It’s been nearly six years since I had my son and developed postpartum psychosis and anxiety which eventually led to me being hospitalised in a psychiatric mother and baby unit . Life certainly is like a box of chocolates but I definitely wasn’t served up a portion of strawberry creams. Rather, it felt like a load of fruit and nut bars were launched at me during the conga and knocked me down with such force , that i felt like I would never get up again. But, up I got . It took a fair while of fruit and nut bar dodging , hair pulling , climbing out of windows and standing in kitchens for hours on end holding lumps of frozen meat, but up I got, emotionally battered and bruised ,tired and weary, but happy , healthy with hips (thank you anti depressants ) , recovered and most importantly, alive.
My son has his mother , thank god. John has his one day wife , if he ever pulls his sodding finger out and gives me a diamond , and I have my family and I’m so glad I’m alive to do so, for I very nearly wasn’t. I owe my life to the psychiatric mother and baby unit I went into and I will forever do what I can to bang their drum so people know how important they are.
Fact of the week, ding ding ding, is that a woman is 33 times more likely to be admitted to a psychiatric ward after giving birth than at any other time in her life. Thats thousands of women and seems like it’s probably quite important therefore that these women are looked after good and proper with their sproglet .
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence or the less mouthful NICE, says that mums who need in-patient treatment for any perinatal mental health illness should have a place mother and unit with their baby. However , there aren’t many of these units in the UK. It’s a case of find the mother and baby unit needle in the psychiatric haystack I’m afraid and I found myself headfirst in said haystack, legs in the air , frantically trying to find one to go to near where I lived. No such luck I’m afraid. Not even a ‘no room in the inn ‘ instance here , there just wasn’t anywhere for me to go.
Joe was six weeks old when I was eventually hospitalised. We live in London and I spent those first six weeks wandering around in a hallucinating haze , rambling about the duvet cover dancing and finding chunks of my hair falling out at the front. I looked like a patchwork doll who a five year old had taken a pair of scissors to – the fringe that grew out as a result of this was most attractive let me tell you. But as john trekked me around to gps,hospitals and basically anywhere where someone wore a white coat, everyone said , hmm, can’t do much to help you and what the dickens is a mother and baby unit? We were told ‘ there is no such thing as a perinatal psychiatrist dear, don’t always trust the internet’ and one doctor even told me to bake a cake which , as nice as cakes are , I don’t think quite have the medicinal powers that a stint in a specialised psychiatric unit does. Be good if they did though wouldn’t it ? Ah yes dear, you have generalised anxiety disorder, here is your prescription for a red velvet calming cupcake with a fret free fondant topping .
So, after six weeks after head banging on tables for john , he bundled me , the baby,the pet hamsters and a few carrier bags of clothes onto a train to Nottingham where he had found out there was a mother and baby unit in the hope that someone would realise I needed to be in one . His bundling worked – I was admitted , they saw I was seriously ill and they helped me get better with my little baby in tow. Thank goodness , because I really do feel I was only a few days from ending my life.
I was so so so ill and had reached such a low that I was terrified of being alive and if john hadn’t been the amazing doll that he is and moved us 200 miles across the country , he would be a single dad to our beautiful son. I’m crying as I type this as its hit me that if we hadn’t moved I wouldn’t have sat on the sofa with Joe until 11pm last night eating curry and dancing in our pants to the X factor . I wouldn’t make brownies with my little lovely boy and stick our heads in the bowls in the end . I wouldn’t smell his little football mad feet again. I wouldn’t wake up with him in between john and I with him saying mummy I love you , you are the best mummy ever. No mum should ever reach the point where it’s a possibility she won’t ever get to see her child grow up because life is too hard to live and this is why there should be enough mother and baby units in the country to house mums who need the specialised help they offer.
