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‘I cried every day, I didn’t want to leave the house’

Jade Zahra talks opening about her experience with postnatal anxietyJade received media attention earlier this year after she opened up about her experiences with anxiety after the birth of her first child. But she still thinks we have a long way to go before we can understand the realities of perinatal depression and anxiety. This is Jade’s story …

“The support and encouragement I received after my story was published so unbelievably amazing. I was contacted by people I know, close and distant, and also by strangers who were all too willing to open up about their own experiences.

Sadly, so many of them said that they’d never admitted how they were feeling to anyone else. The honest truth I wrote about really struck a cord with so many people. I received some media attention for a short while after, which blew my mind, however I knew this was a good opportunity to spread the word and encourage people to #starttheconversation.

I also worked with a mainstream magazine in the hope of publishing my story and really widening the audience, but I pulled the pin on the article at the eleventh hour.

When it came to hearing the final proof before publication, I sat listening late one evening as ‘what was meant to be my story’ was read to me, but it wasn’t my story. It was a story full of sensationalised half-truths that you might watch in a movie, such as “I kissed my baby every minute of every day because I was so scared I was going to die”.

Now, part of that was true, I was scared of what would happen if I let her out of my sight and I died, but I didn’t sit and kiss her every second of every day. I really felt I would have done the public an injustice by allowing the magazine to print this sensationalised crap. They wrote of me wanting to harm my child and they wanted to exclude my support people from the story except my partner Kain – again, unrealistic half-truths. I think part of the issue surrounding recognition of perinatal depression and anxiety is the cliché picture of the mother that can’t look her baby in the eye, doesn’t relate to her baby and doesn’t want to get out of bed.

Although this is real for some people, this is not how PNDA presents in everyone. It’s not all black and white, It can be an outward experience or, like my experience, an inward one that didn’t present itself like the movies.

So many of you commented to me “how could you have not known what was going on?” But honestly, I was relating to my baby, I loved her to bits, I was up and about everyday, my house looked good, I did my best to look good (I remember any time I went out I put on bright pink or red lipstick. This was my mask. Unbeknown to me. I didn’t even realise I was doing it for that reason. I don’t even wear lipstick ordinarily but this was my way of showing people that I was OK and doing well.

Some people minimized my experience, “You know you’re no different from the next person who has had a baby”, “Everyone finds it tough”, “Being a new parent is full of unknowns and all first-time parents experience anxiety like you did.” This was frustrating. Not only does that attitude make you feel more like a freak because “if everyone else is feeling these same things as me, then why am I having such a hard time? Why can’t I leave the house and get on with life?” It also compounds the issue because once again, it’s failing to recognise or understand the difference between what is normal healthy anxiety or normal healthy behavior and anxiety that is hindering day to day life, leading to unhealthy behaviours. It’s burring the problem, failing ourselves and those around us who might be struggling in silence.

So, how do we fix it? What can be done?

Know the signs and symptoms to look for

Moods swings, lack of energy and motivation, crying for no apparent reason, wanting to sleep more than usual, inability to sleep (unrelated to the baby) or eat, anger and irritability, feeling nervous or on edge, difficulty concentrating or thinking clearly.

Check in

Check in with the families around you who have had babies. Don’t just show up expecting cuddles and laughs. It’s a balance between giving the new parents space to settle in, providing them with useful help (in the way of a meal left at the door, doing a food shop for them, taking older siblings out for a play) and checking in and really tuning in to how things are going.

Talk and be honest

Those of us who have had a baby know the 4th trimester isn’t a scene out of an ad for baby bath products – soft pure white towels, an immaculately dressed mother with full make-up and freshly straightened hair and a baby who is smiling and giggling despite just being pulled out of the bath. But this is certainly what I expected and tried to achieve, or at the very least, portray. Having our first baby was supposed to be the most joyous time of our lives … It wasn’t.

Meeting our little girl, holding her in our arms was such a relief and so incredibly special. But the weeks and months that followed were hard work, our relationship as we knew it was changing and would be changed forever because we were no longer each others priority, our roles in our home were different, we were sleep deprived, I was fragile while she and I established our feeding regimen, my body was enduring a hormonal rollercoaster that we believe didn’t really settle until about 6 months later. If you’ve had a baby, none of the things I just mentioned are news, you’ve all been there too…

So why don’t we talk about the crap, the blah, the insecurities and changes we face? When people ask, “How are you?” after you’ve had a baby, why is it that we automatically revert to a basic response, “Yeh, we are really good. She’s so beautiful” or something of the like.

Two days after we get home from the hospital, we sit on the couch, poised with a smile despite the fact that our butt is aching, throbbing from the tear or cut we sustained during birth, haemorrhoids the size of sausages hanging out, our boobs are as big and hard as melons, the breast pads we are wearing are becoming sodden because our milk is coming in and only two minutes before the visitor’s arrived we were in tears because little munchkin cluster fed all night trying to bring the milk in and as a result we are suffering a new form of sleep deprivation that at that moment is resembling some form of torture.

