In May, I was as busy as a bee in pink high heels can be. A year of planning , with my super PMHP colleagues, was coming together , as we were due to launch our 2nd UK Maternal Mental Health Matters Awareness Week. Our small little group created the campaign to shine a light on perinatal mental illness, to show how and where to access support and provide women with the tools to start the difficult conversation where they ask for help.
The night before the week launched, I found myself trekking down Oxford Street in London , with frozen hands , on my way to a radio station. I was going to be talking about the week, why we created it and a little about my own experience about Postpartum Psychosis and anxiety. I am used to the kind of questions I get and always prepare myself for the shock and bewilderment from the interviewers when I tell them about the time I thought I could cut through the clouds with a pair of plastic scissors, or found myself apparently floating in the corner of the room. And when I tell them I was so utterly and desperately scared of my own baby , that I would shake uncontrollably when I was with him and pulled my hair from its roots in a despair that I never thought possible, they gasp. Gasp because surely the law of nature is that once baby pops out of your vagina or tummy, you fall into its arms in a haze of glory filled tears and feel on top of the world even though you cant do a wee or a poo for fear of bursting your overtight stitches.
But this interview threw up a question I hadn’t had before. As I was rattling on about being a human maraca , what will all the meds I had to take to stop me thinking I was cartwheeling through the air , I said ” and my son knows what happened to me “. The interviewer stopped me and seemed shocked. He asked me to repeat myself and I did and he asked how I did that ? How did I tell my son about the horrific illness I had , that was brought on after his birth? How did I tell him that mummys marbles flew off the table and rolled around everywhere so much, that she fell on them so hard and was so hurt, she struggled to get up. The marbles kept spinning and going backwards and forwards and round and round at a million miles an hour and mummy didn’t know how to make them stop. It was if they had a mind of their own and they wanted to roll away from where mummy wanted them to be. Mummy wanted to marbles in her mind to stay in there and all sit in the right place but they didn’t. They rolled off, some got damaged , some got lost. Mummy truly felt like her marbles were gone forever and that they would never be replaced.
My son is now 8 but has known since he was around 3 about my illness. Or as he so beautifully named it ” Mummy’s poorly head”. What happened to me after he was born was life changing and the effect of it was felt for such a long time , that to me , it seemed important to tell him about it.
Until he was around 3 , I took medication 3 times a day. I was still on my hospital dose and taking them became part of my routine. I had Thursdays off work and would take Joe to cookery class at the childrens centre , watch him pour flour over his head, mix some cake mix together with his splodgy sticky hands and then present me with a snot covered concoction at the end for me to lovingly eat. Mmm, yummy. I would then hose him down and we would go off for lunch at Wagamama where he would toddle up to the waitress and say ” Me want nuba 981 but no coocumba”. He would then sit on the floor under the table with his batman figures until his food arrived ( he hung out under tables until he was 5 and would often have an entire 7 course meal under there in the dark, happy as larry. He would emerge looking like he had rolled around in tomato soup whilst living in a bush), and one epic day, I turned round to see him standing up in the high chair, merrily doing a wee all over the seasonal greens in his chicken noodle soup. Whilst bribing him to put his penis back in his pants and explaining to the waitress that he wont be finishing his food as it’s now been seasoned with his own piss, I remembered I had to take my medication. Joe would see my empty my entire handbag onto the wagamama table – 3 pairs of superman pants ( for him), a can of dry shampoo with an incontinence pad stuck to it ( for me ) , 8 headless lego men, a packet of false nails , 3 cans of diet coke, 2 phones , 1 laptop, a partridge in a pair tree and 3 packets of amitriptrline. I would knock my tablet back and he would say ” that to help mummy head stay all great . Huzzah!”.
And he was right – my medication does keep me staying great or greatish. Taking medication is now part of who I am. Alongside wearing pink shiny nails and hoop earrings you could put your whole hand through, I take antidepressants. Alongside being a civil servant, I take antidepressants. Alongside loving gin and laughing and loving , I take antidepressants. Joe knows Mummy is all these things. And to me , that’s important.
Being ill after having Joe is truly the single most horrific thing that has ever happened me. Its left me determined to help other mums, utterly firm on my thoughts that for me , I wont ever have another child, and a clear view that just like daddy told him about when he broke his arm , that I will tell him about when I had a poorly head.
People say , how did you tell him ? Aren’t you worried he will think it was his fault and I’m actually not. I told Joe last night I was thinking of writing this blog and he said , can I write something in it mummy? I want to tell the mummies they will get better and I don’t mind knowing because I know it wasn’t my fault . I said of course you can so here you go :
“Hello mummies with the poorly heads. It oky to tell your child you had a poorly head as tell them its not their fault and the mummies always get better and it will all be ok”.
