My mental health journey

tawny-frogmouth-3320777_1920I’ve just come in from going for a walk. It’s spring here in Canberra – the trees are starting to green up, the pollen count is through the roof, the days are sunny and warm and as I walk through the forest trails near my house I am accosted by the sounds of birds all around me as they swoop, try to impress potential mates or protect their nests.

Near my house is a Tawny Frogmouth nest, one of my favourite bird species. They are found throughout Australia but aren’t often seen as they are mainly nocturnal. They are big birds, measuring from 34 to 53cm (13 to 21 in) long and are often confused with owls as they look kind of similar. The male sits on the nest all day, allowing the female to go find food. The two of them then alternate sitting on the nest all night.  I’ve been watching this nest with interest and I’m looking forward to seeing the babies when they hatch.

I love walking and most days walk at least 5kms. I started walking daily at a really low point in my life. Reg would accompany me and we would head out. Every day I took him out and walked, eventually finding a 5km route that suited us both. I noticed that the more I walked, the better I felt. Not just physically, but mentally. I had a clearer head, I could deal with the stress of work better. I got clearer about what I wanted to do. I started to look around and actually appreciate this beautiful world we live in.

It surprised me a bit. I knew the physical health benefits of walking. I was less familiar with the mental health benefits. I probably should have known. For years in my professional life, I ran awareness campaigns around mental health issues. It was some of the most rewarding work I did and is one of the only bits of my old job that I miss.

Mental health issues and raising awareness of them is a personal interest of mine. Like most things in life, when you have a personal interest in something it drives you to become involved.

My interest in mental health is very personal.

I suffered from depression both times I was pregnant. With my first child, post-natally. With my second, the depression began shortly after conception and stayed with me for a few years. I had never heard of it but ante-natal depression (depression whilst pregnant) is common in mothers who suffer post-natal depression with their first child.

It took months for me to be diagnosed. It was only when my husband came home to find me and my then three year old daughter both on the floor of the living room crying that my depression was recognised by others. My daughter told her dad that I had been there all day and she couldn’t do anything to make me happy. It’s true. She couldn’t, but it wasn’t her fault. It was because of me. I wanted to die. And in fact, my three year old was the only thing keeping me tethered to this earth.

Somehow in the dark fog of depression, it was her face that kept me going. And kept me from stepping out in front of a bus or slitting my wrists.

I felt like I couldn’t do motherhood. The one thing that every woman biologically was built to do. My brain couldn’t do it. My body couldn’t do it. I hated myself. I hated being a mother. I hated everything around me. I hated life in general. I couldn’t see a point to anything.

All I could do is sleep and cry. And in the brief times I was awake, all I craved and ate was chocolate cake. (I don’t even like chocolate cake particularly). All clear symptoms of depression. Not the chocolate cake per se, but craving and eating a huge amount of sweet food when I normally ate healthily.

I was lucky. I received help and medication. I was diagnosed by a midwife who knew me well and who I trusted. Without her intervention and the assistance of various healthcare professionals, I wouldn’t be here today.

I struggled through with a lot of help.

It wasn’t the first time the black dog of depression had visited me in my life and it wasn’t the first or last time I’d thought of suicide. But each time, something or someone in my life has intervened to keep me tethered here.

My girls are now 17 and 14 and every day I’m grateful that I’m here to see them grow up into the amazing young women they are. I’m also grateful for that midwife all those years ago. And I’m grateful for the other help I’ve received on my mental health journey.

I now have the opportunity to give something back, do something I love, raise awareness of this issue and have an adventure at the same time. It’s a win-win all round for me.

I’ve decided to join up with global social initiative, Move for Mental Health, and walk the Cape to Cape trek in Western Australia next month to raise awareness and funds for the Gidget Foundation.

move for mental healthFrom 10 to 18 November (which coincides with Perinatal Depression Awareness Week) I’m walking 135kms from lighthouse to lighthouse, along stunning Indian Ocean coastal landscape from Cape Naturaliste to Cape Leeuwin in Australia’s south-westernmost corner. I’m walking with six other women to raise awareness for new and expecting parents who are struggling emotionally with perinatal depression/anxiety (PNDA). (Perinatal covers both antenatal and postnatal periods).

The trek is structured to give each of us the opportunity to experience and explore how movement and exercise can be a powerful coping strategy in the journey to mental health recovery.

By paying my registration fee, I not only committed to walking 135kms, but I’m also raising money for the Gidget Foundation, a small not for profit who supports expecting and new parents who are struggling emotionally with perinatal depression/anxiety. PNDA affects 1 in 5 mothers and 1 in 10 fathers. Each $1000 raised by our team helps provide a year’s worth of quality psychological care to a family through their Start Talking service. Last year’s team raised $34,000, this year we have a target of $50,000 to help impact 50 families.

I’ve supported the Gidget Foundation for many years through my writing and communications materials when I worked in the healthcare arena. I’m excited that this year I am able to put my money and my energy into the Cape to Cape trek.

If you’d like to help contribute to my fundraising efforts, you can donate here.

I’m walking the Cape to Cape for me, my daughters and for women like me, who might not know what antenatal depression is, until they are diagnosed. There’s no way I could have done this 15 years ago when I was caught deep in the depression spiral, but I’m excited to take this opportunity to help others now.

If what I do now can help even one family lesson the burden of mental illness, it will be worth it.

And by the time I come back from this adventure the baby Frogmouths should be fledging. I can’t wait to see them. Hopefully their parents will take to parenthood more easily than I did.

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