Maternal Mental Health Week: Me, Myself and Sertraline

Here I am, a working mum of two little boys, as well as two furry felines, in a happy and stable relationship living all together in a little house in a country village. On paper, life is perfect but of course real life isn’t so simple. I’ve just taken my daily dose of Sertraline and, spurred on by the fact that it is Maternal Mental Health Week, it struck me that it would be quite interesting (hopefully) to hear a bit more about my whole mental health management/treatment type thing.

There are so many stigmas attached to both mental health and the different methods it is managed and coped with. Seeing as I have been both in the for and against camps for drugs like mine, I feel pretty experienced and well versed to voice my opinions about it all now.

I used to be so set against anti depressants. The mere mention of them used to conjure up images of famous faces who fell prey to addiction and ruin (Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe anyone?). I used to think taking them was weak. That one should used mind over matter. Eat well. Rest plenty. Get over it. After all, I had made it through 27 years of life’s trials and tribulations, a lot of childhood sadness and a pretty horrible break up in my mid twenties that knocked me for six. If I could survive all that then I was invincible!

Wrong. Enter pregnancy, labour and motherhood. All encompassing, completely overwhelming and downright scary shit. First baby premature and in special care. Second baby 22 months later, unplanned, late gestation and also in special care. Along with his father collapsing with sepsis and nearly leaving me to grieve and raise them alone. A small if somewhat almost non existent support network (family live far away, have other commitments yaddah yaddah yaddah). And the darkest time of my life to date.

I remember feeling things snap. I always thought it would be a big show of events. That ‘going mad’ would be akin to Britney’s head shaving days in 2006 fighting off paparazzi with an umbrella.

It wasn’t like that at all. For me atleast. Mine was a gradual decline from heady adrenaline post birth, to feeling a little bit more overwhelmed each day, to trying to talk about my feelings but either being stopped by a ‘keep it together’ attitude or physically being stopped by the practical care my babies needed.

Then, one day, I couldn’t keep it together. My mind raced. My focus was gone. It was like my brain stayed connected to my body to help it function biologically. Breathing, moving, eating and drinking… all fine. But processing thoughts? Putting together movements to carry out simple tasks such as making toast or changing a nappy? Feeling anything at all, any sort of emotion? Nope. Nothing. Numbness. Black. Being in a bubble or behind glass. Watching yourself from deep inside a black hole and not knowing how to get out? Feeling like your being sat on by an elephant/rhino hybrid? Feeling so tired but not being able to sleep because you’re frightened you won’t wake up… but will wake up… all at the same time? Wanting to hurt yourself because at least then you will feel something? Knowing you love your family but not feeling it? I can honestly say it is the most lonely, hopeless, scary and closest to hell I have ever been.

I lasted two days before a very scary urge to cut myself and feel something caused me to speak up. Up until then I had been trying to convince myself it was just a phase. Something to grit my teeth through. It would pass. But I was genuinely so frightened by the tardis my mind had become, that I reached out to PB for help and all I had been battling came out.

He said to phone the doctor, but when I explained I couldn’t even concentrate to dial, he took over and rang them for me. I was seen within the hour and, thankfully, my GP was amazing. He cut right through my mind fog with quick questions, all straight to the point.

‘Do you feel anxious?’

‘Yes’

‘As if something bad is going to happen?’

‘Yes’

‘What sort of things?’

‘That my children will die. And my partner will die. That I can’t save them. Like I have to control everything or it will all go wrong’.

‘So you feel out of control?’

‘Yes’.

‘And that it is your fault?’

‘Yes’.

‘What is your fault?’

‘That my babies were sick and in special care. I couldn’t protect them’.

‘And you think bad things will happen again?’

‘Yes’

‘Do you feel like hurting yourself?’

‘Yes’.

‘Do you feel like hurting them?’

‘No’.

‘Do you feel lost? Hopeless?’

‘Yes. And scared’.

Looking back, they are scary questions. Very intimate and exposing. But, I am so thankful that he quick fired them and didn’t wait for me to try and explain. How could I? Everything was just a jumble. That morning I had taken the boys to the park and had a panic attack that everyone was watching me and thinking I was a bad mother on top of a gazillion scenarios that would result in one or both of them being maimed or killed. I had a blow by blow account of all different ways they could die in my head. A cracked head on the pavement? A fall from a swing or the slide? Smothered by blanket? Even being attacked by masked men storming the playground! I was unhinged.

I remember him leaning back in his chair and shaking his head. I remember his apology for all I had been through and the reassurance that my children’s starts in life in special care and the collapse of my other half were not my fault. I remember breaking down and looking at the floor, grateful for an emotion to finally come out.

Cognitive behavioural therapy was ruled out. I was too far past that for being a beneficial treatment. He put me on sertraline then and there, and an appointment was made to visit the mental health team for an assessment to discuss other support such as counselling and help groups.

I didn’t hesitate in taking the first pill. Even when I had to take it in front of the dispensary staff so they could assure I had swallowed it. I felt broken. I wanted to be fixed.

You break a leg? You get a cast. It is that simple.

It took two weeks to fully get used to the drugs being in my system. I take mine in the evening because they can be a sedative and if I take them in the day then staying awake in the beginning was near on impossible. Which made night feeds interesting in those two weeks as I was completely catatonic and PB had to hold a newborn George to my chest at night so he could feed.

I was slow. People would ask me a question and, although I didn’t realise it, I wouldn’t answer for a good 30 seconds. And when I did it was slurred and not very cohesive. I would pace around aimlessly then sit and stare into space. I felt floaty… which some people enjoy as a high but, for a control freak like me, was unsettling and annoying. I had panic attacks that were like living nightmares. One following a migraine that convinced me I was dying and caused me to hyperventillate. I clung to PB in bed for over an hour, sweating and pleading for him to get me to hospital before passing out into sleep.

My friends came to my rescue and moved in for four days to help me over the final hurdle. And to give PB some support and help out with the boys too. By day 12 of the medication, I was feeling lighter and brighter. Much more balanced and stable.

I’ve now been on sertraline for just over a year. And I don’t regret a thing. I still have dark days and I still feel overwhelmed by life at times. But I am able to manage it and not let it get to the stage where I can’t function.

I’m lucky. I take the smallest dose at 50mg daily. I don’t suffer bad side effects (apart from a little bit more perspiration… then again that could be the anxiety… such fun!). I’m hoping not to be on them much longer, but I need to speak with my GP about such things. All I know is that I was very broken. My brain was broken. And this medication has brought about a balance that I very badly needed.

If you, or anyone you know, are suffering like I did. Please get yourself an appointment with your GP. And speak up. You are not failing, you are not to blame and you deserve to be well. I dread to think what might have happened if I had stayed alone and in the darkness of my mind.

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