This is going to be a long one. I’m not going to apologise for that as there is a lot to tell, in the hope that this may resonate and help someone out there, or someone who is trying to help someone out there.
Two years ago I wrote a blog for this site whilst 20 weeks into my second ongoing pregnancy. I skimmed over the truth of what was happening to me behind closed doors and only dared to hint at the ‘low mood’ that had developed during my first ongoing pregnancy. Today, it is becoming so much more commonplace to discuss mental health, sometimes it even seems like a bang on trend topic. Which is doing wonders for reducing the stigma and empowering sufferers to come forward and get help but I still feel there is a long way to go from encouraging the conversation to knowing how to help and how to survive mental health disease and how to recover in the best possible way, for the longest possible time. For me, learning that whilst it definitely didn’t feel good to talk, it was okay to talk and it was the right thing to do to talk, has been crucial in triggering recovery.
I had been with my husband for 7 years before deciding that maybe it was time to give it a go…the baby thing. I got pregnant very quickly. I miscarried very quickly. I thought I was alright but I really wasn’t. I was lucky enough to get pregnant again soon afterwards. I started to bleed around 6 weeks into pregnancy. There were many fraught trips to the Early Pregnancy Unit, each time that little heart beat was still there, each time my anxiety levels got a little higher. We made it to 12 weeks…I should have been elated but I was terrified. I didn’t dare tell anyone though…how could I be in such a mess after 1 miscarriage, when I had a friend who was enduring her 5th? How could I admit that I was struggling at work when I had only been in the job a year, was ferociously stubborn and independent and determined not to be encumbered by pregnancy? At 18 weeks I was going insane with worry, no longer stricken with morning sickness and too early to feel any foetal movement, I didn’t feel pregnant at all. I couldn’t sleep, I was constantly agitated and then permanently fearful that my state would somehow kill the baby.
I asked my husband to make me a midwife appointment, hoping for reassurance. It was a disaster. To quote the midwife, “Well my dear, if you are this worried now, how on earth will you manage when it is actually born?” she said. I felt utterly humiliated. She asked if I thought I should have CBT. CBT? What the hell was that? Behavioural therapy? Sounds freaky. No thanks. I left the appointment firmly resolved to keep my thoughts to myself in future.
I continued my lonely battle against anxiety, throwing in a wonderful dose of SPD and stressful situations at home due to a father who was undergoing his own health crisis and a husband who was due to start a new job, travelling all over the country, just 2 weeks after my baby’s due date. Oh and we had a 9 month old, insanely difficult, puppy. I was not happy. I was not talking. As the story inevitably goes, I went into labour. Suffice to say that it was traumatic. It took 2 surgeons to pull my very stuck, very big baby son out. He was black and blue and they thought they had broken his arm. I felt absolutely nothing on holding him for the first time…except revulsion at his size and complete, numbing fear. My husband was kicked out just 2 hours after I had given birth. On the postnatal ward I called for help but the midwife told me they were too busy and I would have to manage. I could barely lift my baby without searing pain. I was transferred to the local community hospital the next morning and suddenly fell head over heels in love with my new son. But he wouldn’t stop screaming. He didn’t stop for about a year. I’m not joking. He refluxed and screamed and fed and didn’t sleep and repeated this cycle endlessly. I developed infectious mastitis when he was 10 days old and was fairly delirious for 2 days. My husband returned to work and my Mum drove across the country to help. The dog went nuts. I went nuts.
I felt like everyone was trying to take my baby away from me. I felt like no one trusted me with him and even worse, I was terrified that if I did let someone look after him so that I could rest, either they would be better with him than I was, in which case, I should clearly do the selfless act of leaving him to their better care, or what if his screaming alienated them and they disliked or hurt him. Nope, stuff sleep, I was better off staying on red alert at all times. My husband tried to give him a bottle to give me a break. All I could hear through the thin plaster walls of our home was howling and screaming. It was more than I could bear. Breast feeding was the only thing that I could do for him so let me do it. Stuff sleep. He wouldn’t take a dummy either. I started to avoid going out in public as I was so ashamed of breast feeding and so ashamed of the screaming baby that didn’t have a dummy. I was petrified of pushing a pram. How could I tell anyone this? My health visitor called the perinatal mental health team. They came to my house…I was horrified. Why was team strait jacket coming to see me? What had I done wrong? What would people think? They asked me how I felt about my son. I adored him. I really did. They said there was nothing wrong with me other than sleep deprivation. I was so relieved but inwardly so confused. Why couldn’t they see why I couldn’t sleep? That I used to sit by the moses basket as soon as he was asleep, desperately checking for signs of breathing. That, when he did finally fall asleep after yet another colic episode, I couldn’t fall asleep as I knew he would be awake again within hours. I begged my husband to hit me so that I would be knocked out and could finally sleep. I tried head butting the wall. Days and nights blurred into one long nightmare. When I woke up in the mornings I felt so much gratitude that he was still alive and hadn’t succumbed to cot death but then this awful creeping dread at the day ahead would wash over me. I couldn’t stop crying. The dog destroyed the house. The baby destroyed my sleep. The situation eroded my relationship with my husband.
