I am a mother to two fabulous children. I am alive. These are two important facts you need to know. You need to know them because the latter fact is one that I wasn't sure would be true following their births. I will start from the very beginning, and if you are suffering with anxiety while reading this, take a break every so often to process each part of the story. I promise it helps.
When I was pregnant with my first child I was versed at length about the possibility of postnatal depression. Having suffered from mental health problems throughout my adult life this seemed a sensible conversation to be having. I wasn't ignorant to the fact that the days/weeks/months post birth would not exactly be a hazy Julie Andrews skip through the meadows. So after a three-day labour and an eventual forceps delivery, I was exhausted, thrilled but exhausted. So in awe was I of the little bundle bestowed upon me that most of the time I stared; I did a LOT of staring! Some of it was in amazement at her beautiful tiny features, some of it was in confusion at the noises and smells her little body created, and some of it was fear.
Fear seems an odd word to use when discussing the arrival of a new family member. I was afraid though. I went to my doctor to discuss my feelings and was told it was post natal depression and quickly had a prescription for anti-depressants written out. Somehow though, I knew that I was not depressed. It felt different. I was happy, blessed, overjoyed that she was here, and I held her and loved her and cuddled her pretty much every second of the day, (she wouldn't sleep anywhere else for six weeks!) That didn't seem depressed to me. I knew, however, that I was not well.
It started to become apparent when I was making her bottle. She was formula fed due to circumstance, but oh how I've been judged by those superior to me. Anyway, that's another story! Making up a formula feed is not rocket science. It's simple counting. To make up a 5oz bottle you put in five scoops of powder and 5oz water. I couldn't count to five. I'll amend that last statement, I could count to five, but I could not trust my ability to count to five. I would worry that I only put four scoops in, or that I had put six scoops in. I would worry that I hadn't been at eye level when measuring the water. What would happen if that were the case? I didn't know but I was terrified of the possibilities. Sounds quite trivial, but when you have discarded four bottles of "possibly, but unlikely incorrect feeds" and your child is screaming they are so hungry and you are sobbing because you can't think straight — well then it's clearly a problem.
Then there is the OCD behaviour that began creeping in. I'd prepare her cot each night, nothing in it but a bedsheet and a tiny snuggle bear and I'd lay her in it. The minute I left the room my heart rate would rise and clatter against my ribcage like a freight train with no brakes. I felt hot and cold, sweaty and clammy. My legs turned to jelly and my mind to mush — what if the sheet came off and she got wrapped in it? What if the light fitting fell from the ceiling and crushed her cot? It didn't matter that I had checked the bed sheet 15 times, it was 15 times, always 15; I only like odd numbers. It was no help to me that the light fitting was on the other side of the room, and unless it fell off and was blown via a passing hurricane across the room through an unopened window, it could not harm her. These fears were real and all consuming.
Then there was my sleep or lack of it. Sleep when the baby sleeps is excellent advice unless you have postnatal anxiety. You cannot sleep. Every noise and even worse, every silence is a cause for alarm. A cause for a shooting heat to rise from your stomach to your heart and eventually hit your brain triggering a stream of irrational thoughts that are, at that moment, utterly convincing arguments for impending danger. So you don't sleep. Sleep deprivation catches up with you, and when it does, and I mean really does, it is ugly.
So somehow I made it through the first couple of years crawling from day to day keeping my fear from the world. I didn't return to the GP as I thought they would think me incapable, even though my daughter was happy and thriving and my husband was equally happy. I was still afraid. On my daughter's second birthday I discovered I was pregnant — and I was happy, we all were. Whether it was pregnancy hormones or sheer elated joy that did it I will never know, but I forgot all the fears I had been through. The pregnancy was not without complications and I had a number of hospital stays, but as a family we remained upbeat. I was carefully monitored and again versed on post natal depression. The birth came and though my gorgeous son was a whopping 8lb 110z (I am 5ft 7 and 112lbs when not pregnant so he was whopping to me), it was quite easy, (I mean, not beans on toast making easy, but not eating 300 boiled eggs difficult either!).