Everyone in the medical world knows there aren’t enough units or beds in the ones that exist. And even though this is the case, units are still closing down . There are no units in Wales or Northern Ireland and it’s been said that overall , about 80 more beds are needed across the UK to support mums and babies during recovery. This means that my story of having to trek millions of miles to get into a unit is not a one-off. There are lots of women with stories similar to mine or even worse, having to take a place in a normal psych unit without their baby,which is ridiculous as it defeats the entire object of everything. Dr Liz McDonald, one of the country’s leading perinatal psychiatrists, calls this“the bleakest of all postcode lotteries”. The thing is, I know when I do the normal lottery to win £20 million squid, that it’s highly unlikely I will win it and can only dream of rolling around on a 27 foot water bed, size 10 having now been rich enough to afford lipo, naked , throwing fifty pound notes in the diamond encrusted air and catching them in my Brazilian lifted butt cheeks . However , it seems pretty bad that getting the healthcare you need is a lottery that you almost certainly won’t win because of cuts, lack of funding , re- structuring, re butchering.Because your mind doesn’t say, right , I must retain my marbles as there is nowhere for me to go if I get sick does it?
To give you a sense of what postpartum psychosis is like, I’ll give you an overview of those first few months . I was scared of being near my son,afraid of being near my own child, the child I had desperately wanted for so long. The child I had held parties for while I was pregnant as I was so overjoyed that I hadn’t miscarried by certain points. This child. My child. And I was scared of him within an hour of him being born.
On our return home from hospital when Joe was three days old, John went to the shop the get some bread so we could eat something . I was a nursing mother and needed food- hurrah for john going to tesco! However as soon as he left, I felt frantic. I phoned my brother and rambled over the phone to fill the terror that I felt brewing in the air. He asked if I was drunk so I must have sounded slightly odd to for him to say that. I was and am still partial to drinking a pint of Guinness in under ten seconds and would flame a sambuca from my crotch if I could but the hospital ward had failed to serve any of this up to me while they handed me my cold mashed potato. I wasn’t drunk,I was terrified. I was in tears, my teeth were chattering,my eyes flicking from left to right , I felt like the walls in the flat were slowly closing in on me and I had a terrible sense of catastrophic doom hanging over me.
I spent those first six weeks being unable to be on my own with my son. John went back to work when Joe was six weeks old and I spent my first day with Joe on my own and had totally flipped. I had tried to dress him and was shaking so much I couldn’t do it. He lay there on the bed, all squidgy and beautiful with adorable little rolls and squish with stinky little sweaty feet. He was the most beautiful child I had ever seen but I was terrified by his very presence. I am his mother and I couldn’t dress him.I think now how much my hands must have been shaking to not be able to do it and I feel so sad for me . All those other mums having a baby and putting their joy all over Facebook and captions of ‘look at my little man in his lovely baby grow’ and here was me , unable to dress my own baby as I was too scared.
An hour later,after tears,vomiting,pacing the house,a moment where I felt I was looking down on myself from the corner of the room ,I walked to the post office to give me something to do with Joe in the 500 quid designer pram . I thought I would collect a pile of presents I had missed the postman for because I had been too frightened to open the front door. So I looked the part with me snazzy black bugaboo but my mind wasn’t corresponding. Being outside, I realised I felt scared of the trees, the roads, the cars, the baby,the air, the world ,being alive. I vomited on the street a few times ,must have been delightful for the street cleaners to be scooping up my bile , yummy, and developed tunnel vision.I blacked out by the park and just stood next to the pram , my eyesight blurring and my hearing muffled.
Once we were home, I stood in the hallway gasping for air. I felt like I was I a coffin nailed down that I was desperately banging for someone to hear me to help me break out of it. I felt trapped . Trapped in this new life with this baby I was scared of and trapped in a world I couldn’t get away from. I stood in the hallway for ages . Joe was a content gurgling beautiful boy in his bouncer but I stood in that hallway staring at the ceiling screaming for someone to help me ,to take this feeling away. What had I done? My mind was consumed in absolute terror and filled with the , what I thought was the realisation , feeling that I had made a terrible terrible mistake in having a child that was now here forever . I stood in the hallway and thought this is my life now and it’s too much for me to cope with . The feeling of being trapped in this , in the world forever was too much for me to deal with and I just stood there and screamed , desperate to drift away.
