We’re (not) all going on a summer holiday – agoraphobia makes motherhood extra hard

We’re (not) all going on a summer holiday – agoraphobia makes motherhood extra hard

Today I packed my three year old daughter’s suitcase for her summer holiday. She helped me pick out which clothes she would like to wear, which books she’d like to read at bedtimes, which toys she thought would enjoy the trip. I packed her toiletries, nappies, medicines (just in case), some sticker books, pens and pencils, and snacks for the journey.

Then I waved her and her father goodbye as they drove off, and my heart broke.

We don’t have any money. After being made redundant during my second pregnancy last year, I’ve been a stay at home mum to my two girls, while my partner has been working as a nursing assistant, which pays a little above minimum wage. We knew we wouldn’t be able to afford to go away any time soon. My partner’s ex-wife and her husband had booked a holiday home in Norfolk, an hour and a half away from us, and were planning on taking his eldest daughter who is seven and their new baby girl away for a week, and very kindly invited us along. We are very fortunate that relations between all of us have always been warm, and I was very touched by the offer. I know how much my eldest loves her big sister, and they would have a blast on holiday together. But I knew that, for me, the trip would be nightmarish. Away from home, daytrips out to crowded, unfamiliar places, little privacy, among people who, as lovely as they are, have fairly old-school views of mental illness. I agonised over the decision, but made my mind up not to go. Me and baby would stay home and my partner would take my eldest.

I’m trying to rationalise the decision by telling myself that the danger would have been that if I had forced myself to go, my anxiety would have been so acute that it would have risked spoiling the trip for everyone else. I try very hard to hide my own anxiety from my kids, to make sure that they don’t pick up on it, and to ensure that they still get to the experience fun, exciting stuff being a kid is all about. It was better, I thought, for her to have a great time with her dad, sister and extended family, without me bringing everyone down. Kids are far more sensitive, far younger, than we tend to think: I suspect she would pick up on my discomfort and it might sully her own perceptions and experiences.

I’m hoping to use the time while they are away to do some back-to-basics self care: eat as much as I can, nap when baby naps, get out for walks, maybe see some friends. All the stuff that seems to go out the window when I’m trying to cope with running a household of four – it seems far more doable when it’s just me and the baby. Maybe by the time they return I will be a little braver and I can make up for the lost time by taking the girls out myself.

This illness (or whatever it is) feels like it has sucked the very core of who I am away from me. I am not by nature a timid person. I traveled a lot, by myself, in my late teens and early twenties: North Africa, Asia, Australia. I moved to big cities. I took risks, and while there were some hairy moments, I generally had a blast. But it feels so different now there isn’t just me, but two extra parts of me out there in the world. It’s like my responsibilities have just crushed me: I am full of self doubt and fear and panic. I want to do the best I can for my children but when I get outside my comfort zone (an area which feels like it has shrunk to a few cubic meters), I experience such intense anxiety I can barely focus. How can I possibly keep them safe if my brain has turned to grey, spikey clouds (a weird description but that’s what it feels like), and my body is urging me to find the nearest toilet?!

So I’m going to bed this evening feeling like a failure – it is my job to be alongside my daughters as they experience the world and the fact that I’m just not brave enough right now makes me feel like a sack of pathetic shit. I know that her father will take excellent care of her, and will be the kind of fun, spontaneous and joyful parent that she needs. Meanwhile, me and her youngest sister will have a quiet but enjoyable time close to home. I hope it will be restorative, healing maybe. I hope so. But I don’t think the guilt I feel will go away any time soon.

The dangers of ‘self-help’

The dangers of ‘self-help’

I don’t tend to go in for self-help books. My preference is to read up on things from the point of view of the professional; the therapist, doctor or academic. Even when I was an out-patient in a psychiatric hospital, attending twice-daily group therapy sessions for months on end, it took me a good fortnight to realise that I was just as ill as everyone else in the room (I had been sitting their feeling like an ethnographer, not a fellow-patient). This tendency to pretend I’m the expert rather than the sufferer is, I’m sure, excellent evidence of ‘intellectualisation’. Ho hum…

My partner, on the other hand, has purchased many well known self-help titles over the years. He invariably fails to read them, but they sit there on the bookcase. Over the last year I’ve flicked through a few of them, but this week I read one through cover to cover in 24 hours (no small feat when you’ve a toddler and a baby hanging off you). This book grabbed me. It’s over twenty years old and has a terrible cover, but by the end of the preface it had already spoken some truth to me and I was eager to read more.

I won’t name the book, but it’s one which usefully breaks down patterns of thoughts and behaviours into several types, suggests route causes (usually from childhood), typical manifestations and issues each one might cause, and explains how someone afflicted by these might overcome them. These include cognitive exercises, behavioural experiments, inner-child work and flash cards. 

