The past tense. It’s something you use daily. There are many opportunities when I get to do the same – ‘I did a good job at work’ ‘I handled a nappy full of exploded…rainbows’, ‘I patiently (well, at least slowly) explained something to my husband’. But not when it comes to recovery from mental illness – then I must use the present tense. 20 months after my baby was born, I’m still ambling down the road to recovery. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever reach the end of it, or if such a thing exists.
I have days when everything seems fine and we go to a cute cafe or walk alpacas in the sunshine (like actually, no hallucinations, I promise!) Then there’s the other days. The dark days when I have to drag my soul to partake in anything other than breathing and lying on the sofa. They are only occasional now, thankfully, but when they hit I have to reach deep, so deep to find the will to do something as simple as leave the house. For my baby’s benefit I force myself to walk to playgroup and smile and chat to people. I contort my face into the correct shape, whilst my mind races for the ‘right’ thing to say, hoping beyond hope that I don’t betray the void inside. I hold back tears, pushing them, shoving them back into my face with the force of my mind, staring hard towards the sky to stop them spilling down. Though I feel the fear of discovery at the time, on reflection I’m reasonably sure nobody has a clue about what’s bubbling beneath the surface. I’ve carved my ‘mask of managing’ beautifully, it is exquisite – chatty, happy and absolutely impenetrable. Yet as I write, I let it slip – demonstrating its existence to the world. I worry about doing this, just as I worry about how long I will be wearing it for.
However I have reasons to be hopeful when it comes to recovery. For instance, I’ve met mums who have gone on to achieve extraordinary things after maternal mental health problems. Like those who lead the work of charities like Maternal Mental Health Scotland (MMHS) or Action on Postpartum Psychosis (APP), both of which received awards at the Maternal Mental Health Alliance Conference in September 2017. I’ve joined them in helping others by volunteering with MMHS as a Change Agent. Through and with them, I’m contributing to the current redesign of Ready Steady Baby – the book all prospective mothers are handed in Scotland. We’re helping hone the messages on maternal mental health, and being part of that is immensely rewarding. I can’t change the path I’ve come down, but if I can help another mum get the help she needs quicker, or feel less shame about being ill, then I’ll have made a difference. A difference to them, and to me. You see, I have this drive to create something positive from the profoundly negative rabbit hole of postpartum psychosis and postnatal depression that I fell down. I believe it is this drive that will push me further and further towards being recovered, different from the girl before this journey, but, crucially, not less than her. I see this drive in other volunteers, a burning passion, and it gives me hope that together we will raise the profile of maternal mental illness and drive real change.
Volunteering has helped me with recovery, but there are probably as many ways to recover as there are women who have been affected. I’ve also found writing helpful, and I’d love to know how you or your loved ones have journeyed the road to recovery – what’s helped? What would you recommend? For me, for now, I have to use the present tense to describe my struggles, but hopefully one day with the help of writing and medication and exercise I will be able to put them firmly in my past.