Panic attacks, anxiety and sadness are not the usual symptoms linked to pregnancy. It’s supposed to be a time filled with joy, excitement and happiness. Not for me. I feel like I am being sucked in to a vacuum unable to claw my way back.
It’s difficult to admit publicly that I never enjoyed being pregnant. It’s even harder to tell people that I hated it. Not the baby. I hated losing control of my coaching voice – it’s the voice that reasons with me during tough times and helps me get across the line. I suffered from antenatal or prenatal depression in all four pregnancies; however, I only saw a therapist during my last pregnancy a year ago.
According to research, depression during pregnancy affects about 15 per cent of pregnant women. My therapist told me that during pregnancy hormone changes can affect the chemicals in the brain, which are directly related to depression and anxiety. Symptoms include anxiety, difficulty coping with day-to-day life, difficulty remembering and concentrating while stress, marital problems, unplanned pregnancy and a history of depression are common triggers.
Prenatal depression is real. According to the American Pregnancy Association, depression that is not treated can have a potential dangerous risk on the mother and baby. Untreated it can lead to poor nutrition, drinking, smoking and suicidal behaviour. Depression can cause premature birth, low birth weight and developmental problems. The association says, “babies born to mothers who are depressed may be less active, show less attention and be more agitated than babies born to mums who are not depressed.”
My private pain
I’ve never spoken publicly about it nor have I shared my story until now. It was my private pain, one that my husband and I tried to overcome during every pregnancy. Thankfully it never escalated in to postpartum depression. As soon as I delivered the baby I felt a sudden rush; sadness turned to excitement as I cradled my baby girls.
In February last year I learned that I was pregnant with my fourth child. This was an unexpected pregnancy – I had three beautiful girls, my youngest at the time was seven-years-old. I had made the decision not to have any more children as I struggled emotionally throughout all three pregnancies.
After taking the home pregnancy test it took about three weeks before I would go and see a doctor. I knew I was pregnant. I’d been there three times before. I was just in denial; I wasn’t ready to deal with what lay ahead; I wasn’t ready to deal with the changes in my body and nor was I ready to deal with the emotional problems I had faced in the past.
Resigning from my job
The personality changes were almost immediate. I shared the news with a colleague, who had sensed some changes. I was far more sensitive, insecure and short tempered. As I entered my second trimester I began to worry about my health – I had freelanced as a journalist throughout my first three pregnancies so I didn’t have the added pressure of an office environment. Situations and clients I had dealt with smoothly in the past were becoming unmanageable. I abruptly resigned from my job.
The night before I was on the phone with my boss discussing the marketing campaign for an upcoming event. There was so much to absorb – I had done this before many times without any hiccups. First came the shortness of breath and then sweaty palms. As I hung up the phone I could see my hands quivering and I was light headed. I sat at the end of my bed trying to pull myself together taking short, deep breaths. My coaching voice, as my therapist explained, was disappearing and eventually pregnancy had silenced it.
The next morning, I received an abrupt and condescending email from an event sponsor. I responded as I had done every other time, copying my employer. An innocent email from my boss reminding me of our previous night’s conversation triggered my first anxiety attack. Within moments I fired back and email filled with profanities. The stress was too much. I resigned.
My mental health spiralled out of control
I knew I was in trouble when I had a panic attack in front of my children. What was happening was no longer having an impact on me, three little girls were witnessing their mother go through severe changes. They stood at the end of my bed, tears in their eyes, as my husband Tarek tried to help me overcome my breakdown. “It’s just the baby kicking,” I sobbed, trying to comfort them. “Dad, help mum, please,” pleaded my youngest, Alisar. The girls started tip-toeing around me not wanting to upset me.
The night I had my attack Tarek was due to fly out of the country. He travelled often so I had become accustomed to caring for my children in his absence. The pregnancy stripped me of my confidence and I had developed many insecurities. Tarek left that evening. I became resentful and angry. Neither of us knew how serious my situation was until I found myself driving along Shaikh Zayed road unable to get to my destination. The girls were at their weekly tennis lesson not far from our home. I’d made the journey to and from the tennis courts dozens of time but for some reason I was lost. I called Tarek in a panic, he had only been away for three days. I pulled over to the side of the road and tried to compose myself. I was barely five months pregnant and now also afraid for the health of my unborn child.
“I don’t know how to get to the tennis courts to pick up the girls,” I sobbed. “What do you mean? asked Tarek. “Where are you?”
I looked around trying to find a familiar landmark so he could guide me. Tarek stayed on the phone talking to me as I navigated my way through traffic. I eventually found my way there and back home safely without alarming the children. Tarek cut his trip short and was on the next plane home. He’d seen me suffer through my pregnancies but this was the first time he’d seen me so disoriented.
I couldn’t fight it alone
I couldn’t fight this battle alone. There was no choice but to seek medical advice. I contacted my general practitioner immediately. One thing I had learned during this ordeal was that unlike back home in Australia, where general practitioners and mental health specialists work together, the process was still in its infancy in the UAE.
I was referred to Lighthouse Arabia where I was assessed and paired with a counselling psychologist. Medication simply wasn’t an option for me. There is a lot of debate over the safety and long-term effect of antidepressant medication taken during pregnancy. My therapist felt that if I simplified my lifestyle and removed anything adding to the anxiety I would be okay.
Although I had suddenly resigned from my job my boss and colleagues continued to call me and ask me to return. A simple task like turning on my computer or reading emails made me nervous. I knew I had let them down but my health was far more important. I’d left them stranded so close to an event and there was no one on the team to replace me. At time they made me feel guilty but I had to stand my ground.
Looking back at my earlier pregnancies I remember being told by family and friends that an imbalance in my hormones would cause changes in my personality. I had no idea that it was possible to be depressed during pregnancy. I was sad all the time, I never wanted to go out and there were times I just lay in bed.
The depression was visible in my second pregnancy. When my obstetrician told me I had to wait another 10 days after my due date to be induced, I begged him to deliver as I wasn’t sure if I could handle it any longer.
Following each delivery, I found myself slowly returning to normal; cradling my newborn was the happiest moment of my life. Just as my mind altered when I became pregnant it changed the moment I gave birth. It was the only comfort I had during each pregnancy.
Amalia’s birth inspired me to talk about prenatal depression. I honestly thought I was alone until I met a few women who had been through a similar experience.
Lisa was a mother I had met through a friend. Like me she suffered depression in both pregnancies and struggled as she found herself slipping in to a dark hole. Her situation was so severe she decided not to have any more children. Opening up helped us both realise that we were not alone in our struggle. She told me she had often wished she had seen a therapist to help her through her anxiety but like me she too was led to believe that what she was feeling was normal.
I spent three months seeing a therapist, who helped me regain my composure before the birth. I listed my emotions daily and meditation became an important part of my day. While the anxiety remained throughout the pregnancy it no longer controlled my life. My coaching voice returned slowly and my confidence improved.
One of the concerns my therapist had was the risk of suffering postpartum depression, which is very common for women who experience prenatal depression.
I’ve now overcome my anxiety and am back to my enthusiastic self. There are times I wish a stork would deliver my babies so that I can have many more. Despite the suffering I feel blessed to have four beautiful little girls. Having a solid support network at home was vital to my recovery. My daughters often remind me of my panic attack: “Do you remember when Amalia kicked you so hard in your stomach she made you cry?”
I am hoping my story will help one woman realise that she is not alone and help is available. Any form of depression should not go untreated. It can truly be the difference between life and death.
If you think you might be suffering from prenatal depression, contact the experts at LightHouse Arabia on 04 380 2088.
For more support during pregnancy, see here