I was so well in pregnancy, as fit as I have ever been. My labour was easy and at home, just as I had wished. During pregnancy I worried about something going wrong with the health of the baby or during the birth but my mental health just didn’t feature at all. I felt overjoyed when my Persy arrived safely and all his checks were normal.
A week or so after the birth, I was like a turbo charged version of myself but you expect change after a baby arrives so I didn’t worry at first. My mind raced, I was incredibly anxious and couldn’t allow myself to sleep, I spoke quickly and for prolonged periods jumping from topic to topic, I wrote copious notes, sometimes even on bedding and I was disinhibited, frequently undressed even when visitors came.
Then things started to escalate and I realised something really wasn’t right. I woke one night in great distress desperately searching for my baby in the bed clothes even though he was right next to me and clearly visible. My lucidity quickly returned and I had the sense to ask my partner and mother to take me to hospital if something like that happened again. Then a further instance occurred when I was furiously trying to explain something using coat hangers on the floor in the middle of the night. To this day I don’t know what it was that I was trying to achieve. We decided to go to A and E but again my lucidity returned during the journey. I was reviewed and told I was likely sleep deprived and discharged home.
The following day a midwife visited and advised I should go to the maternity unit rather than A and E if it happened again. My anxiety escalated to such an extent it wasn’t long before I returned to the hospital. This time I was kept in and a consultant psychiatrist reviewed me. It was then that I first encountered the term post-partum psychosis. They wanted to send me to a mother and baby unit for treatment. There was no local unit with space so I was sent with Persy to East London, two hours away from my family and partner.
I wrote before the birth that my biggest fears were being separated from my family and the loss of my autonomy. After the psychosis came both of those fears were realised at the mother and baby unit. It is hardly surprising that I found it a traumatic time.
It wasn’t just being separated from my partner that I found difficult but also having others judging and commenting on my parenting when I was just establishing myself as a mother. I keenly remember the nursery nurse who tutted that ‘you and your partner are determined to breastfeed’ as if this were a bad choice. Worse still the unit wouldn’t allow co-sleeping at all despite it being my wish as a parent. During my time at the unit every aspect of my parenting was assessed and judged. I received comments on everything from how I held Persy to how often I bathed him and how many layers I chose to dress him in. It made me feel unsupported in my parenting choices at a time when I was very vulnerable and my confidence collapsed.
Despite going voluntarily to the mother and baby unit I was detained under section 2 of the mental health act. This loss of autonomy affected me badly, especially when I was mistakenly prescribed the blood thinner clexane and when I challenged it I was told ‘you can’t refuse medication, you are under section’. In the end the medication was not administered and a scan proved that it was un-necessary but I was left scared that I could not trust the staff.
At a time when I was so vulnerable and confused as a result of the psychosis, to also feel unsupported and have my liberties taken away, even the ability to go for a walk, make a cup of tea with my baby or charge my phone felt like punishment by institutionalisation. It wasn’t only the locked entrance door that made it feel like a prison on occasion. I remained focused on spending as little time there as possible in spite of my illness.
Despite my misgivings about the mother and baby unit my mental health did start to improve after being prescribed an anti-psychotic there. I started to be allowed out with my family for an hour or two at first and then day release and then overnight stays. I was eventually told I wasn’t acutely unwell anymore and was discharged in mid-October, more than two months after Persy was born.
However, once I was back at home my anxieties became overwhelming despite others saying how well I was doing. I dreaded being left alone with Persy even for an hour or two as I felt I didn’t know how to be a mother without constant supervision. What wasn’t recognised was that I was still very unwell and the irrational anxiety I felt was a symptom of illness. It didn’t help to feel I had my concerns swept away. If anything it pushed me to think no one could help or understand. I did try and reach out for help when I became suicidal but the help that was offered was a return to the mother and baby unit. After my earlier experience the thought was unbearable and I campaigned strongly to remain at home despite feeling desperate.
I was completely transformed by my depression and incapable of rational decision making or accepting help. I felt there was nothing positive in life, I became incapable of giving or receiving love, I rejected Persy, I had no self-esteem and no self-efficacy hoping only that I wouldn’t wake up.
One morning in November I gave Persy to my mother and sent her downstairs. I remained upstairs, opened a second floor window, stepped out onto the slippery roof tiles and hurled myself off the edge. Thud. The sensation of cold drizzle on my skin and then pain and panic.
I was taken to St George’s hospital in South London with a severely fractured pelvis and foot. I railed against being there feeling that it was a cruelty to keep me alive. I pulled out cannulas, picked at my scabs and nose, not eating, not caring when I was incontinent. It was a dreadful time during which I so needed kindness and nurturing and privacy. This wasn’t available on a busy orthopaedic unit with only nosy fellow patients, continuous supervision from a stream of agency mental health nurses and endless noise and light for company. These nurses, who frequently made me cringe with omissions of competence, wouldn’t even allow for private defecation, I was considered ‘too high risk’.
Eventually I was transferred to Farnham Road Psychiatric Hospital. Sectioned again. More one to one monitoring. More incarceration. And without my Persy. There was a bizarre absence of therapeutic interventions; a psychosis nurse later said the function of such places is to keep you alive with very little in addition, it’s easy to agree. I lay in bed in a catatonic state wanting to die and wondering how I could achieve this. But slowly, slowly, I started to improve. It was a bumpy road. I took an impulsive overdose on New Year’s day that took me back to hospital and back to Farnham Road. It was even worse the second time around. Other patients had angry out-bursts, one aggressively accused me of calling the police and one walked the communal area constantly clapping. I missed Persy and my family but I was able to read a book for the first time in months. I cried and I felt sad. I didn’t know it but it was the start of feeling, of coming back to life, of recovering. I still had the occasional suicidal thought but they slowly became intrusive rather than desirable.
When I was eventually discharged in January I was still physically very dependent remaining non-weight bearing on my right side and hopping with a frame until the end of February. I was like a child again in my parental home. The inability to carry or fully care for Persy gnawed away at me. Frustration boiled over at times and caused tension with my father. I threw myself into relactating Persy and one legged cooking. I found the cedar house counselling support group for post-natal depression on a friend’s recommendation and it helped more than I can say to find kind and understanding ears. I had found the psychosis and depression very isolating so to find a group of women who had all struggled and who were willing to share their stories enabled me to tell of my own experience and process my feelings without fear of judgement. The ability to speak openly and to be both supported and supportive had enormous therapeutic value for me. I sometimes wonder if I would have jumped if I had found it earlier.
And now? I’m back at home. I care for Persy and share naps in the hammock with him. I don’t worry about spending time with him, and it’s actually possible for me to enjoy it. I cook for my partner and dance in the kitchen like we used to. I can smile and laugh. My injuries continue to heal and I continue to recover from my depression. It’s not all roses all of the time and it wasn’t the start to motherhood that I expected or hoped for but I’ve found recovery is possible, even from the very darkest place.