I’m sure the authors intended the book to be one which spurs the reader into action, inspired by the possibility of change and the feeling of empowerment which comes with doing better for yourself. 

By the time I had read the last page, I pretty much collapsed into a heap of despair.

I could see elements of myself and my own issues in nearly every one of the types described. I had been reminded of previous traumas, personal failures, and current self-defeating behaviours. I’d experienced flashbacks to painful childhood memories. I was filled with anger, sadness and an overwhelming sense that I was doomed to be stuck in a perpetual cycle of fucking up. I felt physically ill. I had no idea what on earth to do with all these feelings that were threatening to completely drown me.

I am lucky that I am receiving therapy, however my therapist is on holiday for the next two weeks. I’ve done my best to talk through some of what I’ve felt able to share with my partner, who is always an empathetic listener (he was a fellow patient in those group therapy sessions many moons ago). I’ve made plans to sit my parents down and lay out some of the memories that have floated up to perhaps achieve some kind of *shudder* ‘closure’. But I’m still left feeling intensely vulnerable and even more dispirited than I was before I picked up that book.

So I guess this is a caution. Be aware that, even the best intended books, or blogs, or podcasts or whatever, can come just too close to home when you’re already in the grip of the big black dog. Be sure to brace yourself for the potential repercussions. Try to have your support network there around you already. Because I know that if I didn’t have my partner and my beautiful girls with me, if this was ten years ago, that book would have had me straight down the local off-licence for a box of wine and I would be in the middle of a major self-pity-wine-crisps-and-Marlboro-soaked-binge. 

5 ways to support your partner through a perinatal mental illness

5 ways to support your partner through a perinatal mental illness

This article first appeared on musicfootballfatherhood.com – “The Mumsnet for dads.”

It is a sad fact that for many mothers, a time is supposed to be one of the most magical in their lives, pregnancy, birth, and the first years of their child’s life, can be marred by suffering from pre or postnatal mental illness. I know this only too well. Although I have suffered from depression and anxiety on and off all my life, I was lucky to be healthy during my first pregnancy and for the first year or so after the birth of my eldest daughter. During my second pregnancy, I had a major relapse, and nearly twelve months after my youngest daughter’s birth, I’m still in the process of recovering. I’ve learnt a lot along the way, as has my partner. He hasn’t always been able to support me as I would have wanted, and I wasn’t always in the right frame of mind to even know what might have helped. At times we’ve both felt overwhelmed, frightened and isolated. So I’ve written down a few insights in the hope that others might learn from our successes and mistakes.


1. Educate yourself

Perinatal mental illness comes in many forms. Prenatal depression strikes during pregnancy. Postnatal depression, anxiety, OCD, and the most severe and thankfully rarest, postnatal psychosis, are all well studied and documented illnesses. They are not the ‘baby blues’ (a relatively short period of tearfulness and mood swings caused by hormonal changes in the few days after delivery). They are not something she can ‘snap out’ of. They are not a reflection of her, of you, of your baby or her ability to mother. And unfortunately, they are not something you can fix. If your partner has received a diagnosis of a mental health issue, or you suspect she might be suffering, do your homework. Ask your GP, her midwife, or your health visitor for information. Read up online (see below for links to support organisations). Get a realistic idea of what she is dealing with, and how she might be supported by you and others. Don’t rely on her to educate you – do your own research so you know just what she’s up against.


2. Take the load off

A new baby brings with it an extraordinary amount of extra work. Feeding, changing, washing, soothing, entertaining – it is relentless and can seem overwhelming even when a mother is healthy, especially as she is likely doing it on very little sleep. Add this to what already needs doing to maintain a household; the cooking, cleaning, laundry, shopping, bills and admin and looking after any older children or relatives. Maybe she’s already back at work too. For someone suffering with a mental illness, trying to balance all these plates is a recipe for disaster. One would hope you’re already doing a fair amount as a twenty-first century father, but be prepared to take as many extra household chores and parenting tasks on as you can. If you don’t know how to programme the dishwasher, find out. If you can’t cook, now is your chance to learn, or get better acquainted with your local takeaway delivery drivers. If you’re already back at work after your paternity leave, talk to your employer about temporarily reducing your hours or even taking additional leave to be at home more to support her. If that’s not an option, look into hiring some domestic help if you can afford it. The key here is not to wait to be asked for help: chances are she is not in the right place to act as operations manager for your family. Even the smallest tasks and decisions can feel completely overwhelming. If you see something needs doing around the house, do it. If the baby needs changing, change it. If the kids are bouncing off the walls, take them to the park. The idea is to allow her time to just be, ideally to take some time for her (a walk, a bath, a nap, a phone call to a friend), and for her to feel like you’ve got her back.


