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Northern Ireland woman's brave account of surviving postnatal depression

Just weeks after the birth of her second son, portrait and wedding photographer Sarah Bryden began suffering from severe postnatal depression. The Omagh woman tells Lee Henry how both medication and alternative treatments helped her to recover

Family bond: Sarah Bryden with her son Evan when he was born
Family bond: Sarah Bryden with her son Evan when he was born
Sarah Bryden

It's a cliche, but for photographer and writer Sarah Bryden, it really is true: your health is your wealth. Having forged a successful career as a portrait and wedding photographer, working with clients in her native Omagh and the surrounding areas, the birth of her second child Evan in 2016 sent the 35-year-old spiralling into a pit of postnatal depression that impacted her creativity and her business.

Sarah didn't see it coming. Two years earlier, in 2014, she had given birth to her eldest, Tom (4). The experience was a challenge but nothing out of the ordinary. Despite initially finding it difficult to conceive, Sarah and her husband Alan (35) were overjoyed with the new arrival.

"I was relieved that it had finally happened for us," she recalls. "It was so exciting to be a mum.

"Alan and I were ready to be parents. Sure, I struggled with breastfeeding and Tom didn't like to sleep for the first two years but, hey, that's just parenthood, right? It's never perfect but it was as close as we could get. I adored Tom. He was the smiliest wee baby and such a beautiful little soul. I was so proud to be his mum. Becoming a mother made me feel powerful and I respected my body for what it had done."

It was the culmination of a lifetime's dream. Sarah and Alan were "childhood sweethearts" who attended secondary school together and began dating while studying for their A-levels.

"We did long distance when we were at university - I studied film and media in Manchester, Alan optometry at Cambridge - and we finally managed to be in the same place for a few years before we got married in 2010."

The pair settled in Omagh, where Sarah, originally from Enniskillen, set up as a freelance photographer and Alan opened Bryden Opticians in nearby Newtownstewart. The arrival of Tom signalled the beginning of a "wonderful" period as a growing family. Naturally, thoughts of adding a sibling to the mix began to take hold.

"Having a child is such a gift and we loved being parents, so when Tom was just over a year old, we thought we'd see what happens," says Sarah. "We were obviously a little concerned that we might struggle to conceive again. But it happened straight away. It was a shock. I almost couldn't believe it. We had an early scan and there he was, little baby Evan."

Evan was born fit and healthy, but by her six-week check up, Sarah was aware that something was wrong. Before too long, things started to take a turn for the worse. She would wake up feeling absolutely fine one day, and "totally hysterical" the next.

"All I wanted to do was escape. I'd scream and cry and then, once I'd stop, I'd be plunged into the darkness of guilt and self-loathing. It was a really tough time for us all. I used to describe it as having two little me's on my shoulders - my rational self and the irrational self. The rational me was still there, just staring in despair as the irrational me went nuts. That is why you feel you're going crazy.

The family together
The family together

"I hooked on the idea that I had anxiety, not depression - when, in fact, the two go hand in hand. I kept telling myself that I had nothing to be depressed about. I loved my children more than anything else in this world and I had a husband who was incredibly supportive and loving. I had such a lack of understanding about mental health. I think we all do until we are faced with it ourselves. Postnatal depression (PND) was a roller-coaster."

Sarah wasn't aware of the symptoms or consequences of PND. "I assumed that it was more about not bonding with your baby, so I'd say it couldn't be PND because I adored that wee man. I ended up having what might have been seen as a breakdown - but really for me it was a breakthrough. I tackled it head on. It changed my perspective on mental health and happiness."

Sarah initially visited her GP, who advised medication. The idea of taking antidepressants was, she says, "way out of my comfort zone". She requested the help of a counsellor but was told that the waiting list was four months at the earliest. Her only choice was to go private. Therapy helped, as did writing a journal about her experience - "Alan could read it and understand a little more of what I was feeling when I was having my bad days" - but the depression continued.

"My lowest point was about five months after Evan was born. I remember being really down and running myself a bath. I sat in it and cried for hours. The realisation that I couldn't control what I was feeling came crashing down on top of me. I texted my counsellor. He saw me the next day and said that I needed to admit to myself that I had depression. My next plan was to see my GP again and discuss medication after all."

Sarah admits that there remains a stigma attached to antidepressant medication, and that new mums in particular are prone to reject it for fear of showing weakness or feeling inadequate. In the event, however, it changed her life completely. "My GP said that often postnatal depression is more like a mood disorder, which made so much sense to me. Within days I began to feel like myself again.

"Medication just balanced out my hormones so that I didn't overreact to every little thing. It was such a mild dose too, just enough to correct the imbalance, which is fairly inevitable when you've just given your body over to producing a human. It had no side-effects. I always worried that I'd feel numb or weird but honestly, it just got me back to my old self."

Other things helped too, including changing her diet, exercise and self care. Over the course of a few months, however, Sarah came to fully appreciate the positive effects of acupuncture more than anything else, having received treatment from Sarah McCabe of Omagh-based Hope, Health and Healing.

"She saw me at my lowest ebb," Sarah remembers. "God love her, I was a mess! But Sarah was just the most warm, kind and generous person. She has a gift for making people feel better."

That said, Sarah credits her husband as her biggest emotional support throughout the ordeal. "I would have panic attacks out of the blue, but Alan just took over looking after the boys and gave me the time I needed. I would say it made us stronger. It broke his heart seeing me so unwell and not being able to help. Now, if we have any big decisions to make in our life, mental health and happiness is a major priority."

Sarah Bryden with husband Alan and their children Tom (4) and Evan (2)
Sarah Bryden with husband Alan and their children Tom (4) and Evan (2)

One of the most difficult effects of postnatal depression on Sarah was the impact it had on her photography. "I fell out of love with it," she admits. She stopped taking bookings for family or newborn portrait sessions and stepped back from shooting weddings. With a background in media and journalism, however, she found a creative outlet in writing, which in turn helped to rekindle her professional desire to take pictures.

"Writing was my first love and journaling about my experience was a release for me," she adds. "Getting all those emotions and thoughts out of my head helped me a lot and because of that, I have found a new freedom within my career.

"Last year I travelled to New York to shoot a wedding and was later shortlisted for British Photography Awards Best Wedding Photographer of the Year. It was my most successful year to date and I took some of the best photos I've ever taken. But I'm keeping up with my writing, too. I've just launched a new venture, Creative on Social, helping other photographers to tell their stories, too."

For any new mothers out there struggling to cope, Sarah has a message: "PND is much more common than you'd think." She believes that it's a condition that isn't talked about enough. By recounting her experience, however, she hopes to raise awareness and help others to deal with the challenges and pressures of parenthood.

"I'm open about my experience but I know that PND is a very personal thing and can affect women in many different ways. I think that's also the difficulty in diagnosing it." She encourages men and women to vocalise their experiences, having found relief with the Omagh-based Support 2gether group, and also to consider medication.

"If you broke your arm, wouldn't you seek treatment? Wouldn't you get it reset, rest and take some pain medication? There are things you should do for your mental health, too."

Sarah adds: "I was the kind of person who wouldn't take paracetamol, never mind antidepressants, but they turned everything around for me. Now I feel that 2019 is my year to forge ahead and continue to do what makes me happy."

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