I still remember the day I was diagnosed with a post-natal anxiety disorder. My first reaction was similar to most when I heard those words – “Post-natal anxiety? In a bloke? But I didn’t give birth”. I felt embarrassed, ashamed and certainty that it just wasn’t true and that I had been misdiagnosed.
Turns out I wasn’t.
From the moment my son was born I never felt comfortable in public places. I was constantly worried about the looks from people when he cried or needed comfort, I was worried about him impacting others around me, and also stressed to the point of anger about people coming too close to us when we were out and about. Simply put I wasn’t enjoying fatherhood unless we were at home in our apartment, playing on the floor or making silly faces at each other on the lounge.
We didn’t have the easiest of starts to parenthood. Our son had some minor issues during the birth and was placed in special care for a few days, by the time he was well enough to leave we were discharged from hospital without much of a clue as to what we were doing. Our son wouldn’t sleep and didn’t with any regularity for the first 18 months despite everything we tried (which was everything and anything anyone could tell us). My wife (Bec) had a really hard time breastfeeding which obviously didn’t help the sleep situation, but also had a big impact on her mentally. I will never forget the sight of her feeding our beautiful son, looking out our living room window weeping. What was supposed to be the most magical moment between mother and son was in reality a constant source of frustration and feelings of guilt.
She fell into a very dark place quite quickly which we initially put down to exhaustion however was quickly diagnosed as Post Natal Depression. We were put in touch with the team at Gidget House and Bec began her treatment. I was committed to being as supportive as possible and taking a lead on things while Bec was going through this. I was trying to be Superdad at home, keep my career on track, maintain my friendships and support my wife through everything she was experiencing. For months I felt like I was doing a decent job of it and then one day it all came crashing down.
It was innocuous enough, a flippant comment from a couple on a packed ferry when my son was having one of “those” days on the way home from daycare. A comment that nine times out of ten I would have ignored or simply laughed off. Instead it took every ounce of mental resilience I had left not to get physical, and started me on a spiral of crippling anxiety, frustration and lost moments with my son that should have been treasured.
From that day on for the next few months the idea of leaving the house with my son made me physically ill. I would think of excuses to stay in like it was too hot, it was too cold, he had a runny nose, he looks tired… anything to stay within the comfort and safety of our home. I tried to hide how I was feeling from my wife but it was slowly manifesting in other ways. I was always on edge, distancing myself from things I like to do and from spending time with our mates. I struggled to enjoy any of the time I spent with my son – generally because I felt a deep sense of guilt about not being outside the house with him. More than anything I was angry all of the time and knew to my bones I was going to be powerless to stop the inevitable explosion.
I was finally honest with my wife about how I was feeling and she made an appointment for me at Gidget House. Walking into that appointment for the first time I felt like a fraud. I kept thinking ‘what am I doing here’ and ‘I’m wasting this doctors time’. Many times I went to cancel the session and in the end I decided I would show up and use it as a chance to find ways to support my wife better, however that all changed when I walked in. Within ten minutes of talking I was diagnosed with post-natal anxiety and after the initial shock and denial wore off, the weight of the world fell off my shoulders. I found it a relief to have a diagnosis, and joy at being told this is a treatable disorder that is surprisingly common in men. I was given practical tools to use to manage my anxiety in public, and given a plan to slowly regain the confidence in myself to enjoy time outdoors with my son.
It’s been a long road and I am still not completely conformable when out and about with a very energetic and mobile young fella, however I no longer avoid it and have begun to enjoy those magical moments as he grows and explores the world around him.
I am also not embarrassed or ashamed of my diagnosis or experience. I’m proud of the fact I had the resilience and strength to seek help, and the hard times have made me really appreciate the moments of unbridled joy we now get to share as a family.