3. Keep listening

On top of the general stigma of mental illness that regrettably still permeates society, mothers who suffer from mental illness often feel an additional level of shame and guilt. There remains an idealised notion of women and motherhood, of the ‘perfect mother/housewife/lover’ with dinner on the table, lipstick on, ready to welcome her husband back to her immaculate home, while a happy baby sleeps quietly upstairs. The stereotypical housewife of dubious nineteen-fifties advertisements has been replaced by an almost identikit Instagram version, all home-made jam and baby-wearing while doing yoga. A lot of women genuinely feel they are letting their partners and their children down if they aren’t reaching some unattainable ideal all the time. Encourage her to talk to you about how she’s feeling, what she’s thinking, how her day was. Validate where she is by meeting her there and listening to her in a non-judgemental way. And to balance any skewed ideas she might have about her own ‘performance’ as a mother or partner, reinforce to her just how much she has already done, and continues to do.


4. Be her advocate

Any mental illness requires proper medical assessment and care. One of the things that sucks about mental illness is it’s so hard to ask for the help you need: it’s not like you can point to where it hurts, and you might not be able to put it into words, in fact you might not be able to face going to the doctor’s office in the first place. Even if she’s lucky enough to get a quick diagnosis, access to the treatment she needs might not be forthcoming, and she’s not necessarily going to be in a position to fight for it. If she’s agreeable, attend any appointments with her. Ask what treatments are available in your area. Medication can help, especially in more severe cases, but talking therapies are often more beneficial and unfortunately sometimes far harder to come by on the NHS. If the GP or Health Visitor can’t get her access to appropriate therapy or counselling, find out if there are any local practitioners or charities operating. If you’re on a low income, you might find they offer a sliding scale of rates. If either of you have got health insurance, or can afford to self-fund, consider going private as the waiting lists are often far shorter. It can still be a tough fight to get the right help and support services often aren’t adequately advertised, so be prepared to do some research and fight her corner.

You might also find you need to be her advocate even among friends and family. If at all possible, try to help her deal with anyone close to her who might have unhelpful ideas about mental illness and motherhood, or better still, try to educate them yourself on the reality – ideally you want her to have as wide a support network as possible.


5. Look after yourself

Supporting someone through a mental illness can be incredibly tough. While you try to do as much you can for the person you love, you also need to make sure you keep yourself healthy. As well as making sure she’s getting enough sleep, fresh air and eating well, make sure you are too. She might want to isolate herself and hide away from friends and family, but try to make sure you stay connected to other people who can support the both of you. It is not going to be appropriate to share all of your own worries, fears and frustrations with her right now, so make sure you’ve got people you can rely on to listen if you need to decompress. If you don’t think friends or family are going to cut it, seek out safe spaces online where people share their experiences and support one another. And keeping your own hobbies and interests going, even if you can’t do them as frequently as you might have otherwise, can help to keep you in a better place to help her.

One final note. It’s not often talked about, but fathers can suffer from postnatal depression too. If you are worried that you might be suffering, please don’t hesitate to seek medical advice and support, and reach out to those around you for help. The stigma around mental illness will only be beaten if men and women are brave enough to speak out and share their experiences.


Support is available from: PANDAS FoundationMindNHS Choices

 

The mathematics of the ‘good enough’ mother

The mathematics of the ‘good enough’ mother

Nearly every day I try to weigh up the many ways I might have failed my daughters in the previous twenty four hours against those instances that might meet the definition of ‘good enough’.

The phrase ‘good enough mother’ was first coined by Winnicot (a British psychoanalyst and paediatrician) in 1953. Through mother-infant observation he discovered that a certain amount of ‘failure’ by the mother actually benefited her child – it allowed them to develop a certain level of what today would be described as ‘resilience’. I have to remind myself of this constantly, because I feel like I fuck up daily.

Today’s tally looks like this:

Failures

  1. Allowed my eldest daughter to have toast for lunch.
  2. Got distracted for a good hour or so trying to look for jobs and left her watching TV.
  3. As soon as my youngest went down for a nap, I went to have a cigarette (my nicotine habit is a source of great shame, even though I try to mitigate the harm as best I can by timing my few cigarettes with periods that I know she won’t need to breastfeed for a good few hours).
  4. Was so in my own head that I cut short a make-believe game we were playing because I couldn’t concentrate.
  5. Didn’t have enough patience with either child at bedtime.
  6. While my eldest was cuddling up next to me as I fed her little sister, it made my skin crawl. Not because I don’t love her cuddles, but just because it felt overhelming. I tried not to show it, but I hate the idea that she might sense that.

