Maternal Mental Illness: You Can and Will Get Better

Maternal Mental Illness: You Can and Will Get Better

I was reminded of something the day before New Years Eve , when a Facebook memory popped up. It wasn’t about the time my kid painted the wall, the fridge and my work shoes in Sudocrem or about the time I was so drunk at 2pm after a light lunch in the local , that I moisturised my face with hair gel. It was a bittersweet memory where I had written about going back to a place that signified how at one point in my life, I felt so very very low, that I contemplated leaving this life forever.  But also one that showed I had climbed the long ladder of recovery and become Eve again. 

Two years ago on that very day, I went back to visit the psychiatric mother and baby unit I was in nearly 8 years ago after I gave birth and developed postpartum psychosis and anxiety. Before having my son, I hadn’t experienced mental illness and in the numerous very expensive antenatal classes I went to, clad in my stretched maternity dresses, I learnt lots about how to breathe myself into a humming hypnotic state during labour (very useful for me, having a planned c-section due to having a tombola of wombs), how not to drop the baby like I did the doll I was given to practice putting a nappy on ( I won’t mention that I also managed to dip my dolls hand into my cup of hot chocolate and licked it off ).

But no one had mentioned that it was possible to give birth and completely and utterly lose functioning control of my brain.

No one had mentioned that within an hour of giving birth, I could experience a deep, deep fear of my own child and feel terrifying feelings of regret in having him. No one mentioned I may have hallucinations and envisage myself floating in the room. No one told me it may take me two months to be able to be in the same room as my child without feeling like I had made a terrible mistake in having him. I so wish they had.

I so wish someone had said:

Look, it might not happen to you but there is this thing called Postpartum Psychosis that affects around one in every 1,000 births and it can be really bloody frightening.

I felt like nature had played the most terrible of tricks on me and wasn’t allowing me to love my baby like I thought everyone else did and it was as though the devil had entered my brain and taken away my sense of reasoning and calm and replaced it with the burning fire of hell. I wish someone had said you might not get that but you could get Postnatal Depression or Postnatal Anxiety or Maternal OCD and experience sadness, despair, fear and cry so much, you could fill a postnatal lake. But they didn’t. I wasn’t told that it’s possible to push baby out of vagina or pull baby from stomach and to then feel incredibly low.

Which means when it did happen to me, I thought I would never ever get better. 

I wouldn’t go near Joe.

I was convinced that him now being here forever, as my son, was the worst possible thing to have ever happened to me. His very presence made me shake and I would only go near him if my partner John was next to me. I felt like a hostage chained to a wall and left to rot, with no clue as to when I would released and go back to normal life. The enormity of being a mother forever absolutely crippled me and I found myself having panic attacks over and over. 

The panic attacks then started to blend into deep and vivid hallucinations. My feelings of being chained to a wall I couldn’t move from came from my thoughts of being trapped. Trapped in life as a mother by my baby and trapped in the world by being alive. I started to look to the sky for answers and wanted the clouds to give them to me but found they puzzled me. I wondered if I could unzip them or cut through them with scissors and became distressed when I heard space was 66 miles away and if I went there to escape and didn’t like it, where do I go then? 

One day, I looked up at the ceiling and saw myself floating up there looking down at myself on the sofa, rocking back and forth in fear. One morning I woke up screaming, pulling at my mouth. I was convinced my mouth was bound by cling film and I couldn’t breathe and tried to rip it off. I was gasping for air and started banging my fists on a wall that wasn’t there. But in my head it wasn’t a wall, it was a coffin. I had woken thinking I had been buried alive. The feelings I experienced had made me feel so trapped that I felt like I was a deep pit in the ground, covered and locked into something I couldn’t get out of no matter how loud I screamed or how hard I banged. 

After six long and torturous weeks of my ramblings and refusals, of John taking me to doctor after doctor and of me throwing myself to the ground and hanging onto Johns ankles, I finally broke.

I woke and declared this was day I wanted to die.

I told John that we needed to get the baby adopted, that this was the answer but then I panicked and thought everyone would hate me if we did that so instead maybe I should just go instead. I began pacing up and down the stairs over and over and over and over and eventually went on all fours on the bed, not to spice up our love life but because I had no idea what I was doing.

I was screaming ‘please help me, someone has to help me’ while John held me, hugging me and was on the phone to the hospital begging them for help. He held the phone up so they could hear my desperate pleas and I collapsed into a heap of shaking tears. Not long after I was admitted to a psychiatric mother and baby unit in Nottingham, 200 miles from home, with my baby. 

I was terrified.

Terrified of being in a psychiatric ward when just nine weeks before, I had been working in my government job, competent Eve, leading meetings with ministers and being loud, proud and with the ability to take anything thrown at me. Yet here I was  dressed in mis-matched clothes as I had forgotten how to dress myself and poor John had to hoist leggings over my dough like stomach while I waved my arms around wildly, convinced I was trapped in the clouds, being walked to a psychiatric unit where I would stay with my baby. 

