‘Evelyn,scrub that sink before the midwife comes. If she sees it like that, she will tell social services’ , said a family member when joe was 3 weeks old and my mind was spinning out of control. The one time I had been near the sink since having joe was when I had had a psychotic episode,performed a manic makeover on myself to spruce myself up to look like a make up counter girl,all preened and what I thought was perfect , had ended with me standing in the kitchen for two hours, in one place,stinking of bleach and rambling about stewing steak.
It seems this family member thought we were in 1824 and matrons still walked around hospitals wiping their finger across surfaces for dust and midwives came to houses not to weigh the baby but to inspect whether there are more cake crumbs on the floor than around ones mouth. The very last thing I needed to hear while it was quite clear that my mind was flying around the room and bouncing off the walls was that total strangers would be so disgusted with my off colour stainless steel sink, that it would warrant a visit from heavies from the council.
On the way back from an event with some of my #pndfamily girlfriends recently, we talked about all the things that people said to us while were in the grip of postnatal illness. Things that they probably wouldn’t say to someone with a physical illness. These things may seem so innocent to the people that say them and they may even be attempting to help, but these words can make a mother who already feels like she is sinking , like a failure who can’t just wake up and think, oohh now, yesterday I hated my baby,wanted to bang my head against the wall and walked around terrified of my new lifelong job as a mum , but today, I feel just peachy.my baby may only sleep for 3 minutes a day and the walls may feel like they are closing in on me but I’m going to sprinkle myself with fairy dust and pull myself together.
Ahh, those three little words . I used to fear the words ‘ you look fat’ or ‘ wine glass empty’ but when I gave birth and suddenly felt like I had made an enormous mistake in my decision to have a child, the words ‘pull yourself together’ were said to me often. By many people. I’m sure people don’t mean to hurt you when they say it but when a mum is postnatally ill and doesn’t want to carry on,it’s not like she is saying oh I’m tired, I don’t feel,like going out to 80s night down the legion and a friend says on pull yourself together, we will drink a vat of Chardonnay and have a kebab after.
Postnatal illness is not something you can pull yourself out of easily. It is the darkest deepest pit you may ever find yourself in and getting out of this pit is like a secret escape. It’s like your digging yourself out of it one sand grain at a time. With your fingernail. And every so often , when you feel like you have almost dug yourself out of it, the fucking sand all drops down on top of yourself again. You want to be like the mum you see out of your bedroom window who was at your antenatal class. You want to look at your baby and think, ahh, this is the best time of my life. But you can’t. Your mind isn’t letting you ,no matter how much you tell it to stop , it won’t.
I looked at my diary as I remembered what someone had said to me the week before I was hospitalised in the mother and baby unit. ‘Pull yourself together,you’re a mother now. You need to understand that this is it now. You should have thought about this before you had a baby,I tried to tell you having a baby wasn’t all dressing them up and going goo goo ga ha’. You can imagine the state I must have been in considering the week later I was in full time psychiatric care. I was so confused with life that I was struggling to wash and couldn’t work out how to get dressed. I needed a lawn mower to shave my legs,searched the internet frantically to see where I could offload myself to and spent a fair amount of the day clutching the walls of the house begging john to call an ambulance as ‘ the clouds are trapping me and want to take me away’. As you can see, I think it was quite hard to pull myself out of it. And I couldn’t even dress my child up and go goo goo ga go as every time I tried to do it , I would shake so much with fear at his very presence , that I had to hand this responsibility to john.
The most basic of tasks can feel like the biggest in the world. Pulling yourself together often takes more than a slick of mascara and treating yourself to a bottle of vino blanco.Sometimes, things like medication are needed to get the job started.
