Breaking the stigma

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Creating a sisterhood to help those suffering from post-natal depression

 

By Chandrea Serebro

You’re alone. You’re in the room, your newest, sweetest addition to the family is gurgling at you, you’re surrounded by friends, family, and well-wishers, and yet, you have no one. The household routine buzzes around you like the muffled sound of a far-off dancehall. Your mind is racing, crazy thoughts, out of control. Like a train, derailed, little help as you watch the coach that is your thoughts twist this way and that. Nervous, edgy, anxious…and then – nothing. Emptiness. Like a barren wasteland. Sights and sounds go on around you as you autopilot your way through the motions of motherhood, every task a mission to complete, leaving you exhausted, depleted. Empty. And through it all, you feel hopeless. Inertia. Stuck in this rollercoaster ride of adrenalin-rushed hours and wakeful sleep, the thought that you will never get out of it there like the bogeyman of your youth.

This is post-natal depression (PND), which one out of every five mothers will develop, ranging from the baby blues to post-partum psychosis, no matter how many kids she has, who she is, or where she is from. Not one woman is exempt from the risk of suffering from PND, a debilitating illness which affects your whole life, creating a web of misery and destruction that will affect all those around you and, crucially, yourself. Most times, this devastation is born out of lack of understanding about what you are going through, a lack of support from those around you, an overriding sense of guilt, and the lack of a proper diagnosis. “People often mistake depression as a feeling. It’s not that. It’s a chemical disorder in the brain that is caused by hormonal changes in the body,” says Devorah Rothman, who suffered from PND. “Post-natal depression is a mental illness.”

Devorah’s family began noticing symptoms of depression six weeks after Devorah gave birth and sent her for help. Unfortunately, by the time Devorah found the correct doctors, the right medication, and adequate support she had already been hospitalised for suicidal attempts and severe post-natal depression. “There is nothing scarier than being in that place where you can’t escape from your own mind and body.” Even with a history of anxiety and depression, nothing prepared Devorah for what lay ahead. “In retrospect, I wish I’d found a group to be a part of and to be able to talk to other women who had been through it to know what to expect. Most importantly, I needed to get rid of the shame and utter embarrassment that was so pervasive.”

Feige Swimmer, too, had suffered from severe PND and, through mutual friends, Devorah’s family called on her to offer advice and support based on her personal experience and triumph over the illness. “My baby was two weeks old when I started feeling depression creeping in,” says Feige. “At the same time my life was in disarray due to a family crisis and I had next to no support structure. I kept thinking: ‘No one on this entire earth knows what I am going through or feels what I feel.’ There were times that I would wish I was in hospital with a broken leg or something worse, just so that people would have sympathy for me.” Because, she says, the sad fact is that no one wants to sympathise with something they can’t see or relate to. ‘Get up and get on with it’ is what most people say to someone who is feeling down. But PND is so much more than just feeling down – it’s debilitating and very scary.”

But “thank G-d”, says Feige, “I had the fight in me to survive even when I felt like giving up”, the fortitude to accept help, get onto the right medication and therapy, and through this inner strength, she recovered. “If during this time I could have had someone to phone, knowing that on the other end of the line was a ‘sister’ who had been through what I was going through – that would have been an untold relief and support for me.”

It was this sentiment that drove Feige to help Devorah when she was called. And when the two met, an instant connection developed through their shared experience – and the mutual relief that other women go through this, too. “Feige literally pulled me out of my deep black hole. All I could think of was how relieved I was to have someone who understood and wouldn’t judge me for what I had tried to do to myself, for how I was feeling. The shame and stigma slowly started diminishing and, together, we realised that family or friends, however good their intentions, cannot help in the way that you need them to if they haven’t experienced the length and the breadth of PND,” says Devorah.

During their time together, Feige helped Devorah heal and through this they formed a close bond which gave birth to the idea of an organisation that can help women get through PND with no judgment, no shame, no guilt, no desolation. They realised a strong need in the Jewish community for an unconditional and non-judgmental support system to do away with the stigma attached to PND and help those experiencing it through shared experiences as Jewish mothers and the pressures that go along with that. Together they formed Achoti – My Sister – a sisterhood of support aimed at informing families, young couples, first time parents, and women in general about what PND looks like and advise them on seeking the correct help.

Achoti offers support through a dedicated hotline of trained volunteers, all of whom have experienced PND and who offer a listening ear, which is often the one thing a mother with PND so badly needs, and support groups when the need arises. Achoti volunteers are trained by Debbie Levine, a clinical social worker who specialises in PND. “Our aim here is really to break the stigma, to show that there are so many women who are okay now and have also gone through it, from Rebbetzins to businesswomen – there isn’t anything wrong with you. By creating awareness, we reduce the risk of PND turning into something very severe, and the more that moms out there speak out, the better it is for the mothers out there who might be suffering alone,” says Feige.

“When we first posted on Jewish mothering forums and on Facebook looking for volunteers, we were shocked at how many women were willing to come forward with their stories and be of help to others. Because they realise that this is the only way to normalise the situation, and by doing that, help others going through it,” says Feige. “And even the broader members of the community have shown gratitude that they now can call in and allow us to take over the support, which is often the part that they find so difficult to give to the mother in need.”

And the feedback from the women who have already benefitted from this has been telling. One mother says: “Achoti was amazing. They came to me and really sorted me out. They got me into a psychiatrist who would have taken months to get into, the very next day after I broke down. They were a huge reason for my quick recovery.” For another, it was the “huge bouquet of flowers waiting at my door” which helped her to know that she was loved.

Whatever is needed – big things, like getting a mother on the brink admitted to the right place, or the small gesture of brightening up her day with flowers or a coffee – Achoti will answer the call to try and help. With still a long way to go to reaching those who are suffering in silence, both Devorah and Feige and the Achoti team hope that by creating this awareness, slowly the stigma will break and women will unite, understanding each other and supporting one another.

“I don’t think you ever go back to what you were before; it’s not possible after your marriage has endured that journey and you yourself have been reduced to your deepest, darkest emotional state. But I also think that is what makes you who you are. I am so proud to have gone through this illness and come out on the other side. And I want other women to feel this as well. We are part of a special group of people who feel deeply and have experienced one of life’s hardest challenges, and we will come out on the other side better for it,” says Devorah.

For help call 010 900 4655 or email mysistersa@gmail.com. For more information, visit: achoti.co.za or follow them on Facebook: facebook.com/mysistersa/

Photo: Chashish Photography.

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