by Anna Ceesay
Mum-of-two Michaela Parker got in touch with me through Instagram. I arranged for her to virtually meet one of my Editorial Board, perinatal psychiatrist Dr Rebecca Moore to chat about the use of medication for maternal mental health.
This interview took place in April 2019.
Michaela started by telling us her story:
“My second daughter was nothing like my first – because she had reflux she used to scream every time I took her out of the house. I started getting really anxious about going out. To the point where one day I ended up having a panic attack. I was getting her ready to go out, put her in the pram and she started crying. I couldn’t get her to stop and I just lost it. I couldn’t breathe, I was very hot. I was bent over, hyperventilating. Luckily my partner was here, and he came down and took over. He said, “I think you need to go to the doctor”, and in that moment, I agreed.
But for some reason, I was very against taking any medication. I went to my GP and she diagnosed me with postnatal anxiety (rather than PND). She was great, she asked me what I wanted to do about it, we talked about medication, and I said ‘I don’t really know why I don’t want to take it, but there’s something stopping me. I don’t feel like I need it.’ So I had some talking therapy, but it didn’t work. I had about four sessions and it wasn’t for me. A few weeks on, things weren’t getting any better. The panic attacks were happening more and more frequently and it just got to the point where I was horrible to be around. I was really snappy; I was grumpy all the time with my other little girl and my partner. I got to the point where I wasn’t enjoying it at all. I felt rubbish. I didn’t feel like myself.
My partner sat me down and encouraged me to go back to the doctor, ‘maybe be put on something for a little bit, there’s no shame in it.’ He’s been on meds for depression in the past and he said, ‘you just have to go into it with the mindset that it’s not forever, you are going to come off them, it’s just going to help you get through this difficult patch and help you make sense of things and be able to cope.’ I realised that I didn’t want to be this person, so I went back to the GP. I was prescribed anti-depressants and I remember telling the doctor that I think I resisted medication initially because I feel like I’ve failed for some reason if I accept that I need them.
But if I’d done it weeks and weeks before, things would have been so much better, because immediately I started feeling different and better. And they said to me, it’s going to take six weeks for them to kick in properly and for them to have the full effect, but even that night, after taking one with my lunch, getting up in the night, the feeds and the sleeplessness, felt more doable. I remember sitting there, thinking this is ridiculous, because it can’t have affected me this quickly, but I already feel better. And from that day on things have improved, my daughter’s reflux has pretty much gone, and the panic attacks aren’t really happening anymore. I’ve been on the meds for about three months, and they’re really helping.”
Anna: “Thank you for sharing your story with us Michaela. I think that’s a common theme – feeling like we’re a failure if we accept medication. Rebecca – what’s your response to that?”
Rebecca: “I think we’re really hard on ourselves. With any other illness we wouldn’t question our GP suggesting medication but as new mothers we often feel like we’re ‘failing as a mum’ if we take medication, that we are to blame or that we will be judged.
It sounds like your GP was really good, she listened to you and then gave you options – she didn’t just give you a prescription. It’s also great that she noticed the difference between anxiety and depression.
And it was wonderful that your partner gave you such support and reassured you that there’s no shame in taking medication. The support of our family is often crucial in allowing women to feel able to take medication.
We really need to know that medication is a choice that’s available, but it needs to be presented as an option rather than the only option. Michaela, do you think there was anything else stopping you from taking the medication initially?”
Michaela: “Looking back, I think it was because I’ve never been on anything like that before, I’ve never had mental health issues. I guess it’s the stigma, and having something like anti-depressants paints you with that brush, that you’ve got a mental health issue and you’re having to take something to treat it. It made me feel like a failure if I did take them, at first.”
Rebecca: “What would you say to other mums who might be thinking about taking medication, now, after your experience?”
Michaela: “I would definitely urge them to give it a go. I’ve been really open about the fact that I’ve been suffering and I’m on medication. I’m not the sort of person to hide it away, which I think has helped me, as well as having my partner’s support. If I was physically ill, and the doctor said you need antibiotics, I wouldn’t think twice, I’d just take them. If there’s other options that you want to try first then great, but don’t be scared to give medication a go. Because I was so surprised how much they changed how I was feeling. The anxiety and the feelings are still there, but I just feel more able to cope with it. Everything feels a little bit easier and I don’t fly off the handle as quickly. I still feel like myself, it doesn’t mess with my head. The doctors said if I experienced any side effects that we could always change the medication or the dosage. I was lucky; I didn’t have any side effects. The doctor was really open about that too. It doesn’t make me feel like I’m drugged up, I feel completely normal, but it just takes the edge off those feelings, and the horrible side of it.”
Rebecca: “It’s so great to hear that it’s helping you Michaela. There is still such a stigma and shame about taking medication but for many women it’s life saving. Medication can always be a choice – if anyone’s reading this wondering how to take the first step – find someone who offers you a range of choices and explains them to you fully. Often taking medication enables you to feel better quickly; it helps many women feel like they can cope day-to-day and then they are more able to exercise, eat well, sleep well or go to therapy to maintain their wellness in the long term.
Most modern medications prescribed and monitored well shouldn’t cause side effects, they will not drug you or make you numb, but they can help you feel like you can cope, that you have more resilience to day-to-day stresses, you feel stronger.
Taking medication is not for life, most women take anti-depressants for around 12-18 months and then can safely and easily stop with support. Taking medication is not weakness, it’s strength and courage and a desire to be well. It’s your choice, your body, your illness, do what you need; and for many, medication is a positive part of that journey.”
If you’ve been affected by any issues in this article, please speak to your GP. For more resources please see our Urgent Warning.