And so onto the next thing on the list of things not to say to a mother in the midst of a meltdown. ‘You don’t need meds’ . I’m one for testing out natural approaches to support medical issues. My friend Alice once gave me her 1001 natural remedies book after we had consumed 23 bottles of cherry beer in the pub and we spent the rest of our evening flicking through it with me gojng ‘ohh I make my own shampoo with coconut milk’ which then quickly changed to us laughing very loudly at the recommendation to insert whole garlic cloves into your vagina should you happen to not smell of some freshly cut roses down there. Either that, or to rub over a mix of Apple cider vinegar and bicarb of soda all over it until bubbles start exploding out of your honeypot. As joyful as these sounded, I knew that in order to get over the feeling of being suffocated by my child’s very presence and to stop desiring the climb up a beanstalk into the clouds, I’d need more than a spoonful of coconut oil and a long hot bath. If one more person told me to take a bloody hot bath, I think I would have ripped the bath out of the wall. Baths are nice. They are hot and bubbly and in my younger days, I would take in a glass of Buck’s Fizz and a copy of the national enquirer and sit in one for a hour, relaxing to my hearts content.
I’m afraid however,I don’t think they are medically proven to stop the onset of psychosis. The one morning where John had left me to have a long shower to try and relax, I rubbed my skin raw. I found my mind thinking perhaps if I shed a skin layer, like a snake, maybe that would shed the feelings I had. This didn’t work. John came into the bathroom to find me standing under the shower,still with my pants on , with bright red skin saying ‘don’t bring the baby in here’. That’s one to remove from the ‘ treatment options for postpartum psychosis’ list then.
I spent six weeks attempting to get a doctor to say to me , you know, you are ill and we need to stop pissing around and do something properly to start your recovery. Instead, everyone I saw said hmm, oh motherhood is hard,or that magic gem ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’. I think these people have amnesia. As.babies.do.not.ever.sleep. Well mine didn’t . He would sleep for ten minute slots. It was torturous. When I attempted to sleep when he slept, I would be woken up as soon as I started to drop off. Rather than feel refreshed, I felt as though the devil was living on one of my shoulders and was hitting me over the head, cackling at me.
One of the best things someone said to me was actually a GP. I think this was GP number 315 I had gone to see who , when I said I kept seeing flashing lights in front of my eyes and a desire to cut through the clouds and live on the moon,said ‘you know what you should do dear? Bake a nice Victoria sandwich.take a real pride in it and sit down and enjoy eating it’.If only this doctor would get the worldwide credit she deserves. I mean, who knew severe postpartum mood disorders could be cured by creaming some butter and sugar together? I might have had some light relief sticking my head into the icing bowl at the end and devouring the innards but I was in such a state I probably would have put myself in the oven instead of the cake and refuse to come out when the timer went ping.
What I needed and I what eventually helped me get better was medication. Lots of medication. My antipsychotics were magic little ‘blue pills’ that calmed me down as is geared up to sprint across the mother and baby unit and crash into the wall in a race with the patient who made coconut ice out of vodka and then my anti-depressants became such a part of my daily life and I took so many of them, they had their own designated shelf in the bathroom.I had to take them three times a day, I put on about 57 stone in weight and they had the unfortunate side effect of making me retain my wee. Come bedtime, John got used to saying goodnight to me while I was sat on the loo with my forehead touching the floor in a gymnastic attempt to get my wee to rock to the front of my body . I would stay in this position until half a teaspoon of wee would drip out and then I’d have to get up and walk around the house in order for more wee to , erm, drop down enough for me to assume my favoured new position on the toilet. For variety sometimes I would put my forehead on the floor and then go on my tiptoes. I would repeat this scenario approximately 27 times and then would appear in bed about an hour later shouting, my wee is all out now. John would mumble ok and roll over, I would lie down and half a second later feel as though the flood gates had opened and have to run of to the loo again. For another hour of forehead to floor,bum in the air fun and games. I got used to this two hour ritual and it was only when I came off my meds three years later and discovered I could just do a simple wee before bed and then to sleep without having to set up camp in the bathroom , that I found out the antidepressant I was prescribed and had worked so well, was also given to kids who had issues with wetting the bed.
