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Terri's road to recovery

A Personal Story of Postnatal Depression


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14/11/2017

Terri's road to recovery

My name is Terri and, among other things, I’m an infant massage instructor. Today I thought I'd tell you a little about me and why I do what I do. Grab a cuppa and a find a comfy seat because this is a long read. Here's my story...

My daughter, Ella, was born in 2009 and it was a defining moment in my life. Not in a "when you finally figure out what ‘cake by the ocean’ actually means” kind of way – more of a “you will never ever be the same” kind of way. And for me that has meant both amazing and not-so-amazing things.

Ella is a happy little soul who at age two told me: “When I give you a cuddle, it feels like you’re me and I’m you.” Mind you, the other day she also asked me apropos of nothing: “Mum, have you ever eaten currants and wangs?” I still have no idea what that means.

I love my daughter more than anyone (she doesn’t know that I say the same to her little brother Henry and also my husband) but our first year together was tough because I suffered postnatal depression (PND) and postnatal post-traumatic stress (PTSD).

Some background: after a fairly easy pregnancy I had a half-brilliant, half-terrifying labour resulting in an emergency Caesarean and a turbulent, extremely stressful stay in the hospital. When we finally returned home I remember lowering myself carefully into an armchair (abdominal stitching!) and thinking “Goodbye to all that!” Wrong. What followed was almost a year of undiagnosed postnatal stress disorder (like post-traumatic stress, but following birth) and postnatal depression. What was that like? Strap yourselves in.

My PND made me feel overwhelmingly like an utter failure. I was ashamed by my inability to cope with adjusting to life with my beautiful baby. I felt almost constant emotions of self-loathing, of not being “good enough” as a mother, wife, daughter, friend, anything. My internal monologue as a new mother unrelentingly screamed “You’re shit at this!” My internal monologue as a comedian (my career prior to having a baby) answered with “It’s OK: of all the things you’ve tried to do, who knew this would be the thing you’re shit at?” I’m so thankful the comedian part of me was still there because I know that on some days it saved me from destroying myself.

My PND made me feel like I was viewing my life through gauze. The depression was like a detachment, a distance – it was as though I was observing my own life instead of being present in it. I was there but at the same time I was absent; not in a scatter-brained way, it was more like a total absence of any day-to-day feelings. I knew I loved Ella but in that first year I didn’t feel like I was ever truly there with her. I kept waiting to feel “normal” with her, to not feel surprised every time she looked at me or cried or fed or even woke up. 

“Doesn’t sound that bad,” you may think. Trouble was I also felt that way towards every single person I came into contact with including my husband, family and friends. My PND manifested as a complete disconnection with the world. At a time when I really needed to identify and acknowledge my feelings and connect with others in order to process a) my difficult birth experience; and b) my life as a new mother who felt like she was failing in that role (“You had one job!”) I couldn’t do any of that. Imagine drowning and having one of those flotation thingies juuuust out of your reach. For about a year. Yeah, that's what it felt like.

On top of the PND was the postnatal PTSD, which I had no idea was even a thing until I was diagnosed with it. While the PND was detachment and self-loathing, the PTSD was distress and unfiltered rage. I experienced regular, traumatic flashbacks to the hospital which made me feel like I was under attack from my own brain; I couldn’t stop the images and conversations playing on a loop in my head. Often they’d happen in the wee hours while my husband slept and I was up feeding Ella. My brain would start playing a scene and I’d feel an almost uncontrollable urge to scream, fling my daughter aside and just run. Flashbacks would also be triggered by things like seeing someone in the street who looked like someone from the hospital or hearing a song that had played in the delivery room. I felt like a prisoner locked in my own head.

And the rage? Well, I use rage instead of anger because the feeling was so raw, so burning and intense. It stemmed from repeatedly not being listened to both in hospital (midwives and obstetricians: I'm looking at you) and outside the hospital. The rage appeared whenever I felt – surprise, surprise – like I wasn’t being heard. So while on one hand, I couldn’t connect with the people around me, if ever I felt like I was trying and they weren’t hearing me I would explode. It made me irrational, unreasonable i.e. pretty batshit crazy. Imagine being on a hair-trigger so fine that you felt like you could swiftly and confidently rip someone’s face off at any given second. Hi! That was me.

On top of all this, I didn’t feel like I could talk about any of it. To anyone. Not even my husband, who – to be fair – was nonetheless across the fact that something was amiss. I hated myself too much to help myself, and I was so deeply ashamed of feeling this rooted at a time when I should’ve been feeling joy that I hid everything behind a mask of nothing-to-see-here. Like the Crowded House lyric that goes, "smiling as the shit comes down".

My PND and PTSD went undiagnosed for almost a year and at that point – despite the love I felt from (and for) Ella, my husband and my family – the despair I had fallen into began to get the better of me: I started thinking about dying. As a comedian I was used to musing about "dying" on stage, but now I was thinking about what a sheer relief it would be from all this misery to just…opt out. Initially I didn’t think about the specifics of how I’d go about it, this was more like a fantasy in which I’d imagine how at peace I’d feel, how much more ultimately beneficial it would be to everyone around me if I just disappeared. Better off dead.

