I've got something to tell you
Bethan turns two at the end of this month, and I love her fiercely from the bottom of my soul. I'm proud of her. I'm proud of my husband. And I'm proud of me.
But that's not how I felt when I was engulfed by the all-consuming, terrifying, black chaos of "severe postnatal depression with anxiety". That was the official diagnosis. Two weeks after Bethan was born.
To many of you reading this, I'm sorry I didn't tell you before. It wasn't because I didn't trust you or stopped liking you or thought you'd judge me. At the time, when it was really, really bad, I was just too exhausted and too confused to speak. To try and articulate what was happening to me. And I was scared.
Some of you who I never told (but wanted to) are among my closest friends; some of you might just remember me from school and keep in touch with the occasional "Like" on Facebook. Some of you are colleagues. Some of you are clients.
Part of me wanted to tell everyone. And part of me wanted to tell no one.
A sensitive subject
I know I need to be careful how I describe the truly debilitating 5-6 weeks at the start – before I began to feel what I would call a more "standard" level of anxiety and depression. (Eventually, this started to ease too and I was discharged by my psychiatrist in January – three months after I gave birth.) With hard work, amazing support from my husband and family, and a relatively low dose of antidepressants, I did get better. But I need to be careful how I describe the worst part, because I want to protect my husband and my family. Because I really want to protect Bethan. And because I feel I have a responsibility to all of you who may experience similar mental health illnesses at some point.
I don't want to give the impression that I believe every case of PND is or will be exactly like mine. It won't. Every experience is unique to the individual. But at the same time, there are many symptoms commonly experienced by every person facing the condition – and it can bring immeasurable comfort (and a degree of healing) to know that you are not alone.
What the bad bits were really like
Underneath it all, I loved her. But for those first few weeks I was suddenly unable to "feel" love. For anyone. Or anything. Let alone this tiny new person who I'd never met before. The only thing I felt was a rapidly increasing sense of panic, nausea and fear – fear that I would lose my mind, fear that I would never get better and, worst of all, fear that I might hurt my new baby. I became paralysed by awful thoughts spinning round and round in my head. I wasn't fit to be a mother. A mother would never think those things. I believed Bethan and everyone else would genuinely be better off without me. That I should get on a plane or a train or run along the side of the motorway – anything – to get away from my situation and my own mind. Except I couldn't run away. I was too exhausted, physically and mentally.
Was I suicidal? I'm not sure. Maybe. It was so difficult to answer that question when I was, inevitably, asked. I wasn't fixating on ways to actively kill myself (and I never tried), but at points I truly believed everything would be better if I didn't wake up the next morning. Either way, it was an awful place to be.
It's important to explain that I didn't feel like this immediately. And a whole host of factors contributed to my deterioration.
After what seemed like a textbook birth, we discovered that I'd suffered a serious vaginal tear (so I was carefully stitched back together) and I was told I'd actually lost double the amount of blood that I was supposed to. So we had to stay in hospital for an extra night in case I haemorrhaged. Luckily I didn't. We got to go home the day after, and for about 48 hours I knew that Bethan was the most precious thing in our lives.
But during that first week things suddenly went from bad to worse. I was in and out of hospital, in excruciating pain, with what turned out to be a fractured coccyx (damaged during birth) as well as a womb infection that required strong antibiotics. I was told surgery on my womb was a possibility (though thankfully it didn't come to that). In this crumpled state, I was also trying desperately, obsessively, to breast feed Bethan – with cracked, bleeding nipples, barely able to move despite all the pain medication for my coccyx. She had a tongue tie and couldn't latch. And I was utterly distraught that I was failing at something I thought would simply come naturally. This was on top of the standard(!) pain and bleeding and hormonal battery women tend to experience as a result of pushing a human out of their vagina – or having a human cut out of their womb. And of course I was delirious from lack of sleep. Like every other new parent.
As each hour passed, I started to feel myself spiralling into a void of emotional despair. And I knew it was more than the "baby blues". I didn't deteriorate to the point of hallucinating, but I think I came very close. Less than a week after Bethan was born, out of nowhere I started having frightening thoughts and internal "visions" that sent me into an almost constant state of panic. It was a vicious circle. I needed to sleep and rest to heal my mind and body, but my mind wouldn't stop racing so I couldn't sleep – even though I was beyond exhausted. So, during the few precious hours each time Bethan was asleep, when I was supposed to be doing the same, I just couldn't. I couldn't. I couldn't do anything anymore.
