When I was asked by mind to help Eastenders with their postpartum psychosis storyline, I admit I was pensive. Mental health is so often portrayed in a negative light in the media that I thought, oh god, what if I get involved as someone who suffered and it goes horribly wrong, the character kills her baby and a week later everyone is in the Vic drinking a gin and tonic before throwing chips at each other outside Ian’s chippy. Awareness won’t be achieved and the general public would yet again be fed an awful sensationalised version of an illness that can be devastatingly awful but one that is entirely treatable. Thankfully, Eastenders, with the support of Mind and other charities, have created a storyline that is so realistic in its portrayal, within a couple of short weeks, postpartum psychosis is at the forefront of everyone’s mind.
Every mums group I am in on Facebook is talking about it – what’s wrong with Stacey ,why is she turning all the lights off , why is she on the roof of the Vic, who is Arthur’s father, does she ever feed the baby , is she off her meds and most importantly, what the dickens is wrong with her . Surely this can’t happen after you have a baby as no one appears to have ever heard of it?
But it can happen. It happened to me and it’s changed my life in so many ways. Within a matter of hours I flipped from being a girl full of zest who could sling a drunk reveller out of a pub in my stilettos (I’ve don’t this many times – I am she-ra) and an in your face smile, a 29 year old Peggy Mitchell who could handle anything that was thrown at me, to a shell of my former self. I became so I’ll I feared being alive and wanted the sky to suck me up and take me away from a world I felt I didn’t belong to. Ever since I was unwell six years ago, I have wanted to do something to raise awareness in a big way about postpartum psychosis. I’ve found that through my own blog and working alongside charities that I have helped others in their journey to recovery but I realised that in the mainstream, no one had a clue about the illness was and in order to maximise the help and support available to women who suffer, I wanted a way of getting a message out to people in an easily accessible way. And along came Eastenders and like it or not, soaps can do that and I think that’s a brilliant thing. Antenatal classes cost more than some people’s monthly salary and not everyone is able to jog along to these to find out about what happens when you lose your mind after dropping your sproglet. We need to cater to the masses as it’s not only millionaires have children. Real people have babies and real people watch soaps. Bar the fact that in soaps someone’s dad is also their second cousins thrice re moved dog and unless you are on Jeremy Kyle, this doesn’t happen in real life often, soaps do go some way to portray real life and in real life women get postpartum psychosis. .The positive effect it’s had even so far is a brilliant thing.
I think we all realise that mental health is something that resembles a big black hole. People know the words but don’t really know what it means and I think even more so in terms of perinatal mental illness when you become unwell after having a baby, there is such a massive stigma attached because having a baby is supposed to be an amazing time in your life. I thought when I had my baby that I would be walking on rose petals in a haze of milk filled bubbles. No such luck – instead, two days after I had my son Joe, I found myself crawling round the floor in the postnatal ward on my hands and knees, catheter hanging out, inspecting the dirt on the floor. I had never ever done this at home.
I became ill almost as soon as Joe was born. I had a c section due to a pre-existing medical condition and when he was pulled out of me I saw a jet stream of wee fly into the air, my child baptising the surgeon in a sea of urine. They held him up. He was crying and looked as though he was surrounded by light. He looked like Jesus in a flash of gold and it was in that moment that my brain started its journey into meltdown mode. An hour after he was born my mums first words weren’t oh look how lovely he is. Instead she said ‘ Evelyn, what’s wrong with you, you look like a zombie’. She says now she can’t bear to think about the look on my face – glazed over, staring through her, staring at the wall unable to speak.
I’ve been watching Eastenders through a haze of tears of amazement. Lacey and James who play Stacey and Martin are playing the parts so well. My friend Kathryn (who also had pp) and I have met with Lacey and James a number of times and talked to them at length about the reality of having psychosis. And not just a brief overview – details of how we felt when in the midst of a hallucination. I talked about the day I looked at the clouds rough my window and ran outside to the middle of the road trying inhale air. I felt like I was trapped in my house, in my life and in the world and frantically thought about how I could escape. I had visions of floating up to the clouds and being able to cut through them but then panicked about what I would do then. What if I felt trapped above the clouds? Where would I go then? And then came the day when I woke up, put an apron on and caked my face in makeup. And I’m not talking Kim Kardashian contouring – I think I was trying to fashion a modern day Mary Poppins as I frantically cleaned the house. John came into the kitchen to find me on my hands and knees scrubbing the oven – a clean house equals a clear mind I thought. And then I went to the window and tried to climb out of it to get nearer to the outside world, away from the walls of the house I felt trapped in. I would look to the sky as if it would provide me with the answers I was looking for but it didn’t. Which made me more frustrated. I would claw at my mouth trying to remove the imaginary cling film that was on it and then felt like I was floating in the corner of the room looking down on myself.
One of the things that has been so great about these first few episodes is how it’s showing how much Stacey loves her baby. There is an untrue notion that women with perinatal mental health problems want to harm their baby. Yes, people can get intrusive thoughts and visions but developing postpartum psychosis doesn’t suddenly mean you are a danger to your child and the programme is going to great lengths to show this. I was devastatingly afraid of being with my son on my own. I was scared of him, terrified of him being here in the unknown hole that is forever and at times felt like I couldn’t look at or hold him. However one thing I did do which I spoke with Lacey about was that I wore him in a sling anytime I was with him if someone else was with me. He terrified me but something in me wanted to keep him safe. My body was physically aching from giving birth to him and my breasts were making milk to feed him and it was almost as if my body was trying to hold on to him in some way . I told Lacey how the sling enabled me to feed Joe when at times I wasn’t sure where or who I was and my boyfriend John who met with James said he explained how I would have Joe with me even though my terror levels were so bad that at time I felt like there were flashes in front of my eyes and my hearing would muffle. When I was eventually hospitalised in a psychiatric mother and baby unit (I say eventually because it took six weeks for
us to find one to get me admitted to resulting in us having to move nearly 200 miles across the UK from London to Nottingham to get into one) one of the big things was that I could go on medication that enabled me to keep nursing.
Reading the storyline before it was screened had me very emotional when I read scripts but now it’s on screen, it’s so powerful that I have cried for many reasons. Crying because it’s so realistic, crying when Stacey looks to the sky as if she is searching for an answer she can’t find anywhere else which I would when at my lowest. As she paces the square, her eyes look sunken with fear as she looks for something or someone she can trust. The scene on top of the Vic with Martin when he told Stacey he would look after her resonated me with me so much – I remember telling the researchers at how I only felt safe with John. I would scream and shout, crying in emotional pain that he had to look after me. One day we were walking down the street and I stopped and looked at the sky. I sensed a danger but I didn’t know what off. I grabbed John and said I need an ambulance, something catastrophic is about to happen, something is coming, I can feel it. John held me, cuddled me and kissed my head. He told me I wasn’t in danger and that he would always look after me and that he loved me. The episode on top of the Vic resembled that fear, that idea that something was about to happen and Martins attempt to gain Stacey’s trust so he could keep her and Arthur’s safe.
Health Care Professionals have come out on Twitter to say they feel it’s not an accurate portrayal. Lots of things are being said such as ‘where is the health visitor, where is the midwife/this wouldn’t happen in real life/she has bipolar, a doctor would have told her family about pp when she was pregnant and have said ‘I guess if they show how hcps do get things right, it would be less dramatic wouldn’t it? ‘ Yes it would, as would the real life cases that are left hanging by lack of care from HCPs. This storyline hasn’t just been dreamed up – everyday women are struggling and begging for help and it’s not given. The reality of mums alarming symptoms being picked up is not the utopia some think it is. I get phone calls from gps saying ‘Eve, I have a woman who seems unwell with postnatal sadness, what can I do with her? ‘‘. I am not a medical professional!!!! I’ve spoken to GPs, midwives and health visitors who have told me there is no such thing as a perinatal psychiatrist. HEAD.BANG.OM.TABLE. I went to a perinatal conference last year and someone from a London MBU said ‘we always have spare beds, I’m baffled how women are struggling for help’. I spoke to him afterwards about two women who had been told they were on a waiting list for beds in the unit he worked in. No liaison , no clue.
