Local counsellor and mum describes her terrifying but hopeful personal tale.
It was happening, I was in labour. The long awaited time of welcoming my precious newborn was almost here. Most people describe those first moments as special, magical and amazing. However when my daughter was born in April 2016, I felt fear, panic and sheer terror. There was no bond, no empathy, and certainly no maternal instinct. I felt numb and it was as if all the life I possessed had been stolen from me. The moment my partner and I had been looking forward to so much was a far cry from our naive expectations.
As someone who had always aspired to be a mother and to some extent planned my life around it, it was peculiar to feel the way I did. This prompted alarm bells to ring in my mind as I was not the Sara I knew. Only moments after delivery I knew something was adrift and that I couldnít cope. Quite quickly this concern became an unavoidable reality.
I was having intrusive thoughts that I was too scared to share with anyone and feeling so anxious that I could barely function or sleep. After just two days I was virtually catatonic. Three days on and I was taken away from my daughter and placed on suicide watch in an acute psychiatric ward. I was on a high level of supervision that meant I had most of my belongings taken away and was checked every 15 minutes (even whilst sleeping). This was like some sort of barbaric, outdated sleep torture experiment and I felt like an animal in a cage.
At the time, myself and family were advised that this was the safest place for my newborn and I. The reality is, I was more terrified than ever before. As a therapist, I know that being around other poorly people can have a hugely negative impact on you, you need the support of your family and the familiarity of your own home. As a mother, you also need to be with your infant as much as possible, whether you want to be or not. I donít blame anyone for the decision to admit me, my partner and parents had an extremely difficult judgement call to make to keep both me and my baby safe. They were terrified too and didnít know what to do apart from trust the professionals.
After a few days, I was transferred to a mother and baby unit in Stafford so I could be looked after and reunited with my newborn. We spent about 6 weeks there before being allowed to come home. Mother and baby units are designed for mentally ill mothers to come and stay with their babies whilst they get better. They offer beds for mums in serious need, until their children are 12 months old.
The reason I am talking about this now is because there is a significant lack of support out there for severe Post Natal illness. I felt I would have been better off staying at home. There is such a strain on resources and staff in these kinds of places and no way near enough of them in the country. Each mother and baby unit only has around 8-12 beds so I was unable to stay in Birmingham. I was put on observations that often meant I had a different member of staff with me every hour (often agency staff who were not psychiatrically trained.)
There was no consistency whatsoever and emotionally the only support I received was from my partner and family, not the staff who were supposedly there to help. I agreed to go into the unit as a voluntary patient on the basis they would help me look after my baby, get some rest and get the psychological support I so badly needed. The reality was, I saw a psychiatrist once a week, during which time I was rarely allowed to put my opinion across and it was an intimidating environment. In addition to this, I didn't receive any 'therapy' apart from medication. I was even told by one person that I was too ill for therapy, and then later that week discharged because I was ready to go home!
I won't go into much more detail about my story as thats not why I am writing this article. I want others to read this and feel inspired, realise that despite the illness, you can go on to make a full recovery. I do not want to alarm anyone by my personal anecdotes, my aim is merely to educate people about Post Natal Depression (PND) and increase itís awareness. It is imperative that people know what to look out for and what can be done to reduce their suffering. Being aware of your feelings and emotions is crucial for an early diagnosis and therefore early intervention.
Here are some examples of feelings and/or behaviours to be aware of:
Feelings of anxiety
Fear of being alone
Wanting someone else to have/take your baby away
Refusing to do certain baby related tasks
Loss of appetite or over eating
Not being able to control worrying/excessive rumination
Trouble falling or staying asleep
Feelings of failure and being a bad mother
Difficulty bonding with baby
Hyperactivity and/or moments of reduced activity
Intrusive thoughts/wanting to harm self or baby
Feeling unable to cope or go on
Dissociation from reality/hallucinations
Feeling overwhelmed with responsibility
Loss of identity and vision for future
Putting yourself before your infant
Low mood and feelings of hopelessness
I am not, nor do I claim to be a medical professional, but I am a mummy, a human being who has been through this journey and come out the other side. Some people may not experience any of the above symptoms, some may experience several. I wanted to share these symptoms as a tool to help other mums identify if there may be a problem. Partners can be helpful in identifying this too, as lots of things can go un-noticed by yourself, especially if you are trying to convince yourself nothing is wrong.
My advice would be that if in any doubt, talk to someone, do not suffer in silence. Tell your GP - medication can help (it doesnít deal with the cause but does help with some symptoms). Try to get some psychotherapy if you can, and try to find some local mumís groups so you can talk to other people about it. Look after your body by getting sleep when you can and eating nutritious food. Itís easy to forget that your body has been through labour when all the focus is on your mental health.
Hereís some good news, things can and do improve. This time shall pass. Here are some of the things that helped me get to the light at the end of the tunnel:
A supportive partner
A supportive family
Being at home rather than in hospital
Having a sense of normality and routine
Not being given conflicting advice on how to look after my child
Psychotherapy and counselling at home
Creative activities such as colouring, listening to music, cooking etc
Networking with other mums through baby & toddler groups and local Facebook advice groups
Food and Sleep
Setting small short term goals
Trying not to solve everything at once but taking a step at a time, a day at a time, or even 1 hour at a time on a bad day
Remembering the up and down nature of the illness and therefore not being too disheartened when you have a bad day (its often like the old saying two steps forward, one step back). You are still moving forward, even if it doesn't feel like it!
PND is far more common than people think and it often goes untreated. If you or a family member have any history of mental health problems then please stress that point to your midwife and GP during pregnancy. Keep mentioning it if you have to. There is so much support that can be put in place to prevent risk. Unfortunately for me, it wasnít the case which is why I feel compelled to continue to raise awareness and get people talking. The more we learn about PND the more effectively we can treat it. No matter how deep one falls into the pit of depression there is always a way out. I am here to support anyone going through this difficult time, from a place of empathy and understanding.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for reading this. For every person that reads, shares or hears about my story, it could be another life saved. Take from it what you need and move forward with your life, I wish you the very best.
The Birmingham Crochet Club meets fortnightly to learn crochet, meet other Birmingham mums, and have a good chat. Whether you're a complete beginner or a seasoned pro, everyone is welcome to come along!