“I had thoughts after the birth of committing suicide.”
Mark Williams, 40, started Fathers Reaching Out, a charity which provides postnatal depression support to dads. Mark lives in the south Wales town of Bridgend with his wife Michelle. Here, he talks about suffering from postnatal depression (PND) after the birth of their son, Ethan, in 2004.
‘Tim’ is a pseudonym.
The pregnancy was great, but the birth was horrendous. Horrible. Michelle was in labour for 18-odd hours. She went into hospital at 8pm and didn’t give birth till 2:16pm the following day. She was in pain all through the night, and morning, and afternoon. She had to have an emergency c-section and that was the first time in my life I’d had a panic attack. The way the doctor told me and his tone of voice made me think: “My wife’s going to die here.”
Michelle had never taken a drug in her 28-year-long life, and now they were pumping her full of them. As with any drug when it wears off, I think it had an effect on her mood. An emergency c-section is major surgery, and afterwards she was very weak. When my son was born she was very tired, and because I had no education in mental health and knew nothing about it, I just put it down to her being tired. Turns out it was the start of her depression.
I was definitely depressed after the pregnancy. I didn’t know at the time, but I had postnatal depression. If it’s depression after the birth of the child, it’s classed as PND.
The first night after Ethan was born, it was weird — I felt fantastic happiness, but also all these other emotions. If I’m honest, whether or not because I didn’t see a natural birth — everyone was saying you’re gonna fall in love with your boy straight away when you hold him — I didn’t have that feeling. The baby was just crying.
Over the next few weeks I didn’t get that bond with him that most dads get. Society expects us to feel that, so it felt worse when I didn’t. That was the first time I had anxiety too, wondering whether I could look after him. We had given up a lot of things, sacrificed stuff like travelling, but actually looking after a human being — it’s a big responsibility. It was overwhelming, all of those things happening at once. I was 30 at the time, and I wasn’t prepared. I didn’t know what was going to happen in such a short space of time.
We hardly slept. Michelle was totally shattered, and that had a lot to do with it, the lack of sleep. From the birth onwards she didn’t sleep for two weeks, and that was part of what brought on full-scale depression for her.
We were also really isolated for the first four weeks, because I was looking after my wife and my son. We didn’t go out much. It was a blur. The birth was on 1 December, and we weren’t very concerned with the festivities. Everyone else was happy and looking forward to it, but Christmas Day for us was just a case of getting through it.
Angry and isolated
I drank a lot, using alcohol as a depressant. I didn’t limit myself, drinking anything up to three or four bottles of wine a day. I didn’t depend on alcohol, but I was close. I’d have wine at home and I would constantly think of that wine when I was at work. There was no support for me; no-one asked how I was feeling. I had to look after a wife who was really ill, which I’d never experienced before, and there was a lack of education on mental health. I had to give up my job for six months, and combined with the pressure of the newborn, it had a massive knock-on effect. There was so much happening. I felt totally isolated, like I couldn’t tell anyone.
I was worse than I‘ve ever been. I was totally, utterly depressed. My personality changed — I didn’t realise, but my friends did. My best mate now says I was a totally different person. I was angry at everyone, all the time, during what was supposed to be a happy time. I even punched the sofa and broke my hand at one point.
Looking back, I can see that I was a very different person. I had thoughts after the birth of committing suicide. I never tried to go down that route, but it was there in the back of my mind. I don’t know how I got out of that. I’d never ever had that kind of thought before depression.
The way I was drinking — if I hadn’t been so worried about my wife and son, it would’ve been a lot worse. I think it could’ve led to schizophrenia. There’s a big drinking culture here, and that made it easier for me to hide it. If you don’t drink where I come from in the Valleys, people think there’s something wrong with you. You can drink seven days a week and no-one will take any notice, but I was drinking in the house, when my wife and child were asleep. When I was off work I’d drink more, up to four bottles of wine a night at one point. I was numb, drinking to block things out.
I had to give up my job because of the depression. It was a case of going from living in a structured way with regular hours to suddenly having to get up in the middle of the night all the time. I was always motivated, working in sales and encouraging my team, but depression really tugs on you. You want to stay in bed and that’s it. My wife was also a sales team leader, always positive, and her getting depression had a huge effect on me. We’d planned the pregnancy but it made me wonder whether she wanted the baby, or whether she was happy with me.
I don’t remember a time in the first year when it wasn’t tough. They were changing the medication for my wife the whole time, and it took three times for them to get it right. That took six or seven months, and then it was still a gradual process as she got therapy and learned coping skills.
If Michelle hadn’t had PND too, it would’ve been easier, but dealing with my wife and seeing nurses and going to hospital all the time, to the point where they wanted to section my wife — all these things added pressure. Fortunately that never happened. I didn’t want my wife to be in a mental hospital.
The depression resurfaces
When my mother-in-law came to live with us in our new house, there was a rocking chair. I was rocking back and forth in it, and she said: “Mark, you need help.” That was when I knew I had a problem. I always tried to not show it to my son or wife though. That’s why a lot of guys try to hide it, so their families aren’t affected. I don’t know how I got through it; I felt like running away so many times.
I didn’t know it was postnatal depression until 2011, when from June to October, I got depression again. It was a bad year: my mother got cancer and I lost my grandfather, which absolutely overwhelmed me. It all built up and eventually came to the surface.