Good enough

  1. I took the girls out to the shops in the morning and bought my eldest some Smarties as a thank you for brings so lovely while we looked for presents for her sisters birthday.
  2. I helped my eldest make a card for her sister.
  3. I painted butterflies with them.
  4. I didn’t freak out when my eldest refused the stir fry I made for lunch.
  5. I took the girls to the playground for an hour.
  6. I managed to keep to our schedule and have them both fed, bathed, stories read and asleep by 7:15. 
  7. I have bought balloons, presents and flowers ready for my youngest’s first birthday tomorrow (this is tempered by the fact that I’m very aware my youngest hasn’t got a ‘big’ present from us like her big sister did because we are broke).

All in all, I’m calling today a draw.

‘Putting yourself out there’ is fucking terrifying

‘Putting yourself out there’ is fucking terrifying

But unfortunately, nearly always necessary.

The time has come, my little friends, to talk of other things. Like how hard it is to find a bloody job if you have small children. No wait that’s not true – there are a number of part time jobs available in my local area. Cleaner, housekeeper, school crossing patrol, shop assistant and care worker roles regularly come up on my job search feeds. 

I would do these jobs. I have put in applications, despite feeling, deep down, that it would actually be incredibly unethical for me to take any of them. I have a Master’s degree and a fair amount of professional experience as a researcher and information specialist. Another person without those supposed professional advantages should get them, while I focus on finding something that uses my skills. Turns out the hiring managers think that too as I never even get more than the standard “Thanks, but no thanks” rejection email, so at least I don’t have to face that particular ethical quandary.

Trouble is, outside of the metropolitan bubble, no one seems to have grasped that jobs can be worked flexibly. Calls to recruitment agencies or HR departments enquiring as to whether I could apply for an interesting-sounding role alongside a request for flexible working always seem to involve an extended period of silence while the recruiter processes the words I’ve said, and carefully calculates how to phrase “No” in such a way so as not to contravene employment legislation. Sometimes they don’t manage it and just say “No” – and as it’s already taken enough of my will-power to make the call in the first place, I rarely challenge them. 

If im honest, I’m not sure I could necessarily face going back to what I used to do, or any organisation where the purpose was to line shareholder’s pockets rather than actually make the world slightly better. I’ve been thinking about potential career moves and think I’ve found the right fit – trouble is, the training will set me back tens of thousands and I have zero access to finance thanks to a well-hammered credit score. But right now, I need to be bringing in some dosh because we are barely surviving on my partner’s wage. And I don’t think I have enough friends to make investing in an aloe vera pyramid scheme worthwhile.

Today I bit the proverbial bullet and sent out some unsolicited emails to local organisations in my desired field, in the hope that someone might take pity on me and either hire me or take me on as a volunteer. Talk about nerve-wracking. I regretted sending them almost immediately, convinced that whoever received them would point and laugh at their screen, and then show their colleague who would also point and laugh, and together they would compose a mocking reply.

It’s only been two hours so we will see. But as I’m always being reminded in therapy – if you don’t ask, you don’t get. Call it a behavioural experiment. 

An apology to the mother I blanked at the playground

An apology to the mother I blanked at the playground

I’m not being rude. Well, I guess I am, but that’s certainly not my intention. I’d love to be able to wave and smile, indulge in idle chat and get to know you and your kids better. Yes, I recognise you from my daughter’s nursery, or the children’s centre. I probably know your kid’s name, but I’ve never managed to find out yours. 

My daughter, with all the amazing self-confidence of a three year old, exclaims “It’s my friend!” when she spots her playmate across the park. As she runs towards your little girl, she stops to look back for me. I’m following behind, pushing her little sister in the pram, and while I smile encouragingly, she must sense some unease on my part, because she pulls back, then heads towards me muttering that she’s “a bit shy”. This is the moment I should reassure her that there’s nothing to fear, take her hand and take the lead, demonstrating how to approach a friendly acquaintance, to smile at you and strike up a conversation so she and her little friend can relax and make sand castles together. Instead, I mutter “that’s OK”, and try to direct her attention to the slide or swings. 

It has already taken a great deal of courage and determination for me to get us to the playground that morning. Where once I was confident and self-assured, although always naturally an introvert, I am now cowed and anxious. This period of mental illness has been ongoing since that moment at my eldest’s first birthday party where, house packed full of people, I locked myself away upstairs to rock back and forth and pray that the first panic attack, and worst, I’d had in years would soon dissipate. It did as soon as I heard the car doors start to slam as friends and family made their way home, having been kindly but firmly ushered out of my house at the end of the afternoon by my mother. Since that June day, two years ago, barely a week has gone by without a similar attack, and my world has continued to shrink, even as my daughters has expanded. Friends have fallen away, jobs lost, weight dropped along with the confidence I was a good mother. Now, most days, I only see my failings. 

