Existing in the Land of Golden Syrup

I sat in my antenatal class; half listening to the instructor speak on Postnatal Depression. I vividly remember thinking to myself: "I don’t need to listen to this, because I won't get postnatal depression. I am a nurse, therefore I am immune. I am in control and I am strong, physically, emotionally and psychologically. So for the rest of the night, I switched off.

I recall reading this poem in a church newsletter some years earlier:


One by one He took them from me
All the things I valued most
Until I was empty handed
Every glittering toy was lost.
And I walked earth’s highways grieving
In my rags of poverty
‘Till I heard His voice inviting
"Lift your empty hands to me".
So I held my hands towards heaven
And He filled them with a store
Of His own transcending riches
‘Til my hands could hold no more
And at last I comprehend
With my stupid mind and dull
That God could not pour His riches
Into my hands already full!
(Author unknown)

1/ A great job as a nurse. I was making daily life and death decisions on the spot for people I didn’t know. I still had a lot to learn, but I was keen.

2/ My wonderful husband, Murray. We had been married for five years and celebrated our birthdays and wedding anniversary in a big party with our friends. We had so much fun.

3/ Family, both my husbands and mine. My parents had passed away by this stage

4/ Friends, my life was seriously blessed by wonderful friendships. Soulmates, laughing and crying together.

5/ Our home, certainly nothing to brag about, but it had a lot of potential. We had already spent much money and blood sweat and tears, doing it up. Slowly it was coming together.

6/ My faith in Jesus Christ.

It’s A Girl!
16th May 1997, the arrival of our beautiful daughter, Christina Grace. My husband and I wept for joy. Four years earlier, we had miscarried a baby girl, so this wee baby was greatly wanted.

Being first time parents, we knew it was not going to be easy, but we had no idea what lay ahead. Just as well.

So THIS Is My Life
Murray was working a 70-hour week and only getting paid for 40 hours, because he was on a salary. His fellow staff members had resigned, so in order to save money the company didn’t hire anyone else. They just made my husband carry the burden and then showed no appreciation. He was burnt out and disillusioned.

My decision to demand feed caused much stress in the home. Our baby got into the habit of snacking and napping. For the first six months she would feed for an hour and sleep for an hour. Feed for an hour and sleep for an hour. She was manageable during the day, but between the hours of 6pm ( just as my husband pulled in the drive) and 10pm, she would cry inconsolably.

Many times I queried this pattern with health professionals, who reassured me that it was normal for some babies and she would grow out of it. But she didn’t. We tried giving her a bottle of either formula or expressed milk to give me a break, but she was determined. Her meal came in one form.

She would go on hunger strike for hours while being babysat, until I arrived home. Six years later, that strong determined streak is still there.

I am a very sociable person who loves being around people. It was now winter and all of our friends were either still single with no children, or newly married with no intention of having children for a while. It was often too wet and cold to go anywhere, and even when it was fine, I had no friends at home to visit. My home became my prison.

Murray and I argued almost daily. Finance was tight now that we were on one income. Sleep deprivation, exhaustion, lack of intimacy and a crying baby was not a good recipe for a happy marriage. Murray did not feel his role was to help with the baby. I naturally presumed he would want to bath, dress and wind his daughter.

He assumed the role that his dad and many dad’s played in the 1960’s. Dad’s earned the money, wives raised the children and did everything around the home. And if you were unhappy, you wouldn’t show it and you would never, never ask for help. Initially I upheld that ideal, but now I say: "Not any more!"

Without realising it, I was spiraling down the slippery slide into the cold, dark and lonely pit of depression.

The term, "Postnatal Depression" is almost unheard of by women of the Pacific Islands. When a baby is born in the Pacific Islands, the mother is treated like a queen. All she is required to do is breast feed the baby and sleep. The other tasks are done by the extended family. They do the cooking, cleaning, bath, clothe and care for the baby and her other children. A mother will be well cared for until she feels she is able to cope with the new baby and the running of her home. This can take weeks or months, depending on the circumstances.

A few years ago, I heard a psychologist at Maternal Mental Health, stating that if a women doesn’t have the physical support of her mother when a child is born and during those early years, that women has a 75% chance of getting postnatal depression.

My mother had died seven years earlier. My father died three years later. My sister lived overseas.