The next day, John woke up and I refused to let him go to work. I was screaming that I couldn’t be on my own with Joe. I remember holding on to him crying shouting over and over ‘please don’t leave me’. I begged him to stay at home and was totally hysterical. He didn’t go to work, he couldn’t. I was losing control if my senses. That evening I ran out of the flat in my dressing gown into the street as another massive felling of terror hit me. I was naked underneath and flashed all me nether regions at the old lady across the road who has her net curtain permanently hitched up to nose away . My mum then came over that night to see how I was. She stayed with John and I and she slept in the bed with me while john slept on the sofa with Joe in his Moses basket. I cried the whole night. I had my knees up to my chest and just wanted to bed to swallow me up. She cuddled me in her arms until the morning time and has since said that I spent that night repeatedly sobbing the same phrase ” when will this feeling go away?” and that I was hysterical.
Going into the mother and baby unit not only saved my life but ensured I recovered with my baby. It was imperative that I was with Joe while I recovered and I’m really lucky I got a place in the unit as unfortunately , some women have ended up being admitted to a normal psychiatric unit without their baby (due to a lack of specialised units near them). If I had gone into a normal psychiatric ward , yes , my psychosis would have got under control but what then ? On release from hospital, I go home and see my baby and have to start the process of recovery on my own with him there ? No, I couldn’t have done that. If I had gone to a normal psych ward I would never have recovered like I have. I guarantee it. I needed to be in a specialised unit.
To see if I could get admitted , when I saw the psychiatrist, he was so nice to me, I felt like I knew he was going to help me. He spoke to me gently and for the first time, I felt like I could tell someone how I really felt. He said that perinatal psychiatrists like knew that the dark thoughts women have when they are unwell are just that – thoughts. He said he knew I would never harm Joe or myself – he said he could see I was desperate for help and the reason I wanted help was because I want to be happy with my son – which meant I loved him. The psychiatrist was nodding as I was speaking and made me feel like it was ok to tell him the darkest thoughts that had passed through my head. He did not seem shocked by what I was saying. He said they had seen hundreds of women who had felt like me. I said my main issue was that I thought Joe had ruined my life. I was so anxious that he was here forever. And that my jumbled up thoughts were confusing me. He said it sounded as though I had experienced some symptoms of psychosis and that he would be admitting me to the mother and baby unit.
That day, as soon as my assessment had finished, I went into the unit to begin my recovery. As we walked down the hallway and I saw the signs saying psychiatric wards, I was crying. John held my hand tightly and kissed my forehead. He told me he would never leave me, that he would love me forever and that I was going to get better.
When we arrived in the mother and baby unit, the nurse gave me a hug and told me everything would be ok.they were there to help me , I was safe , Joe was safe and I was going to get better. There were bedrooms, a family room, a living room it’s toys and books,a bathroom with bubble bath and a kitchen with cupboards full of chocolate biscuits,which I took full advantage off and stuffed my face. It was lovely and nothing like I had assumed a psychiatric ward would be. I was shown to my room and saw a cot in there for Joe. He obviously slept in our room at home but john was with me then. No no no he isn’t going to be in he with me is he I thought. I knew john couldn’t stay with me and the realisation that I was going to be in a bedroom on my own with joe was terrifying. I had a massive meltdown. I pushed a chair into the middle of my room and decided I felt safe in it and sat in it screaming . John got the nurse who came in and sat on the arm of the chair and cuddled me. She kept saying it’s ok eve you can do this , we will help you ok? I promise you and kissed me on the forehead.
I was in such a state , I was given some meds which I only knew as magic blue pills to calm me. Once they had , I sat on the bed with john and the nurse talked to me. John explained my terror at being with Joe on my own and she explained that in order for me to recover, I needed Joe with me. Yes, it would be hard but essentially I needed to , with safe support, feel the fear, do it, and work through the problems with the help of the unit. They said I needed exposure therapy meaning I needed to be in the unit recovering but while getting used to Joe’s presence in a safe calm environment and doing things for him on my own.
I was petrified but the nurses knew exactly what they were doing. They were clear Joe would be in the room with me , I was no danger to him but they would gently support me . So , for the first week , I slept in the bedroom next to the nurses office , with Joe in the cot ,with my bedroom door open. The nurses would sit there on a chair and when I woke up screaming , they would come and sit with me and rock me back to sleep stroking my hair telling me I was ok. They would say , Joe needs a feed and stand next to me reassuringly while I lifted him from the cot and would sit on the chair by the door , not crowding me on the bed, but not so far away that I would feel so scared that I couldn’t function.
