Warning: contains triggers
This week (1st – 7th May) is the UK’s first Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week, and is being led by the Perinatal Mental Health Partnership. You can read all about it here. This is such a great initiative, I honestly don’t know one single mum who hasn’t experienced some kind of change in their mental health after having a baby, whether it be depression, anxiety, loss of identity, or even just feeling completely overwhelmed. As women we go through such immense physical changes through pregnancy which we can prepare for, but no one tells you just how intense the mental changes are. I’m sure some women weren’t even aware that there were any. I know in my case they hit me like a ton of bricks.
I have always suffered with anxiety, and had such horrendous panic attacks in the past that I honestly thought I was losing my mind. For years I was on and off medication, had a few counselling sessions (which unfortunately didn’t benefit me at all), and tried everything I could to try to make it go away. After a while though I just accepted the fact that I suffer with anxiety, and tried to manage it in other ways. I began to exercise regularly and changed my diet. I also went to a guided meditation class which pretty much changed my life, and now I practice mindfulness daily. I am pleased to say that I have finally got it under control, but I know that it will always be there. I will never forget what I went through after my daughter was born. I have never felt fear like it.
When Molly was a few months old I was changing her nappy when an horrific image of child abuse flashed across my mind. It literally came from nowhere and it shook me to my core. Why did I just think that? Where did that come from? Am I going crazy? Am I evil? Unfortunately, as I found out later, by reacting to the thought in that way I only gave it more power, and I consequently opened the flood gates for more and more intrusive thoughts to come pouring out, which in turn intensified the anxious symptoms and panic attacks.
From that day on no matter what I did, where I was, or who I was with the intrusive thoughts were relentless. They were mostly based around something bad happening to Molly, but the worst ones were the ones where I thought I was going to hurt her. For example, I was stood at the top of the stairs one day and I had a vision that I was going to throw her from the top step all the way down to the bottom. Once, while bathing her, I had a thought that I was going to drown her. I remember being stood at the traffic lights one day on a really busy road with my knuckles white after thinking that I would push the pram into the oncoming traffic. It was after that one that I practically ran to my doctors in floods of tears, shaking from head to toe.
My doctor, as lovely as she was, didn’t really understand the severity of my anxious thoughts, and treated me for post natal depression (I wasn’t depressed, I was the happiest I had ever been in my life). In all fairness though, I was that bad that I thought that Molly would be taken away from me if I told her exactly what I was thinking, so I omitted a lot of it. I was given 20mg of Citalopram, and she also gave me a number to call to make an appointment with a mental health service. There was a massive waiting list though, and after having a few phone interviews, I was deemed not ill enough to access the service so was never offered a face to face appointment. I was on my own. I did a lot of research online, bought a couple of fantastic books (I had to search high and low for them though), and came across a couple of threads on Babycentre regarding intrusive thoughts after having a baby. What became more and more apparent was that, although this seemed to be quite a common illness, there wasn’t much information available at all.
I never told anyone, not even my partner John, the exact detail of my thoughts. Some of them were so abhorrent I couldn’t quite believe that my brain could actually have created it. I remember looking in the mirror one day expecting to see some kind of monster staring back, but it was just me, pale, crying and very very frightened. Not only was I fighting a constant battle inside my head for 24 hours a day, but I also had a tiny baby to look after! We all know that sleep goes out of the window when a baby arrives, but this was just exacerbating my symptoms. I muddled through in a kind of hazy fog most days, exhausted, and in physical pain where my muscles were in constant tension. I hate thinking about that time, not only because of what I was going through, but also because I feel like I was robbed of those precious first months with my daughter.
Eventually though, the fog did begin to lift. The medication certainly helped, but I also learned how to deal with the intrusive thoughts myself. The trick is to just let them pass by. At the time this concept made no sense…how can you ignore thinking you’re going to throw your baby down the stairs?! But that’s just it – it’s not YOU thinking it, it’s a product of your anxious, tired and hormonal mind. The thing about intrusive thoughts is that they are completely out of character, meaningless, entirely out of our control, and everybody gets them. The fact that I was reacting so badly to them and they were distressing me so much meant that I would never act upon them. This gave me comfort, and I slowly began to recover.
Once I realised this, the thoughts dissipated quite quickly. I carried on with my medication but after 6 months I felt strong and well enough to start to come off the tablets. I had a few wobbles during this transition (totally normal with that type of medication), but after that I was fine. Although I still experienced intrusive thoughts daily, they didn’t bother me as much, because I didn’t let them. That really is the key – we can’t change what thoughts enter our heads, but we can change how we react to them.
After a few months I felt strong enough to start to open up about my experiences, and that’s when I decided to start my blog. The name Don’t Drop The Baby seemed very apt as it was one of my biggest fears at the time. I wanted to share my story not only as a form of therapy for myself, but also to offer some reassurance to other women who might be going through the same thing. I wanted to tell them that there is absolutely no shame in this condition, they are normal, and they will get better.
I dread to think of the amount of women, not just in the UK but around the world, who are suffering in silence, too scared to say how they’re feeling in case they’re deemed an unfit mother. If you are one of these women, or might suspect you know someone going through it, then please please talk to someone. No one will take your baby away, it doesn’t work like that. Even that first initial step of admitting there’s a problem will be a massive weight off your shoulders.
Thankfully there is now so much more support available to new mums with regards to mental health, and it is being recognised as one of the most important issues affecting them. Initiatives like this Maternal Mental Health Week are fantastic as they shine a light on the problem and give women a voice. Follow PMHPUK on Twitter for more information, or follow the links on my Mental Health Support page for further support.