The month of May is dedicated to mental health awareness. This year I decided to write about Maternal Mental Health because this is a topic that is very close to my own heart. The theme for 2021 is ‘Journeys to Recovery’. With Covid-19 changing the way recovery can happen it is important that people share their stories so those suffering from maternal mental health can try find their own path to recovery.
Maternal Mental Health is just one of the topics that will be highlighted during Maternal Mental Health Awareness week which runs from Monday 3rd May to 9th May. This will be followed by Mental Health Awareness week from the 10th May to the 16th May.
A complex story but please read on
There is a lot of background to the story of what happened when I suffered from mental health issues around the birth of my second child.
The short version is that I suffered whilst pregnant. I suffered after my baby was born and for most of this time, I was unaware of what was happening despite various alarm bells ringing in my head.
I was suicidal but I kept putting it down to hormones, hoping it would pass and convincing myself I was okay. I told myself it was just something that would be okay when my baby arrived, or when I slept better or when I went back to work.
Looking back, I am now not even sure that I wasn’t also suffering after my first child but just in a milder form than my second pregnancy. I loved my babies and bonded with them so surely, I was okay, right?
When I realised what was happening
What I am about to talk now will not make for easy reading. It will examine my thoughts and what I was going through that led to me to think about taking my own life. If you are uncomfortable with reading this, please skip ahead to the section ‘New beginnings’.
If you are still reading, then here is my story, unfiltered.
I won’t lie that I didn’t realise what was happening but a friend of mine did. She came to that realisation whilst we were in a bar having drinks. She asked me how I was, and then asked me again how I ‘really was doing’. I burst into tears and then she told me her story. I never knew that she had been on anti-depressants after her child was born. She always seemed so cheerful and upbeat. She actually made me realise that what I felt was not normal and I needed to get some help. But now that I knew what was wrong, I thought I could do it all without help.
I tried to do things differently and block out how I was feeling until the morning came. But my baby didn’t sleep like the majority of other babies. He never slept and as a result I didn’t sleep. What I didn’t realise was the root case was that he had silent reflux. But the effect on me was unbearable.
That night I planned my suicide, from the method to the timing. I thought about who would be available to collect my child from nursery, and be in time for my baby to wake up to from his nap so he wouldn’t be on his own? I had a huge argument with my husband before he went to work and told him not to come home that night, he had no idea what was happening.
The text that probably saved my life
20 minutes after my husband left the house, I sent him a text that said “I want to kill myself, please don’t call me or text me and don’t come back home. I just need you to know.”
He replied with a simple message that said, “I love you, please don’t do anything”. Then my friend messaged me to say she was bringing me a baby rocker which may help my little one nap better in the afternoon. I burst into tears and over WhatsApp I told her what was happening.
The cleaner arrived and she spotted something wasn’t right. She then told me she thought my son had silent reflux and asked me to call the GP. My friend came over and sat with me. We didn’t talk. She held the baby and made me get off the sofa to make myself a cup of tea.
This is the day my journey to recovery began.
My husband came home, and I went to the doctor who convinced me to start a course of anti-depressants. I was monitored every 2 weeks. The health visitor would drop in for chats and I told some of my closest friends. The support was overwhelmingly positive.
I did have some friends that didn’t understand what I was going through because I seemed so together and happy.
Fortunately, most of my friends made plans to get me out of the house, to see me without the baby, organised dinners and events. I couldn’t have done it without them.
Let me make it clear that this was not the only time I had felt suicidal. It happened during my pregnancy. I actually wanted to get into a car accident so my husband wouldn’t feel guilty I had taken my own life.
After the baby was born, I felt suicidal many times before this fateful day. I felt like I was a burden to people, and that I would not be missed. I also had these thoughts a lot of times even after I started medication. Getting the dosage correct and allowing the medication to work takes time. This is why I had to be monitored by the Doctors and health workers. I am pleased to say within a few months these thoughts did completely go away and have not returned.
In order to kickstart my mental health recovery outside of medication, I decided to go away on my own for a few days after my husband convinced me I should consider it. Off I went to Cyprus for 4 days on my own.
