You can’t be depressed dear, you’re wearing mascara ! Said the wizard to the fairy one summer morning when the sun was shining, the birds were singing , the grandparents were gazing at their new glorious grandchild and the new mother was crying in the corner albeit with a slick of heather shimmer across her lips and a slide of liquid liner across the peepers . Little did people know the made up face hadn’t been done because mummy as she was now forever known was having such a delightful restful time that she had three hours to put her face on .no, the perfectly applied make up was applied as a mask, a mask to cover up how she was really feeling. Give her face a stroke and the layers of foundation will crack and will reveal what’s really underneath – a desperate woman who isn’t revelling in motherhood, but who in fact is so sad she cries until her mascara runs down her face .
Over the last year since writing my blog and talking to women who have been through perinatal mental health illnesses , it has become really apparent to me that there appears to be some bizarre notion that some people dismiss mothers experiencing these illnesses as they ‘ don’t look depressed’.
” But you don’t look depressed”. Hmm, what does someone depressed or with a mental illness look like? Are they walking around with weights in their sleeves dragging them across the ground? Are they wandering around the park with a parrot on their shoulder talking to the trees? Are they a sad jabbering wreck? Have they not shaved their bikini line lately ? Well you, know , maybe. But they also may look like you do when you look in the mirror, leave the house and go to work. Shock horror, they may shower,wear clean pants , shave their tash and wear the entirety of a make up counter on their faces . I know I do. I have a vast knicker collection ( my friend Sophie and I used to buy each other the wildest pants we could find at Christmas. Even though I am ow three sizes bigger and all the ribbons and mini poms poms – I have a pair of Mrs Christmas pants that fall off when you undo the strings at the side that hold a rather beautiful metaphorical unwrapping a present theory behind them- catch in my spanx these days, I refuse to chuck them out) , I wax my tash ( I recommend reading the label clearly if you do this as I have it on good authority , ahem, that if you do this in haste, you may accidentally pick up the bikini line wax. This is somewhat painful on the face and though you may indeed remove all the hairs, you will also remove 7 layers of skin, look as though you have dipped your face in ketchup and come out in welts and ingrown hairs ) and I adorn my face in beige elastic lip gloss and lather myself in fake bake. I also had postpartum psychosis , postnatal anxiety and generalised anxiety disorder . Being able to look the dolled up part therefore doesn’t mean you are exempt from feeling sad.
I often talk about the day I was told that I couldn’t have a perinatal mental health illness because I had mascara on. It’s almost as though make up has some kind of medical attachment to it and people think if you wear it , it means you can’t be feeling low. To be wearing it means you must feel like the hills are alive with the sound of music and though obviously for some this is the case but for so so many others, this isn’t true. Make up has the great power of being able to conceal a pile load of flaws, and not just physical. Concealer might cover up spots , but it also covers up eye bags that are embedded into your face from the pained crying you have been doing. Sometimes mascara helps open up those eyes so people don’t notice they have been worn out with tears.
I know that the day I was caught putting mascara on while in the midst of my psychotic breakdown , I think I was actually trying to find the old me. Before having my child, I loved looking my best. Now, in the fresh hell that I was finding motherhood, I wanted to try and gain back that normality . I had a fear of the future to such an extent that I had started to consider that death was the only way out. I had a realisation that this child was now here forever and I was hit with the hammer of a feeling that I had made a terrible terrible mistake in having him. I would wander round chanting ‘I just want it to go back to me and john,I want things back to how they used to be’ but of course this wasn’t going to happen. A baby isn’t something you put into the recycling when you have finished with it , it’s here forever and my mind found that very concept beyond terrifying. I was too scared to be in the same room as him so when he wasn’t attached to my boob with john sitting next to me to ensure I didn’t drop the baby because of my shaking, I tended to just sit on my own on the end of the bed staring at the floor trembling. I did this a lot. I did this almost all of the time.my teeth would chatter with nerves at his presence and I just wanted the baby to go away and get my old life back.and I think painting my face not only took up time to ensure I could avoid my child, but it also gave me a glimpse of what I would do in my former child free life.
And this mask then can fool people into thinking you are fine. That you are embracing motherhood with gusto, that the baby has come along and you wouldn’t even know it as you are doing all the things you used to do . I found this. I have mentioned this in a few blog posts but I and john most certainly won’t forget get the day that I woke up , manic , and basically in the midst of a pretty bad psychotic episode. John had gone to work as I had insisted I was ok ( this was fairly early on) and on his return , he found me in the kitchen holding a packet of frozen stewing steak mumbling ‘must cook stew’ on repeat. Bar the fact that stew takes quite a long time to make and unless we were planning to eat at 10pm the next day, I don’t think the frozen lump of meat was going to be doing anything useful , I looked very bizarre. I have very muddled memories of that day and john has thankfully filled in the what I can only say I must now say are amusing blank spaces. If I don’t laugh at them , I may cry. Again. I was apparently in an apron ( because obviously I always wore one of them and didn’t just fry the bacon in my pants) , with a bun on the top of my head so solid with hairspray I may have been flammable , and more worryingly, with blue eyeshadow and coral orange lipstick adorning my face. John says I smelt of bleach and then attempted to climb out of the window. As you do when you are completely well obviously. He called the health visitor and said ‘ she is acting , erm , weird. She looks like , erm, Mary poppins’.
