Shortly after my daughter was born I was diagnosed with postnatal depression, and mild post traumatic stress disorder from witnessing the birth. (If men gave birth, we would demand medals for our bravery.)
I was relieved. I thought I was a horrible human being. I thought every father that was saying how wonderful parenting is was spewing propaganda in order to get others to join them in hell.
I was in an emotionless void looking at my wife and daughter bonding in a snow globe of love. I couldn’t get in. I was short tempered, bitter, selfish, and at times cruel.
This was not my finest hour.
At the moment my wife needed me the most I was not just absent, but I was psychologically and emotionally abusive.
Over time I adapted and learned the skills I would need to manage my mental health, but the damage was already done. The trust was gone. I could not be relied upon, and so the romantic love shriveled and died.
Three years later, the divorce proceeding has begun, and we live separately.
There is a bright side though. The experience, as painful as it was, allowed us both to grow and become better versions of ourselves. I know I am a much more capable father and (ex-)husband than I ever would have been without PND.
PND forced me to to be open and honest about how I was feeling. I had to accept that I was in a weakened state and would need a great deal of support to get through this.
Once I started to talk about it, I heard from other fathers that shared similar experiences, although not always diagnosed. I started to question the stories I heard about new fathers abandoning their family soon after the child was born. Was this a mental health issue? Why else would you do such a thing?
The shame and guilt would perhaps follow them their whole lives, but what of the joy they were now missing out on? I decided to share my story far and wide in the hope of helping others. I was vulnerable on nationwide television, in magazines, and on global podcasts.
I began to understand that owning your weaknesses can make you strong, and I believe we all have a story we can share that can positively impact another person. Especially around mental health, and the stigma that can follow it.
This helped develop my emotional intelligence. As anyone with poor mental health knows, your thoughts and emotions can lie to you. My thoughts were telling me my life was fake. It was a trick or a prison, and everyone was scheming against me. I had been manipulated in to fatherhood and I could not trust anyone.
This was not true.
While I sought to understand what was happening to me, I became a Neuro Linguistic Programming Practitioner, I started meditating, I studied Stoic philosophy, and I started to manage my ego.
I understood that there was a gap between stimulus and response, and that I get to question my thoughts and choose how to respond. I started to choose love in every situation and became much more open minded.
Mental health is complicated and can be impacted by a wide variety of influences. While I looked for my own answers, I came across alternate treatments (alongside antidepressants) such as bach flower remedies, crystal healing, the power of scents, reiki, and perhaps more importantly, my own imagination.
Our thoughts impact our body, and vice versa. If we think about food, we may salivate. If we imagine harm coming to our children, we may cry. If we think about sex, we may become aroused.
This seems obvious, and we all agree that happens. And yet we ignore its power.
I started to imagine.
I have two big Game of Thrones-style wolves that follow me around. They walk beside me when I feel weak or lack confidence, they jump up and lick my face when I am in bed and have difficulty facing the day. They help me stand taller, and I become stronger.
It may seem silly. But just because they are imaginary does not mean that they cannot have an impact. In the same way, my depressed and anxious thoughts can and do influence me, even though they are just stories I am telling myself.
I now have a wonderful relationship with my daughter, Evie, and her mother. Times are still challenging, especially as my ex has recently been diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer and is going through chemotherapy.
It’s not like we haven’t been through hard times before. We have got this.
Learning about vulnerability allowed me to have a greater connection to my family and a deeper level of communication. Emotional Intelligence continues to help manage my ego and toxic masculinity, and help guide Evie through those big emotions that can overwhelm her little body. (Think Disney princess tantrum.) It also helps navigate that voice in my head that keeps wanting to focus on the negative, the fear, the anxiety.
My favorite lesson is curiosity, as I get to see the world through my daughter’s eyes where everything can be magical. I know almost nothing about how my own mind works, and certainly not the rules of the Universe.
The world is full of mystery and wonder, and we can all be a little happier if we open our minds just a little. It worked for me.