Mental Health Awareness Month: My personal story of recovery

My Mental Health Recovery Story

Mental Illness is a label that is becoming more common to talk about in the society we live. But in the world where I was raised, amongst the working-class of Auckland, New Zealand in the 80s and 90s, it carried a lot of negative stigma.

My father was diagnosed with Manic Depression (now labelled Bipolar disorder) just a few months before I made my way into his world. I grew up in an environment that was determined by the mental state of this man, who exemplified symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia and showed little positive affirmation towards our family. There were frequent seasons when we would spend days going to visit him in mental institutions and always carried the shame of that into our schools and churches.

With that frame of reference for what mental illness looked like, it wasn’t until I was alone in a café with a woman visiting from the States (a woman I knew I would never see again) that I confessed my own struggle with depression. I had this underlying sense of sadness about where my life was at that time. The relationship I had just committed to the year prior to her arrival to New Zealand, was not what I had dreamed it would be. It was laced with an unspoken, misunderstood struggle with addiction and codependency. There were holes in my wall that were hidden like the abuse that would go on in my home for years.

Her approach to my confession exuded love and grace. There was no shame, no condemnation and no advice given. All she gave was a listening ear and an empathic understanding. She made me see the positive features of the compassionate heart I carried and how that heart gave me a propensity to experience feelings of sadness.

Two years later, I was about to deliver twin baby girls. As a planner, I had prepared their room, updated our family budget, bought a new car and booked our house to be painted while I was in hospital. Everything was set in my mind about how it was going to be on my return, knowing that things would change but confident that I was prepared for the adjustments I would need to make. As usual, I had high expectations of how that would all pan out.

However, the day after I gave birth to these two beautiful babies who created in me a new feeling of inadequacy, I wondered how I could manage both of them at one time. I was twenty-two years old with a strong-willed three-year-old son and a husband who had been involved in some suspicious activity over the last year. The day after I gave birth, he came to visit us and admitted to me that he had lost his job. Not only did he lose his job, but he admitted that he was taken into the police cells the day before their birth and was having to face charges in court.

My whole world felt like it flipped upside down and I was hanging on by a thread.

With this news that threw me into the deep waters of disillusionment, I found myself back in a state of depression. Yet, because of my history of dealing with mental illness, I kept that knowledge to myself. It carried shame as a daughter of a mentally ill man and it carried guilt as Christian trying to navigate my way through religion and relationship.

A year later as I noticed a change in my normal social activity, had shifted the places I went to in my mind for solace and as I struggled at some points with the idea of ending my life, I watched a program on TV that opened my eyes. This Breakfast show was talking about the subject of Postnatal Depression. As the host went on to describe the symptoms of this disorder of types, I resonated with most of what she described. It put a name to what I had been experiencing for the past year and I was finally able to see a way out.

Fast forward four and a half years and once again I was in a new city, birthing my fifth baby without any family support around me. I was twenty-seven now and had four babies under five years old. I had to juggle my preschoolers and tend to the needs of my eldest son. One night while doing ordinary household chores, I found myself crying uncontrollably and I realized that I was again going down the slippery slope of depression.

My children in 2005.

With the knowledge of what PND is, I flagged it with my nurse and told her what was going on at home. I didn’t want to waste a whole year again, living under the cloud of depression so I wanted to get help. Thankfully at that time, there was a post-natal depression support group going on in that little town at that time. Once a week, I got to spend time with other women who were experiencing similar emotional and psychological struggles, relieving myself of any guilt or shame this breakdown was wanting to bring.

We sat under the care and teaching of one woman who had been through PND herself and wanted to help us get through this season of having a new born and not knowing what to do. She took us through a series of lessons about the downward spiral of depression, the effects on our brain and the ways we can rise above it. I was given access to a free babysitting service where I could just get out of the house and go and have coffee with my friends. I learnt the importance of exercise and getting out of bed even when I didn’t feel like it.

The things that I applied to my own recovery and have put in place to maintain my mental wellbeing over the last few years, boil down to these three points:

I call them “the Three S’s of Sanity”

  1. Sleep. Getting a good sleep gives me the mental capacity to withstand the demands of the day. If I’ve slept well, I have the cognitive function to navigate my way through relationship confrontation, unmet expectations and normal daily upheavals. Even if I don’t sleep well in the night, I will make space in the day for a twenty to thirty minute power nap. That allows me to focus and enjoy the rest of the day.
  2. Self-Care. Looking after me had taken the back burner for so long until I realized that I needed to look after me so I could look after others well. Little things like hot baths or bush walks, or big things like massages and time out with friends at the movies, all became common place in my weekly routine. From that place of feeling valued and loved, I was then able to love those around me.
  3. Support systems. Living away from family support (as I have done for a quarter of my adult and parenting life) has made it even more important to be a part of a community that supports me. Right now, I’m a single mother with four teenagers, so having friends I can call on to vent, counsellors around I can debrief situations with and a place I can give back to the community have all been important. I went through a journey of holistic recovery after my marriage break-up so helping others to get through their own break-ups has been part of my healing as well.

Struggling with mental illness doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world and it certainly doesn’t disqualify you from being able to help others. You become a greater advocate for change when you start to see change in yourself. People in a season where mental illness is trying to knock them out, need to know that change is possible. Choose change for you and others will have hope for a better day by witnessing your life!

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