It was the hardest thing to do at the time. I had no one around me. I physically was sick leaving my children behind, a 10-month-old and a 3-year-old. When I came home my husband commented that I was a different person, and I felt it too. I had found myself again, the person I was and not just this mum and wife I had become.
I decided it was time to look for a new job. The old job was not working for me. I found a 3 day a week job that was flexible and worked around my life. This is the job that I am in now.
After I started the role, I realised I needed some more help so I asked if I could have time off to go to counselling. HR was so supportive, and it made going to sessions easier knowing that work did not mind or hold it against me.
If anything, they wanted to make sure I was supported. If I am honest everyone, I have worked with has always supported me around my mental health, and I am sure this has helped my recovery.
Working for a company where mental health is openly talked about, supported and services made available to everyone should be the ‘norm’ not the exception. Not having to hide what I go through makes it easier for me to not be at my worst.
If I have a bad day or week, I can openly mention it. This means I can work through it and move on instead of it being kept quiet and getting worse. Shouldn’t all businesses want this for their employees, especially for mums coming back to work?
What can I say? I didn’t think it would work but I am a total convert! It was one of the best things I did not only for my mental health but for me as a person. I had been carrying around so much inside me for years.
One of the outcomes of therapy was taking a fresh look at how I saw myself. I didn’t think I had achieved much in life or was worthy of good things happening to me. I would not accept compliments or praise. In fact, I still struggle with that now. My counsellor helped me re-find all of those things. I would always turn up with the idea that I had nothing new to discuss but before I knew it, the hour would be over and the weight on my shoulders lifted. I realised that I had lost who I was. The counsellor helped me find myself and see what I was capable of as a person. So many people lose sight of who they are after they have children. It is important to remember that there was a person there before the child, and that person hasn’t just gone away.
Health and fitness
Many people say that staying active helps your mental state and they are spot on. Fitness is not just about the aesthetics or sport, but the endorphins produced by exercise of any form can make a big difference to your entire day. I decided as part of my journey I wanted to get fitter and feel better, I didn’t quite realise how closely interlinked mental health and exercise are. Prior to children I was always in the gym so maybe it has always been this way. But it become more prominent when I stopped going to the gym after having children. I signed up with a physical trainer, started eating better and exercising regularly and it helped my mental health. So much so that my counsellor was shocked as how quickly I seemed to be getting better.
Maintenance of the mind
Sadly, it isn’t as simple as a one-time fix. Once you have suffered from maternal mental health, you have to find a way to stay in your happy place and try to minimise the number of bad days, or failing that, shorten how long they last for.
I always thought that once a baby celebrates its first birthday, postnatal depression would somehow disappear. Whilst this may be true for some people, it isn’t for many more.
So, what now? I exercise regularly, the gyms reopened on the 12th April and I was back in there at 8am. I did home workouts during lockdown, but the gym is my sanctuary and it felts so great being back.
I have regular mental health check-ins with the counsellor. Because you still visit the dentist twice a year even though you might not have a problem so why not take the same approach with your counsellor?
I share my story today because I am in a place where I can, and I feel safe to do so. I understand that this might be for everyone but to me, it is like my own kind of therapy.
I have taken other trips away on my own and no, I do not feel any guilt over this. I am looking forward to resuming this now that lockdown restrictions are easing.
It’s good to talk
I tell people my story. I have nothing to hide. My journey has made me stronger and better. If it’s held against me the issue does not lie with me, mental health issues are something that are part of our everyday life.
I run a small business where I create clothing designs. I am sure this helps with my mental health too. In this business I raise money for good causes including a mental health charity so people that cannot afford to pay for counselling and are on low incomes can afford private counselling from as little as £5 a session.
I always say that every journey to recovery and every individual’s story will be different. But if telling my story makes a difference to just one person then it was all worth it.
I wasn’t aware that various resources are available on the internet that are very specific to maternal mental health. I wish that I had known about these when I was suffering:
Additionally, if you live in the UK and are looking for extra support or advice urgently, there are a number of external services you can approach. They will be able to provide you with information about local support options that are available to you:
· Talk to a health professional e.g. your own GP, midwife or health visitor
· Go to A&E at your local hospital
· Call the emergency services on 999