At my 8 week check my GP was astute enough to ignore my protestations of ‘fineness.’ She offered me medication. I refused. I started going to birth trauma counselling sessions but didn’t dare admit to the ‘other’ feelings that were happening. I became convinced that because my son screamed all the time, if I didn’t get it ‘right’, if I didn’t look after him properly, he would grow up to become a mass murderer, all because I hadn’t helped him when he was a baby. Clutching at straws, my husband took me to see some friends, one of whom was pregnant and one of whom had a baby. I tried to jump out of the car on the way there, not because I wanted to kill myself but because I couldn’t bear them seeing how useless I was. I shouldn’t have become a Mum.
I got dragged back to the GP and began a long battle with medication. I eventually took it…that first day will forever be imprinted on my memory…I was so stricken with the side effects of nausea and dizziness, that in trying to walk the dog and push the pram, I dropped the pram in a ditch to avoid an oncoming car and upended it. The driver yelled at me. I felt so very low and so very useless. I hated myself for taking medication. I took it at the lowest prescribed dose for 3 months and then went back to work and halved the tablets again. I took myself off the drugs completely a few months beyond that, just weeks before having major surgery to correct the damage sustained during that traumatic delivery, all because I needed to prove to myself that I was still a capable human being who could get through stressful events without the (homeopathic) dose of anti-depressants that I had been taking. I told no one at work. I spent 18 months hating myself. My family knew about the initial postnatal depression but not about its lingering effects. Not about how it haunted me daily, nor about how I spent most days constantly worrying what my emotions had done to my son, my marriage, myself.
Then we had a Christmas holiday where everyone was on form, even my son was screaming less and sleeping more. In a rare moment of stress free tranquillity, I decided that another baby would be so welcome. I got pregnant again very quickly. Just shy of 12 weeks I had a small bleed. My husband was away and so a friend took me for the scan. I still feel sick thinking about it. The baby was dead and had died a few weeks earlier. I felt so tricked by my body. I was held together over the next 6 months by the perseverance of my GP and regular counselling sessions. After months tainted by physical illness and misery, I got pregnant again. The bleeding thing happened again but this one hung on in there. By 16 weeks I was a nervous wreck but didn’t dare phone the perinatal mental health team for some crazy superstitious fear that the more people I told, the more likely a miscarriage would be. By 21 weeks I was having surgery to remove a rapidly growing breast tumour, followed by a repeat operation 2 weeks later. By 28 weeks, I’d had the all clear from the breast team and the baby was growing well. I was so fine that I finally booked an assessment with the perinatal mental health team. I told myself I was making the appointment to keep my health visitor and GP and husband happy. Looking back, I think I was on an adrenaline overdrive. The crazier life outside of the pregnancy got, the more I felt proud of myself for coping with it all. I agreed to regular contact with a mental health nurse (how embarrassing, I had a mental health nurse!), to regular GP reviews but no, definitely not to anti-depressants.
My daughter was delivered via elective caesarean section. It wasn’t straightforward but that’s another story. I knew within days that I wasn’t doing so well. But to succumb to perinatal depression a second time…nope. The pressure was overwhelming. I had to hide it from my parents, my husband, my friends, my colleagues and definitely from the health professionals. How dare I be depressed when the baby I was desperate for had arrived safely? I hid my phone so that I couldn’t be tempted to call anyone for heIp.