The first week was long, hard and terrifying. John would be waiting outside the unit doors to open at 9am every morning and stayed until the doors closed at night . He would lay on my bed with me and every so often , I would feel ok to have Joe lay with us . One day, the nurses said , why don’t you have a bath. Joe was asleep and john washed me. At the time I don’t think I appreciated it but now I see what a lovely thing that was and as I came out of the bathroom the nurse said Joe needs a feed mummy and would you like a hot chocolate or something ? Gently gently, I was being guided to start accepting Joe into my life, the thing that would be a constant but what I was so scared off.
The nurses gave me hugs and promised me things would get better. One of them gave me a folder to read which contained letters from women who had been in the unit and recovered. The stories gave me hope. And they had got better.
There were nurses on duty 24 hours a day but in the unit, you are encouraged to spend time with your baby and bond. I washed Joe’s clothes, sat with him in the day, looking out of the window and reading to him and when I woke up in the night having meltdowns, feelings of being out of my body or panic attacks (which were very frequent), I could go to the lounge and talk to a nurse to calm down. My time there was very difficult – I had debilitating moments and felt scared but the help and support of doctors and nurses who understood the illness helped me on my road to recovery.
And from a personal side of things, I was also still breastfeeding Joe .There were times when I couldn’t look at him, but I still fed him. I realise now that this was me trying to bond with him, and for me, breastfeeding has increased that bond – I have continued to nurse Joe and for us , it’s a beautiful thing. If I had gone into a normal psych ward without Joe,I wouldn’t have been able to nurse him which it turns out was a really important part of my personal recovery . I would sit down and watch question time in the unit with Joe on my chest and when it was finished , go off to bed with him in the room. I couldn’t have done that in a normal ward.
At the end of the first week there, I did something I hadn’t been able to do since the day Joe was born – I sat on my bed with my door , which had been open for a week , closed. I peered at Joe, I felt nervous but this was massive. With the support of john , the nurses, everyone in the unit, I was on my own in a room with Joe, with the door closed. It was the biggest turning point in my illness and when I emerged from my room , the nurses hugged me. My mum turned up and the nurses told her what I had done and she cried, john told me he was so proud of me. And I was proud of myself. For me , if I had been in a normal psych ward I wouldn’t have experienced that moment. It was my first big personal step to recovery and the biggest turning point in my illness.
My recovery took a long time. But I got better. Upon my discharge from the unit, I had to spend a few minutes on my own with Joe each day and then had to build this up to walking to the local shop. A few weeks later, I had to spend the afternoon on my own with him in the house -‘exposure therapy’. I was to then spend all my time with Joe to accept that he was here. We spent a few more months in Nottingham all together, with John having to take compassionate leave from work, to ensure my recovery was on- going.
Within a couple of weeks, I felt a small, but very definite reduction in my feelings of despair . Recovery wasnt easy but it happened and now I don’t think Joe was a mistake. Without knowing it, I developed a natural love for Joe. I totally adore him. He is my world. He and John, my two boys, are my life. John was amazing – it must have been awful for him, but he supported and loved me all the way through. I love him and Joe so very much and I owe the unit so much. It was my hope when all was lost and provided me with a safe haven to recover with my son who needed his mummy.
The majority of new mums with mental health problems need to be near babies. I have friends who had perinatal mental illness who haven’t needed their babies with them to recover and for their circumstances, the unit wasnt the right place. However, I think for the majority, babies should be with them. A normal psychiatric unit isn’t equipped for a baby and mum to stay together and bond. Mother and baby units are designed to help this and research does show that mums with serious perinatal mental illness will have better outcomes and better relationships with their babies if cared for in these units. They ‘offer the ideal environment for a parent with mental health difficulties to be treated whilst maintaining a relationship with the infant, rather then separating a mother from her baby when admitting mothers to adult psychiatric wards’.
We must worker harder to endure women have access to mother and baby units near to where they live and also that they aren’t placed in normal psych wads without their baby. Babies need their mummy and mummies need their babies. When I was in the unit, I used to think the nurses were ridiculous saying I would get better. I thought I would be the only person to never recover. But I did of course. That was just the illness talking.
I have recently been working very hard with the charity Mind and the BBC soap Eastenders who are running a postpartum psychosis storyline and large parts are based on my experience.
I have made a vlog about my experience here http://youtu.be/Kn6pgSUP5YI .