12 months of recovery

It has now been almost 12 months to the day that I was discharged from a psychiatric hospital. This last year has undoubtedly been the best year of my life, and I have my stay in hospital to thank for it.

Before becoming seriously mentally unwell (and with the benefit of hindsight of course) I had gone through life fairly oblivious to how “easy” I had it: my comfortable upbringing, my breeze through school and university, my relationships. It wasn’t all rosy – I had bouts of severe and often crippling depression which started in earnest after university. However, these would always pass and I would go back to living an essentially carefree life. To be brutally honest, I rarely thought about other people’s problems, the consequences of my actions, or wider issues affecting the world. I jumped headlong into things, safe in the knowledge that “things” would always work out: abrupt changes in employers, fanciful notions of horse ownership, a penchant for long-haul holidays, desperation to get on the property ladder in one of the most expensive cities in the world. I was always swimming in debt and often would be doing my food shop with the credit card by the end of the month.

While these facts probably caused my family a little concern over the years, they didn’t worry me. I certainly didn’t think I had “A Problem”. I was arrogant, and naïve.

What has changed?

Most obviously, I am now a mother. Motherhood is always a life-changing event, but the physical process of giving birth had a rare and dangerous effect on me. As well as the bleeding, the bloating and the physical scars, something – or some series of things – snapped in my brain. Within 24 hours of giving birth I had no idea who I was, what had happened to me, where my life began, who was real and who were illusions. Including the very real little baby boy who was lying next to me. I had no idea whether I was in purgatory, hell or – worst of all – a living nightmare where I was causing the end of the world. I could not express any of these fears to the succession of midwives, nurses and doctors who cared for me – the best course of action for my psychotic brain (in the few times where I had any control over my actions) was to switch off and do and say nothing at all.

These are the essentials of postpartum psychosis (PP), as it happened to me. Suffice it to say that after some fantastic psychiatric care and steadfast support from my husband and wider family, I got better.

In January last year I left hospital with my disjointed collection of psychosis memories, a significant mental health diagnosis and a three-month-old son.

The first few days and weeks at home were about survival. I had to care for this little baby, feed him and change him. I was pretty good at the physical side of baby care (the staff in the Mother and Baby Unit were patient teachers), and we were blessed with a very contented boy who slept and ate well. The hardest part by far was the actual mothering. In the words of Andrew Lloyd Webber, I didn’t know how to love him. I remember on the first day home from the hospital sitting with my own mum (who had come down to help me make the journey) with the baby wide awake in the baby bouncer in front of us. Mum sang to him and his little face lit up. It occurred to me at that moment (and the thought terrified me) that this was what mothering was going to involve – just being with him, entertaining him, talking with him, sharing life with him. This was a little person with whom I was going to have to develop a relationship with. Was I capable? I could surely keep him physically alive, but could I mother him? I just did not know.

Twelve months later, my relationship with my son is my undoubtedly my greatest achievement. To have gone from a psychotic state where I did not even recognise him as my son to where we are now – well, it would blow my mind if that hadn’t happened already. He has grown into a hilarious, engaging, loving little boy. Sure he tries my patience from time to time (usually when I’ve stepped on one too many Duplo bricks or he’s pulling my hair when I’m down on my hands and knees scraping his dinner off the floor). But I love him. I love him. I love him with every ounce of me, and every thought in my head. And those moments when he climbs into my lap for a cuddle, and his little hand is rubbing my arm – those moments are worth years of hospitalisation, and more.

My pre-baby life has been enriched beyond measure. But as well as the process of becoming a mum, and bringing this awesome little person into the world, life has been changed in other, more subtle ways.