As I walked in I was struck how lovely and warm it was.

It wasn’t how I imagined how a psychiatric unit would look, with only six bedooms, two lounges, a bathroom and a kitchen. And it looked like a nursing home rather than somewhere scary. I was given a big cuddle by a nurse and guided to a room. I saw Joe would be in a cot in the room with me on my own and I had a panic attack. I shouted “I can’t do it” and “I am too scared”, but the nurses said they would help me and that soon, I would start getting better. As John said goodbye at 10pm that night, I was in the ward with Joe and was too frightened to go to bed on my own with him. So the nurse sat outside my room with the door open so I didn’t feel alone.

As the first week passed, I was heavily medicated and feeling much calmer than the previous six weeks. I had a long long way to go but things had started to take an upturn. At the end of the first week, I did something that seven weeks previously I couldn’t have considered – I closed the door of my room and stared at Joe in his cot for a couple of minutes. The first time I had been on my own with him and I didn’t have a panic attack. The nurses all cheered me and John arrived with flowers,  my mum gave me a cuddle and I had a glimmer of hope that someday the phrase I had said to John when Joe was 4 weeks old ” I can never be in my own with him ever ” wouldn’t be true. 

It wasn’t true, and this is what the Facebook memory showed me. 

Two years ago, the day before New Years Eve, John and Joe came with me when I visited the unit. I wanted to bring some presents to the ward and for Joe to see where he and mummy lived when I had a poorly head, as he says. 

I was welcomed by the nurses who gave me an enormous long warm cuddle, the exact same cuddle they gave me the day I was admitted. It’s the same warm friendly place. I saw my old bedrooms and the cot where Joe would be, the cot I was too terrified to look at as I was so scared of my baby. The baby I was convinced I had made a terrible mistake in having and whose very presence frightened me in such a way, I couldn’t be on my own with him. 

Two years ago though, Joe climbed into the same cot and laughed his head off saying “Did I sleep in here mummy?” and I sat on the bed and looked at him.

I couldn’t take my eyes off him with joy and I smiled.

We saw the plans for a new, bigger mother and baby unit and I was asked if I could write an article describing my time in a unit for the nurses. I also met some of the mums in there with their little babies . On the walls were stories of recovery all thanking the unit for helping them, including ours. A big photo of Joe and I was stuck to the wall with my thank you card to the unit for helping our family when we truly needed it most. And here we were, all these years later , in the unit recovered and happy. I also saw some Hope Packs that MOLO Rosey Adams from PND & Me had sent to every unit in the country, that had been so gratefully received. 

I cried when I walked in and cried when I left in the knowledge that without the unit I wouldn’t be alive today. I also realized my tears where of joy, knowing that I had recovered and that in a few years the women I met that day will also be recovered and I desperately wanted them to know that.

I’ve since used my experience to become a maternal mental health advocate, helping to design and run the first ever UK Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week with other recovered mums (who are also MOLOs), an EastEnders storyline was partly based on my experience, I help to train junior psychiatrists and health visitors in perinatal mental health, I am a media volunteer for several mental health charities and last month, I received the British Empire Medal from Her Majesty The Queen for services to Mental Health. My little boy came with me to collect it and he looked so gorgeous in his little suit and minions bow tie, like the picture shows. And my service is to try to give hope to mums that if they suffer from a maternal mental illness after having a baby, they will get better. 

You can and do get better ladies.

If you have had a baby and don’t feel like you want to and you are distressed, tell your GP, your health visitor, tell a friend if you can. With the right help and support, you will be okay. It may take a few months or a few years to get over, and it may take medication and therapy, but it will happen. I really promise. You aren’t alone, lots of mums go through this and you are a good mum. And you deserve to feel better. 

One day, you will look back on this time and see that it passed and that you recovered. And its a wonderful feeling.

If you are struggling and need help, you can contact your GP, health visitor and visit Mind. You can read Eve’s last MOLO blog Giving Up Control (Pants) and for the latest from The Motherload® head to our homepage. 

About Eve

Eve is 37, is mum to her son Joe who is 7 and in her proper job she does important government work whilst clad in pink stilettos and a rara skirt. A postpartum psychosis survivor, she is a mental health campaigner and blogger and can usually be found brewing homemade limoncello whilst drinking a double gin and bitter lemon.

You can read Eve’s brilliant blog here

Image credits: Eve Canavan

Eve Canavan

Eve is 38, is mum to her son Joe who is 9 and in her proper job she does important government work whilst clad in pink stilettos and a rara skirt. A survivor of Postpartum Psychosis, she coordinates the UK Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week each year and can usually be found brewing homemade limoncello whilst drinking prose could through a feathered straw.

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