Post-natal depression: Women tell their stories

By Martin Johnston

Meegan Hirst suffered major anxiety after the birth of son Logan Laanbroek, now 2. Photo / Natalie Slade
Meegan Hirst suffered major anxiety after the birth of son Logan Laanbroek, now 2. Photo / Natalie Slade

Mother's struggles began with son's illness

Meegan Hirst struggled with mental illnesses after the births of her second and third babies.

The 43-year-old Te Atatu Peninsula woman's boys are now 17, 16 and 2.

The middle son suffered silent reflux, which caused pain in his oesophagus, from the age of 3 months and he started waking at least eight times a night.

"After a week of that I was pretty sleep-deprived. It went on from there," Meegan recalls.

She struggled for six months until things came to a head and she was diagnosed by her GP with post-natal depression.

She had been up in the night and her then-husband "said something and I just lost it. I picked up my slipper and started whacking him. I was so sleep-deprived, so out of touch with who I was," Meegan says.

"I went on medication. That's just what they do - antidepressants. I got results from that really quick. I looked back each month and I was better than I was the month before.

"Fortunately, I didn't have any side effects, because they are disgusting. I have been on them again with Logan [her toddler] and they are not very nice.

"Within six months, I was feeling good within myself. I started to wean myself. It took a couple of months to do that," Meegan says.

She joined a post-natal distress support group - which she ended up running for 13 years - and says it was the main factor in her recovery.

"It was really helpful, just to talk to mums, to know that I wasn't alone and wasn't going crazy and that I would get better.

"The medication - I only went on that because I left it so late for getting any help. There are alternatives to antidepressants, natural antidepressants, and for me it is more about emotions and talking and getting to the cause."

After Logan's birth, Meegan suffered major anxiety, rather than post-natal depression.

"My nervous system got very hyper and I was unable to sleep."

Logan's paternal grandparents had both died in quick succession in the weeks after he was born.

Meegan thinks she would have benefited from being admitted to a mother-and-baby unit with Logan.

"With not being able to sleep, I felt like I was going crazy. It just felt like I needed to go somewhere. I had to give up breast feeding as well and I would have loved to be able to continue with that.

"I could have gone in and I would have had all the supports. I would have got over it and sorted myself out.

"It's about getting rid of that taboo, so people do go for help, knowing they are not alone."

'Something had to give'

Emma Green went on to help other mothers after suffering from post-natal depression following the birth of her second child. Picture / Sarah Ivey

Emma Green's second baby, a boy, was 9 or 10 months old when her post-natal depression was diagnosed.

"It was my partner who said to me, 'This can't carry on, something is wrong here. Something's got to give. Let's not let it be our relationship. What are you going to do?"' she recalls. "Hearing that really made me take stock."

Emma visited her GP.

"She was good. She said, 'Of course you're like this, you're a perfectionist and quite isolated. Stop giving yourself a hard time, here's some medication' - and that was it.

"Because I'm not a big believer in medication [anti-depressants], I took half a tablet every two days, then one tablet every two days. I did feel something lift ... Things were not as bleak."

But she felt numb - "you don't feel the darkness, but you don't feel greatly happy either".

"I think at the darkest point I didn't have a plan to end my life, but I had a fantasy if I could just not be here, not be a mum, things could be better. I couldn't make sense of that because it was such a conflict with how much I loved my children and how much I loved my partner."

Emma, who had shifted to New Zealand from Britain with her partner, adds that sleep deprivation is a big problem for many mothers.

"I identified with having huge control in most areas of my life. When you have a baby, you have no control in most areas that are important. I had given up my job, my financial independence. Those are big in how I define myself. I had gone back to being a complete novice, where I was used to feeling competent and skilled. It took me a long time to feel comfortable with not knowing what I was doing as a parent."

The Greens' children are now aged 11, 9 and 5.

Looking back, Emma thinks she was probably depressed with her first child too, "but I didn't know that was anything unusual".

"People say of course you feel like that, you're a new mum, you've just shifted to the other side of the world.

"There is a danger that you normalise someone's experiences and that they are perhaps not normal. Perhaps they are deeply unhappy and something is wrong."

After the troubles of her first two births, the third was "amazing". She had weekly sessions with a counsellor.

"I chose to have him at home, not at hospital. The first two were hospital births and quite a disappointing experience."

She felt empowered. "I was on a high. There was no depression, it was fantastic."

Emma is a facilitator for the Postnatal Distress Support Network Trust, a teacher of ante-natal classes and a psychotherapy student. She welcomes the expansion of specialist maternal mental health services, but notes it comes as access to fully funded sessions with a psychologist on referral from a GP have been reduced.

Problems led to psychosis, suicide bid

Bronwyn didn't call her son by his name for at least the first 13 weeks of his life. She was cut off from him by a severe mental illness caused by pregnancy and birth.

Those early months were a blur of hallucinations, hospital admissions, an attempt to end her life and a strange lack of sensation. Bronwyn had been struck by the depressive form of post-natal psychosis just hours after her only child's birth, 24 years ago.

She was 35 at the time and becoming pregnant had been a shock. Bronwyn and her husband - who died nine years ago of cancer - had been told they couldn't have children.

Within hours of the birth, at National Women's Hospital in Auckland, Bronwyn began to feel like she was "in a bubble" and that she was "not there".

"Everything was happening around me and I wasn't part of what was going on. I didn't sleep and I had terrible hallucinations and nightmares when I did sleep.

"I also wanted very little to do with my son. I put him in the nursery and other people would bring him to me and I would feed him but I had terrible trouble breast feeding because I had no co-ordination and concentration."

The baby was switched to bottle feeding and Bronwyn was moved to a maternity hospital closer to home, where she was diagnosed with post-natal depression and, because she was considered a suicide risk, sent back to National Women's.

After 10 more days there, she was discharged home, where she soon suffered a breakdown and was admitted to the (now-closed) Kingseat psychiatric hospital in South Auckland.

Her son wasn't permitted to stay with her, although her husband visited every day, and brought their baby every couple of days.

She spent 10 days at Kingseat as a voluntary patient before going home again.

"I was on medication and I did feel a lot better, but unfortunately a couple of months later I had a relapse. I had a psychotic episode. I tried to kill myself. I took an overdose of pills.

"My husband found me shovelling them into my mouth and I went to Middlemore Hospital and they pumped my stomach out and I spent several days in Middlemore.

"Bizarre as it sounds, the day that I came home from Middlemore was the day I came right."

Bronwyn said that despite her illness, she had developed a good relationship with her son, partly because her husband had been so supportive. But she knew a number of women with post-natal psychosis who had experienced difficulties in their relationship with their child - often made worse by relationship problems with their partner and by ongoing relapses of mental illness.

Bronwyn welcomed the "incredible" news of a new unit.

•Bronwyn's real name and those of her son and late husband have not been published because of her concerns about the stigma associated with mental illness.

- NZ Herald

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