Panic. Sheer, pure, engulfing panic.
I was on the floor again, nose to the ground, gulping air, my thoughts spinning out of control and blood pounding in my ears. That feeling of imminent doom washing over me as my brain desperately fought to regain control over the panic settling into my bones. Sinking to the ground was the only thing that I could do to root my mind, to stabilise the feeling of my whole body giving way to utter terror. The cold floor providing comfort against my hot face, streamed with tears, splashing into tiny puddles on the cold tile. The thoughts of utter failure, disgrace, humiliation and fear bundling up inside my chest and bursting into fury from every pore in my skin, pushing me further down until there was nothing left other than exhaustion, guilt, and deep, in-your-bones, at-your-core, sadness. I lay broken, on the hard floor, shattered into a million pieces before panic gives way to remorse, hot, distraught tears, and eventually sleep.
I was a glass-half-full girl throughout my entire life. I’d had a secure, loving and happy upbringing, and aside from, perhaps, a small blip of undiagnosed depression at university, I’d never experienced anything like mental illness. I kind of knew what it meant but didn’t at the same time. Close friends suffered with a range of anxiety, depression and panic which meant that we couldn’t go out as often as I would selfishly have liked. When they were ill, I would give ‘tips’ on how to get better – they just needed to push through it, right? Face those demons. Not let it take over. Come out, get drunk with me and they’d feel better. If they had the blues the next day, we just needed to have a hair-of-the-dog lunch and that would sort us out, right as rain.
If only it was that easy.
By my late twenties, I had felt my biological clock tick. I had that weird paranoia that sets in and tells you that you need to embrace motherhood. It’s like a nag on your shoulder that turns into a loud banging voice to get on with it and so, after getting engaged but before marriage, we did. After six months of trying, I fell pregnant with our eldest, Bess, and after an uneventful pregnancy, I went into labour.
Sixty-two hours of unestablished labour resulted in an emergency c-section, foetal distress, severe blood loss, my womb outside my body, vomiting, transfusions and finally, bowel shock and failure. I spent five days in hospital on Oramorph, in a side room to remove me away from the happy new mums who came and went with their babies; sore but elated. I wasn’t elated. I was broken into a million pieces, brutalised, traumatised and fearful. The blues were sinking deep into my bones. I could feel the fingers of depression wrapping around inside me, like a worm through my body, slowly taking its grip. I didn’t bond with Bess for a long time. I felt relieved when someone else would hold her and I could take a breather, a sense of myself, even if it was just for five minutes. The bond didn’t come until she was nearly a year old. I now know that was post-natal depression, but at the time it was undiagnosed and quite frankly I was just a shit mother. But I faked it until I made it and I got better at being ‘a good mum’. I worked hard at it, got out, saw friends, had coffees and playdates and you wouldn’t have known that I didn’t ‘feel’ like a mum.
It wasn’t until I was pregnant with Maggie, our youngest and second baby, that I really understood the idea of your mind breaking into a million tiny pieces. We’d been trying, after I had been feeling so much better, and fell pregnant after four months. We were ready for another. But then came hyperemesis gravidarium, the sickness literally stopping me from moving, from working, from anything other than lying next to the toilet and waiting for my body to purge. I eventually got tablets, and gradually stepped off that rocking ship around twenty weeks, with much relief.
The trauma of my first labour though hadn’t fully relinquished it’s grip, and steadily, as the weeks progressed I grew more and more anxious about the imminent birth. Every time I saw a midwife they talked of vaginal births; my notes carried the letters VBAC, and I was scheduled in for the VBAC Clinic to discuss my ‘concerns’. No one listened as I politely asked about an elective c-section. ‘We’ll think about that later on’ they’d say, as I sat on the hard plastic chair, every fibre of my body screaming at the midwife to stop the VBAC process. “I need it, I can’t do the VBAC”, I would gently weep, not wanting to cause a fuss. I was ushered out, mutterings of ’36 week appointment’ and shut off. I was shut off from choice, from control, from autonomy. My voice wasn’t heard, my notes weren’t passed over, and I was left, in limbo. Eventually, I gathered the courage to speak up and was referred to a psychiatrist who made the recommendation I had been asking for all along – elective c-section. The consultant agreed, although reminded me that ‘women die in childbirth. Your case isn’t unusual, nor unexpected. It’s within our ‘normal range’.’ Not for me. But, I was dismissed to book in the elective section; to choose my baby’s birthday. The fear lifted, and I awaited the birth of my of my second girl.
Maggie was born on a cool spring morning in March, in a calm operating theatre, with Classic FM playing in the background. There was no blood loss, no fear, no illness, and I was back on the ward within an hour or so and eating a sandwich while this beautiful girl fed from my breast and I felt elated. I felt connected, I felt urgent love, and I felt complete. Visitors came, and cooed, and her sister kissed her forehead and said ‘I wuv Maggie’ and I felt relief. I felt relief that it wasn’t the same and the creeping sadness wasn’t setting in.