I didn’t care though. I was a alive. No amount of getting some fresh air or reading a book in the park was gojng to stop me from thinking the characters on the TV were real and were after me or that my head wasn’t in a vice.
Pre small child, being ill was usually brought on by the mother of all hangovers. I generally used to wake up and feel like a French man was living inside my head, banging it repeatedly with a baguette. I used to think the French man was living in there because of all the French brandy I would consume avec diet coke. Caffeine free of course. I do have some restraint.
And then of course, I gave birth and actually became properly ill. The kind of ill that required more than a fry up and an afternoon lying on the sofa moaning I’m dying over and over to recover. Actually, I did lie on the sofa moaning I’m dying over and over once I had given birth to Joe but for a totally different reason. And this reason was because I had a serious mental illness. That little secret illness that no one tells you about , postpartum psychosis.
It’s so secret, that most GPs I encountered had never even heard of it. A GP told me that postnatal illness didn’t exist in the sixties. Clearly not. I mean, women definitely weren’t carted off to asylums never to see the light of day again, labelled as having ‘bad nerves’ were they? I’ve been watching the asylum history programme on itv recently and there was a heavy focus on a mother who had postnatal illness back in the golden olden days where it apparently didn’t exist and it outlined the terror she went through and her husbands battle to get her proper treatment. Me thinks it has always existed but women used to just be labelled hysterical and were locked away forever.
And it is so secret that some people think it’s a new made up , fashionable illness. ‘pnd didn’t exist in my day/ its just an excuse for mums to be lazy/ I had 7 children and inhaled motherhood like it was a massive chocolate bar / or the best one yet ‘ I was to busy to be depressed’.
Im not sure it possible for a new mum to be lazy. Take into account the yelling screams of a entirely dependent on you human being, the fact that you are either a human milking machine or having to sterilise bottles at 3am. To those who mock PND , you are very lucky you were’t curled round the stairs bannister with a nappy over your head covering your eyes chanting must sleep must sleep must sleep. I did this and as ludicrous as it sounds and as it most definitely looked at the time, I didn’t do it because I was lazy , I did it because I was ill. If mums had been in hospital and pushed a massive tumour out of their arse for 27 hours with barely any pain relief after growing the tumour for nine months, everyone would rightfully say, oohh, you need some rest. And by the grace of god, you can lie in bed and watch this morning and recover in peace. But turn the word tumour into the word baby and people go ‘pull yourself together and get on with things’.
A wise wizard told me, when Joe was four weeks old that ’15 year olds manage to have babies and cope so I don’t see why you can’t’. Motherhood is supposed to be the most natural thing in the world. The presumption is you pop baby out and life doesn’t change and you just carry in as normal. That would be wonderful if that was the case for everyone. But it isn’t.
It is so hard as a family member or friend to see the woman in front of you who may have previously been strong,a coper,fierce and proud change to someone who feels so sad,low and desperate. There is so much you can do to help her through this time. And I know it’s a struggle to know what to say or even do. But they only have to be small things. Small things, like kind words , can be a lifeline . Instead of saying pull yourself together, try, how are you? Can I help you at all? Would you like me to write down how you are feeling so you can show the doctor? Would you like me to come to the doctor with you? Do you want me to stay over and sleep in your room with you and you can cry and I’ll listen to whatever you want to say?
The woman you knew will come back. And she will probably be stronger and braver than ever. To go through postnatal illness makes you question yourself so much. Elements of your character that made you the person you are seem to disappear and that is truly terrifying. I thought that not only my mind, but that I would never return. I never ever thought I would get better. My husband was so wonderful. Throughout the whole time he never said oh for gods sake Eve. He just held my hand and said I love you, it’s awful but we will get through this. He kissed my head as I walked through the hospital to be admitted to the mother and baby unit. He said he would always love me, never leave me and would look after me forever. Those words gave me so much more hope than ‘pull yourself together’. Those words helped me realise that I would get better.
And I did xx