Going Down in Flames
One Sunday afternoon, I couldn’t cope anymore. I sat in the hallway crying inconsolably. I had arranged to go to my friend Olwyn's, church to have a break, leaving Murray to look after the baby at home. The church was in town. Everyone in there was so happy and lively, I couldn’t cope with it. So I snuck out of the service and walked. I couldn’t go back.

My mind was a fog. I was numb from head-to-toe, past exhaustion and way past thinking straight. I had found a place behind a crate to sleep. I could get my food from the rubbish bins. From now on this would be my life.

The whole time I was crying out to God. " What is wrong with me? Am I mad? Am I demon possessed, or do I have postnatal depression?

Olwyn had gone looking for me. We met up on the street as it was getting dark. "I think I have postnatal depression", I cried. She hugged me and spoke words of gentleness, kindness and encouragement and took me home.

The next day another friend, Pamela, who was also a midwife, came over early. I had phoned her on the Sunday night and told her what had happened and how I was feeling. We agreed that I needed to see my GP. She offered to come with me and I am so pleased she did.

When I wanted to tell my doctor how I was feeling, I froze, so Pamela spoke up and made sure the doctor understood what was going on. My GP has been wonderful throughout all my care. He always made himself available to me when things got too much. He had given me his home phone number so I could contact him at any time, and yet always kept a professional distance.

A Helping Hand
That same day I phoned my pastor, he came over within a few minutes and asked what the church could do to help. Dinners were my biggest challenge, so he organized someone different every night to bring a meal for my husband and I.

Before he left he rolled up his sleeves and asked if he could do any work for me, wash nappies, dishes, ironing. I was amazed and delighted at the offer of this very busy and generous man, who was not only willing to offer prayer and support from the church, but was prepared to do the laboring as well. He was the hands and feet of Christ.

Suicidal thoughts snuck up on me like a thief, robbing me of my love for life, dreams of the feature and plans and hopes for my family. This added great strain on our marriage. Suddenly my husband didn’t trust me not to destroy myself. I had to be put onto a suicidal watch, which meant I had to be watched by an adult, when my husband wasn’t home.

An old friend of mine, Claire, had been made redundant from her job, so she became my helper. To her I owe my life. She helped me around the home and with the baby. She was my lifeboat on a thunderous, stormy sea in the hell of night.

I remember seeing the horrendous images on TV of September 11th. One particular image was of people leaping from the burning buildings. They faced an impossible situation. Trapped in a burning building, they either let themselves be engulfed by thick poisonous smoke, soaring heat and finally flames, or they jump, in the hope of a much faster, less painful death.

Many times I felt I was in a similar horror. I either die in this slow torturous manner, with the situation dictating when, where and how; or I do it myself and stop this nightmare.

To be suddenly labeled with depression is a tremendous shame. It means that you’re not able to cope, implying weakness. That is what I thought. Initially, I was my biggest critic. I had to lean to accept my illness and still love myself.

Things put in Perspective
A close friend was admitted into hospital for depression. He wrestled with the idea that he shouldn’t be in hospital because he didn’t "look" sick. So his doctor took him for a walk to the intensive care unit and told him:
"These people’s lives are hanging in the balance because they are physically unwell. You can see that clearly by the machines they are hooked up to, to help keep them alive. David, you are just as unwell as they are. Your life to hangs in the balance. The only difference here, is that your illness is invisible to the eye. That is why you need to be here."
Antidepressants were a necessity as part of my care. Coming to grips with the fact that I needed antidepressants, was not easy. It was that stigma thing again. Some family members said nothing when they found out that I now needed medication. Their silent disapproval was deafening. But a friend said to me;
"People with asthma have to take inhalers for the rest of their lives. People with diabetes have to take their medication for the rest of their lives. People with epilepsy have to take medication for the rest of their lives. Their medication helps to control their illness and keep that person at an optimum state of health. So too, with people with depression. So what if you’re on medication. So what if you have to take it for the rest of your life! Providing the medication works, it shouldn’t be a problem"
Finding the right one was not going to be fast. Each drug had to be allowed time for it to take effect before it was known if it was the right one or not. Because each medication works differently on different people, it was some months before the right drug was found. Now I am very happy on Aropax.

There were others in my life that would treat me like a leper. But I have decided not to let their criticism affect me. Stigma will only stick if it matters to you. I know the more I believe in myself and love myself; the less I care what others think.