Fortunately, I had a very savvy mental health nurse and a GP who knew me and all my tricks well. And friends who never ever stopped calling. It was different this time. I didn’t feel terrified of going out in public with a baby. This one screamed less and attracted attention for all the ‘right’ reasons. I didn’t have the anxiety but I did have this overwhelming depression. I could easily slide through the day but nothing registered. I just didn’t care about anything surrounding me, apart from my two little people. I would cry first thing in the morning and last thing at night, when no could see. I would choke back tears whilst trying to read my son his bedtime story. I was physically ill all the time. I lost my appetite. I lost so much weight and hated seeing myself. I wanted to eat and eat but I felt so sick the whole time that swallowing just invoked retching. I wanted someone to put me in hospital and take care of me so that I didn’t have to do it all anymore and so I didn’t have to feel guilty that I couldn’t manage my own children. I just wasn’t prepared to go in a mental hospital. That very word, mental. What did that make me? My self-confidence crumbled and social occasions triggered inward panic.
And then my daughter developed reflux and sleep stopped and more screaming started. “Do you think about suicide?” professionals asked me. I didn’t think about anything, other than what I couldn’t do, I couldn’t be a mum. I spent a year intermittently plotting my departure, researching houses that I could afford to rent alone, anything to release my children from their crazy, utterly inept mother. I was in turmoil because I didn’t want to leave them, couldn’t bear to leave them but felt that I was being so selfish. I finally broke down in front of my husband when my daughter was 8 months old and admitted that I had dropped our son off at nursery and told him that I would be leaving the family later that day. It was an awful thing to say and I can never take it back. I can only keep trying to repair any damage done.
My mental health care got stepped up a level. I slowly increased the low dose of anti-depressants that I had begrudgingly agreed to start taking some months before and began psychology appointments. I went back to work. I started to talk. I’m slowly recovering. A year on from that fateful day of breaking down, I have mostly good days. We generally have a happy household. I still take the drugs. I still do so begrudgingly but accepting now that it is the thing that I can and must do. Along the way I have hugely benefitted from healthcare, friends, peer support and lately, involvement in developing perinatal mental health services. This long story is but a nutshell of the grief I have felt; the fear, loneliness, humiliation and oh so much shame. I hadn’t managed like everyone else had. “Tell me what you want?” the nurse used to ask me. How, how could I possibly answer that? I had no idea what I wanted. I couldn’t even read a book, think what to put in the shopping trolley, let alone think what I needed to get better. Nothing made sense and through it all, I had to keep hiding, hiding, hiding. So, if you meet someone like me, or someone who might be like me…what would I suggest? Be patient. Have the kindness and patience of a saint. It can be very painful to open up and impossible to see how talking can help. Impossible to believe that your babies won’t be taken away from you, that you won’t be branded with some mark of disrepute. That you won’t be forever gossiped about and that you won’t be forever defined by mental illness.
I feel like I lost the first four years of my son’s life. I know that it will be different now with my daughter. The tide is turning against mental illness. As a society we are so much less judgemental, so much more caring. I have met some amazing survivors of perinatal depression over the past year. They have given me hope. They have given me strength. If you’ve read this far, thank you. I hope this helps in some way.
Vicki, Lucy and the MumsVet Team.
If you have been affected by this story (or are struggling with anything) and need to talk Vetlife provides free, confidential support for the veterinary community 24 hours a day. Call on 0303 040 2551 or email via www.vetlife.org.uk
If you would like further information or support, or if you have been affected by this story then have a look at this brilliant website
Postnatal depression and perinatal mental health | Mind, the mental health charity - help for mental health problems
This website explains postnatal depression, including possible causes and how you can access treatment and support. Includes tips for helping yourself, and guidance for friends and family and colleagues.
This brilliant video was made by the Devon Partnership NHS Trust. You may think you are not/won’t be affected by this but listen to these brave women’s stories –it’s a story about six women who found hope and found each other.
Head Up, Heart Strong from Devon Partnership NHS Trust on Vimeo.
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Don’t forget that help is available specifically for Vets with the free and confidential advice and support resource Vetlife 03030402551 which is available 24/7. For more information
Independent, confidential and free help for everyone in the veterinary community including veterinary nurses and students. Our charity provides a 24/7 phone and email helpline; professional mental health support; financial assistance; information and resources.
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The Mind Matters Initiative (MMI) aims to improve the mental health and wellbeing of those in the veterinary team, including students, veterinary nurses, veterinary surgeons and practice managers. MMI was launched in 2015 and is funded and run by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) , the regulatory body for veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses in the UK