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.