Being confined to the Mother and Baby Unit was like sharing a small life boat with people you would never normally share the time of day with. Ladies from completely different cultures and backgrounds, some of whom had experienced real hardship and were battling not only mental illness but also the criminal justice system and social services. As my psychosis receded and I gradually emerged into daily life on the unit, I got to know some of these ladies. I was one of the lucky ones – I had daily visits from a loving husband, a home to go home to, and social services were never involved in my case. But I knew how lucky this made me – and I felt the pain of the other ladies acutely. I used to think I was “socially aware”. I was a card-carrying member of the Liberal Democrats and read the Guardian. But if you were to scratch that liberally-minded veneer you would have found deeply-held prejudices and ignorance. These prejudices have been challenged, the comfort zone I lived in has shifted and I have lost that sense of entitlement that have all been seeing me through life up till then. I cannot claim to be a “better person”, but I am less likely to judge someone and more likely to offer a kinder response.

So I like to think I am living not necessarily a better life, but hopefully a kinder life, a less entitled life. And in return life has never been better. In the first few weeks after discharge I was in survival mode: get through each hour until bedtime, fall into an antipsychotic drug-induced slumber, get up in the morning and repeat. Gradually my time has become my own again and I have had space to think and reflect – as well as enjoy myself and my family. I feel rooted in the community I live in, I have made some great friends and I have started to explore my (previous lack of) faith. I have plans for the future – and not just for my son but for my husband and me as a couple and myself as a potential future economically active being. I have taken part in numerous research projects into PP, and have also been involved with mental health charities such as Rethink Mental Illness’ “Time to Talk” campaign. I have a fledgling idea how I might combine my interest in mental health with my interest in opening a community café…

Of course there will be challenges and set backs but I feel better armed to deal with these in a sensible way. While in hospital I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder (which can sometimes present itself as PP in undiagnosed women). With hindsight it might explain a lot! Rather than being an embarrassment or a hindrance, having the diagnosis has given me and my family a good insight into my moods and my stability. Sometimes I ask my husband “am I being a bit too manic?” and he is the first to caution me if he thinks I am taking on too much or thinking too fast. Armed with this extra knowledge, we can manage the highs and lows. And this last year has been the first year in over a decade where I have not had a single depressive episode.

I am cautiously optimistic for my family’s future. With a little kindness and a lot of understanding we can overcome anything.

Incidentally, I was recently introduced to the poetry of Ella Wheeler Wilcox:

So many gods, so many creeds,

So many paths that wind and wind

While just the art of being kind

Is all the sad world needs.

I might try to read some more Ella this next year.

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9 Replies

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  • Hi KatG

    Just been reading your post and your journey of what has happened over the past 12 months. You have been through so much and have come out the other side after suffering from PP which is such a huge achievement. You should be so proud of yourself. Your post is so positive for other women and families to read who are going through this terrible illness. You are right that it does make you a stronger person and changes your outlook on life.

    I think that opening a community cafe is a great idea too.

    I like the poerty you have quoted - its so lovely.

    Thanks so much for sharing your story.

    Emma. xx

  • Aw thanks Emma - glad you find it positive. To be honest I wouldn't have changed a thing. I know I was lucky, but it has honestly made me so much stronger!

    I've been reading a few more of the poems - they are all lovely!

    Kx

  • Hi KatG,

    Thank you so much for sharing your story, it's heartening to hear the positive things after PP & I'm sure it'll be a comfort to many on here. Yes coming so far is a great achievement. Every year those markers, milestones Birthdays etc. are so poignant & remind us of how far we've come.

    I particularly relate to the fear the first day home about mothering after PP, "Was I capable? I could surely keep him physically alive, but could I mother him? I just did not know." Going from that to "But I love him. I love him. I love him with every ounce of me, and every thought in my head." is inspirational - it shows that the love, bonding, mothering skills & confidence do come - thank you!

    Well done with your awareness work with the charities & good luck with your future projects!

    P.S. I really like the poem too!

  • Hi KatG, it was really lovely to read your post. It resonates quite a lot with my own experience of PP. I had PP 2 1/2 years ago. I too was in a MBU for 3 months. I remember well the thought that I just couldn't 'mother' my baby and was terrified that I would be emotionally scarring him - at times it would take every ounce of my energy and being to 'force' myself to talk to him etc - just because I felt I didn't have anything to say to anyone, I felt completely dead. But yes, now I love him so passionately - your description of your feelings for your child ring true for me. I am now filled with more gratitude than I ever had for my family, my friends, my work - my life is just so wonderful. I too have been reflecting a lot on what to do with the whole experience - how to support others etc, and actually next Thursday I am hosting a coffee morning at work for Time to Talk campaign. It will be the first time I have done anything 'formal' about sharing my experience etc though I talk continually about it when it surfaces naturally.

