‘No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.
At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.’
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
Loss and mental health is something that people often ask me about: how does it impact? What help is available? Does it get better? I’ve researched academic articles and reflected on my own work and personal experiences and all I can say reliably is yes it does. But as with everything in life after loss, it is complex and completely individual.
Grief in itself is not a mental health problem (i.e. a diagnosable one) yet it impacts on our mental wellbeing considerably. It is a normal reaction to a painful, sometimes traumatic, event. A response that reflects the loss of someone or something meaningful. Someone we loved. Someone we will miss infinitely. We wouldn’t want to pathologise what is part of the human condition; to label it and to find ways in which to eradicate it. Grief is part of life and living as much as it is a response to death and dying.
“I think you’re depressed”
The words that still ring through my ears when I think about the day that the perinatal mental health nurse turned up at my door. It had been a difficult morning; baby refusing to sleep, pacing the house wearing the sling. Much like many of the days that had preceded really. I was tired. Emotionally more than physically, although my body had certainly been through the mill too.
It’s something that I still struggle to accept sometimes, and something that I have fought hard to overcome. But I think that this term – depression – has gradually become more of a friend than a foe. Although deep in my heart, I knew that this was what was going on, hearing the word spoken out loud and directed at mestung. A verbal slap in the face. I denied it could be true. I tried to argue that I was just stressed. But when I struggled to answer one of her questions, I realised that this was why I felt so heavy and why each day had become like I was wading through treacle.
I felt stupid: ‘How could I not have known?’ I felt ashamed: ‘Why couldn’t I prevent this?’ I felt guilty: ‘What kind of mother – what kind of person – are you to become depressed now, when your arms are full?’
And just like that, she was one.
Except, when I really think about it, it wasn’t ‘just like that’ at all. The first year of parenting after loss has been a complete rollercoaster; a Big Dipper, with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows and one that I have desperately wanted to escape at times. Because, despite what I had hoped, having a take home baby did not fix everything. It did not take away my pain. It just made the hardest job in the world that much more complicated.
Parenting a live baby has changed me. I am not the person I once was, and at the same time, I have come to accept that I am not parent I thought I would be. It has shattered my sense of self and I am slowly piecing the shards back together and getting to know the cracks that exist in between them. Some of those crevices have been deep, dark and quite unnerving to expose myself to, whilst others have acted as a prism and shone the full spectrum of colours.
I thought that when Orla died that I was well and truly broken, but looking back, I had just built up an even stronger wall than I had before. My own emotions have always scared me and I have run from them; finding solutions or ways in which to numb the pain. Working harder. Finding another project. I would bounce from one thing to another as a way of blocking out what was really troubling me, because I feared that my emotions would destroy me. I couldn’t trust that anyone else could hold them; the terror that they would either become overwhelmed by them or would reject me was paralysing. So, I denied that they existed and continued to build my armour of strategies, that enabled me to run away from pain. Continue Reading
Over the past week or so, I have seen a few worrying examples online of people asking for help for their mental health and having some really difficult and invalidating experiences. And whilst psychologists do not take a hippocratic oath, I felt that I couldn’t sit back and say nothing, in case I could share something that might possibly help someone.
My current job involves helping people to find the right mental health support for them as well as training and providing consultation to other non-mental health professionals (e.g. GPs, social workers, housing officers) about how best to support and work with their own clients. After fifteen years NHS service, working with many clients with a vast range of mental health difficulties in the community as well as in-patient hospitals and prison, I feel I have a good understanding of the help available.
Many of the stories I have read online have reflected what can only be described as poor practice and a clear lack of compassion and understanding. However I do want to just take this opportunity to say that GPs have an extremely challenging role; many have limited specific training in mental health, despite so many people presenting to them with these difficulties, and mental health services are often over-subscribed with long waiting lists. This can result in them feeling unsupported and overwhelmed and very unsure as to where to refer their patients. And although this can never excuse bad practice, I always try and hold this in mind. So many people present to them with mental health difficulties, and with nowhere to refer these people, it can become a very difficult situation for everyone. Continue Reading
I’m not sure where you even start with a post such as this; it’s hard to know whether there even is a beginning, and I certainly haven’t reached the end yet, so I guess it’s a case of starting from where I am now.
I have been experiencing postnatal depression.
If I’m honest, these are the most challenging, the most shaming and gut wrenching words I have written since Orla died. They are possibly more riddled with shame because I feel terrified of being judged, blamed and seen as selfish, weak and inferior. When your baby dies, you know that many people will feel sad for you. Of course, you fear that there will be a multitude of other thoughts and emotions, but overall, you know that people will feel sadness and regret. When it comes to mental health however, you can never be so sure.
And when this occurs in the context of parenting a rainbow, the fear of being viewed as ungrateful and unworthy is paralysing. Which in itself becomes a self-perpetuating cycle of self-loathing and inadequacy.
After Orla died, I became a ‘doer’. I got up every day, I showered, I cleaned the house – I even cooked (damn you Gusto for signing up a vulnerable heavily pregnant woman who thought she’d spend the first weeks of maternity leave cooking nutritious meals!). I made keepsakes to treasure memories of Orla, I wrote and set up a blog and we planned our fundraising trip to America. Three months after Orla died, we flew to Canada. Two weeks later I feel pregnant. We spent the first trimester of my pregnancy travelling down the East Coast of the US and then Canada, and when we returned to the UK three months later, I went back to work for five months. I did yoga, I completed a mindfulness course, I saw friends. I was coping so well. Continue Reading