Mind & Body

What I wished someone had asked me when I was suffering postnatal depression

For the first few months of her daughter’s life, Olympic gold medalist and then-new mum Libby Trickett thought she was on easy street: she was getting 8-10 hours of shut-eye! But when Poppy’s sleep started to regress, Libby found herself in a brutal cycle of fatigue and frustration. This RUOK Day, she shares her story of postnatal depression with Body+Soul.

In 2015, after the birth of my first daughter, I could never have envisaged what path lay ahead for me. Perhaps naively, I assumed that I would be able to take to it, like a duck to water (excuse the pun). Lots of women go through childbirth and sleep deprivation and seem to manage relatively easily so of course that would be me!

But there is something about sleep deprivation that is cruel and lonely. There is something about your own personal expectations of yourself and your performance as the mother you imagined you would be which can be cruel and punishing.

I don’t think anything can prepare you for the rollercoaster ride of parenthood. It’s something you just have to strap yourself in for, try to ensure you have a good support system in place and hope for the best. It’s true what they say, in that, “This, too, shall pass”, but it can be a brutal journey along the way.

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In the beginning…

The first four months of Poppy’s life, she was sleeping well overnight. Sure, she was cranky and only enjoyed tiny catnaps of around 45min during the day, but overnight we were getting 8-10hrs!

“I must be NAILING it,” I thought to myself.

“How do people think it’s so hard to get babies to sleep during the night?!” My smugness would be my undoing.

At four months, she hit the dreaded sleep regression, as though she’d decided that sleeping was no longer for her, day or night. The 45min catnaps became a staple of night time as well and I spent the next five months attempting to co-sleep for ease of settling, re-settling and settling again. Every. 45. Minutes.

My brain wasn’t coping with that amount of sleep deprivation (it’s a torture technique for a reason) and my already strong tendency to be self-critical of my performance as a mother went to another level of suffocation.

Nothing I did was good enough. Every time she was cranky, every time she cried, anytime she hated being in the car, that was my fault. I wasn’t enough for her. My love wasn’t enough for her because if it was, wouldn’t she be sleeping? Wouldn’t she be happy?

My rock bottom

My rock bottom happened when I was attempting something that looked like self-care by going to the gym. As soon as I put nine-month-old Poppy in the car to head to the session, she started crying. It’s as though I lost total control. I spent the entire time of that half-hour car trip screaming, yelling, crying hot, tired tears at my baby girl.

There weren’t words. Only screaming and tears (from both of us). When I arrived at the gym, I realised that I had no memory of the trip. I was driving unsafely; I was screaming at my baby and I feared what would be next if I didn’t ask for help. So, I called my husband, I made an appointment with my GP and with my psychologist. Slowly but surely, I made my way out of the darkness.

The diagnosis

I don’t think I was shocked by the diagnosis of Postnatal Depression because of my thoughts and feelings at the time but on some level, I was shocked it happened to me.

The reality is though, that in the first year after birth, it can affect up to one in five women. That’s 100,000 women in Australia, every single year. I wish more people knew that, especially women about to have their first baby, and are able to put more cemented support systems in place, even if they think they won’t need it.

The most important things that have helped me not only overcome my PND but also, ensure that I continue to take care of my mental health are fairly basic but so effective.

Take control of your mental health

  1. Exercise.
  2. Sleep (which obviously can be difficult with babies and children).
  3. Good nutrition.
  4. A kind and understanding GP.
  5. A wonderful psychologist.

But if you’re suspecting a friend or loved one is struggling after the birth of a new baby, one of the most important and easiest things you can do to help is to simply ask “are you ok?” and taking the time to really listen to their answer.

Libby released a book late last year, Beneath the Surface, which is the brave and inspiring memoir of one of Australian swimming’s golden girls, whose extraordinary achievements masked her private battles with anxiety and depression.