On your first birthday….

Today, on their first birthday, I wrote my girls a letter.

1stbday

To my dear and beautiful Laila and Jean,

I have decided to write you both a letter for your first birthday – you’ve been inundated with wonderful gifts from family and friends, and we don’t have any room for more toys and clothes. 

I don’t think it is necessary to write about how I feel towards you both. Despite your age, I already get the sense that you know this. You experience and react to my affection and joy; my frustration and my moments of sadness. What you don’t know is how the past year has affected me as a person. You don’t know how I’ve changed, and how my perspectives and priorities have been completely displaced and realigned.

You don’t have a point of reference, and this is comforting to me – I want you to know me for who I am now.

Though some may disagree, my experience is that babies don’t give too much in the first few months of their lives. What they do however is wear their parent(s) down into a emotionally malleable state through sleepless nights and complete dependency. Once worn down and emotionally vulnerable, we’re more susceptible to your charms. Our attention is more easily captured by your speech, your smiles, and your touch.

Laila and Jean – your charms are endless, and they have affected me in such a profound way.

I’ve spoken at some length with family and friends about the challenges I’ve experienced in my first year as a parent, but less so about what has helped me address these challenges. It is your charms – more specifically, your smiles – that help turn around every  foul mood, and every moment of sadness, frustration and anger.

I recall one morning when I was struggling to cope with the responsibilities of parenthood, I walked into your room after hearing that you had woken up and found you both on your knees, holding onto the side of your cots, just beaming at me. It’s something that I have the joy of experiencing so often as this year has worn on. I recall thinking about that moment for some days after, and reflecting on those things that make me happy; and what I could take away and still feel as if I’ve lost no happiness as a result of having you.

Save food, shelter and a loving family, you can have it all.

This realisation has however impacted me more deeply. It has made me think about all those things in this world that undermine the happiness of others. It has made me think about what I have done to undermine the happiness of others, and to evaluate my worth on this basis.

I think it’s a fairly poor evaluation to date, but there’s always hope for the future, and my prospects look so much better with you both by my side to guide me.

This is a far better gift than anything I could ever give you.

Anyway, happy birthday – I love you both.

Dad x

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Fatherhood and Mental Illness

The absence of feeling—of the physical sensations where such sensations are expected—is the most uncomfortable experience.

Shortly before my daughters were born, I sat aside my wife, completely aware of the significance of the moment. We were soon to be joined by the two most beautiful, yet most fragile and dependent people.

I had anticipated, and almost planned my emotional and physical response. I wanted to be overwhelmed; to cry, be speechless, to feel completely disassociated and to have all the sound and activity around me fall away. I was anxious for my wife—a caesarean is major surgery—but I was for the most part self-absorbed. I wanted that first contact with my daughters to be perfect.

The birth was perfect, and so completely beautiful. I knew this at the time and I still find myself reflecting with great emotion on these moments.

There was however a disconnect between what I observed and how I felt. I behaved normally and I knew what I was supposed to do. I made physical contact, I cut the cords, and I supported my wife’s first moments with her daughters.

These moments were also accompanied by an enormous sense of frustration.

matthewbirth

I recall searching desperately for tears, and I took deep breaths to flood my brain with oxygen and force the sensation of butterflies. Looking back on the photos—taken by one of the nurses assisting—I can see the strain on my face; smiling, but somewhat lost and hoping for something more.

The feelings I had anticipated and hoped for had been suppressed by those I’d been enduring for the few months leading up to the birth. My head ached terribly. I felt dizzy. I was short of breath and I felt a great sense of unease.

I feel it’s a particularly cruel fate to have such a profound moment as the birth of your children to be hijacked by mental illness.

The birth was without complication. Both girls were healthy, and my wife returned promptly to the maternity ward to rest.

The evening of the birth I went home to bed, hoping that with the stress of the birth behind me my physical symptoms would fade away with a night’s rest. I woke up dizzy, and within minutes of getting up my head ached.

No matter the time spent with my wife and children at the hospital, or when they returned home, the symptoms remained.

After a while I returned to work and deteriorated further. I couldn’t sit still at my desk beyond five minutes. I couldn’t concentrate and I frequently found myself in a state of panic, and have to walk around the office building. After work, at home, I would take my daughters into my room to prepare them for their showers and I would cry.

As a father I felt helpless and inadequate.

As a husband too I felt inadequate, though this sentiment had developed some time leading up to the birth. In late March I had started to experience dizzy spells and episodes of near fainting. I couldn’t fall asleep because closing my eyes would send my head in a spin. I found myself in Casualty, though was promptly sent home with the diagnosis of something inner ear related.

I was medicated with anti-inflammatories, anti-dizzy pills, and sleeping tablets. I constantly felt hung-over. By mid-April I had developed a migraine-style headache that would endure for the next 10 months.

I started to feel panicked by the most trivial incidents, such as losing my train of thought, or someone speaking too loud. I often couldn’t get through dinner without needing to go to bed and cry.

In hindsight it is unbelievable to think that it took me so long to revisit the doctor to discuss mental health. I had suffered through periods of anxiety before, and mental health problems exist in my family.

I was referred to a remarkable psychologist, and received brief but wonderful treatment. I learnt some methods to control the feelings of anxiety and panic. The headache and periodic dizziness remained, but I could sleep at night.

I stopped seeing the psychologist perhaps a month before the birth. Life is busy and with an increasingly pregnant wife, and an understandably anxious teenage sister-in-law at home, I found it difficult balancing work, preparing the home for two new additions, and continuing treatment.

I know I would have coped better with ongoing treatment.

Time has been perhaps the most important factor in the improvement in my mental health. In February 2013 I recall the happy realisation that my headache had been barely noticeable for a few days, and the periods of dizziness and unease came in waves of two or three days, interspersed with relative normality for up to a week.

2012 4764I think it an important point to make that none of what I experienced directly affected the love I have for my children. My love is and was almost obsessive; I think about them constantly. Though this obsession in itself supports one of the residual symptoms of my problems with mental health.

What remains is a sense that I will be unable to be there for my children. These thoughts are hard to rationalise, but they’re real, and they’re often paralysing.

Fears are however a part of parenthood. The challenge, in spite of these fears, is to provide complete love and support to you children so long as you’re there.

One significant positive I have taken from my experience is being able to witness such immense strength of character in my wife. My wife and I have been through a lot, and we’d already taken on considerable responsibility in becoming guardians of her (then 9 year old) sister. It was not until the period following the birth of our own children however that I got to experience my wife’s most admirable quality.

I haven’t spoken with her in any depth—I know she found it very challenging—but seeing my wife prepare for motherhood, and care for our daughters with unending patience was inspiring.

emasleep

I would be so very happy to hear about similar experiences, and I hope to be able to provide access and support to fathers in similar situations through sharing similar stories. Please feel free to contact me at matthew.stuchbery@gmail.com, or leave a comment below.

Posted in Mental Health | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments