Dear Ada

When you write about something like Post-Natal Depression, then take the nerve-wracking step of pressing “Publish”, you hope to help anyone out there who feels alone. You hope to reach them in the dark and show them that it is possible to feel better, because this is what you wish you had found back then.

But then there is also a weight, a risk. Because other people will read this – people who don’t understand, who only want to criticise, and you feel apprehensive of how easily people can judge.

Even more importantly, however, is the risk that other people, people important to you could be stung, their hearts hurt by the words you have written. So I wrote this letter to my daughter.

You are three years and ten months old. I am 35. I’m supposed to be teaching you, guiding you and helping you find your way, instead you have taught me more than I ever knew there was to learn.

You know all of the letters of the alphabet and can write your own name. You shine when you dance and sing, draw and paint and when you grow up, you want to be a decorator. This, simplicity…

You still can’t say your ls, vs, and rs in the right places and every time you shout, “Let’s go to the yilling yoom and watch teyelision” my heart skips, then swells with a love that no words can wrap themselves around.

You are a brilliant big sister who makes her little brother feel he is the most important person in the room. You laugh at his jokes, and involve him in everything you do. His first word was your name and he lights up when you are around. You are his hero.

You are sweet, you are caring, you tell me I am the best mummy in the world. I cry when you say this and although you are clueless as to why, one day you will find that, for so long, I wasn’t even close to the mother that I wanted to be.

To hear those words prickles me with the guilt that I let you down in those early days. But they also fill me to spilling over with the knowledge that you are here, you are mine, and there is nothing I would do to change any of it.

I’m writing to you now as I imagine you one day discovering what I have written. Like in a secret diary, hidden under the mattress, or in a shoe box at the bottom of the wardrobe, I have given voice to the most intimate of thoughts, and the bleakest of feelings. But in public. For other people to read, find hopeful resonance in, and one day, for you to find.

I imagine you finding it in your teenage years, alone in your bedroom, and I wonder whether you will be uncertain whether this discovery is something you should admit. Admit it, keep it secret, that decision is your’s, but one thing I want to say for certain is that it was never about you.

But how could that be? I imagine you thinking. How could it not be my fault? It was my birth that tore you down. It was me who left you flattened and hopeless. It was me.

But it wasn’t you, my sweet girl. That was illness. And that wasn’t me either. I thought I was gone, but you showed me there was a new way, a new me, that I was always meant to be. But most importantly, the darkness was never about you.

You will have read how I struggled for months to feel how I thought a mother should feel, how I didn’t feel I could do you justice. But please trust me, no responsibility is yours.

Call it chance, circumstance, fate, it makes no odds. The stars were aligned, the Gods had spoken, and your birth was just not supposed to be smooth. It was sent to test me, to prove to me how strong I could be but it took time for me to see this, embrace it, rejoice in the lessons I could learn from it.

And in amidst a swirling storm of blackness and scarlet and the dark deep emerald envy, I lost myself for a while, but you? You were the light. You are my light.

Your arrival heralded a new time, new lessons, in empathy, patience, understanding and forgiveness. I have learned to be humble, to not suppose or assume, to think about the path others may have walked before, and honour their survival.

You have showed me my strength and ability, and your arrival has sent me on new adventures of the mind and heart that without you would never have happened.

Every day I envelop your hand in mine, and for a moment forget the duties and performances demanded by life. I look down at you and there is a squeeze in my chest, a momentary stop to my centre. How can you be so small, and yet, in my mind, in my heart, so huge?

Know that you are loved. Know that I am grateful for what you have shown me. Know that I wouldn’t change a thing.

Not. One. Thing.

Because out of all that, came you.

Thank you, my magic.

 

If you are struggling with PND or even low mood after having children, then please seek help. PANDAS Foundation are an amazing charity who offer support and advice on seeking treatment via a helpline, email and other support groups. Check out their website for more information.

A voice in the chorus

As a virtuoso pedlar of intimacy-at-a-distance, that strange phenomenon when a complete stranger writes something that makes you feel as though they have set up camp in your head,  Daisy Buchanan describes it as,

“I sometimes feel as though I’m trying to start a choir. I’ll describe a situation that has made me feel small, scared or stupid, reasoning I can’t be the only one who knows the words. Surely at least one other voice will join me in the dark? And sometimes we reach the chorus and arrive at this incredible swell of sound, as everyone shouts, “Me too!” Together we become loud – and strong.”

After the birth of The Eldest in 2012, I needed a choir. But there was nothing there. I felt small, scared and stupid, but most of all I felt alone and I was desperate for another voice to “join me in the dark”.

Since those bleak days however, with the emergence of a particular kind of confessional “mummy-blogger”, I assumed that women who become mothers today and tomorrow are surely better served than I was.  If they too want to punch someone in the face every time they are told to “cherish every moment”, or daily fight the urge to call their tantruming two-year-old a twat, these days they at least know they are not alone.

But then, in response to a post I’d written about the birth of my second child,  I was contacted by a woman who made me stop assuming, and start thinking:

“My labour with my daughter is still haunting me and makes me feel really effing sad and inadequate. The lack of noise around this stuff just cements that, so thank you for sharing.”

I thought that everything that needed to be said, had been. I thought the expectation that mothers should embrace every part of mothering without so much of a whisper from their previously intact, independent self, had died with the birth of “honest parenting”. But this message proved me wrong.

The writing of a post about my difficult first six months of motherhood had been cathartic to write, but I had never pressed publish – I was certain that I had nothing of benefit or originality to contribute to the conversation. It felt self-indulgent, a bit wanky and didn’t fit with the way I feel these days about being a mother.  This message however, told me that I had missed something – I hadn’t considered that every day there are women out there landing in the exact dark place that I had already climbed out of, and that perhaps this is not actually about me. Instead, they need someone to say something. 

So, here is my story. Sorry it’s so long (and a bit wanky). A lot of sh*t happened along the way.

The birth of my first child is not the most horrendous story you will ever hear but it did take 23 hours of contractions every 3 minutes or less, while birthing a back-to-back baby who resolutely refused to turn. Eventually, with the “assistance” of forceps, and the associated episiotomy (and bonus third degree tear – go me) she was born safely. Less sound, however, was my sanity.

I went home after four exhausting, unbearably hot days on the Postnatal Ward and although I was relieved to be home, the considerable pain I was in somewhat cooled the mythical warm glow of new motherhood. The reality was that the prolonged pushing stage of my labour had left me so swollen that I felt like I was sitting on a golf ball and I couldn’t imagine how I was ever going to poo again without my insides falling out.

The following day we were visited by a community midwife who checked my stitches, gave us some advice about feeding, and left, never to be seen again. She came into my home, touched my baby, looked at my foof being held together with half a metre of fishing line and was undeniably lovely throughout, but I don’t even know her name. This was only the start.

Over the ensuing six months, at the most vulnerable time of my entire life, I didn’t see the same health professional more than once. On one occasion in the early days, a midwife, her student, and the health visitor all arrived in my house at the same time and sat having a chat for twenty minutes. I felt bemused, uncomfortable and wondered whether it would be acceptable to tell them all to chuff off. I wish I had. Perhaps then they would have noticed that I was going a bit mental.

To be fair, I didn’t want to be ill – it just wasn’t something that happened to people like me. When I was leaving sixth form back in 1999, my A Level English teacher had told me that no matter what I did, he was sure I would be successful. This remains one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me and I sure as hell was not going to let motherhood prove his confidence to be misplaced.

So, in total denial, I did what every new mum does and asked someone wiser, cleverer and more well-informed than I was.

Google obligingly spat out a slew of information and questionnaires about the signs of PND. I however, told myself that because I was having no trouble sleeping, and had no difficulty getting out of the house, I was not suffering from anything other than the understandable turmoil of adjusting to no longer being at the centre of my own world.

My total exhaustion despite having a baby who, relatively speaking, was a champion sleeper, and my obsessive insistence on leaving the house because I despised my own company, should have been red flags. I had barely any appetite, and the almost constant sensation of someone squeezing my windpipe meant I couldn’t eat so I lost the baby weight with alarming speed. In stark contrast to the compliments that came rolling in about my body “snapping back” was the reality that all along my mind was in danger of just plain snapping.

I was a nightmare. My mood swings and anxiety were out of control and I was so very, very angry. I had episodes of fierce hyper-vigilance when I would feel sick if anyone except me, my partner or my mum held the baby, but then I would lurch all the way over to fantasising about walking out of the door and never coming back. They would all be better off without me – raging, unreasonable, rubbish me – I was sure.

So next I blamed the pill.

Being on the pill at this point probably makes it sounds like the “husband” and I were having “relations” but I can assure you that nothing could be further from the truth. My fanny still felt like it had been hit with a Nutri-Bullet and any suggestion of intimacy triggered flash-backs to the internal examination the obstetrician had performed during a contraction – I could see the grimace on her face, hear my primal scream, and each time this happened I would experience my humanity desert me as it had done in that moment. Not sexy.

Sorting out contraception had in fact been just another thing on the long list of things that I was told I “should” do but once Google told me that the mini pill that I had been taking could be responsible for how I was feeling, I decided to consult someone with actual medical training.

