Northland mum Arna-Lise Harris had extra reason to celebrate crossing the finish line at the recent Kerikeri Marathon. Not only was completing the challenging event an achievement in itself, but the race also represented her triumph over a nine-year battle with depression.
Wind the clock back nine years and Arna-Lise could never have imagined she would be running in the Kerikeri half-marathon. She’d just given birth to her eldest child Lily and struggled to bond with her – often feeling angry and resentful.
At the time, she had no idea that these were signs of depression, and the beginning of a nine- year journey with an illness that caused her so much anxiety that she was regularly in a state of panic:
“Anxiety made me irritable, irrational and took away my confidence in life and areas I once thrived in. I couldn’t sleep. In the quiet of the night my heart would race and my mind would work overtime on the cares of the day. I couldn’t silence my thoughts. I went from being an outgoing extrovert to an introvert, wanting to hide and stay home.”
Finally, after several years, along with the birth of two more babies, Arna-Lise went to the doctor, saying “I don’t know what is wrong with me, but whatever it is, it is ruining my life.”
The doctor identified postnatal depression and Arna-Lise was given five free counselling sessions but it wasn’t enough, and two years later, Arna-Lise’s thoughts became dark and suicidal: “[I wondered if] life was some lacklustre existence and then we die? Would I ever feel happy again?”
Going back to the doctor and being prescribed medication was a turning point for Arna-Lise, but by this time she was 104kg: “Everything was so hard. I felt so broken, I wanted food to be my friend… being overweight affected my self-esteem hugely – which affected my head space. I really wanted to live a life free from depression and anxiety, but also, if possible, to do so without having to be on medication for the rest of my life.”
Arna-Lise set herself a goal weight of 70kg. Initially, her exercise goal was just to move her body/walk 3-5 times per week: “I needed to regain my physical strength [and] I kept injuring myself because of my size and having very weak muscles.”
Eventually, Arna-Lise felt like she wanted to run. Initially, she could only run 50 to 100 metres but eventually it became 5km without stopping.
“I had a group of fit friends who were training to do the Kerikeri half marathon, and they applied a bit of friendly pressure – daring me that if I could run 5km I could definitely do the half marathon – so I just decided to have a go!”
The Kerikeri half-marathon marked a significant milestone for Arna-Lise, and triumph over her battle with depression.
“Looking back on that angry mum, spending long nights at home dealing with premmie babies, I thought I was a monster and I wasn’t cut out to have children. I now realise that I was experiencing PTSD, severe depression and anxiety and I didn’t know.”
Arna-Lise used her Kerikeri half-marathon to raise awareness of perinatal depression and anxiety and fundraise for Mothers Helpers – an organisation that focuses on identifying depression and anxiety in mothers early, and providing them with help and recovery.
Founder of Mothers Helpers Kristina Paterson says “Arna-Lise Harris had clear risk-factors for perinatal depression and anxiety. When we consider that Arna-Lise had three pre-schoolers before she was diagnosed, we are talking about a series of health professionals that have come in and out of her life without ever screening her or identifying that anything was wrong.
“Even when diagnosis has occurred, the treatment has been inadequate and the monitoring and follow-up non-existent. We are letting our mothers down, and we drastically need to change that.”
If there is one thing that Arna-Lise Harris wants other mums experiencing depression/ anxiety to know, it’s that “you can get your life back and feel happy again. Being freely loved and accepted by people when you are honest about your struggles is one of life’s very best feelings.”
Arna-Lise is fundraising for the cause with a give-a-little page: https://givealittle.co.nz/fundraiser/an-incredible-opportunity and is also set to feature on an upcoming national television series with Charity TV to screen across New Zealand in 2019.
“I’m looking for brands to align with and promote on this television project, which involves me undertaking a life-changing adventure. The footage will be used as part of the television series which combines adventure, travel, philanthropy and television. In this instance all of my endeavours will directly support Mother’s Helpers.”
For more information about Mothers’ Helpers, and for help and support around antenatal and postnatal depression, visit mothershelpers.co.nz