When it comes to depression, it can be incredibly hard to find the right words to describe our feelings.
I have struggled to convey my own experience of it. And in the face of my own grim reality, I find myself drawn to metaphorical representations. Of all the literary quotes I’ve remembered over the years, there is one description of The Neverending Story by Michael Ende that stands out to me in the wake of prenatal depression. Within Ende’s story, The Nothing is a faceless antagonist and is described by another character with uncertainty:
“The Nothing caught us in our sleep and this is what it did to us. You don’t feel a thing. There’s just something missing. And once it gets hold of you, something more is missing every day. Soon there won’t be anything left of us.”
I did not expect any such “Nothing” to get hold of me. Certainly not during a time I expected to be at my happiest: I had a home, a loving husband, and a young son I adored.
At the start of 2017, I became pregnant with my much longed-for second child. Within a fortnight of telling my boss, I lost my job. It was devastating.
Never mind the financial aspect, my identity had suddenly been thrown into a shredder. Fragments of who I was fell in ribbons of denial, resentment, and absolute fear. I was unemployed. I had never been unemployed. I had no title. I had no income.
In a state of panic, I fleetingly wondered if I should terminate my pregnancy. Although I dismissed it just as quickly, it was a consideration I never thought would enter my head at all, and the fact it had shocked me to the core. This, I believe, was when The Nothing appeared in my life. This was when I catapulted into something I didn’t even know existed: prenatal depression.
I knew all about postnatal depression. It was something the midwives had spoken about and I was lucky enough to avoid with my first baby. I’d been somewhat confident the second baby would be as straightforward. I wasn’t prepared for this at all. While looking for an explanation for my sadness, I came across a web page describing prenatal depression and its list of symptoms. I realised I could tick off every symptom on that list. I took myself straight to the doctor.
Throughout the coming months, I felt stuck in what I think of now as a spiderweb. Despite going straight to my doctor, and being referred to various people, I believed I was a worthless fly. With each health professional I was in contact with it felt like I was being swatted this way and that.
I spoke to the doctor, my midwife, therapy services, the perinatal team. Each one either put me on a waiting list or turned me in the direction of each other. I believed I was stuck. Meanwhile, all my fears manifested in the shadows like a giant spider, waiting for me to make a false move before it devoured me. Eventually, I stopped trying to buzz away—I gave up and lay in the web.
At our first scan, I watched our baby move and tried desperately to feel even a fragment of what I’d felt with our firstborn…Nothing. When I announced my pregnancy, I tried to draw from other people’s excitement while putting on a false smile. I hoped their enthusiasm would rub off on me…Nothing. When I found out it was a boy and took all my son’s old baby clothes back out and imagined my new baby wearing them…Nothing.
There was only one feeling I had in absolute abundance, and that was guilt. This baby had no idea the misery his mother carried around with him. That she had even considered terminating him, even for a moment.
Would he somehow know? If he could hear my voice would the external sound of my crying spoil the sanctity of my womb? Was I mentally damaging him?
I began to worry nothing positive could ever form in a place of such misery. I imagined my womb full of tears instead of amniotic fluid. Shackled by a cord, I was sure he would want to cut himself eventually, just to get away from the dreadful person I was. I would’ve considered myself a monster, had I thought I was significant enough. But no, I was that little fly. And the spider was edging closer and closer.
There were some moments of respite before the birth. In an attempt to bond with my baby, I went and had a 3-D scan—something I hadn’t done with my firstborn. And when I saw our son’s face I suddenly beamed for the first time in months. My husband was thrilled.
I said my boy’s chosen name aloud and could see he was a little person, not a tumour-like growth sucking the life from me. I don’t know what I expected him to look like, but if my son had taken the form of the depression I felt inside it wouldn’t have been a pretty sight.
This baby looked beautiful and I dared to think he would be mine, and all would be well. This scan wasn’t a cure—the depression didn’t go away—but I felt more determined than ever. The spider wasn’t going to eat me. I would banish The Nothing in my head.
Initially, I was wrong. That spider sank its fangs in me when my son was born prematurely and rushed to the neonatal unit. This could only be one thing, surely? My punishment. This was the karma I’d earned by being a lousy mother throughout my pregnancy.
They told me there was no medical reason for him to be born early. Perhaps then, he was just in a hurry to get out of my wretched body. I couldn’t blame him at all.
By the end of my pregnancy, I had lost weight instead of gaining weight. Now my depression was coupled with the hormones of making milk 24/7 and exhaustion as my body repaired itself from birth.
No woman flourishes in the wake of delivering a baby, but for me, it was like a sentence being passed down. While he was in the hospital, I was serving time. But the truth is I was my own jailer. I was torturing myself. No one at any point ever told me I was a failure. It was only when my son came home that I began to think I had served my time and could look to the future.
My son is now eight months old. And while I am still not rid of my depression, I have finally accepted that it is, in no way, a punishment. It can happen to absolutely anyone. Depression does not discriminate.
But we do create the spiderweb in our delusion that we are to blame. Since I am finally on the road to normality, I prefer instead to think of it another way, thanks to an epiphany I had while out on a walk with my son.
On the roadside was a bumblebee stranded in a shallow puddle. I took a twig and hoisted him out. He was reluctant to grab the twig and buzzed defensively at me until he finally grabbed it.
Once he was out, he was too weak, confused, and damp to fly away. I put him in the sunshine to bask and by the time I returned from our walk he had flown away.
This was when I found my new perspective. There was no web, no spider, and I was no insignificant fly. I was another bumblebee caught in a puddle. I didn’t know how big the puddle was, how I was suddenly in it or which way I had to struggle to get out of it. I was exhausted and confused. But no spider was trying to eat me; in fact, plenty of twigs were held out for me to grab. I just had to wait until I was ready to take hold and believe I could be lifted into the sunshine.
It might take a few twigs in the form of cognitive behavioral therapy, antidepressants, or time. No twig is going to hoist us all out the same way. But it’s vital we believe there will be a twig we can grab hold of, otherwise we’re back in the spider’s web. My own wings are still damp and I’m still very exhausted from all of my efforts.
All I know is when I look at my baby boy, I do feel the sun’s warmth again. And I know, even if I never return to the way I was, I do have purpose. I’m not a fly but a bumblebee.
My perspective is my own, but I like to think other people suffering from prenatal depression will eventually find a similar outlook and their own way to rid themselves of The Nothing and slay that spider.
To quote Michael Ende’s book one last time:
“Nothing is lost…Everything is transformed.”
Author: Naomi Wicks
Image: Author’s Own
Editor: Sara Kärpänen
Copy editor: Nicole Cameron