My son has just turned 2 which means another, less enjoyable, anniversary is looming. To mark it I thought I'd share my story, such as it is so far.
I've always wanted to be a mum, it's the one thing I've ever been completely sure about when it comes to life plans and ambition. I had a good pregnancy. I enjoyed being pregnant. I didn't read any books, I did do NCT and NHS antenatal classes, and breast feeding workshops. One thing I was sure about, I was going to breast feed. Breast is best! My mum exclusively breast fed me and my siblings, my sister exclusively breast fed her children. I tried not to put too much pressure on myself but I was determined to try, was under no illusion that it was necessarily going to be easy, but I would persevere.
Anyway, I got through pregnancy without any problems and prepared for a natural birth. Luckily that went smoothly too and I gave birth to a healthy baby boy 21 hours after my first contractions started. There was a bit of panic towards the end and he was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck but he was fine, I was fine if a little battered and bruised and we were now a family of three. My son latched on to my breast without any problems, he was hungry from the off and seemed to know what he was doing. So far so good.
From the start I was anxious about the feeding. I don't know when my level of anxiety became greater than would be normal for any new mum but it was always there despite things being fine. I needed regular reassurance that I was doing it right and kept lists from the very start - which breast I fed from, at what time, for how long (to the minute), whether the subsequent nappy change was wet/dirty and any other observations. As the days went on my world centred around feeding, completely normal for life with a newborn but as my thoughts started to become obsessive, this was my focus. I was sleep deprived like any new parent, had lost a night's sleep to labour and now snatched a couple of hours here and there, day and night, again nothing out of the ordinary, but 3 weeks in and insomnia hit. I couldn't switch off and my anxiety levels grew. My husband was doing all the right things; he would take the baby downstairs and tell me to sleep, that he'd bring him to me when he needed a feed. I would lie upstairs, wired, terrified my husband wouldn't wake up when my son needed me. It was my sole responsibility to keep our tiny baby alive... In the evenings our son cluster fed for hours and the night feeds were regularly taking an hour and a half with little down time in between. I became convinced this prolonged feeding was due to a poor latch, I would repeatedly take him off the breast and try to get him latched on better, making me more sore and him more frustrated. I did away with the lists when I decided I was inadvertently 'doing Gina Ford' despite the fact I'd never even seen one of her books. 'Watch your baby, not the clock' all the websites said. I was spending time trawling websites and forums while feeding in the night; so much information, too much information. The evening crying set in and I started reading the one book I had been given that I'd avoided til now, all advice seemed to conflict and further confused me. The simple fact that I didn't know and couldn't work out why my baby was crying convinced me I was already a terrible mother. In my addled, sleep deprived state I started behaving strangely. I was lost without my lists. My reassuring family kept saying 'You're doing everything right, just keep doing what you've been doing' but I couldn't remember what I'd been doing. We'd change a nappy and I would have no idea whether I'd done half a feed, no feed at all yet or had finished. My husband was physically putting our son to my breast and was growing increasingly concerned. Then I decided I could communicate with our son and read his facial expressions sufficiently to know that no, he wasn't hungry. I would refuse to feed him because, despite the rooting and head butting, that particular pout meant he wanted to play. This behaviour came on very rapidly, and at the same time I was ever more anxious, confused, unsettled and distracted. It was the Saturday evening that my husband called the maternity unit for advice. Luckily he spoke to someone he knew and they said they'd see me. I talked round and round in circles to a sympathetic midwife then a paediatrician who advised a hot bath, Horlicks and a good night's sleep. It was after midnight when we got home. I had a bath and a couple of hours' sleep where I dreamt I was living in a cave, my baby always next to me, feeding when he needed to. I woke up and proclaimed "I've cracked it! I just need to feed him every 8 hours for 3 hours, it's all about the maths!" My husband eventually managed to get me back to the maternity unit. I was a bit of a state, nothing made sense to me anymore, I was pacing around and alternating between utter confusion and the knowledge that something wasn't right, to then declaring I was fine, I just needed some sleep. But a realisation had started to creep in and it was breaking my heart. It was the belief that babies only grow up when you're not watching them, that if I constantly watched my baby, he'd stay a baby. I therefore couldn't sleep as if I did, he'd grow up. I also believed that this was a realisation every mother had to come to, that everyone else 'got it' and accepted it straight away but I couldn't and was therefore trapped in some kind of loop. It was this that I tried to explain to the midwives who now looked at me with concern (but when no one was watching, they would whisper to me that as mothers they'd all been there, they'd give me a knowing wink or nod). A mental health nurse came to talk to me, I knew something must be wrong. I was still convinced I just needed reassurance about the feeding, that if someone just spent a day with me and told me I was doing everything right, my anxiety would disappear and I'd be fine. She told me about a unit where they were used to this kind of thing, that they did things 'a bit differently'; I agreed to go. My parents arrived and I paced around the room saying "I'm a nutter, they're sending me to the nuthouse!" I overheard them discussing the fact I had insight. I knew I must be onto something. I declined rapidly, every bit of rest and sleep I got made things worse. I started to detach from reality. I stopped wanting to feed my son. This meant they could sedate me but I reacted badly to the sedative they gave me. It wasn't long after this that I snapped, I was gone, my mind no longer my own.