The health visitor arrived . And informed john that I was nesting and clearly just wanted the house to be stick and span for my new precious bundle of joy and wasn’t he lucky that I was making him a nice meal , Mmm, yummy stew a la psychosis with a sprinkling of blusher. At this point I will repeat – I had blue eyeshadow on and coral orange lipstick. I looked like a 1980s glamour shot .This was 2010,blue eyeshadow was not en vogue and my mother who is nearly forty years older than me last wore coral lipstick in 1989. This wild makeover should have been evidence enough that I was losing the plot but no, it just showed I liked scrubbing according to the professionals.
And it’s not just make up that covers your feel emotions up. That’s just the imagery I’m using. It’s the fake smiles, the well timed laughter, the omelette over your face to make people laugh when you’re actually feeling awful.
Mental illness can be like the invisible illness. Often , you can’t see it but because you can’t , it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Just because someone appears to be going on with their life at what looks like to you , in the way they normally would, it doesn’t mean they aren’t suffering. And for me, I obviously relate this to mental illness after having a baby. I don’t care what people say, there is a massive stigma attached to this kind of mental illness. Having a baby is supposed to be the most joyous thing in life you can ever endure. It’s supposed to be all rose petals and gurgles, with deep joy at being able to stare at your baby for hours on end thinking , it’s all worth it. And when you say , look , I don’t think I like it,what the fuck have I done , people recoil in horror. Because having a baby is the biggest thing nature does. Women have babies, women make milk to nurse babies, women have the ability to survive on one hours sleep a fortnight , and some women have 13 children and are back cooking a pork shoulder for the other 12 two hours after giving birth .
But for a fairly large amount of women , the experience is not initially this magical fairy tale. I have heard postnatal depression described as the ‘fluffy mental illness’ and one that people think women make up . There are the ‘in my day we were too busy to be depressed’ brigade who shame women into not wanting to reveal they don’t feel like their antenatal class told them they would do. And if you are faced with this stigma , what do you do ? You cover it up in any way you can in the hope that if you paint over the cracks whether it’s with make up , fake smiles, forced laughter, forced love towards the baby you aren’t sure you want, that it will go away. In some cases , these feelings do go quickly, your thoughts sort themselves out and the sad feelings while away on their own. Hurrah. But for some women, this isn’t the case. I hear stories of women who have babies over six months old saying they have been wandering around in a glazed daze of anxiety and depression but have been keeping up appearances as they are too ashamed to tell anyone how they feel . Everyone thinks they are fine as they are going through the motions but they aren’t . It’s like a scab that looks like it is healing but with one tiny pick, all the blood comes pouring out and this needs to change.
Mental illness is not a look. It’s not something you see in the pages of a magazine because if it was visual, it wouldn’t look very nice. So if you see someone who has just had a baby, offer to help,ask how things are, be gentle with them. Please refrain from the ‘HOW ARE YOU’ in slow loud tones like your friend has suddenly regressed to pre-school age though – I don’t believe there is any research to show that people experiencing mental illness need to be spoken.to.like.they.are.stupid. Just make it aware that if they want to talk , you will listen. If they need someone to go to the doctor with them to explain that even though they are smiling and laughing , inside they feel crushed. Upon asking they may of course find they are genuinely loving motherhood and that is wonderful but they may not be . They may be desperate for someone to say, I know you have painted toenails but I just wondered how things are ?
I’ll throw in at this point that there is a wonderful charity in the UK called The Smile Group. They have this fabulous tool on their website which is a GP checklist which can help you if you are don’t know how to tell the doctor how you are feeling. I have spoken to two women recently who have been holding an invisible mask over their emotions and felt like they couldn’t reach out for help from their doctor as they didn’t know what to say. I showed them this checklist which is here http://www.thesmilegroup.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/GP-Checklist.pdf . You can fill it in and ask the receptionist to get the doctor to read it and call you or make an appointment and hand it to them. They will then see that even though you look ok, that looks can be deceiving . You have been putting on an oscar worthy performance of utter joy but you can’t stay in that role forever.
It’s had to tell people how you feel when you feel betrayed by your mind. That awful feeling that your mind has shifted form you controlling it to it controlling you and not in a good way is terrifying but let me tell you , it does get better. One day, you won’t look in the mirror and think , Christ alive, another day of gritted teeth with a fake smile in public , I promise. One day soon you will look in the mirror and think , I feel a bit better I feel like I can face the world without that metaphorical mask and I feel ok.
Let’s go Greek and take these masks off and smash them on the ground like plates , crash ,bang , wallop. And kick them out of your way as nothing will stand in your way of happiness now. If you actually do this in a restaurant you may have to pay for the damage though so maybe refrain from launching your carbonara at the wall and just be content in the knowledge that you are going to be ok. More than ok, you are going to be happy xx