I knew I needed to get help. And, having given birth on the Monday, by Friday I was back at the hospital sat in front of a perinatal psychiatrist – trying to answer his questions through my tears. I was terrified someone might take my baby away. I also turned 33 that day. I didn't open any cards.
Give me the drugs
I was lucky enough to give birth in the way I had always planned – no drugs (not even gas and air), sleeping in between the initial contractions, then four hours in the bath at home holding my husband's hand and breathing through the pain before we finally left for hospital. Everything was going smoothly (although each contraction was still a gut-wrenching, indescribable pain), and I pushed Bethan out lying on the cushioned floor of our private room in the natural birthing centre. My husband was incredible. The midwives were amazing. I looked down at my perfect little girl and I couldn't believe what I'd managed to do.
Ironically, once she was out, that's when my serious need for medication began – to deal with the various physical/biological complications that soon emerged. And a fortnight after the birth itself, I was on antidepressants.
I'm not ashamed of it. It wasn't the easy way out. It was essential. Alongside speaking to my counsellor, seeing the perinatal psychiatric team at the hospital, talking to midwives, visiting my regular (brilliant) GP and completing written exercises at the end of every day for two months.
And through it all
And through it all, I was also lucky enough to have the unwavering support of my husband, my parents, my family and a number of friends. You know who you are. But you will never know just how much you helped me.
Back to "work"
Fortunately, by the time I was half way through my mat leave, I'd already been feeling better for a while. I was still on medication, but I was doing really well. So I didn't feel the need to mention my PND to my bosses when it came to organising my return to work. I asked to go back three days a week, in the same role, and I simply explained that it's what my husband and I believed was best for us as a family. Which was true.
They were amazing and said they were just happy that I'd agreed to come back. I didn't need to "negotiate" further.
I know it's not as easy as that for many mothers returning to work. But it should be. Because it's better for everyone. It's better for business.
Truly, madly, deeply
I've actually experienced bouts of anxiety (sometimes depression) on and off for the last ten years. Probably longer, when I think about it. At one stage I was diagnosed with mixed anxiety and depressive disorder – or "MAD" (possibly the most ironic acronym ever for a mental health condition).
I've used a mix of medication and counselling at various points to help manage things and get on with my life. I've not told many people about this either. Until now.
But don't feel sorry for me. That's not what I want and it's not why I'm writing this post.
My life has always been full of adventure and extremes. Skydives and bungy jumps. Trial and error. Ups and downs. Love. Laughter. Family. My periods of mental illness have simply reinforced my appreciation for the beautiful, everyday details of life. They've given me a new perspective. I'm more patient with myself. More patient with others. I have a deeper understanding of me. And that's definitely a good thing. I'd certainly argue they've made me a better writer; a link between creativity and mental illness has been identified by great thinkers as far back as Aristotle.
World Mental Health Day
I'm sharing my experiences with you now because we all need to keep the conversation going about mental health – today and every day. At work. And at home. Because it affects everyone, directly or indirectly. Because 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. Because 1 in 6 will have reported experiencing one last week.
Perhaps you're sat on the train scrolling through this post on your phone. Or maybe you're sat at your desk. How many people are in your carriage right now? How many people are working away in your office?
Look around – and you do the maths.
Sharing is caring
My psychiatrist said one of the main reasons I recovered so quickly from my PND was because I spoke up and asked for help almost straight away (even though I was terrified and embarrassed and confused). If I hadn't told anyone or sought professional help, things could have turned out very differently.
For me, if just one person reading this feels more comfortable about getting help or finds it just a little bit easier to speak up – about any mental health issue – then it was worth writing.
Never, ever feel ashamed of doing whatever you can to help yourself get better. You wouldn't think twice about asking for a cast and crutches to fix a broken leg.
So if you're going through something similar to what I've experienced, or you've just not been feeling yourself for a while, tell someone. Tell everyone, if it helps. Tell only your best friend if you prefer. But always, always tell someone.
And whether or not you've suffered from a mental illness, please share this post if you think it might help someone you know.
P.S. I cannot wait to celebrate Bethan's second birthday at Peppa Pig World in two weeks' time! Muddy puddles, here we come...