The fear that you will see them too is what keeps me from reaching out. 

I tell myself I will get there. I tell myself my kids will be OK – after all, they are blessed to have the love and support of a gregarious grandmother who makes friends with anyone and everyone, a quietly brave father, who although shy, has an aura around him that people gravitate to, and a grandfather who enjoys the outdoors and knows the names of all the local flora and fauna. 

I also tell myself that maybe, without me having to apologise or explain, you might already understand. 

I don’t have an eating disorder, I’m just terrified of food

I don’t have an eating disorder, I’m just terrified of food

I exhibit a number of behaviours which have similarities to those shown by someone with an eating disorder. I often eat alone, furtively and super-quick. I might stop eating something after a few bites and throw the rest away. I struggle to sit down and eat with others and will literally do anything to avoid having to eat out, including at the homes of friends or family.

I don’t have an eating disorder. I have no issue with my appearance, my weight, and I don’t use food as a comfort. I don’t purge, or binge, or calory count, or over- exercise. I have never done any of those things, and I thank my mother in particular for modelling a healthy attitude to food and body image for having escaped the horrors of an eating disorder. 

I have cibophobia (sometimes known as sitophobia) which translates as a fear of food. Not that food might make me gain weight, but that it might make me physically unwell. I have had this phobia, at varying levels of intensity, for at least ten years, although I only discovered it had a name very recently. It’s an odd one, because this phobia is usually triggered by some kind of childhood trauma or actual food allergy. I am quite physically robust, was rarely sick as a kid, with no known allergies. But I did get an awful dose of food poisoning on a trip to India back in 2004, which I recognise was probably the original trigger, even though the phobia didn’t start to show itself until some years later. And every time I’ve been unlucky enough to get (thankfully milder) bouts of food poisoning subsequently, it’s usually triggered a relapse into heightened anxiety and OCD.

It’s very hard to explain this phobia to anyone – doctors and therapists do tend to jump to eating disorders and I have to work quite hard to convince them it’s not the same thing. I also have to explain I do not have a fear of vomiting (emetophobia). Sure it’s not pleasant, but I didn’t freak out when I had morning sickness during my pregnancies for example. It’s a fear that by eating something unsafe or contaminated, I might then be poisoned, and be so ill as to be incapacitated, and (here’s the crucial bit I think) helpless. For me, the phobia has spilled over into OCD behaviours and an acute fear of contamination by other means too (the very word ‘norovirus’ can trigger a panic attack, and I watch people around me intently to check their own hand hygiene standards). My absolute nightmare scenario would be for my entire family to be struck down by food poisoning / similar at the same time and somehow I’d still have to care for everyone else while coping with my own illness.

To avoid this happening (to keep myself and my family ‘safe’) I can go to pretty extreme lengths. Firstly, I often heavily restrict my own diet. If I’m having a bad week, I might only eat a specific brand of cereal, with perhaps some pasta and cheese and maybe bananas. If I’m feeling more myself, I will attempt to cook a proper meal for my family (a painstaking process with lots of checks and double checks and hand washing and fluctuating anxiety levels), but will often find that when it comes time to eat it, I chicken out and don’t serve myself a portion, lest it somehow despite my best efforts be unsafe. My thinking here is, if my family does get sick, at least I won’t and so will be able to look after them. Sometimes I have wonderful days where I manage to eat well, healthily, alongside the people I love but they have been a rarity recently.

It’s a hard phobia for my loved ones to understand because the rules seem to change on a near daily basis. On a really bad day, I might struggle to eat more than toast (and even then chances are I won’t eat the bit of the toast I’ve touched). On an OK day, I might eat fairly normally but freak out because my partner has decided to make himself a chicken salad (I panic that he might unwittingly spread salmonella everywhere) and then spend an hour cleaning the kitchen. On a good day I might actually cook a roast chicken and eat some of it, but chances are I won’t go back for seconds even if I’m still hungry as, to mitigate the ‘risk’, I’ll limit my ‘exposure’. I have developed so many weird internal rules and safety behaviours I can barely articulate them to myself let alone anyone else. My partner basically has to check in with me before doing anything in the kitchen, and this is a fairly major strain on us sometimes.

This phobia really fucking sucks and is ruining my life. 

Firstly, I have been either pregnant or breastfeeding or both for nearly four years straight; my body has a high nutritional need right now and I am just not able to provide that for myself most days. I have lost far too much weight, and feel and look scrawny and ill. 

