• Afaf Alfawwal and her son, Zachariah. (Supplied to SBS by Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia.)Source: Supplied to SBS by Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia.
Afaf Alfawwal's experience of postnatal depression was challenging but the way she dealt with it was inspiring. The mother of one tells SBS that she will not let it define her or get in the way of her plans for a larger family in the future.
By
Rosalind Reines

7 Apr 2017 - 2:27 PM  UPDATED 7 Apr 2017 - 3:34 PM

When Afaf Alfawwal experienced her first symptom of postnatal depression (PND), she was lying next to her husband in bed.

Suddenly, Alfawwal tells SBS, she was “consumed by dread, certain that something horrible was about to happen”.

The vivacious 24-year-old, who now works in a Victorian chiropractic practice, woke up her husband, asking him to watch over her until she could sleep.

Soon after, her then three-month-old baby son Zachariah started crying. The new mother went over to soothe him but, all of a sudden, felt helpless. “I was afraid to pick him up in case I did something wrong,” she recalls with a shudder. 

From then on, the symptoms intensified and she became increasingly emotionally crippled. “I was constantly panicking, constantly crying and I was thinking horrible, intrusive thoughts.”

“I stopped eating and sleeping. I couldn’t be next to my son because I didn’t want a crazy person to be with him. I thought he’d be better off without me. It seemed there was no way out.”

Alfawwal pauses for a moment to collect herself during the interview, still clearly shaken by what she went through almost two years ago.

“I stopped eating and sleeping. I couldn’t be next to my son because I didn’t want a crazy person to be with him. I thought he’d be better off without me. It seemed there was no way out.”

It was another three weeks before Alfawwal finally approached her mother, breaking down and telling her everything. It took another two weeks before she could tell her husband how she was feeling.

Why so long?

“I didn’t want him to think that I’m incapable or weak,” she explains. “He’s from an overseas [country] where mental illness is seen as a stigma and discussing it is taboo.” (Alfawwal’s husband preferred not to be named or photographed for this story.)

When she finally did tell him what she was going through, he was supportive and joined her family in trying to help her.

 

Researching her symptoms online, she came across PANDA (Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia) and contacted them. Alfawwal started seeing a psychologist each week, used meditation to help relieve her stress and, following medical instruction, took the antidepressant, Zoloft.

“A lot of people can get through postnatal depression without antidepressants,” she explains, “but I felt I needed the medication to clear my mind and actually take in what was being said to me. It was there as an extra support.”

However, the new mum was still breast feeding Zachariah and was concerned he would be exposed to it.

“It was just a massive stress for me but when I consulted PANDA, I was informed that the amount that he would receive through my milk would be minuscule and I could also time my feeds so there probably wouldn’t be anything at all.”

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Alfawwal is still on Zoloft but she says she’s gradually weaning herself off it because she’s confident that she’s feeling better.

In retrospect, Alfawwal feels that she was let down by the medical profession at the time of per postnatal depression, because she had already experienced anxiety: a clinical PND risk factor.

She tells SBS how her anxiety first begun at the age of 18 when she started a journalism degree but felt overwhelmed trying to adjust to university life. She started seeing a psychologist, completed a year and then left to take a job in the chiropractic practice. (Alfawwal is currently studying meditation.) 

“When I became pregnant, my doctor knew that I’d had a history of anxiety and so did the doctors at the hospital but nobody monitored me [for PND],” she says.

Alfawwal believes that the disorder is also particularly tough to come to terms with in her own Middle Eastern community. 

“Once you’ve had a child, it’s meant to be this amazing blessing, which it is, but sometimes people do need extra support. It’s also often those that are the strongest, the most caring and loving that get hit with mental illness,” she says.

"When I became pregnant, my doctor knew that I’d had a history of anxiety and so did the doctors at the hospital but nobody monitored me [for PND]."

In her bid to help others and give back, she has become a community champion for PANDA to help mothers understand that postnatal depression is nothing to be ashamed of.

According to Professor Marie-Paule Austin, a Clinical Associate at Black Dog Institute, around 15-to-25 per cent per cent of women will have some depression or anxiety within six months of giving birth.

“This may not be a crippling disorder,” says Professor Austin, “but often may be mild to moderate.”

She adds that dealing with PND may be particularly difficult for some women from non-English speaking backgrounds because they “may not have the words to describe it and there’s often a feeling of shame for what they’re experiencing”.

Despite the emotional upheaval she experienced, Alfawwal is adamant that PND has not put her off completing her family with more children in the future.

“Getting through postnatal depression has given me the courage to have another child,” she says.

“It’s taught me that I’m stronger than I think and I have the tools to deal with it.”

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