In January 2014 I was sitting alone with my then one year old daughter, in the midst of the most crippling panic attack. They had been a frequent occurrence since my daughter’s birth and I never got used to them. They would usually hit me out of the blue, starting off as a wave of heat, gut wrenching butterflies and a shortness of breath. My first thought is always “Oh my God, this is it. I’m dying” and the urge to run overwhelms me. Usually I escape to the bathroom and lay on the floor so that if I passed out I wouldn’t hit my head. I have never passed out. I tried to implement all the tools I’d been learning…slow breathing, safe thoughts, distraction. And always, always fending off the absolute and certain notion that I am going to die. Sometimes, these panics would end in ten minutes. Often times as soon as I would start to relax, another wave would wash over me, happening time and time again for hours. This led to me being in a constant and exhausting state of anxiety and tension, always poised to fight the panic at the first sign.
I knew what was happening to me wasn’t normal. Even in the midst of a panic attack I knew that my body was overreacting. I had spoken to my doctor, learned CBT techniques, researched all aspects of my physiology from nutrient deficiency to thyroid problems, in a desperate bid to find a solution. Deep down I knew the answer. All of the tools I learned were essential to managing my disorder but they weren’t the key to winning this battle. The problem was with my brain and the lies it told me on a regular basis: you are going to die, you need this adrenaline to keep you safe, sleeping will put you in danger, you have to listen to me because you’re seriously ill, you need help. That last one was true. I did need help. I needed to speak to others who had been where I am. I needed to find someone, anyone who could guide me out of this blackness. My life depended on it. My children’s happiness and well being depended on it. My marriage depended on it.
Up until now I had talked about what was happening to me to all who would listen. My family and friends were incredibly supportive but unless you’ve been there yourself it’s a very difficult thing to understand and help someone with. Postnatal depression, anxiety, PTSD, psychosis, all of these illnesses are very specific to each person and its hard to understand why, when you have this beautiful new baby, the whole seems steeped in blackness.
I started looking for support groups for women going through a similar experience. There had to be someone out these just like me right? There had to be people who could listen and say “YES! I get it!” Well according to my search there was nothing. No groups, no websites, nothing in my local area that I could find who could help. So I did what people of my generation tend to do these days…I turned to social media.
I set up PANGS NI (www.facebook.com/groups/PANGSNI) and shared it around some of the parenting groups I was part of. For a while I thought it was just going to be me, posting to myself. Soon there were five members, then nineteen, then forty, then ninety eight. The numbers kept rising and all of a sudden I wasn’t alone anymore. Here were people who understood. In the middle of the night, in the middle of a panic, I would post and someone was always there reminding me of my tools, helping me through the darkness. It became a real safe haven for me. As I started to recover I found that I had gained a wealth of knowledge to help others in similar situations. I made real solid friends and my journey finally meant something. It had all led to this point where as a result of my illness, this space came into being where people could seek real tangible help. I am so proud every time I read through the posts and see this warmth and sisterhood, everyone supporting each other, looking after each other. On more than one occasion I believe the group has saved lives.
Earlier this year, I joined forces with some incredible women from Moment Health, NCT NI and Have You Seen That Girl? blogger and campaigner Lindsay Robinson to host the first NI Maternal Mental Health Conference. We brought together 300 health professionals, volunteers and parents to explore ways in which can collaborate to improve services for women in Northern Ireland. It still astounds me that 80% of women here have no access to specialist services. We have no mother and baby unit so mothers who require in-patient care for their mental health are separated from their babies, further compounding the problem. When you consider that the leading cause of death for women in the first year after their baby’s birth is suicide, the lack of services is simply shocking. Suicide is also the only cause of maternal death that is not reducing! We are actively campaigning to Stormont for an increase in funding and improved services, but that can be a long and difficult process as you can imagine. And we need services not just those on the severe end of the spectrum of mental illness either. Women who are on the mild-to-moderate scale are suffering daily and needlessly. So many of these women have no access to help as their symptoms are not deemed severe enough and yet their symptoms and experiences are very real and often very debilitating. At my most recent assessment for therapy through the NHS, I was informed that despite being unable to leave my house or being too frightened to drive my car or be left alone, I was not ‘ill enough’ for therapy and the only reason I was being given access to a psychologist was because I had suicidal thoughts in the past. This is what women are facing.
In the absence of services there is one thing we can do to take some control over our mental health and that is to reach out to others and support each other in your recovery. To anyone suffering alone, I open the door and welcome you to our group. This illness seems like it will be the end of you. The illness lies. Your brain will tell you that you are ill. Your brain lies. Your heart will tell you that you can’t take anymore, that you are weak and alone. All lies. You will recover. You will be happy again. You might not be the same person you were before but you will be a more compassionate person because of it. Let us support you while you figure the mess out. Just like our group motto says: You need never be alone. You have friends all around you. All you have to do is reach out.Tagged with: advice forum for mums, mums mental health, Perinatal Mental Health
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