Maternal Mental Health

Four years ago I took a pretty rapid descent into motherhood and during my 3 month pregnancy (long story, he was a late discovery, oops) I was put on a crash course by all the mums I knew…

“Sleep when the baby sleeps. Fed is best. Nappy bins are pointless. The first postpartum poo is the hardest. Get yourself some big knickers. If it’s a girl wipe from front to back. If it’s a boy make sure it’s pointing down when you put the nappy on. You can’t spoil a newborn. Make sure you take time for yourself. You won’t shower for the first few days. Pack a long charger for the hospital. You’ll still look pregnant for a while after birth. Your boobs will double when your milk comes in. That first cry is the best sound. When you hold baby you’ll feel love like no other. You’ll gain a whole new perspective. You’re about to realise the true meaning of joy. There’s no love like a mother for her child. When you look at them your heart will sing…”

But I wasn’t told or warned about postpartum depression and anxiety. Both of which creeped up behind me and grabbed me round the throat, restricting me so much that most days I felt like I couldn’t breathe.

The thoughts that entered my mind weren’t just words strung together in text – they’d flash through in a reel of terrifying imagery. I didn’t think my thoughts, I saw them – often unable to distinguish between what was real and what wasn’t.

“My baby is sick. My baby is choking. My baby has turned blue. My babies chest isn’t moving. My baby is sleeping too much, sleeping too little. He’s got a rash. He’s not breathing properly. What if I drop the baby? What if I drop the baby on purpose? What if the tv falls on him? What if he falls into the sink of boiling water, or I pour kettle water on him? What if we fall down the stairs and I crush him? What if I bend his limbs too much and they break? What if I drop him in the bath and he drowns? Or I throw him out of the window, or over the balcony? What if I deliberately let him drink piping hot milk? What if that pillow falls on his face and I don’t move it? What if I let the pram go and it wheels into the road? What if someone tries to steal him? What if a stranger breaks in and tries to kill us? What if I hurt him with this kitchen knife? Or drop him on the open oven door? What if I fall asleep and suffocate him?”

“Wait, am I capable of hurting my child? Am I thinking all this because I WANT to carry these actions out? Should I call social services on myself? Am I in fact the most dangerous thing to this innocent boy? Do I love my baby? Should I actually just put him up for adoption?”

I would worry about external influences and my own capabilities to the extent that I would be frightened to look in his Moses basket at night incase he had died. I wouldn’t carry him past windows or sit with him on the balcony. I’d keep kettles and knives a whole room away from him. I’d plan escape routes for us at 3am in case someone broke in. The bathroom has a lock but no window, would we survive a jump off the balcony? I’d ring my other half whilst he was on the night shift and insist he just kept me in his pocket as he worked so I didn’t feel so alone. I’d want to spend as much time as possible with other people so I didn’t have to be subject to my own thoughts. I’d sit on the bed at night for hours cradling my son whilst he slept convinced someone had broken in. I had to make sure at all times that I was between him and the door. I’d wake in the night having half dreamt something awful and fully believe it was real.

My anxiety became so bad that one night I perched trembling at the top of the stairs with a knife, holding my snoozing baby, for hours waiting for someone to break in. I reached a level of delirium that I rang my now husband and told him that in fact someone was in our flat and he had to drive home immediately.

It took me nearly three years to recover from my firstborn and dare I say I’m not sure I ever will. Obviously none of what I thought or imagined was real, but I was too scared to get help as I was worried there would be some form of intervention. I used to joke that the health visitor was social services but there really was part of me that’s saw her as someone who was coming to vet me rather than support me – when asked how I was feeling I was fabulous! Any challenging thoughts? Don’t know what you’re on about lady.

When I finally went to my GP and told her what was going on, I was shocked by her response.

“It’s entirely normal, it’s bloody horrible, but it happens to 1 in 5 of us. You are not alone.”

She was right, technically I wasn’t alone but as a new mother with no mum friends to reach out to I felt the loneliest I ever have. How do you tell your friends who don’t have kids that you thought people were in your flat when they weren’t… or that you fully imagined yourself stabbing your newborn child. You don’t.

Over time I learnt that yes it’s completely normal to be experiencing what I was experiencing but that didn’t make it ok – suffering in silence doesn’t help anyone. Everyone will have different coping mechanisms, things that helped me were indeed talking to people… some won’t want to talk and that’s ok, often when it comes to mental illness we don’t know what to say. I remember being with a couple of friends last year and PPD/PPA topic bizarrely came up (they don’t gave kids). One of my friends quite readily said “my mum had postpartum depression with my brother actually”. My ears kind of pricked up as at this point my son was nearly three and I’d never really shared my situation. I responded with “oh she did? So did I with Fred”. Neither of my friends responded. As soon as the conversation started it ended… it was ok to bring up PPD/PPA that was nearly 30 years old and no ones responsibility to support – the comment was more anecdotal and gossipy than an invitation to let her know I might need her. After all her mum was now fine and all fixed, it was clear that mine was still very raw.

Initially I took it personally and was pretty upset. I felt like my friends didn’t want to know but the truth was they didn’t know how to know. They knew as much as I did about PPD/PPA as I did before having experienced it first hand and would just not have known what to say! Taking peoples reactions or non reactions personally when you share your mental health problems will only send you into a thought spiral that makes your anxiety worse. “Everyone hates me, no one wants to help me”.

It’s not the case, a lot of people just don’t know what to do or say when you bring up poor mental health. Maternal mental ill health is still such a taboo and secretive subject – after all who would know that women could be unhappy after having had a ‘bundle of joy’! It doesn’t make sense!

Thankfully one friend of mine helped explain to me why I might be experiencing these terrible and intrusive visions and thoughts, and it really helped me to rationalise and find answers. She told me that her perception of it was that anxiety grips onto what might happen, what could happen and therefore the mind behaves preemptively. When these images were flashing into my mind they were solely serving the purpose of protection. They were enabling me to stay on top of my game, detect every danger and put measures in place to protect both me and my baby. It wasn’t that I wanted to hurt him or myself – I was simply preparing for every eventuality. Including those that frightened me most. When you’re in charge of something so precious, fragile and dependent on you – you are likely to worry about what could happen to them and therefore put measures in place to keep them safe. This helped.

I also relied on writing, which I was why I started this blog and have started it back up again: I am six weeks postpartum with my second baby and have been experiencing anxiety and intrusive thoughts like I did before. I had to stop in a lay-by in the way home because she was starving hungry and screaming. My anxiety took hold of me and I had to wait until no cars were passing by just incase we were hit as I was bringing her into the front seat or even worse, I threw her into the road.

To be able to pen out my thoughts and feelings expels them from my heart and allows me to feel a little lighter. That and a load of medication…

The Wriggler.

Finding out I was pregnant was shocking to say the very least. I was given a three month (max) preparation period and was demanded to shake off my allergy to babies and fall in love with a stubborn little bean that despite any amount of gin, white water rafting, heavy lifting or violent dancing had clung on inside me and chosen me to be his keeper.

Was I to feel an instant connection to this little human? At the time of discovery he was way too big to even see the gender, everything was to be a surprise for us. Who was this person? Were they safe? Did I love them? Did I want them? Who knew. The only thing I did know was that beneath all the shock came shining through with a fire of passion a need to do everything within my power to ensure that from that day on they were not to be harmed, not to be alone, not to feel sadness if it were in my power or ability for them not to. From that day, that hour, that moment, I became a mother. 

And so I continued – and tried to do my best to get to know my unborn child. I started to speak to the baby, started to sing to it. I didn’t know what I was doing, I had gone from rejecting my physical appearance to embracing it, to touching and caressing my belly. To letting my other half see it, stroke it and kiss it for the first time since we had been together. It had gone from the worst part of my body to the best, in the space of a few hours. I went from ignoring every pain and discomfort that I had previously diagnosed as cysts, to enjoying the ebbs and flows that came with the baby’s movements. We created a character – and soon enough – the baby became ‘The Wriggler’.