We were now a family of four, me, my husband, our awesome 2.5-year-old daughter and our beautiful new born son. I went home the day after giving birth and was quietly confident that I knew this time more of what I was doing. Until one night at 3 AM. I lay on the sofa next to the Moses basket and I started to shake. I felt the walls closing in and the air leave the room. I felt sick, terrified, confused, alone. In that moment I lived 100 lifetimes. The speed of the thoughts racing through my brain was inconceivable. I had no idea how I would cope. How do I get him to nap while entertaining my daughter — he'll only sleep in my arms? When do I take a shower? How do I cook dinner? Can I do the shopping? When will I sleep? Will I die? Yes, I questioned if I could make it out of parenting alive with a very real fear that the answer was no. There were not enough hours in the day. My daughter wouldn't love me anymore, she'd feel left out and isolated. I couldn't do it. I had to leave, they would be better off with their Dad anyway, he is a practical but sensitive man and that's what they need. I will pack my bags and catch a train in the night and they will be happier without me. Let me state now I NEVER left, I NEVER will. My children are my world, but this is how I felt and what my mind so wanted me to believe.
Days passed and I couldn't eat for the gut grinding nausea. I couldn't sleep for the pressing palpitations. I couldn't answer the phone or the door. I couldn't process how to cook a ready meal. Then when my baby boy was 12 days old I collapsed on the living room floor at 6:30 AM. I don't remember anything apart from waking up in A and E with doctors circling. They were fantastic and a specialist nurse made me some jam on toast and a cup of tea. She talked to me about how I was feeling and said "I think it is very likely you have postpartum anxiety." There it was, a name for this ghoulish phantom that had inhabited me not once but twice and with increasing ferocity. She prescribed some short term medication and a forward plan for CBT. I sobbed, with relief but also with trepidation, "Please don't take my children away," I wailed. She put her hand on my knee and told me that would not be happening. I was a caring, loving mother with a stable family environment — she told me the only person I wasn't looking after properly was me!
So I returned home, feeling slightly but needlessly ashamed that I didn't have the strength or ability of other Mum's. They seemed to breeze through the day to day juggling multiple children and tasks with ease. That wasn't my reality, but I soon learned that it wasn't theirs either actually. My children were none the wiser, my daughter jumped up and hugged me and asked if we could play "matching" (a very exciting toddler card game that I had become world champion in — sort of!) I held my baby boy and as we cuddled my heart soared. My husband held my hand literally and figuratively through the entire journey. I started to reach out to other parents, friends, family and discuss what I had been through and share their experiences. It turns out it is not uncommon but it is underrepresented in the world of prenatal screenings and information.
Some days I feel angry that I had a large chunk of time distorted for me by this mental health issue that could have been recognised and treated sooner. Some days I wear a mini badge of honour that I am still standing and have two great children, (one of whom is off to school for the first time in two weeks — agh!). Most days though I want to help you, if you are still with me, I want to reach out to you the mum or dad with anxiety that is reading this. I scoured the internet for stories of hope when I was going through the worst of my anxiety and little came back. A lot of the information was outdated or plain judgemental. I just wanted to know that somehow it would all turn out OK and I am not the only human in the history of time to have gone through these feelings!
So to you, I say this: It will not feel like it right now but you CAN do this. Trust yourself, you know what to do and if you feel you don't ask someone for advice. Care for yourself, even if you can only manage toast and jam — eat! Have a shower when you can. Go to a GP if you feel you need some medication and/or therapy to help you — if you don't help yourself you can't be there for your family. Remember that anxiety is real and it is punishing but it is not insurmountable. There is NOTHING to feel ashamed about, we all react differently to our given situations. Anxiety will encourage you to isolate yourself, please don't. This is a topic we need to discuss more openly and with more positivity — because it is manageable, it just doesn't feel like it when you are experiencing it. You will survive. Your children will survive. You will stand on top of the mountain and reflect — you've got this, keep believing, keep going and the rest will follow — I promise x