At my appointment, I asked the GP all of my questions about the pill which he duly answered. Just before the appointment ended however, the question that I realised I had really come to ask popped out of my mouth, “Or could these things be something to do with Post-Natal Depression?” A question that surely should have rang an Austrian cow-bell-sized-alarm, right? Well, not exactly. Because what I had foolishly done was book an on-the-day appointment with a very young male doctor who it seems had just finished sniffing his text book. Finding himself inexplicably in front of patients, he shit himself when faced with the reality of a mental woman with a baby and got extremely flustered. To be kind(!), I quickly backtracked on my question and hot-footed it out of there.

So, 4 months into motherhood there were days that I screamed at my perfect baby girl because she wouldn’t take a bottle and my nipples were sore and red and burning with thrush.

There were times that I convulsed with body-wrenching cries that tore at my insides in grief for how it should have been.

I felt a grim, irrational protectiveness over my daughter which drove a desire to be near her at all times. But at the same time I desperately want someone else to take over, to take charge, to take her away.

And then I felt guilt. A friend had given birth to a little boy the week before my daughter was born and he hadn’t survived. I was tormented by the thoughts of why couldn’t I just be grateful? Why wasn’t the fact that my daughter was healthy, “the main thing” that everyone insisted it was?

Almost 6 months to the day after The Eldest had been born we awoke one Sunday morning to the news that my sister-in-law had given birth to a healthy baby boy. I expressed my delight then left the room in a hurry.

Why couldn’t I have a straight-forward birth? What did I do wrong? It’s not fair. I’m such a failure… I’m so weak… I wasn’t strong enough… I don’t deserve to be a mother… The injustice, the grief, the hurt and anger overflowed in that moment and with total abandon I picked up the pots and pans from the night before’s dinner and I threw them.

I don’t have the words to capture the intensity of the fury that consumed me in that moment.

Alongside the self-loathing, I was intensely jealous of any woman who hadn’t gone through what I had. “What did I do wrong? Why me?” was the question I returned to again and again. In my twisted version of a Girl Guide pack, failing to earn my “Natural Birth” badge meant that I had failed to be a proper woman.

Later that day we found out that my sister-in-law had endured an emergency c-section, preceded by a failed Ventouse.

I. stopped. dead.

Only a matter of weeks later, she was the first person to ever echo how I felt about my daughter’s birth. When she spoke of her guilt, and her feelings of inadequacy, I told her the truth – that she was no less a woman for not having a “normal” birth. She had done an incredible thing and she should be proud. That fictional “Natural Birth” badge of honour “don’t mean shit” and no one else cares how your baby was born.

Well, surely it was about time that I believed these things about myself?

I never actually received a formal diagnosis of PND or an anxiety disorder or whatever Fucking-Mental-Madness took over my life for those months but whenever I read the accounts of those who have “officially” been through it, I identify so completely that there is little doubt in my mind.

And the thing is that now, as shit as it undeniably was, my experiences mean that I feel like a stronger person, and I’m certainly a more empathetic one. I’ve adopted the attitude that what I have gained more than makes up for what I suffered, but it remains that having enjoyed the first 18 months of my son’s life, I can now see even more clearly how it “should” have been. The sadness creeps in occasionally if I allow it to because I’ll never be able to fix that…

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

If you’re reading this and finding yourself nodding along, please just know you are not alone. I wish I had known that even when you (wrongly) feel you have to be “strong” for the people around you, there is an entire community of people out there who you definitely owe nothing to.

Go get help. Don’t go and see a twelve year old doctor, that’s a terrible idea, but ask to see a doctor you feel comfortable with.

Don’t let your feelings be invalidated by your gratitude that your baby is healthy – you can feel both.

Don’t consult Google. Trust your instincts – if you know things don’t feel right, don’t ignore yourself because you don’t tick the right boxes.

Call one of the helplines on the leaflets the Health Visitor presses on you in a terrible impersonation of a helpful person*.

Call PANDAS (Pre and Post Natal Depression Advice and Support) Foundation who do exactly what they say on the tin for women just like us.

And don’t forget that although the internet gets a bad rap at times, and while we’re all aware of it’s potential pitfalls, out there are women who are waiting to sing just for you. They want to lift you up on the rise and swell of their voices, and make you feel that it is possible to be whole and strong once again.

*I am sure there are many helpful, efficient, caring, thoughtful, intelligent Health Visitors out there, it is just that I have never had the privilege of meeting one.

 

You loved me ’til I was me again

This past week was Mental Health Awareness Week and thanks in part to my experiences since becoming a mother, the effort to destigmatise mental illness is something that speaks to my heart. To this day I do not know whether the natural disaster that ripped through my brain following the birth of The Eldest was Post-Natal Depression or an anxiety disorder, but I do know this. That shit fucked.me.up.