Like a Good Bra, Support Is Very Important
I started attending a support group for women with postnatal depression. I suddenly had my eyes opened and I found I wasn’t the only one in this black hole. There were other women whom I could relate to. A women psychologist and a counsellor from Maternal Mental Health, guided the group. These ladies provided helpful strategies for day-to-day living. Ideas like:

1/ Keep a diary and write down one or more good things that happened today. E.g. I didn’t get a flat tyre today, or a friend phoned me today, or I saw a cartoon in the paper that made me laugh.

2/ Keep a list by the phone of people who could come and help you at certain times of the day or night. I had retired friends who could help during the day and others who said they would help me at night if needed.

3/Take time out for you. E.g. Spend twenty minutes alone, no children, reading a book, painting your toenails or going for a walk. Do something you enjoy.

My GP wanted me to be assessed by a psychiatrist, because despite the medication, I had come very close to committing suicide three times. But each time the plan was upset by someone turning up. So an urgent referral was sent to Maternal Mental Health. Quickly a reply came back that I wasn’t eligible for an appointment, because the baby of a women with postnatal depression had to be fifteen months old, or more. Christina was only four months old.

One thing I have learnt about my GP, is that he is passionate about making sure his patients get the care they need. I have seen him go out to bat for other family members under his care and he did the same for me. He phoned Maternal Mental Health and became very angry with them.

Suddenly I had an appointment, but they were not very impressed that I had "jumped the queue". Their diagnosis was that I was on the right medication and that the root of my depression was lack of support from my husband. We needed marriage counselling, but Murray wouldn’t have a bar of it, so the problem grew.

Reaching Crunch Point
Three days before Christmas, things came to a head. Murray went out Christmas shopping and I was to go to a friend’s house. But just prior to his leaving, we had the biggest argument ever. He was so angry, I thought he was going to hit me. I was so frightened.

Once he left, I took off my wedding ring and left it on the bench in the kitchen. As far as I was concerned, our marriage was over. I packed my bags and put Christina in the car and took off to live with friends in Rotorua. I cried all the way there and for many days after that.

My wonderful friends, David and Wendy, who I call Mum and Dad, took me under their wing. Their three wonderful daughters, whom I regard as my sisters, also supported and loved me in many practical ways.

We sat down that night Mum, Dad and I, and Dad, whom I regard as very wise, said something like this.

"Now daughter, we love you very, very much. This is your home for as long as you need it to be and we will always be here for you. We will make sure that you and Christina are safe and warm, well fed and you will always have a roof over your head. But we love Murray too, so don’t ask us to take sides. We are here just as much for Murray, as we are for you. Ultimately, we would like to see you two back together, but until then we will do our best to look after you."

They kept their word.

David himself was on antidepressants. He had been suicidal, so he had an idea of what I was going through, and his wife, Wendy, could relate to what Murray was suffering.

"Depression will either kill a marriage, or make it stronger", Wendy told me one day, "It is your choice."

Most nights, David and I would go on long walks around the Rotorua streets. It was very therapeutic.

It was on our very first walk that David said, "For me depression is like living in golden syrup. Everything you do is so hard. Getting out of bed, brushing your teeth, even going to the toilet. And yet the irony is that the easiest decision was to end your life, because life was hopeless and too hard."

I could so relate to that.

The month I spent away from Murray, was a big turning point in our marriage. Murray desperately wanted us to get back together, but there was going to have to be changes on both sides. Murray changed his job, so he could work closer to home with less crazy hours. I had to become bolder in my communicating and stop living in fear of what others thought and if needed, challenge them face-to-face.

We both had to learn to trust one another again and to forgive. Marriage counselling was a necessity. Love is not a feeling; it’s a choice. I choose this day, to love my husband for the rest of my life. Every word, action and attitude has to reflect that.

So now when difficult situations arise, I do what one of my tee-shirt’s has written on the back of it;

"There’s a Storm On The Horizon - TAKE IT ON!"

My new treasures
The privilege of going through the tornado of depression, with the help of so many people and my Mighty God, I can now say that I have come out a much richer person.

I am blessed to be a blessing.

With my role as mother, nurse, friend, sister, family member, I have been able to help so many people in the same situation, particularly in my role as a nurse.

I have become much wiser, less judgmental, a lot bolder and more practical.

I know now what my limits are and I stick to them. Often it means saying "no" to people who make demands on my life that I can’t fulfill without burning out.

My marriage is stronger and those friends who stuck with us are much closer and dearer.

These things, only life experiences could teach me.