The Wriggler fast became a pretty good friend of mine, it’s hard not to get to know someone well especially when you spend all your time with them. Wriggler slept mostly when I was awake, always in the car and often when out and about. Wriggler had its fun when I was trying to sleep – always. Partying until the AM. Wriggler was cheeky, and a fighter. Wriggler would push its feet and hands against my desk at work if I leaned too closely and would hiccup it’s way through important meetings and push on my bladder whilst on sales calls. Wriggler did whatever was inconvenient and I loved that – I loved that already my baby felt independent, my baby felt wilful. I was proud and I hadn’t even met them. 

My boyfriend and I would meet at the end of a working day and he wouldn’t just ask how my day had gone he’d also ask how Wriggler was – did Wriggler have a good day? I wasn’t sure if the guilt born from not being aware of our baby’s existence was the reason why, but we fast became obsessed. Every movement, every time my belly grew, each new sensation was spoken about at great length. At times I became too frightened to sleep, so wanting to make up for lost time that I felt I should always be ensuring that the baby was happy and okay. Monitoring our new prized possession. 

The personality we created was everything to us,  The Wriggler was not a morning person, was definitely cheeky, stubborn and had an insanely sweet tooth. The Wriggler also loved Ed Sheeran, I would sing ‘I’m in love with the shape of you’ at the top of my voice and my darling would jig along inside me in response. 

The creation of The Wriggler felt crucial to our success – The Wriggler had not chosen to exist and it was our job to ensure that we were the best parents we could possibly be, that our baby was loved and knew it. The fact that I felt that I had been neglectful meant I had so much making up to do and each day I promised this to Wriggler. I woke up each morning and would declare – ‘I love you my angel, Mummy will always take care of you’. My eyes would fill with tears and I would go about my day ensuring every move I made would prolong my fulfilling that promise. 

The Year Before. Pt.1. 

Context is always a useful tool when trying to fathom and grasp onto a story whilst it’s being told. Without context one can often misconstrue or misinterpret and I would hate for anyone to do that with me and my tale. This is why I have chosen to supply you all with a little prelude, as it is crucial considering what follows.

The year or two running up to my pregnancy were tough – I had never had any health issues before, bar recurring cystitis. And therefore the only medical disturbance I had encountered was that feeling of pissing razor blades whenever I had forgotten to pee after sex. Encore cranberry juice.

However this luxury wasn’t to last long. Despite some of my time at university being a very proud skinny streak. I have always struggled enormously with my weight and physical appearance. Whether I have overeaten, under eaten, or been victim to cruel episodes of body dysmorphia my body has constantly changed. My weight yo-yo-ing up and down has been something I was very used to. It was also always something that deep down I knew I was in control of and could do something about. As successful as I was at putting it on, I was just as successful at losing it. And as all good things must do, this skinny streak ended, but for once I could not fathom why. Had my lifestyle changed? Was I waking up in the middle of the night and going down to Perfect Fried Chicken and ordering a Number 5? What was going on? All I knew was that I was stuck working behind bar after bar pulling pints and 16 hour shifts all the while expanding at a rate of knots. I had found myself in a relatively long term rather abusive and manipulative relationship and I was becoming precisely what he had always told me I would be, fat and unlovable. Needless to say I was desperately unhappy.

This extra weight was carried around for a few months and my mental and physical well being only got worse, I was in my darkest place yet. I made the decision to move from my beloved London back to Oxford where I had predominantly been brought up and ‘turn over a new leaf’. I did so by leaving the horrible boy behind and moving in with my absolute best friend and soul mate in the town where we had gone to school. I secured myself a bang average but promising job and threw myself into healthy eating and exercise. I decided to become Betsy again.