And it didn’t, for a few weeks. For a few weeks, all was fine, and we were happy, our little family of four. We’d moved house just before Maggie was born, and I’d nested. We settled into family life but Maggie wasn’t ‘easy’. She didn’t sleep well, waking every hour or so. We were on our knees with exhaustion. She was so different to her sister, (of course!), I couldn’t console her in the same way I had before. She has an urgency in her temperament, a fury in her belly, but at that point it meant she couldn’t bear to be apart from me physically, during the day or night. I, on the other hand, needed space – emotionally and physically. My fight or flight was telling me to fly, and I felt the blackness start to descend.
That blackness became a deep darkness with no bottom, no end and no light. It crept around my bones as I slept, and descended as a heavy fog as I woke. It sat, like a deadweight dog on my chest. The dread came and slowly, I could feel myself getting more and more poorly as the postnatal depression started to wind its bony fingers around my chest and throat. I weirdly thought that keeping busy would help, so joined my local NCT and helped to set up a branch in our town. Then the anxiety came, making my heart beat so fast it made my head dizzy and my body ache. I felt out of control, giddy with pain and frustration. I screamed, I shouted. I felt wild anger and hatred that I couldn’t see beyond the red mist. I loathed being a wife, and I hated motherhood. I wanted my mind and my body back, to own my own emotions again. I wanted to be ‘old me’, the one who wasn’t bound by depression, anxiety and panic. I wanted to run, to run so far away that I couldn’t look back. I wanted to stop it all, to end the pain and the anger, the guilt and the shame and just let the darkness consume me to a point of no return. It wasn’t about being ungrateful, but rather about sacrifice; to sacrifice myself in order that my babies and my husband wouldn’t have the burden of this any longer. They were better off without me.
Dreams became nightmares and then, it was easier to not sleep than allow myself to be engulfed by the fear of the distorted memories I experienced every night. I eventually went to the GP. He took my blood pressure, asked me if I felt sad, and if I wanted to kill myself. The anxiety told me not to tell the truth and to keep the dark thoughts hidden because I was scared that the girls would be taken from us if they knew how awful the things that I thought about were. I nodded, and shook my head accordingly and left clutching a fistful of pills that I had no intention of taking because I didn’t want to be dependent on mental health medication. That happened a number of times over the next couple of years. The same procedure: why are you here? Do you feel sad? Why do you feel sad? Can you complete this questionnaire? Do you want to kill yourself? Every time, a new GP, having to explain from the start what had happened, trying to understand the mess in my head to a point of reason so that someone else might untangle it and help. Every time leaving exhausted, anxious, pained and no closer to getting better, but always with that little green slip of paper and more medication that I wasn’t going to properly take. No one asked what I really needed.
Until, they did. A wonderful, new GP listened to me as I broke into a million pieces in the short five minute appointment, handing me tissues and promising help. The NHS moves as slowly as a snail for mental health, unless you fight and this time, I knew I needed to gather those tiny pieces together, enough to fight. I fought for the referral to the Wellbeing Service, and from that, to an assessment with one of the mental health team. She came to my house and commented on how lovely it was and how well I kept it. She didn’t see the OCD creeping in, or did she? She referred me on, backwards and forwards until finally there was a list I was added to. Another promise, another step closer to being better, but more waiting, and waiting. Beta blockers subdued the adrenaline and the panic attacks became less frequent. I managed the days and had fewer nights where I counted the hours till dawn. And then, the appointment finally came with the psychiatrist, and finally the words I had longed to hear for longer than I ever imagined possible: treatment could begin.
I never believed I could climb out of that black hole. In one of the first sessions, I had a huge panic attack during a ‘rewind’ of the traumatic birth, shattering again and again into those tiny, fragmented million pieces in front of the therapist. I felt consigned to that fear forever, and when I was asked to imagine what I could say to my future self, how my future self would reassure my current self of the importance of the process, I cried with hopelessness. I didn’t believe it could work, that the grips of the post-traumatic stress disorder, of postnatal depression, of anxiety, anger and deep sadness would relinquish its bony grip. I didn’t believe that all the pieces could come back together again when everything felt so shattered, so scattered and disparate. I didn’t believe that there was a light at the end of the tunnel.
But there is. Slowly but surely, every week I have returned to that crumbling old hospital for treatment, to a small consultation room and sat on the hard plastic chair, ready to unpeel the layers of pain, guilt and failure, and to gently, one by one, put the pieces back together again. Unpicking thoughts and fears to find strategy after strategy to deal with the muddled, anxious mess in my head. For the darkness that consumed every part of me to lift, and for the light to gently, slowly break through like the sun comes through the clouds on an overcast day.
The sun shines every day now. There are still challenging moments, but I can ‘take the pill’, not medication, but the strategies, the spelling backwards, the visualisation, the exposure therapy, the immense amount of work that my therapist and I have done together to battle those demons and diminish them to nothing more than the ashes of memories. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s taken me a long time to walk towards it.
Finally, I’m there. At the light. I’ve gathered those million tiny pieces and put them back together again, one by one.
My girls are now nearly six and three and a half, and life is happy, and it’s enriched and it’s bogged down in school homework and making dinner and shouting about where shoes are and messy bedrooms. Of laughter, of such love I couldn’t imagine. The darkness has left me, and that bony, skeletal fingered grip of mental illness has left me, hopefully never to return.
No longer a million pieces.
A million reasons to be.
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