Secondly, I actually really enjoy cooking and eating when I am in my right mind. I used to find cooking a cathartic, creative experience, I own a lot of cook-books, and am actually pretty good at it (I’ve never been much good at baking though). I used to love eating out, or at friends houses, or with my partner at home after a tough day. Something I absolutely enjoyed has been spoiled for me.

Thirdly, as a result of this phobia my world has shrunk and I’ve lost friends. I can’t go out for a meal with people, I can’t even manage drinks sometimes. I avoid any situation where I might be expected to eat something, lest I either a) get sick or b) offend someone by refusing. Agoraphobia and social anxiety have sprouted from this original phobia and further compounded the issue.

Fourthly, it is very very hard work to not pass this on to my daughters. Every day I try to prepare healthy food for my family and not let on to the inner panic I’m experiencing. This is exhausting.

I’m in therapy, using CBT to tackle the specific avoidance behaviours by building a fear hierarchy and working my way up it doing behavioural experiments by way of graded exposure (this week, sandwiches!). We’ve also identified that the belief underlying this fear is that it is not OK for me to be not OK (e.g. ill) – I have to be at my best and on call at all times because I am responsible for everyone and everything, because no one else can be trusted. Ironically, by fixating on food as a way of controlling my exposure to the risk of being let down by other people, I’m actually just succeeding in making myself ill in a different way.

This is a major work in progress. There are a lot of layers to it and I’m still figuring a lot of stuff out. But I wanted to write about it partly because there’s very little out there on this specific phobia – and hopefully it might help someone else going through similar articulate their own issues and hopefully receive better help.

I’ve never met someone with this same phobia so if this rings any bells for you please do get in touch.

Motherhood, containment and emotional contagion

Motherhood, containment and emotional contagion

You might have heard the phrase ’emotional contagion’ bandied around from time to time. It’s a phenomenon that you’ve probably experienced to some degree or other. Sharing a space with someone who is experiencing an acute emotional response (i.e. happiness, anger, fear) can trigger that same emotional response in you. It’s hardly surprising if we consider that we are effectively herd animals. Being attuned to other’s emotional states can help us predict their behaviour and perhaps by experiencing a little of what is going on in other’s minds can motivate us to try to problem-solve it if it is a ‘negative’ emotion, or enjoy it if ‘positive’.

Some people are more clued in to other people’s mental states than others. You might know someone who doesn’t seem to be able to emotionally read other people at all, and another who super-sensitive. Interestingly, this normal human skill seems to be heightened in mothers, and a recent study has shown that a woman’s brain actually reshapes itself to accentuate this skill during pregnancy, with the changes still visible on brain scans two years after giving birth. When you think about it, this makes perfect sense. A baby has no way of expressing its emotional needs other than by wailing its head off, and if you’ve let it get to that point, it’s already quite distressed. So instead, mothers (and it is mothers, fathers in the study showed no grey matter changes) have to be clued in to extra-subtle cues that the baby may give so that she can keep it safe and well. She is effectively mind reading, and experiencing some of her infant’s emotions as her own. This part of her brain works overtime until her infant becomes verbal and starts to be able to identify and articulate their own needs, which is usually around two years old.

On top of this, a mother also has to ‘contain’ her baby’s emotions. We know, even as adults, our own emotions can be overwhelming. Anyone who has ever held a screaming baby knows that the intensity of infants’ emotions can be overwhelming both for the infant and the caregiver. The caregiver has to keep their own emotional state in check and also take on those of the baby, ‘holding’ them within themselves, to allow the baby to eventually be soothed. This is exhausting work, as any parent, or anyone who cares for children or vulnerable people knows (‘containment’ is not a phenomena solely of the parent-infant dyad – we find it in many relationships and it is often discussed in therapeutic relationships).

I’ve been familiar with both concepts for some time, and have always been someone who might be considered on the ‘sensitive’ end of the scale. But when I read the study above, something really ‘clicked’ for me. During my recent period of mental illness (which started during my second pregnancy and is now starting to peter out approaching my youngest daughter’s first birthday), I began to really, really struggle with anyone else’s emotions. I would get irrationally worked up if anyone was experiencing anything that might be perceived as negative. My partner being tired after a hard day at work, or my toddler’s frustration that she couldn’t figure out a particular jigsaw puzzle, would send my anxiety sky-rocketing. Coming upon someone experiencing a major issue, say a visit from my mother while she was experiencing depression following redundancy, would send me in to full blown freeze mode where I de-personalise and de-realise and would have to withdraw.

