My heart breaks for the family of Florence Leung of New Westminister, Canada. She was a woman, a human being in her own right, as well as a mother and a wife. Like me, she has battled postnatal depression, unlike me, she didn’t make it out alive. On Wednesday her lifeless body was found.
Last June Allison Goldstein made headlines in the US for her suicide. She was 32, just like I was when I had my first child, bubbly, beautiful, and well liked. She seemed to have it all on the surface. but below the surface postnatal depression pulled her down.
In 2010 an investigation was launched into Joanne Bingley in the UK. She had postnatal depression and sadly left her family home as her husband and baby slept and then laydown in front of an oncoming train. She loved her baby but felt like she couldn’t cope. Joanne had begged health care professionals for help but they wouldn’t listen. The result was that a little girl will never get to know the love of her mother.
These are just a few cases that made headlines, but they are unfortunately not isolated cases. Suicide is one of the leading causes of postnatal maternal death. I was nearly one of these women. Raging hormones, lack of support, complications with feeding, and exhaustion can provide a deadly cocktail for mothers. And yet women are still frequently dismissed when they ask for help.
Health professionals are supposed to be vigilant for signs of depression and not coping but mothers often report being treated like hysterical first time mothers when they ask for help. And science backs them up. Studies have shown again and again that males going in with the same symptoms as females are more frequently referred for further testing and given medication, whilst women are simply sent home. Mothers are on the absolute bottom rung despite the media releases from the health professionals declaring that they should be at the top.
I was on the receiving end of this dismissive attitude, I thank my lucky stars that someone finally listened otherwise I’d be another statistic. I doubt I’d even make it as a news report. Simply dead and ignored.
My daughter came at 35 weeks. She attached fine to the breast but was a slow feeder. She’d take up to two hours to feed. Then I’d change her nappy, try to put her down to sleep, she’d shriek in pain so I’d hold her upright in my arms so that she wouldn’t explode with acidic vomit. She’d sleep in my arms for forty minutes and the we’d start the process all over again. Day and night. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I’d cry often. My legs would buckle underneath me at random moments. I’d vomit up bile. I was exhausted and my body was failing me. I told the community nurse I was exhausted. She told me to just put the baby down and stop overreacting to every little sound. I told my GP at the time that I couldn’t cope. She said babies like to suck and a breast was better than a dummy. She said it couldn’t be as bad as I said otherwise I wouldn’t be able to smile or function. I felt like I was going crazy. I hurt. I couldn’t keep going. I wanted to kill myself so that my daughter could have a mother that people would help. And I would have done just that if things hadn’t changed.
My regular GP wasn’t available for my daughter’s four month check-up. I had to see a new GP. She diagnosed my daughter with reflux and hip dysplasia, both conditions were quite severe and had been missed by the hospital, community nurses, and my previous GP. Referrals to specialists were given. With medication for reflux my daughter was able to sleep better. Which meant I could too. She also needed two ooperation for her hip dysplasia, three months in a spica cast and several more in a brace. That GP improved my daughter’s quality of life and saved my mine. I doubt that I could have gone on another week the way it had been.
When my boys were born people said, just call, don’t get yourself into a tizzy like you did last time. But whenever I called they were too busy. And they were too busy the next day or the next. And then they’d show up and help with my daughter but I still had the twins, born at 32 weeks, to take care of and dinner to make.It was a slap in the face. A tokenistic gesture of help given not when I needed it and not in a way that allowed me to get any sleep.
As for my guardian angel of a GP, my boys had been in the NICU I was in their system. I had to go back to them for the twins’ checkups. I didn’t have time to also see my GP. When the social worker would pass she’d ask how I was, I’d say exhausted, she’d laugh. During check-ups I’d mention to the pediatrician that the boys weren’t sleeping well and I was having trouble taking care of them and their 2 year old sister. I was told that was life with premi twins, just deal with it.
Again by four months I was ready to end my life. And then my boys got bronchiolitis and ended up in hospital. In the emergency room I just cried and cried because I was exhausted and desperately worried about my babies and it was a catastrophic combination. I felt utterly alone. The emergency nurses were fantastic. They told me that they rarely got to have babies in there so would have no shortage of nurses who would want a cuddle. The nurses woke me to breastfeed then whisked my boys off to be cuddled. Nurses were coming from other departments on their break to get a cuddle with my boys. I got four hours of broken sleep that night. I wouldn’t have had much more than that all up in the past four months.
And then we had to go up to the children’s ward. I lost my beautiful angels of mercy who had come to help me in emergency.
They had strict rules in the children’s ward. Most of them resulted in the nurses not being able to help. So I juggled my two babies on my own and stared out the window and thought about how I’d jump out if I could actually open it. I decided that when my husband visited I would excuse myself to go to the bathroom, walk outside, then walk into traffic so that I could finally die. I was in so much pain, physical and emotional, that I just wanted it to end.
Luckily the pediatrician who had treated my daughter for reflux was the doctor on the ward. He took one look at me and knew I was not myself. He spoke reassuringly to me that there were options and that he was calling the social worker and that they would help. I was too tired not to believe him.
The social worker came. She said there were things that she could do to help but she also wanted to refer me to a hospital psychiatrist. He was there within twenty minutes. It became apparent that I was a patient along with my boys and that I was the more serious case. It was determined that I needed intensive support. Once the boys were well enough the three of us were transported to a psychiatric hospital with a mother and baby unit. And that’s why I’m still alive now.
If health professionals had continued to minimise my cries for help then I would be dead. I wouldn’t be typing this up on my phone next to my 5 year old daughter. She lies next to me sleeping peacefully as I type this because she was scared so came in for some mummy hugs. Last night it was my youngest child, he may only be younger than his twin brother by a minute but he’s still the youngest. He was scared and wanted to watch Yo Gabba Gabba. It was 3 am so I said no and he had an epic meltdown which I tried to soothe as quietly as I could lest he wake his siblings. The night before it was my middle child, all he wanted was for me to hold his hand whilst he dropped back off to sleep. If I hadn’t made it, my kids would have missed out. And to be honest, my death was only avoided by half an hour.
I owe a great debt to both those doctors, but they shouldn’t be so few and so far between. It’s about time health professionals stopped paying lip service to the notion that they’ll be vigilant of mothers struggles and actually were. How many more avoidable suicides must we mourn?
My book Confessions of a Mad Mooer: Postnatal Depression Sucks will be out in December. It deals with my time in the psychiatric hospital aan what I have learned. If it stops one more mother from killing herself then it is worth it. You’re not alone. I’m here, I made it through and so can you.
If you or someone you know has postnatal depression you can find good resources on the following sites:
- Gidget Foundation http://gidgetfoundation.com.au/
- PANDA http://www.panda.org.au/
- PIRI http://www.piri.org.au/
- Black Dog Institute http://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/
- Lifeline https://www.lifeline.org.au/