What followed was terrifying. So many different threads to what was playing out in my head, all fighting for dominance. I remember the vast majority of it now though not necessarily in the right order. But the overwhelming belief on this Sunday in the maternity unit was that I was having all the babies. Surely influenced by the sound of newborn babies around me, I was giving birth over and over. I had a choice but knew if I stopped something terrible would happen. I would persevere where so many had stopped, most women managing just two or three. People were saying they had underestimated me, they hadn't realised how strong my maternal feelings were. I was Mother Earth, I was the chosen one.
My delusions were very influenced by books I'd read, television programmes I'd watched, especially science fiction. Time travel featured quite heavily. Mirrors and reflections, the alphabet, the 'circle of life'. I was creator, whatever it was that I wasn't 'getting' was the key to saving the world. I could describe it all in quite a lot of detail but this isn't the place and I've already gone on far too long,
The Sunday night in that maternity unit was by far the worst night of my life. The next morning I was transferred to the mother and baby unit. Here with different surroundings my delusions and beliefs changed. The signs around me all had hidden meaning, everything was a clue. I was language, I was colour. Was there a baby? Was I the baby? Had my baby died, was this madness grief?
As I started to react to medication the delusions lessened (aside from a lingering suspicion that I controlled the weather) but the intense confusion and paranoia remained. There was still a code to crack, an answer I had to find, a reason I was here. I became convinced everyone else in the unit, the other patients, the staff, were all actors. Was that what they meant when they said they 'did things a little differently' here, was it all some kind of big role play? Whatever it was, everyone was in on it. But I had to find the answer myself. At times I was convinced I was in some kind of social experiment, that I was being filmed; I would shower half-dressed, convinced there were hidden cameras. And the television and newspapers in the lounge terrified me; everything was about me, hidden messages in every word and picture. My other certainty was that I had to prove I was a good enough mum before they'd let me go from this place. They were always watching, judging me and I was so confused and muddled, making up a bottle was my Everest, a nappy change would bring me to tears. My son had a rash one morning (not that I could really see what they were talking about) and we were taken to the general hospital. To me this was some kind of test, how would I cope with this unexpected event being thrown at me? I was very proud to make it through, surely I'd passed...
There's so much more to tell, I'm writing it all down elsewhere, but the important thing is I got better.
My first day of leave home was a massive turning point in my recovery. I knew my brain couldn't construct the journey between the unit and home. Things slowly improved, I started to return. The paranoia and confusion lessened day by day, I started communicating with the outside world again. And exactly a month after my admission to the unit I was discharged home.
My recovery was swift. Determined to get back to 'normal' I think I played at it when I didn't feel it. I didn't feel completely normal until I came off the antipsychotics 15 months later. I still feel sad that those early weeks weren't the way they should have been, that even towards the end of my stay in the MBU I couldn't just pick my baby up and cuddle him without fetching a member of staff first. I hate the fact I'm torn about having another child. But mostly I know how lucky I am. I was in the right place before my downward spiral crashed, I was in the MBU the following day, I reacted to medication quickly, I had great support from my husband, family and friends, I was spared the depression that hits so many afterwards. I have a massive appreciation and sympathy for people who suffer mental illness, I know what it's like to literally 'lose your mind' but to be lucky enough to see it return.
The journey's not over yet. It's taken a long time to process it all and a long time to overcome the guilt and feeling that it happened because I couldn't cope. But when I think where I was this time 2 years ago, I know how far I've come.