By NSW mum, Julie Freeman

Ever since I was a little girl, I dreamt of becoming a mum. I thought I would take to motherhood like a duck to water, no matter what came my way.

My first pregnancy ended in loss. Losing my first pregnancy changed my perception of motherhood forever.

Julie Freeman, from Hornsby NSW, shares her story about thriving after perinatal anxiety, panic disorder and depression.

It was a few days before Christmas when I found out I was pregnant for the second time. When two little lines showed up as Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World music medley played, I knew my rainbow baby – a baby born after loss – was on the way.

What felt like joy slowly got eaten away by anxiety as my belly grew.

The intrusive fears of my baby’s safety started subtly, and while I recognised the warning signs of anxiety, I tried to handle it on my own.

After months, I reached out to the hospital’s psychologist. I waited 10 weeks without a word, before I called PANDA, I was distressed and they supported me immensely. Finally, the day before I went into labour, I landed an appointment with the hospital’s perinatal psychologist.

After a prolonged labour, I screamed for a c-section to bring my baby safely into my arms. I feared the worst, but we were okay. I soon learnt how let down I’d felt by the hospital and how my first loss still impacted my mental health after I brought my new baby home.

The Panic by Julie Freeman (nee Green)

Where the light enters by Julie Freeman nee Green

We were deep into newborn life when the panic felt out of control.

Every night as the sun set and the house turned red from the night light, I felt a fire burning in my forearms and my heart thumping through my neck. I couldn’t recognise myself in the mirror. As the lights went out, the night caved in, and, for the first time in my life, I feared sleep. I’d feel my body quiver for hours while my thoughts spiralled.

I was so encased in fear that I could hardly breathe, and I’d tell anyone who cared for me that I needed help. I played phone tag with the psychologist, but I couldn’t handle calls. My husband reached out to friends, and they messaged me.

Even though I didn’t respond, it was more helpful than they knew. My doctor visited us. He and my husband set me up with a psychologist, at last. When I went to my appointments in those early weeks, it felt like we barely scraped the surface and yet my sessions with her would change my life. My baby was 4 weeks old when my psychologist asked me, ‘What kind of mum do you hope to be?’

“Not this one,” I said, and I knew something had to change.

“We were deep into newborn life when the panic felt out of control.”

After five solid weeks of panic attacks day and night, I remembered a nudge from my psychologist to talk to my family. I called my parents to tell them for what’s going on.

“Let your mum help,” my dad said.

I packed my baby and I into my parents’ car to head the country. With every peep my baby made, my heart raced. I didn’t want to scare my parents away. That trip, which turned into weeks, did anything but. With sleep, a diagnosis of postnatal depression and an antidepressant script as well as exercise, I started to feel my sense of self – and joy – return.

I’m grateful I went through hell to know it doesn’t last but I needed my support team to step in and demand support for me when I’d lost both my way and my words.

I knew the risks. I tried to prevent anxiety and depression, but I wasn’t immune.

There’s been storms since and there always will be some, but I’ve built a new level of resilience. I know where to seek help and I will both demand and accept it.

A few months into motherhood, I shifted from panicking every day with an inability to function, to living more fully than ever. I’m now – usually – the mother I always hoped to be.

“I’m grateful I went through hell to know it doesn’t last …”

How Julie practises self-care:

It’s important to me to take care of my own well-being, so that I can look after my family too. One thing that’s a total non-negotiable is movement: whether that’s hiking or weight training, I know when I haven’t exercised because my moods go haywire! I even said to my husband the other day, “I just need to sweat…” and we made a plan for him to come home earlier so I could go for a few solo hikes. That was amazing!

I also make an effort to visit my parents in the country every six weeks – and tell my closest friends when my head’s in a knot now. Having their practical and emotional support have been critical to my ongoing recovery and healing journey.

As I’m writing this, I’m actually in the country with my folks. I try to visit them every time my stress levels are high and I know a reset is needed.

I also like to put energy into helping others and being a support to mums. I am a mums’ personal trainer with a passion for mental health. I have been on a mission to inspire mums for many years, but what I went through amplified the need to give parents greater compassion and care through this critical time.

“I know when I haven’t exercised because my moods go haywire!”

Julie is sharing her story as a community champion for Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia (PANDA) during Perinatal Mental Health Week (November 7-13).

Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia (PANDA) has witnessed a 51 percent increase in calls to its national helpline over the last 12 months, and is commending parents for seeking support and starting an important conversation.

Anyone having trouble coping with pregnancy or post childbirth can visit www.panda.org.au, where you’ll find an online mental health checklist. Alternatively, you can call the PANDA Helpline on 1300 726 306 Mon to Fri, 9am – 7.30pm AEST/AEDT.

For information about Perinatal Mental Health Week, visit www.panda.org.au/awareness/perinatal-mental-health-week.