We want to listen to the conversation and think clearly enough to respond to questions with an intelligent and witty response yet, really, all we can really think about it how amazing this little creature is that we grew inside us, are we going to be able to settle them when they wake next and who is watching and judging everything we are doing or not doing.

I guess what I mean to say is, it’s not all a bed of roses but that doesn’t mean it’s not all worth it. Talk about the good and the not-so good. And just because you’ve had a bad night or a bad day, doesn’t make you a failure – which is what I thought. I felt like if I spoke up and told someone what I was feeling, how hard it was to leave the house and that I cried all the time, that I had failed and wasn’t cut out for this motherhood gig – something I had dreamed of becoming since I was a child. I think we need to do first-time parents to be a favour by speaking honestly about parenthood and the challenges that will present themselves.

Know where to get help

There’s new research out there to say that the public is becoming less judgemental of Perinatal Anxiety and Depression but there still appears to be barriers to individuals and families seeking help. PANDA is the only national helpline dedicated to Perinatal Depression and Anxiety. After I wrote my story, I received so much feedback to say how “brave” I was. I didn’t feel brave. Yes it was a huge insight into our family home, the transparency of our family’s story was a bit intimidating but I didn’t feel brave admitting there had been something wrong. I am sad for Kain and my sake that we didn’t realise and get help sooner- our story might have been so different. All it takes is a phone call to the right people. I remember being worried about fully admitting to my Mum or sister that I cried every day or that I didn’t want to leave the house, because I didn’t want to “ruin” such a special time for them as well.

READ: This wonderful uplifting open letter to all mums in the depths of PNDA

By calling PANDA you’re breaking down that first barrier, they are impartial, trained specialists who can give you immediate validation, guide you to further support in the community and provide on-going support.

How I avoided postnatal anxiety the second-time around

So many people asked me how I avoided PNA second time around after we had our son. These are the steps we took and the things we put in place to prevent it happening to us again. We knew having experienced Perinatal Anxiety with our first put me at higher risk of suffering again with subsequent births but it wasn’t a given.

Self-awareness

Being self-aware and talking about the triggers with Kain and my closest support people was a big thing. While I was pregnant I talked a lot about our time after Trew was born, “when this happened, it made me feel like this. I don’t want to do that again”.

Choosing supportive health care providers

We chose the same carers for our second pregnancy and birth. Both our hospital midwife and our independent midwife were aware of how my perinatal anxiety manifested and presented. Having a close relationship with them both meant they knew us well and could identify easily when things were a stress or a worry to us. It also meant Kain felt comfortable to speak up to someone if he had concerns about my mental health after we had the baby.

Seeking professional help

I saw a psychologist during my pregnancy. I didn’t “need” to see a psychologist for treatment at that time but by doing it then, it meant that they had a history taken down and we got some form of a relationship built so that if I did need to seek help of a psychologist after my baby was born, I didn’t have to go through the whole story and start from scratch at my time of need. The barrier had already been broken down.

The psychologist also worked with me to remind me to use some healthy coping mechanisms. Positive self-talk and meditation techniques. By practicing while I was pregnant, I was more likely to use them and they would be easier to do at a time of need- muscle memory kind of thing.

Preparation and rest

After I had the baby, I rested. I actually spent weeks on the couch. This felt like such a difficult and strange thing to do but I actually rested. I gave myself a chance to heal and really take in my new baby. This meant my mind was quieter. I wasn’t trying to juggle cooking and cleaning, going to the shops, a toddler and a baby. I let myself be in the moment and my mind was quieter and healthier for it.

I also did a lot of food shopping to ensure I wouldn’t have to worry about that side of things for a while. Our deep freeze was full of cooked meals. And I actually asked for help when I needed it. When people called to say, “I’m coming over, what do you need?” I answered and let myself be helped and I didn’t allow myself to feel guilty or weak for doing it.

Jade Zahra talks opening about her experience with postnatal anxiety

For me now, it would be nice to think that someone has read this and been inspired to pick up the phone and call PANDA for help. If just one person can read this and speak up, then it was all worth it. If you have had a baby and feel like something isn’t quite right, be honest with yourself and #starttheconversation, there is help waiting for you.

Be mindful of those around you and check in with them with a level of concern deeper than just wanting squishy baby cuddles.

And finally, Thank you to all of you who contacted me after reading my story back in May. The support and encouragement you gave me was truly motivating and such a surprise. It made me consider that sometimes allowing yourself to be vulnerable can actually provide you with a greater strength than jut trying to be strong alone.”

– by Jade Zahra

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The Bub Hub is proud to support PANDA

If you are anyone you know if struggling with perinatal anxiety or depression, call PANDA’s free National Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Helpline (1300 726 306). The service offers counselling, information and referral services with ongoing telephone support for families throughout Australia. The helpline operates Monday to Friday from 10am to 5pm EST.

Visit www.panda.org.au for more information and useful resources.

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