  • have excessive weight loss or gain?
  • suffer from insomnia or sleep disturbances?
  • have headaches, nausea, vomiting and other unusual physical symptoms?
 
Contact the Post Natal Depression Support Association’s national helpline: 082 882 0072 or sms “help” to the same number and someone will contact you.

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