I was very withdrawn, very flat. I was a sales representative, the job I was doing great at before Ethan was born, but when I went back it was very different. I couldn’t see a way out, there were no career prospects, and as a result I didn’t enjoy going to work.
When the troubles started with my family, and because those traumas from 2004 weren’t dealt with, it all hit the fan. My grandfather had dementia, and seeing someone you love die like that — it was tough. You don’t really realise how awful it was until you look back.
I remember wanting to be signed in to what they call ward 14, which is a mental health unit. My mind was racing, I couldn’t concentrate, I had sweating, physical pain sometimes, palpitations — everything. Then in June, I remember sitting in the pub, and I came up with all these plans about moving away, with or without my wife. It’s incredible to think about now.
A couple of things led up to that point, and part of it was hiding it all the time. November was my lowest point. I was driving to work one day, and just stopped my car. I thought of suicide. My body just didn’t care, and I didn’t care what happened, whether my wife left me with the baby or not — I didn’t care. I wanted it to end. I just couldn’t go on.
That’s when I made a phonecall to Mental Health Matters Wales, and the people I spoke to then are people who I now work with for three days a week. After talking to them, I went to the GP and was told there was a waiting list of 18 months, so I took it upon myself to pay for it privately. There was also a lot of pressure in my job, so I took a massive pay cut.
I also went into DASH [a Bridgend charity which gives Drug and Alcohol Support and Help], and they helped me to give up drinking for six months. I realised that for years, I had been drinking for the wrong reasons.
Then I found out about paternal postnatal depression. I was invited on to “My Secret Past” with [actress and model] Jennifer Ellison on Channel 5. Back then there was too big a stigma for me to have come out as having PND rather than simply depression. But then in the pre-interview Jennifer asked me some questions about the first year after Ethan was born, and after I described it, she said: “That’s postnatal depression.” I realised I had to agree. She asked if I wanted to tell my story, and it just came out from there. It felt liberating.
‘The best thing that ever happened to me’
In a way, it’s like it was meant to be. I’m not a religious person at all, but it’s funny: the person who put the idea for Father Reaching Out in my head was a pastor. We were just talking together, and the idea came up. Tim, who still works has a part-time pastor, has lost his bricklaying business as well as his house and is still on medication after six years, but his idea has helped so many. In 2004 there were no services in Bridgend, where I live, and the suicide rates were huge. Now the NHS has set up a programme to treat PND in the area. So lots has come out of it.
Having depression was the best thing that ever happened to me. Everything’s so much better now. It’s given me a purpose. Looking back now, when I was 30 I was totally uneducated in mental health. Now my values have changed, and I’m no longer money-driven.
And the things that are happening today — Bristol are one of the support groups out there and they recently asked me if there are any national landlines, and now they’re helping to try to make a national charity and hotline. It’s time to get other people involved, and that’ll help more victims.
We’re doing other things for mens’ mental health, broadening it beyond PND, and trying to help people before they get to crisis point. If we can educate the next generation about what mental health is — that’s the real solution.
Why fathers don’t seek help
It’s hard for guys because postnatal depression is associated with women, and they don’t understand that it’s always PND if it’s in the first 12 months of your child’s life.
The guys I’ve had in my therapy groups have been from all backgrounds — builders, policemen, professionals — and it’s always the stigma holding them back. For me, I just didn’t care anymore. If it meant I was going to be on the dole for the rest of my life, that was okay. But they worry about people in the village finding out, about their wives and workplaces finding out, and that’s why they struggled on, not telling anyone. I’ve talked to these guys and they say to everyone that they’re fine; they’ll even tell their doctor they’re fine because they’re scared that any medication they take will go on their record and affect them getting another job.
But if you put them in a one-on-one situation with someone who’s had depression — that’s different. I was the same. I didn’t go to the doctor before 2011, and it was only after I reached rock bottom when I was sitting in that car that I got better, when I went to the doctor and said: “Give me anything, as long as I get better.” But some people find out that if they get better they’ll lose their benefits and have to get a job, which pushes them out of their comfort zone.
I come from the Valleys, a rugby and drinking culture, but I’ve had no bad experience coming out. I was lucky — my wife told me to get out there, and that this shouldn’t be happening, and I had supportive friends and family before I went public with my illness. A lot of guys won’t come out and say it, because they don’t have the kind of support I did. But as long as fathers get help and go to their GP, the family doesn’t have to split up, and the children don’t have to deal with a depressed parent.
Life after depression
My relationship with Ethan now is great. I’ve done everything with him. I’ve missed one birthday and nothing else. I take him everywhere, I coach his football team, and we have season tickets to Cardiff City. It’s fantastic. I’m like chalk and cheese now. Thinking about all the things me and my son do together, I think the depression made us stronger, because the time I had off meant more bonding time.
We only have one child — I didn’t want my wife going through that again — but we’ve come to terms with that. A lot of families who go through PND had expected to have one boy and one girl or even three children, then don’t after the PND, and they’ve got to get help for that.
My wife is my best friend too, so I feel lucky. It’s been tough, but the bad times have definitely made the good times better. I’m fortunate to work with people who care about PND, and I think to myself: “I’m so glad I got the help.”