We have all , as a family, visited the psychiatric mother and baby unit Joe and I lived in after he was born. Joe saw the bedroom we lived in , he climbed into the cot he slept in and laughed saying I must have been tiny mummy. That was the room that I sat in when I was admitted, having woken up in the night before, convinced I was buried alive in a coffin and full of thoughts that the only way out of thee feelings was go not be alive anymore. When I was admitted, I was in the most terrible state – I couldn’t remember how to get dressed, I hadn’t done a wee for days and I was convinced I could smell burning. I was in a total state of panic and was convinced something horrific was going to happen at any moment. I was welcomed into the unit by the kind nurses who sat with the on the bed while John sat next to me with Joe in a car seat . They gently explained this would be my room for as long as it would take for me to start my recovery and they pointed to the cot in the corner where Joe would sleep.
I unravelled at this point. I screamed no no no over and over. At home , John was in the bedroom with me and Joe as I couldn’t be on my own with him but I realised now I was here , John wouldn’t be. My biggest fear had come true – I had to be on my own with my own son and this terrified me to my core. I had an enormous panic attack and felt like I was glued to the bed. Everyone could see how gripped by the illness I was but that I also needed to near Joe to bond and recover. The nurses agreed I didn’t have to close my bedroom door and one sat outside my room for he first week and cuddled me in the night when I would wake up frozen in fear.
This was also the room where I took my first big step towards recovery. I still count this as a major turning point in my illness and still now get goosebumps when I think of it. I have them now as I am typing. One week atfer being admitted and being too scared to be near my son, I walked into the room and sat on the bed and peered into Joe’s cot. No one was in the room with me and there was no nurse sitting outside. It was probably maybe only for a minute but I sat there and looked at him, on my own and I felt something I hadn’t felt since he was born – a v small lack of fear. I never knew that at 29, having worked with government ministers for the previous 11 years , having run a pub and thrown out 6 foot drunks with my 5 foot frame , that I would be experiencing the biggest and bravest point in my life – being able to sit in a room on my own with my own flesh and blood. My own baby who grew in me , who I nourished. Who was alive because of my milk. I had given him life but I had been too scared to hold or look at him. But here I was at my bravest – I was doing something that millions of people do all day but for me , it held a massive significance.
So taking Joe there to see the unit was important to us. It’s a part of his life too. He saw the room, the cot, the bouncer he would lay in. And he also saw the message board with all the cards and letters from ex patients that thanked the unit for helping them get better . I would stare at this when I was a patient, wondering how on earth these women got well and as I was convinced I would be the one who didn’t . They provided me with hope as my mind was clearing from the haze of psychosis and I dreamt of the day where my card was up there , with a photo of me and Joe , saying thank you .
And it is. That card is there now – alongside a photo of Joe and I “ Mummy , its me as a baby , look”, Joe said as he wandered through the unit. He ran up with a smile and read the card. “ Mummy ? Will the ladies in here now read this and know they wont have a poorly head forever ? Will they see the picture of me and you and see they will be happy one day as well mumma ?” . I explained they will. That our story will give them hope , like the cards had shown me.
Joe knows my illness wasnt his fault. He knows it was caused by having a baby but it wasnt because of him. Sometimes the mind does funny things – like if he feels anxious when he is in goal at football practise, or that he gets sweaty little hands of the teacher asks him to read out loud in class. He doesn’t want to feel like that but he does and its no ones fault. Like when you get a headache or a tummy ache , it just happens. He asked me what I felt like when I had a poorly head and I said well mummy did a few things which might made your eyes go all big and you might even laugh because it sounds a bit strange. “ What did you do mummy?” he asked . I said , well I clutched your fathers ankles one day and refused to let him leave the house. Another time , I ran after him in the street naked . Cue hysterical laughing and shouts of , you went outside with your butt out ? Your actual butt on the street . This then descended into questions about what if I needed a poo and him talking about when he did a shit in the garden and wiped his bum with my Tesco receipt and how his jet stream of wee hit the window. We must be lovely neighbours …..
I did also tell him that my poorly head made me feel like I was scared of him. And the reason I was so sad when I was ill was that he was such a super gorgeous squidgy little baby and I didnt want to be scared. My brain had got all jumbled up and was making me say and think and do things that weren’t real and this was one of those things. The chemicals in my brain went a bit funny and Dr Mark looked after me and I took some special pills to make them okay again. And Mummy will take a v small dose of those special pills most probably forever just to make sure that her brain doesn’t have a jelly like wobble again in the future.
I am at a stage now , 8 years on , where talking about what happened to me is becoming a chapter I am almost at the end of. I will always be a mother of one and I feel like the decision John and I took to tell Joe , has been the right one. He knows about it , he has digested it , he understands it as well as an 8 year old can. Its made him empathetic, he feels a kindness towards new mums we see in the park and he knows that mummy spends some of her free time , when I’m not with him, helping the mummies with poorly heads now. The illness had a powerful impact on our family in so many ways and for us , to not tell him about that , wouldn’t have been right.
Its your story. Its your family. But always remember, your illness isnt anyone’s fault. It happened and it’s an utter ballache and I will bang the recovery drum for as long as I live to help women get better. And I am so grateful to have my little superhero boy my side to bang the drum with me .
Here is the fella telling you that you will get better https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=740135519474226&id=372428426244939 xx