I would (internally) rant and rave and be genuinely really fucking outraged that these people had the audacity to not be 100% content all the time. I perceived any discomfort they experienced as a criticism of the care I was giving them. Another thing for me to have to ‘fix’ to add to my teeteringly high to-do-pile. And I already felt I was running on less than empty. I was effectively angry at the people I loved for being humans and not robots. This used to just fuel my self-loathing – what the hell was wrong with me? Why was I such a selfish bitch? But reading that study helped me realise perhaps I could blame the process of pregnancy and early mothering itself. My brain changed and left me like a huge satellite dish. I was so attuned to their emotions it hurt, because I didn’t have the internal space left to contain them alongside my own, and so I just broke down further.

I am thankful that my youngest daughter was, from day one, a pretty chill and content baby. She has a serious pair of lungs on her when she is upset, but 99% of the time she is smiling and amiable. Family, friends and strangers alike comment on her sunny disposition. I wonder how much of this is just innate in her, and how much is because I was in such a state of nerve-stretching hyper-awareness when she was very small that I was actually very good at reading her cues and responding. Maybe these god-awful months of illness have had one positive outcome.

My recovery from this bout of illness is ongoing. I am working hard in therapy and in my day to day life to try to tackle my anxiety, phobias and OCD behaviours specifically. But I still really struggle living with other people. I have to constantly check in with myself if I notice a bad mood coming over me – is this my shit? Most of the time I’m still not sure – it feels like bad TV reception or fuzzy radio static. And I sometimes dream that I would get a lot better a lot quicker if I just took myself and my kids somewhere remote and could get a clear signal. But if the science is anything to go by, things should start to return to something approaching normality in another twelve months. So perhaps I should hold out in society just a little longer.

Five things that actually help when you’re feeling like shit

Five things that actually help when you’re feeling like shit

If you’ve ever suffered from any form of mental illness, chances are you’ve spent an awful lot of time stuck in your own head trying to figure out how on earth you can get back to feeling in any way human. You go over and over all the advice you’ve ever received. Maybe some well meaning friend or family member has made an ‘easy-as-pie’ suggestion like ‘Try yoga!’. Maybe your doctor has, while simultaneously handing over a prescription and mumbling something not-suitably-apologetic about therapy waiting lists, suggested that you might like to take up running. Maybe you’ve come across an Instagram account where someone impossibly shiny has insisted that they’ve cured their mental health problem purely with kale.

So I’m jotting down five things that have actually made a difference to me on a very small, day-to-day basis. None of these work miracles. None of these will ‘cure’ you. But they will make your day a bit more bearable, a bit more real, and hopefully, slowly and steadily make it through until this particular episode starts to subside a little.

Oh and they’re all free, because I’m fucking poor.

Go outside

An oldy but a goody. Staring at the same four walls is not good for you. Even a short walk in the driving rain, sleet, or snow, will do something to reset your system a bit and perhaps even help temporarily break the cycle of negative thoughts you might have found yourself in that day. It helps to reconnect you to the world. It helps to get your blood pumping (even if, like me, that might also be the onset of a panic attack). Try to focus on what you see around you and not your own issues for fifteen minutes, but honestly, even if you remain a self-hating zombie for the entire walk around the block, it will have still done some good.

Eat something tasty

Anything you enjoy. Ice-cream or chocolate if you like. Even better if you enjoy a nice healthy salad but its nutritional value is not important. When we’re depressed we actually forget what it feels like to feel enjoyment and happiness. A well made cup of tea and a really good cake, if you’re paying attention, can help you experience a little contentment on an otherwise shitty day.

Turn your phone off and stay off the internet

At the time of writing, the world really sucks. Trump. Brexit. The refugee crisis. Syria. Global warming. These are all fucking terrifying and real and make us feel helpless and overwhelmed and scared and angry (well they do me). Equally, trawling through reams and reams of happy-happy-joy-joy photos of friends, colleagues, acquaintances and random strangers on social media, or engaging in a completely unwinnable Facebook argument with your racist Uncle Bob are not things that are going to leave you feeling any better about yourself. I am by no means saying disengage entirely: the problems in the world today need concerned and engaged people if we’re going to go any way to solving them, and having good social connections can help us feel well. But sometimes you need to shut off from that for your own sanity. Schedule a little time for you to check what you need to, but otherwise, keep it switched off. So finish this article and then go away please.