    Thanks for the post, as others have said I'm sure it will be inspiring for other women

    Ellie

  • Thanks Andrea and Ellie, glad it was useful. Ellie the feelings you describe sound so similar to my own.. Wonderful that you are doing a coffee morning - my twitter feed is going nuts for Time To Talk and it's brilliant! I wasn't brave enough to sign up for a real world event (hopefully next year!) but have gotten involved in a few online things... Take a look at #TTTmum

  • Thanks for the twitter recommendation, I will definitely have a look at that! My twitter feed is pretty active with time to talk as well!

    My work is quite unusual, it is an ecumenical christian community of people with and without learning disabilities, and sharing experiences etc are quite normal within the culture so it doesn't feel too daunting to host it - I don't think I'd have the courage in another context!

    Great once again to hear your story.

  • Hi Kat,

    I wanted to say I'd really enjoyed your post, nodding vigorously at times and smiling at others (esp. the Lib/Dem and the Guardian reading bit). Weirdly enough, the way you reflect on your past self and what has changed since you've had PP resonates with some of my experience although as you know, it's been very different from yours, with the Police, Social Services, the Courts involved and I am still sorting out how it all impacted on my life and my daughter's. But I did relate to your description of being in 'survival' mode (I call it 'autopilot'), feeling overwhelmed at the idea of 'mothering' (despite years of childcare experience) and eventually feeling grateful for the smallest things - things many take for granted - when considering how close I was to losing everything, including my life.

    I am from an unprivileged background and in some ways, my recovery has had a diametrically opposite effect on me. I've not become a big meanie :D but my relationship to myself and others have certainly changed. I don't put others' needs before my own anymore and I am a lot more circumspect in my interactions and who I offer my kindness to.

    I think in the past others may have sensed I had a inferiority complex and took advantage of my tendency to overcompensate by giving without thinking. Now I put myself, my daughter and my dog first and if I do have time and energy left, I'll help others. If I don't feel like it, I'm able to think that's ok and I'm no longer riddled with guilt. I'm still acutely aware of others' pain and problems but I don't take it upon myself to dwell and act on it any more. A few years ago, I would've been appalled at this individualistic mindset, now I realise I'd confused selfishness and 'selfkindness' and I no longer feel I have to justify to myself or others when I choose a course of action that clearly benefits me and only me in the first place.

    I know it's such a cliché but it does feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I'm a lot less stressed now that I've removed this internal pressure to care for others more than I care for myself. I stay clear of certain situations and people and manage to solve my problems more efficiently. I'm still an idealist and have not given up on saving/changing the world though. In fact, I'm applying to study for a part-time degree which will open a number of professional doors in that respect. As you told me when I first posted on this site: onwards and upwards! I hope you keep us updated on your awareness-raising and community café projects. Thanks again for sharing your story,

    Anne x

  • Hi Anne, thanks so much for your thoughtful reply.. I remember bits and pieces of your story, and it sounds like you have had an absolutely horrendous time, worsened by some very poor if not negligent treatment from so-called professionals. I count myself very lucky that my care (a few nurses aside) has been excellent.

    It's great though to hear that you too have experienced some changes post-PP, albeit in a different sense. You can't help anyone unless you help yourself first so good on you for starting to put your own needs first. I think the one thing an experience like psychosis gives us is a chance to step back and see the bigger picture. Life isn't black and white, it doesn't matter what others think of us, we have to live well for ourselves and our children and get through it.

    Best of luck for your ongoing battles, will be thinking of you,

    Kat x

  • Thank you for such a hopeful amazing post KatG

    I can identify with so much of what you say. I'm now 8 years from my first episode of PP and I'm still learning and appreciating...

    Thanks so much for sharing your journey so far...

    Naomi

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