Health professionals – don’t take Eastenders lack of you as an insult. Some of you are truly wonderful, you have fantastic pathways to care that work, mums se the same midwife all through their pregnancy, health visitors notice that mum doesn’t seem right and she is fast tracked to get help. Hurrah. However, this isn’t always the case . I am on hundreds of mums groups on Facebook, some of them specific perinatal groups where there are countless ‘ I have bi-polar and I am 8 months pregnant and no one has mentioned postpartum psychosis to me / I have told my health visitor I don’t like looking at my baby and she said she knows 16 yr. olds who have babies who are coping so I should as well/ my gp said PND is a modern illness that didn’t exist when he had children and that I should be grateful I have a child as she had a woman in surgery this morning who wants IVF/ I told the midwife I thought I saw my baby inside the pillow moving around when she was actually in her cot and she said to get some sleep / when should the midwife come ? I had a baby two weeks ago and keep phoning the clinic and they say I need to request a visit ? I have and she didn’t show up/ I had my 6 week check and read that I would have to fill in a questionnaire on my feelings and I was so relieved as I have been having scary thoughts of seeing my baby fall down the stairs and I’m scared . but at the six week check there was nothing to fill in and they only saw me for 3 minutes’.
HCPS – use Eastenders as a learning experience , a learning objective even . sling out an email to all your health visitors and say ‘ when you visit a new mum , remember she may be emotionally unwell and may feel like she can’t say. Look out for these symptoms ( List them ) and ensure you tell her you are there to help her if she is feeling overwhelmed or is becoming unwell’. I keep reading tweets saying ‘I’m a HCP and I’m screaming at the TV , where is the Health visitor’ but dont scream at the TV . This storyline is based on real life experiences and heavily lends itself to mine – john recalls how , when Joe was five weeks old our hv said ‘ to be honest, there is nothing we can do. Go to Nottingham , they can probably help you there’. However , the researchers did their work – it’s not just me who was forgotten about , lots of women have been . and I hope the storyline helps to jog the minds of commissioners to even out the postcode lottery of perinatal mental health support so that we can end the scenario of in one area a mum goes into a mother and baby unit the day after her baby arrives after her psychosis is picked up on the postnatal ward by a perinatal psychiatrist, and in the other , another mum is discharged from hospital while her mind is whirling in the air and every HCP she sees says , oh its fine , how much does the baby weigh though ?
And so to the next part of the Eastenders story. Without saying too much , I think it’s clear that this storyline will go on and it will be in real life time . Stacey over the years has already slid up and down the game of snakes and ladder that is the NHS mental health treatment game and this will continue. My psychosis troubled health care professionals and no one knew quite what to do with me . Poor John was taking me to doctors here , there and everywhere. We might as well have bought an NHS loyalty card . He even took me to one in the middle of the night only to be told if I hadn’t planned my own suicide I was low risk and then we only got help the morning I woke up I decided I wanted to die. I had visualised myself being buried alive in a coffin and couldn’t get out. The notion of being trapped had hit me in the most catastrophic of ways. With no help offered, john piled our little family on the train and we went to Nottingham where his parents lived , now desperate as no one with a medical ology knew what to do with me .
I told john I wanted to die and to ensure I was cremated so I didn’t wake up in a coffin again and then began pacing up and down the stairs over and over and over. I then went on his parent’s bed on all fours and screamed. John decided enough was enough. He was going to get me into another and baby unit and didn’t care how we got in there . It took a morning of dramatic phone calls, him having to hold the phone up so the psychiatrists could hear my hysterical screams and then an hour long assessment in hospital where I was convinced I could smell burning . I was then eventually admitted to the mother and baby unit to start my recovery. My recovery in a safe place with my baby.
Stacey’s road to accessing treatment will be a long and winding one. The scripts I’ve seen are spot on in the reality of the treatment lottery so much so that I’ve stood in the living room astounded that the rear hers and writers have managed to get this so right. Like was the case with me , Stacey’s family and friends are key to her accessing treatment . Martins passion to get her help, top get her into a mother and baby unit so she can recover with Arthur, is I’ve a mirror to John’s sheer tenacity to get me the right and support and without giving anything away, there are some scenes in the not so distant future that seem so close to home, it will almost feel like I’m watching myself on screen.
Keep watching. Mind, the Eastenders team, the actors, Kathryn and I and our partners have worked to get this right.