I was traumatised by her birth which took 23 hours in total. Three hours of unsuccessful pushing, a spinal block, an episiotomy (plus a third-degree tear. Do I get bonus points for that?) and some enthusiastic yanking with a sizeable pair of salad tongs passed, before our  pointy-headed-sodding-back-to-back-beautiful-little girl was born. Thank goodness the doctors were right when they said that her pointy-head would return to normal as otherwise that would be something else that I would bear on my conscience. Because that was the thing – I bore my failure to push our daughter out of my fanny all by myself, heavily on my conscience. I felt like I had failed, I was weak, inadequate, unfit to be a mother, and that by having to have a “assisted” birth, I was somehow not qualified to be considered “woman”. My experiences left my fanny feeling like it had been hit with a NutriBullet for months afterwards, and rendered my mental health even messier.

A piece about the pain, guilt, the misery, the feelings of inadequacy and failure, the flashbacks, the resentment, and the at times all-consuming anger of the first few months of motherhood, was one of the first things I wrote about for this blog, and yet I have not published it.  I find it almost a compulsion to talk about this time whenever I meet other mums, particularly new mums, because I am so keen that no other woman should ever feel as alone as I did in the first six months of our daughter’s life. But that blog post remains unshared. Is it judgement I fear? I don’t think so. Perhaps it just feels too personal, or too self-indulgent? Or perhaps, having moved on in my life, it just doesn’t feel that relevant anymore. This week however, Mental Health Awareness Week has prompted me to give this thought yet again, although this time from a different angle.

This year, the focus of the week is on the effect that mental illness has on relationships. I’ve done an awful lot of navel-gazing on the effects of undiagnosed PND or anxiety disorder, or whatever tsunami it was that flattened the carefully constructed version of myself that used to exist, but perhaps I have not given enough thought to the effect my craycray days had on the people around me.

On the “husband”, who watched me suffer in labour, helpless, powerless, and who had to twice beg the doctors to come and assess me when the agency midwife said they would not listen to her. He cried. I know he did. But he also remained strong and present and forgiving for the months of turmoil that followed. It wasn’t easy for him – he found the adjustment hard – and then he also had to live with me. A crazy women who basically made no sense. I look at photographs from this time in which I am smiling, and yet I know that the smile was only surface deep – underneath was someone constantly on The Edge, someone exhausted by thoughts, someone smiling but all too aware that she wasn’t happy. What must that have been like to live with?

On our beautiful daughter. This is hard to say but every day I look for signs that she has been affected by those dark days. I hated her baby days, and I look for signs that she is insecure or doesn’t feel loved – she gets quite anxious when the people around her are sad, upset or angry and I wonder whether I have caused that anxiety. I wonder whether her flashes of anger are attributable to the times when I sobbed and screamed at her to take a bottle because my nipples were burning with thrush. I felt like I was suffocating under the pressure of being the only one who could provide food for her – perhaps she learned her anger from me in those moments.

On my parents. I told my mum a little of what I was feeling at the time. I still don’t know whether they picked up on the depths to which I had sunk but I was so thin, I didn’t eat properly for months, and I know they worried.

The danger of all of this introspection however, is that it feeds into the narrative where I was at fault. Of course I rationally know that this was not the case – I was ill. My brain was broken – not beyond repair of course, but broken nonetheless. I know other people suffered too and it would be so easy to slip back into the guilt.

But what if I don’t? What if, instead, I change the narrative and look for the positives?

What if I linger on the fact that thanks to my experiences I am now more empathetic, more patient and more forgiving? And while people around me still wreck my head at times, I am much better at stopping and looking at things from their perspective. I hid my shocking mental state from everyone so I have realised that it is not possible to always know what is happening in someone’s head. And there are times when everyone needs to be cut some slack.

What if I linger on the closeness that I now enjoy with our daughter? What I learned about myself in those difficult first six months I believe has helped make me a more reflective, thoughtful, appreciative parent than I might otherwise have been – it hasn’t come easy, I’ve had to really work at it, and my bond with our wonderful little girl now makes my heart sing.

What if I linger over the joy that our son has brought me? Even on the days when everything went wrong, and everyone was ill, and no one was sleeping, I knew that it was infinitely better than what had happened the first time around. I remember bumping into my incredible midwife one day in the street a few months after the BSCB was born. She asked me whether I was enjoying him and it dawned on me that yes, yes I was! The pride and euphoria I felt at being able to feel and say that is impossible to describe.

So I wonder, what would it be like to live in a world where mental illness warranted no more or less judgement or curiosity than a broken ankle? This is why weeks like Mental Health Awareness Week are so important – because as uncomfortable as it feels, until there is no stigma, we have to keep talking.

But also I wonder whether it is possible to change the narrative – to turn something awful, something sad, into something good and thankful? This is what I want to do now.

And I want to remember to thank the people who loved me until I was me again.

For Ray, Ada, Zach, Mum and Dad.

This piece was inspired in part by the words of Sarah Willis, writer of “Changing the narrative”, a piece included in Issue Two of The Fourth Trimester Magazine. Thank you for making me think.