I distinctly remember driving on the freeway one day, seriously assessing the angle at which I should steer my car into the side of the truck I was driving alongside to ensure I’d write myself off but spare my baby daughter in the back seat. That seemed like the best “out” for me – that’s how damaged I was and how much pain I was in.  It is to this day difficult and extremely upsetting for me to recall that time in my life. 

Thanks to a blunt but necessary ultimatum from my husband, who acted solely out of love and to whom I am forever grateful, I saw my GP and began a conversation that lead to counseling and finally, recovery. Don’t be fooled, though: it wasn’t as easy as that. It wasn’t immediately “happily ever after” – counseling was confronting, challenging, and arduous but it saved me. If you are reading this and are suffering, have the courage and seek help. You. Can. Do. It.

I remember starting to emerge from my depression at the same time I was watching some Chilean miners on the news emerging from being trapped underground. I imagine we felt quite similar – thankful, a bit vague, squinty, in need of reacquainting ourselves with the world. Overall a good feeling – one worth not giving up for.

My experience changed me profoundly and, believe it or not, as awful as it was I’m glad it happened. I appreciate happiness differently now. I believe that to know true happiness you must also know despair – one helps define the other. I worked that out all by myself before Pixar made the same point in the movie Inside Out. I watched that film with Ella and you can bet your sweet patootie I appreciated the full-circle moment of holding Ella’s hand while Joy and Sadness figured out that they were an intrinsic part of each other – like my kid once told me: “you’re me and I’m you.”

So how did all that get me to teaching infant massage? Well, when I became pregnant again in 2012 with my son Henry, I was very fearful of my PND returning. In the course of reading about ways to treat PND alongside therapy and/or medication, I read an article about how infant massage helps depressed mothers bond with their babies and filed the information away in my head.

When Henry was born, the skin on his hands and feet were extremely dry from being “overcooked.” In the week or so after his birth I massaged him with a hydrating oil to relieve the dryness on his hands and feet, and in doing so reminded myself of the information I’d read about infant massage and mothers suffering PND. I decided to keep massaging him every day even after the dryness disappeared (even though I hadn’t learned any “real” massage strokes) in the hope that it would help prevent the return of my PND, and so I massaged his little body almost every night after his bath for more than a year.

I consider myself incredibly fortunate that I didn’t end up suffering any PND after Henry’s birth, and while I can’t say for certain that massaging him was the sole reason for that (because I’m sure a very different birth experience also helped!) I was sufficiently convinced that it helped me on some level that I started researching infant massage instructor courses so I could learn more.

In completing my instructor training I learned so much more than just “how to massage a baby” and I could clearly see how, if I’d learnt infant massage as a first-time mum going through PND, it would have helped me. It really galvanized my belief that infant massage could be truly beneficial to PND-affected families and led me to want to become an instructor in order to work with parents in my local area.

While I now offer my classes to all parents regardless of whether or not they’re experiencing PND, I’ve tried to very gently gear my classes towards those who are, albeit in a way that is probably imperceptible to “non-PND” parents. I did this by thinking back to what it was like when I was battling PND: how I felt, what I thought, what the most difficult times were like. I asked myself questions like: what did I really need at those times? What would have made things a little easier for me? What would have brought a little more light to the darkest hours?

After reflecting on those memories (which are not easily forgotten – trust me!) and answering those questions, I tailored my classes in response. In addition to teaching the actual baby massage strokes, I strongly emphasise the following in my classes:

  • Bonding and attachment between mothers and babies isn’t always instant
    It’s a fluid and, in my experience, constant process that can be built and strengthened over time;
  • Having a rough start to motherhood doesn’t preclude a healthy, loving journey
    Becoming a mother can be a difficult transition for anyone, for reasons ranging from logistics to societal expectations to “motherhood myths” and everything in between;
  • Even the tiniest moments of connectedness between mothers and babies are glorious and they all add up
    Creating and savouring those moments in difficult times is actually an incredibly important skill and can sometimes mean the difference between floating and flailing (nobody actually “fails" even though it can feel like you are!);
  • Motherhood can be messy, both literally and emotionally
    Sharing the lows in a supportive environment is just as important as celebrating the highs. The more honest we are about our experiences and how we navigate them the more we realise that nobody's perfect: not mothers, not babies;
  • Nourishing and nurturing ourselves is just as vital as nourishing and nurturing our babies
    In order to care for others, we often need to prioritise caring for ourselves both mentally and physically. I use the analogy of safety demonstrations on airplanes – sometimes you need to “fit your own oxygen mask” first.

In every class I try to use the legacy of my own experience with PND to benefit other mothers who might also be struggling. The whole reason I got into this field is to support those mums in particular because I remember what it was like to need that help. So if you need some support, I'm here for you. And I know from my own experience that with the right kind of help, PND is conquerable.

Terri Psiakis is a comedian, writer, broadcaster and Certified Infant Massage Instructor who runs her own Melbourne-based practice Hello Baby Infant MassageShe lives in Melbourne's northern suburbs with a lovely husband and two squishy kids. Follow her on Twitter: @terripsiakis




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