Find a real person to talk to

This can be a big ask on a bad day. But a little, pleasant social interaction can be enough to get you through. I’m a natural introvert, and even when I’m healthy I need a lot of time alone and find interactions with more than a handful of people at a time really tough going. But half an hour colouring with my daughter and listening to her gibber away, even on a really awful day, lifts my spirits. Or a phone call to my sister. Or listening to my partner get really excited about some new record he’s bought. I don’t have to talk, just listening can be nice. If you live alone it can be very easy to go for days and even weeks without any meaningful interaction with another human being (I know, I had a few major depressive episodes when I lived alone in my early twenties). Talk about the weather with the friendly guy at the corner shop. If you’re not able to do that, and I know sometimes that would feel impossibly scary, call one of the many helplines managed by volunteers for just this. The Samaritans are available 24/7. The idea is to hear a friendly human voice, not to fix any of your problems.

Get something done

When I first started experiencing major depressive episodes, I would often lay on my bed at night and write what I would come to call my ‘Mother Theresa Lists’. I would try to convince myself that tomorrow was a new day, that I would wake up and take up marathon running, quit drinking and smoking, tidy my house, volunteer with the elderly, etc. The end of the following day, none of those things would have come close to having been accomplished and I would feel even more shit. When I eventually started therapy, I was gently advised to maybe think smaller (y’think?). It was OK to have a list that consisted of ‘Wake up, shower, brush teeth, eat something’. I wasn’t always managing those things. But if felt good to tick them off when I did. So think of one, small thing, that you need to do today, write it down, do it, and tick it off. It could be taking the dog for a walk, or doing the washing up, or putting a load of laundry on (drying and sorting the laundry can wait for another day, and don’t get me started on ironing). And always put ‘Wake up’ at the beginning of your list because chances are, you’ll manage it and even if you do nothing else, you can at least put one tick!

The aim here is to get through today, and not worry to much about yesterday or tomorrow. I have no medical or psychological training – I’m just someone who has been there. If you’re struggling and you haven’t already, please do see your doctor – mental illness is a real thing and there is help out there, although you do sometimes have to work hard to get it. In the meantime, I hope these tips go some way to helping you get back to feeling like you. It will happen some day.

Things I have been frightened of this year

Things I have been frightened of this year

I’m no stranger to depression and anxiety. Sometimes a side order of OCD and agoraphobia too. I also have a very specific phobia: cibophobia (more on that story later.) Following the birth of my second child in the summer of 2016 I very nearly lost all sense of reason.

There follows a list of things that have frightened me at various points over the last twelve months.

  • Crisps
  • Supermarkets
  • Public transport
  • Doctors surgeries
  • Phonecalls
  • Toast
  • Apples
  • Touching my children
  • Other people’s children
  • Using the toilet
  • Cooking
  • Eating the same thing as someone else
  • Travelling by car
  • Having people in my house
  • Leaving my house
  • Being alone with my partner
  • Therapy
  • Takeaways
  • Spiders*
  • Meat
  • Salad
  • Ladybirds
  • My in-laws
  • New clothes
  • Library books
  • Brushing my teeth
  • Having sex**
  • Dogs
  • Reading horoscopes
  • Gardening
  • Vitamins
  • Ice cream
  • Chip and pin machines
  • Mobile phones
  • Going to the dentist
  • Cutlery
  • Conversations
  • Door handles
  • Kissing
  • Money
  • Chocolate***
  • Tea towels
  • Bedding
  • Social media
  • Melons

*I’ve been mildly scared of spiders as long as I can remember so don’t really count this one.

**It’s more complicated than just anxiety.

***By far the most upsetting fear.

Some of these fears are fairly long standing. For example, I first started to develop a fear of public transport in 2011, but living in London at the time, I pretty much had to power through it if I wanted to get to work, see friends etc. Subsequent to moving out to the sticks and being laid off, this fear has been able to sort of oscify.

But most of these things don’t scare me in a fixed, permanent way: I don’t actually know what’s going to scare me on a day to day basis. Something might terrify me on Monday but not even register with me on the Tuesday. And the fear reaction can be something as mild as having the thought ‘Hmm… this might not be safe’ but being able to make a risk assessment and override if relatively easily (e.g. eat the crisps anyway), to complete aversion and avoidance behaviours (not leaving the house/making the phonecall/eating the meal), to derealisation and withdrawal (going completely inside myself and freezing up) to full on panic attacks (nausea, not being able to feel my extremities, head spinning etc.).

I am in a near-constant state of mild panic. I spend so, so much energy evaluating perceived risks and constructing elaborate ways in which I might mitigate them but still be able to vaguely function. And I have to try my absolute best to do this in such a way whereby my children do not pick up on my anxiety, and do not live a restricted life. It is exhausting and makes me furious: I get so angry thinking about all the things I could accomplish if I use the energy I expend evaluating the respective merits of teaspoons on something worthwhile.

I’m working on it. I’m constructing fear hierarchies and trying to work through them systematically while at the same time continuing to figure out what on earth this is actually really about. It’s not about fucking teaspoons.