We had a fantastic time to say the least, both single and good looking girls (my body was starting to improve – ish) we made the most of each and every hour spent away from our desks and living together. The only cloud still left looming over my head was that of the number of the scales and the size of my waistline. I really was doing my best, I was eating between 800-1200 calories a day, attending the gym and several boot camps for weeks and yet the pounds just weren’t going.

My frustration at this was getting worse and worse, I upped my exercise and cut down calories. To the point where I was so light headed and grumpy, chuffing away on cigarettes and drinking so much coffee my bowels rejected even themselves and yet nothing was working. I was in dire straits with no where to look and no answer.

Then one night my best friend and I were watching our usual shit on TV, I was sitting there in my gym clothes having devoured a delicious dinner of fuck all and my stomach started to really hurt. I complained as one does and we both put it down to trapped wind, it would pass. However it did not, she went to bed and I attempted to do so too until I found myself green/grey in colour, cold sweating profusely and throwing up in the loo. I was scared. 3 am came and I couldn’t take it anymore. Remembering my mums words to the nurse at school, ‘don’t call me unless she’s in the morgue’. I reluctantly picked up the phone and called my parents.

To my surprise the days of them not believing when I was ill had passed, whether age had gained their trust or the fact that I had called at 3 am clearly in a tizz had done it I don’t know but soon they were knocking on my door ready to take me to hospital. The next few hours were confusing to say the least, the doctors could see I had an infection but couldn’t pinpoint exactly what it was, a laparoscopy was needed.

They carried out the surgery and deduced that I had had several cysts on my ovaries that had all burst, infecting my appendix and all the while causing me excruciating pain.

PCOS – Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. Those four letters that answered so much, yet would throw such a thick blanket over everything none of us would think to look past it. Not one.

The Charity Shop. 

Braving the outside world and wanting to feel productive I’ve found myself standing with my closest friend in a charity shop. I am staring at baby related treasures, all owned by past mothers and their kin, sniffing the dust off the top of a teddy’s head wanting someone to stroll over and tell me what to do. I don’t know what I’m doing here; all I know is that I have to achieve something.

The book shelf seems like a good place to go. All the information I really need is probably on the internet and I can access that from a handheld device any time of the day or night, but no one will know I’m doing it. There won’t be proof of my organisation and willingness to take on this new responsibility. So look, there it is. ‘What to expect when you’re expecting’ – those words everyone has heard, the brand of pregnancy and the bible you need in order to bring new life into the world. With a quick reminder to find out the net worth of the author I pluck out the tatty copy and assess its weight. It’s currently priced at £2.99, an absolute bargain and certainly one aspect of this new life that I can afford.

I smile wryly and approach the gentleman at the till, as I hand my purchase over to him I joke to my companion – ‘I should get this for a quid, I’ve already worked my way through 2 thirds of this thing and I didn’t even know!’.

The old man behind the till slides his eyes towards my stomach, expertly hidden as it always has been by floaty dress, scarf and coat I look straight at him challenging him to diagnose my condition any faster than the rest of us could have. He doesn’t, he takes my money and hands me the book and I stroll out of there the weight of the world on my shoulders but a new fire in my belly.

Quite literally heartburn sucks.

Intro.

I feel that to jump right in with all the spoilers of this rather farcical tale would be a mistake.

It’s also difficult to explain exactly how it began. For most of us it’s all starting right now and for one of us, well, they’ve been a secret and silent passenger for six whole months.

My passenger.

I want to start where I feel most comfortable, but also possibly with an area where I feel most vulnerable. This may sound like a slight contradiction and I can fully understand why some may be confused as to why I have chosen to be so candid so early on but the reason is; I want to ensure you all. That you are not alone. You won’t have had your script written exactly the same as mine, nor will it be in the same font, or the same size. It might be leather bound, gold trim or a handwritten scribble on a napkin. It doesn’t matter. Our scripts were written when we were looking the other way, and for this reason we are bonded.

So please do excuse me if you don’t find full satisfaction in what I have to say as I realise that whilst we may all be heading in the same direction I only know my path.