One in 10 new dads struggle with depression following the birth of a child. But, on the surface, Stephen Reilly seemed like an unlikely candidate.
That’s partly because Stephen is an unusually successful man. Married with two children, Harper (14) and Augie (9), he’s enjoyed a wide-ranging career that’s taken him from stints as a management consultant to becoming a published novelist. Today, he’s the Chief Operating Officer for the super fund, HESTA, but still finds time to present the ABC radio show, More Than Just a Game.
Yet beneath that impressive track record, Stephen hasn’t enjoyed an easy ride. Shortly after becoming a father, he was rocked by depression that he now suspects was triggered by the dramatic life change.
Here, Stephen shares his story and how he managed to wrestle his life back into shape.
Looking back now I wonder: Was depression always going to happen for me at that age? Was there some psychochemical thing that was always going to be triggered? And I honestly couldn’t tell you the answer to that. But I doubt it.
I think what happened actually related to a change in self-perception that came along with fatherhood – the realisation that I suddenly had a responsibility to this perfect, precious little baby. When you think about the size of that responsibility, it’s amazing that every dad doesn’t self-combust.
My daughter, Harper, was born at the end of 2004. My novel had just been published, but not been successful enough to support a family, so I went back to working in financial services. I started to put all this pressure on myself about whether I was a worthy role model for her and I convinced myself that I was never going to be good enough. My impression of myself gradually went down and down and down. The logic of a depressed state of mind is astoundingly persuasive. It’s almost irrefutable, no matter the facts. You struggle to look at yourself from the outside.
“Suddenly, I didn’t want to see my friends”
Suddenly, I didn’t want to see my friends. I just had a real aversion to going out. I think at the time, it stemmed from a misplaced sense of being judged. It’s funny, I thought I was being judged by others, but I was really being judged by myself.
I actually didn’t mind getting out of bed to go to work. I didn’t mind working long hours or going out for work functions until the wee hours. In fact, I started getting lost in my work – my job suddenly took on this huge importance in my life. And I think a large part of that was a self-esteem issue that related to fatherhood.
At the time, I was working for a bank in the internal consulting team. I found myself going for more and more promotions that in hindsight I wasn’t ready for, and getting further and further down on myself when I didn’t get them.
I became a lot more self-centered. At home, when it came to doing my share of the washing up or making dinner – all those things fell over. Some of my wife’s closest friends even started making helpful suggestions, “Maybe you could do a bit more around the house…”
The strange thing is that when you’re in that headspace you’re really down on yourself, but if anyone else gets down on you, you resent it and push back and say, “What else could I possibly be doing?”
“I became a lot angrier”
But the main thing was that I became a lot angrier. I was angry with the world. Every queue I had to stand in was too long. The service that the plumber or the car mechanic provided was never good enough. Everything I encountered was just outrageously bad. And unfortunately, it’s often when you’re in your family space that you vent the most.
I remember the specific moment when I decided I needed to get help. We were at a friend’s place and we brought a couple of bottles of champagne and I left them in a bag by the front door. When I went to bring them into the kitchen, I dropped them on the tiled floor and they smashed. And I was just devastated. I was in tears. Dropping those bottles of champagne felt like the end of the world.
But at that moment, I suddenly had this revelation that my reaction was disproportionate. That incident provided me with a level of detachment that I needed. Because I didn’t just look at that moment, I could now look at a string of my behaviour leading up to that point as being disproportionate.
That was the moment I agreed to go and get some help.
“Realise you have a problem, then you have the chance to solve it”
I went to a psychologist and was told that I was “very severely depressed” (at the time, I wondered whether that definition was even grammatically acceptable). But the insight, when I accepted it, was brutal. There was a scale being used for this assessment and I was at the top of it.
That diagnosis also legitimised that I might have a problem and that realisation was a key moment for me. When you realise you have a problem, then you have the chance to solve it.
What helped me get better? My wife’s love and patience – they were the number one and two reasons that I had the opportunity to get better. She was well within her rights to cut and run or take a break or separate at different points. And that would’ve been an infinitely harder for me to come back from.
I did also go on antidepressants for nearly two years and, while I think they did help, there was another part to that too. You’re advised not to drink when you’re on antidepressants and that enforced alcohol ban was useful for me. I’ll drink socially now, but I think that what I needed at that time was a little less escapism. I needed to be in the moment. I needed to recognise the problem and take it on. It was always going to be there until I addressed it.
In my experience, finding the right kind of help is an art, not a science. I think I went to three different psychologists before I settled on one. You really can choose your own adventure and how you want to tackle it, but I think that what you choose may affect how (or whether!) you find your way out the other side. The main school of thought that ultimately worked for me was Martin Seligman and Positive Psychology
Along the way, I learned a really effective way to handle the negative voices in my head. First, you start to treat those negative voices as a separate person that’s in the room walking alongside you. Then you need to put that person in a corner and pay less attention to them. Finally, you learn to treat the negative voice as traffic noise outside the window that you barely notice because you’re focusing on the inside conversation instead. That sort of progression really worked for me.
“You can’t expect it to work overnight”
The last thing I want to do is tell people what they need. But what I needed was to work through something and give it a chance to change me. You can’t expect it to work overnight. It’s not a bolt of lightning. Not for me. I had to work my way through that. And funnily enough, some of my friends’ suggestions about doing more washing up, making more dinners, washing more clothes – they were actually fantastic suggestions. Because they got me more connected back into the heartland of my life, which is my family. I flipped my perspective of the place where I needed to be at my best – that place was with my family, not at work or anywhere else.
If you’re a dad and you’re struggling, it’s so important to realise that your child will love you the way you are. You don’t need to be any better for your child to love you. Any idea that you need to be better for the sake of your kids’ love and respect, that’s just wrong. All they want is for you to be who you are. And if your kids are okay with you as you are, then you should be too. Right?
The other little thing that I find as a dad as my kids get older is that I spend a lot of time telling them: ‘Just do your best, turn up, represent yourself honestly, and the result will be what it is.’ But that message is also what you need to tell yourself as a dad: ‘Just do your best and that’s enough’.
When I was in the throes of depression, everything I did wasn’t enough. Looking back now, that was self-evidently wrong, but not to my mind at the time. So I think you almost need to talk to yourself the way you talk to your child. Put yourself in your kid’s shoes. What would you say to yourself then?
This article originally appeared on The Father Hood – the new online destination to help dads survive and thrive.
If you’re struggling with depression or anxiety then you’re not alone. Call Gidget Foundation Australia on ph: 1300 851 758 and visitor the PANDA National Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Helpline 1300 726 306 (Mon to Fri, 9am – 7.30pm AEST) and find more info at: