One of the first things I thought when I found out I was pregnant for the third time was what will I do if I get postnatal depression again? In fact, finding out I was pregnant again sent me into a bit of a relapse. For the first two or three weeks I was anxious and sad and could only visualise bad things to come in my future. I didn’t see the baby in my tummy as a happy surprise, I saw it as a ticking time bomb waiting for 9months before it would explode and leave me in a crater full of misery. As the months have passed and I am now half way through this pregnancy, fear has been replaced with excitement, trepidation has given way to eager anticipation. One thing I still think I need to do before I can fully be prepared mentally for what may or may not happen when the baby arrives is to look back and accept what happened after Alex was born.
I know I had postnatal depression, anxiety and probably OCD but I can’t let myself stop to fully reflect on that time. I need to though. I need to sit with those bad memories, even just for a moment, to let myself fully move on. I need to stop thinking of myself as the Mum who got pnd and instead think of myself as the Mum who is healed and ready (and happy) to do it all again, to have another baby again without fearing what may not even happen. So that’s what I’m doing today, I’m gritting my teeth and walking down the dark path of memory lane, back to when Alex was a baby and my life was a nightmare. I hope as I walk deeper and peer into those memories I’ve locked away that they will become softer around the edges, they won’t hurt me anymore and they won’t have the power to sabotage the future life with three children that I will living in just 20weeks time. Looking back is hard, but I can’t heal without doing it.
Mental health after pregnancy – I need to look back so I can move forward.
If I’m completely honest with myself, I was anxious throughout my whole pregnancy with Alex. I was constantly full of guilt that Leo’s life was going to be changed forever once his sibling arrived. Before my baby was born I could feel myself being pulled in two by my two children, one still inside me and the other running rings around my legs. I felt like a rubbish mum for being tired due to the pregnancy, I felt like a rubbish Mum because I knew Leo would soon not have all of my attention. My firstborn was my whole entire world and I feared I could never possibly love another baby as much as I did him. I think this already anxious and negative mind set made me a prime candidate for postnatal depression, my mental health was already starting to wobble and this was before my baby had even arrived.
Once Alex was born I was able to put the not-enough-love-to-give fears to bed. I loved him at once, my love for Leo only grew and I realised I was capable of seeing two little people as my whole world, not just one. Despite a relatively easy labour, breastfeeding was hard and the challenges to get Alex to latch started the cogs of anxiety twisting in circles in my stomach. I remember crying one night in the dark, he just wouldn’t feed. Oli was sleeping next to me and the whole house was silent except for my sobs and Alex’s wails for milk. We got there though, it was just really hard and already my feelings of inadequacy were beginning to brew inside.
Then came the guilt. Leo was used to going out most days: trips to the park, going to soft play, fun days out with all the trimmings. I was determined to keep this up, things had to stay the same, everything had to stay the same, for Leo. Three days after Alex was born we had a house full of family and we all ventured out to the park. I was exhausted but pushed past it, after all, Leo loved the park so to the park we must go, he can’t think the new baby in the house means we don’t want to do things with him anymore. I was congratulated by old ladies for being out so soon, I didn’t feel proud of myself though, my nipples were bleeding, I was bleeding and my eyes may as well have been bleeding I was so tired. Alex needed feeding and due to the latching on issues and the fear my mutilated nipples would terrify any passers by, I took Alex back to the car to feed him. Bam! Loneliness. It hit me hard as I sat in the passenger seat in the car, watching bloody milky dribble drip onto my baby’s chin as I curled my toes up in agony and cried through another feed.
Loneliness hit me a lot in those first few weeks. As I said, I was determined to make Leo feel as normal as possible so insisted Oli took him out as much as he could. They went to soft play one day and trick or treating another. While they were out bonding, I was at home feeling lonely and in pain and desperately worrying I wasn’t doing enough to bond with our new baby son. When Leo went back to play school and Oli’s paternity leave ended I felt lonelier still. We ventured to baby groups once or twice a week but most of the time I was at home on the sofa with a baby on my boob and no one to talk to. I got lonelier and lonelier and then sadder and sadder.
By the time Alex was a month old I was convinced he was trying to kill me through sleep deprivation, I was desperate for him to sleep more than a couple of hours in a row at night. With Leo home most afternoons I had very little time to rest in the day. Plus, I’d developed some kind of super wife complex and wanted to have the house perfectly tidy for when Oli got home but even basic cleaning was almost impossible and I felt so frustrated living in what felt like an actual rubbish tip. The weeks went on and I just got more tired, things got harder not easier. Although feeding became less of a challenge I still felt like I constantly had my baby stuck to me and the guilt was eating me from the inside out because I couldn’t be the Mum I wanted to be to Leo, the Mum I used to be when I could give him all my attention.
Lack of sleep can do some pretty hardcore damage to a person and, for me, sleep deprivation resulted in a weakening in the wall I had tried to build up around my anxiety. It happened the morning of Alex’s first round of immunisations, Leo also had his booster shots booked in for the same time too. I was terrified of seeing both my boys in pain, of having to console them both, of not knowing which one to tend to first or how I’d deal with all the screaming. I was anxious leaving for the appointment, we were running late and I was dreading it with every cell in my body. As we were leaving, I caught Alex’s tiny baby fingers between the stair wall and my arm. Oh, he screamed and screamed and his cries broke through the protective shield that was barely standing firm in my mind as it was. The anxiety washed through me, my heart raced, goosebumps prickled on my skin and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Bam! The intrusive thoughts arrived to join the onslaught: ‘I’m going to have a heart attack’, ‘I’m going to die and crush Alex as I fall to the ground’, ‘Leo’s going to see his Mum and baby brother die and be alone crying in the house for the next 8 hours until his dad gets home’.
Intrusive thoughts for me are extremely visual, so I didn’t just think those words you just read, I saw the scenes they describe in vivid clarity as though I were watching a film in the cinema. That day was just the start, once one intrusive thought was able to escape through, it was quickly followed by others, bringing all my worse nightmares to life when I was supposed to be living my dream: a life as a Mum with two gorgeous babies to love. Sometimes for absolutely no reason I’d see an image of Alex lying dead in a coffin in my minds eye, I’d physically feel the pain of losing him, I’d cry for a baby I was letting my mind trick me into thinking was dead when really he lay happily looking up at me in my arms. One night just before putting Leo and Alex to bed Oli and I had an argument, it was over something small and wasn’t really a big deal. As I was reading the bedtime story I heard a bang, immediately an intrusive thought burst through, an image of Oli laying dead and broken in the garden, he’d jumped off the roof because he couldn’t bare another moment living with me. I made it through the rest of the story with my heart in my throat and then let the tears fall from my eyes as I kissed Leo goodnight and scooped Alex up in my arms. I don’t know what the bang was but I can tell you it wasn’t Oli, he was fine. I, however, was anything but fine.
There were so many times in Alex’s first year that I felt like I wasn’t doing enough. I wasn’t doing enough for him, for Leo or for my husband. Looking back, I was nowhere near doing enough for myself but at the time my needs didn’t factor into the equation, I was a Mum and wife and I wasn’t doing either job very well. I was exhausted, physically and mentally and I spent so much time trapped in my own mind, held captive in a dark and scary place, that I struggled to focus on what was going on in the real world around me. This constant distraction meant I had to force any happiness into my days with Alex. I lived by the mantra ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ and would plaster smiles on my face, play with my baby and take him to baby classes when, in reality, all I wanted to do was put him in his mosses basket and let Leo watch CBeebies all day so I could crawl into bed and let the duvet swallow me up, shutting off my brain as I slept so I didn’t have to think these horrible thoughts for a second longer.
It was the intrusive thoughts that did the most damage. I’ve always been sleep safety conscious with my babies, fussing their blankets more than necessary and reading then reading again the safe sleeping guidelines to avoid SIDS. I was a breathing checker with Leo but not as much as I was with Alex, resting my hand on his chest hundreds of times a day to make sure he was still breathing. With Leo, I was just worried and wanted to be sure. With Alex, intrusive thoughts had shown me his cold blue body in his cot and me sobbing over him a innumerable amount of times, I wasn’t ‘just checking’ anymore, I had to check for I’d convinced myself if I didn’t then those thoughts would become my reality. The thoughts preyed on me in my most vulnerable state, I was so exhausted and was already concerned about my mothering of two abilities, just when I needed an inner cheerleader the most I found myself stuck with a tormenting demon running riot through my mind instead.
There was a day we went swimming, the four of us, and there was a big queue to get into the changing rooms. We were near the back of the line, standing on a tiled bridge looking down over the pools and slides below. I was excited to take Alex swimming for the first time but this happy family day will always be tarnished by the intrusive thoughts I had standing on that bridge. Alex falling from my arms and drowning in the water below, Alex falling from my arms, missing the water below and landing on the hard tiles instead, Oli jumping in to save Alex and Leo jumping over the opposite side and meeting the same watery fate as his brother. I was fine once we got in the pool but that wait for the changing room on the bridge managed to cause some intense damage. Those thoughts I had on the bridge left a cut so deep that (up until I started taking anti depressant medication) bridges became a massive anxiety trigger for me. Walking across bridges I’d hold Leo’s hand extra tight or I’d grip the handles on the pushchair until my knuckles turned white. Bridges would make my heart race, my breath catch and the intrusive thoughts would flow as fast and free as water from a tap quickly turned onto full.
I had strange reactions to these thoughts, if I had one while Oli and I were sitting on the sofa I’d squirm and wriggle in my seat. On the outside it probably looked like I was struggling to get comfortable, really I was trying to physically move myself away from those thoughts, from my brain, an impossible task if ever there was one. I scrunched up my face sometimes at the bad ones, feel goosebumps prickle my skin at the more gruesome ones and cry real tears and feel actual grief over the most heartbreaking ones. I thought I was going crazy, I genuinely thought I’d lost my mind. I didn’t know what was happening to me.
As Alex grew and became more sturdy and less terrifyingly breakable, my anxieties about his wellbeing began to ease, thus so did the intrusive thoughts. What happened though when I no longer looked at him and felt dread and fear? How did I navigate going from feeling almost permanently scared when my baby was with me to genuinely loving every moment of his company? Well, I felt guilty. Instead of feeling overjoyed to be starting to feel normal again, I was full of guilt that I hadn’t felt this happy from the start. One day we were at the beach, we’d had a beautiful family day out and all I felt when I looked at Alex was love rushing through me. It was like I was really seeing my son for the first time, no intrusive thoughts clouding my vision. I was seeing how amazing and wonderful he was, not a source of sadness at all, just a beautiful happy baby boy. But I felt bad, I felt guilty that I’d not felt this way up until that moment. It was like I’d somehow robbed this feeling from myself by being weak and letting the bad thoughts win, I was angry that if only I’d been stronger I’d have been able to feel this way about my baby since the moment he was born. Instead, the overjoyed feelings and overwhelming happiness came when he was already eating solid food, his limbs were longer and chubbier and he was so much more alert to the world around him. I felt cheated of so much happiness, of memories I didn’t get to make and the photos with the genuine smiles that were never taken of me and my baby.
To this day I still can’t look back on all of Alex’s baby photos, those early newborn ones are ok but the ones from the late November through to when Alex was about 6 or 7 months old I find too hard to even think about looking at. I just don’t want to take myself back to that place where I was so sad, so anxious and so full of guilt. I had no self belief or confidence in myself and I know that the me taking those pictures was a very lonely and sad person indeed, I just don’t want to remember fully what it was like being her. Similarly, I can’t go back and read my pregnancy updates I wrote when I was expecting Alex. Reading about how excited I was, how I thought everything was going to be fine, I can’t bare it. After experiencing what I experienced, all I feel now is extreme sorrow for the version of myself who wrote those posts for she had no idea what was coming. For the first year of Alex’s life I wrote monthly baby updates, I can’t read these either. I omitted any mention of my mental health from these updates, I ignored how I was feeling all together and instead focussed on Alex’s milestones and growth. It’s hard to look back on these posts because there’s such a key part of that first year with Alex missing. I totally #perfectlife the posts, I painted the best possible picture and failed to mention that although Alex was now rolling over I could probably count on one hand how many times I didn’t feel like crying when I looked at him that month. That happened a lot, looking at my baby and just wanting to cry. The tears weren’t because I didn’t love him or I didn’t want him, they were because I loved him so much and hated myself deeply for being sad when I should have been happy.
Things did get better for me, I only felt positivity towards my then almost one year old but, not wanting to quit, the intrusive thoughts changed their path and began to attack me from a different angle. I began to have regular thoughts of hurting myself, slashing my wrists with kitchen knives mostly. If I was especially tired these thoughts would intensify, I often found myself cringing away from sharp objects in the kitchen: knives, the jagged edges of the lid on an open can of beans, the exposed blades of a potato peeler. It was as though my brain was looking for new ways to torture me now I’d realised I was more than capable of looking after two children and although the thoughts were scary and felt real, just because I’d thought them didn’t mean they would happen. The thoughts about hurting myself confused me though and I was scared that they were my subconscious’ way of telling me everyone would be better off if I was dead. I was scared they meant that on some level I wanted to die.
These thoughts were the final straw, I got an appointment with my GP and got medication. I have been taking that medication for over a year now and it’s changed my life. No exaggeration here, those pills have completely given my brain a full reset and I am no longer plagued by all those terrible things that were able to wreak havoc over that first year with Alex. It does still hurt to look back, my heart aches for what could have been, there’s always remnants of guilt swimming around, occasionally coming up to the surface. I’m stronger now though, I can tell the guilt to go away, I can now be kinder myself, I can see that what happened wasn’t my fault. I wasn’t weak, mental illness can come after all us, the postnatal depression wasn’t my fault. All the times I looked at Alex and wanted to cry and the thoughts of seeing my children die were not my fault.
I’ve been given another chance, another chance to know happiness with a baby in my arms, another chance to live in that baby bubble and feel full of joy and love and all the good things. It won’t change what happened with Alex, it won’t mean I love him less than the new baby or Leo, it just might hopefully mean that something will slot into the wound that is so almost closed and this new baby can be the missing piece needed to heal me up completely. My baby girl is no replacement for Alex, she’s going to be another member of this family in her own rite, but I wish everyday for postnatal depression not to return so I can enjoy her in the all ways I wish I could have done with Alex. And if she is the missing piece to my complete recovery then maybe I’ll be able to look back more closely on Alex’s first year and feel happiness as I flick through his photos and look through his baby updates. Maybe, just maybe, being able to find happiness with a baby again will make me really truly see I wasn’t broken and a bad Mum when Alex was small, I was sick, poorly, mentally ill and I just needed some help and support.
I can’t predict the future, I might be unlucky and lightening might strike me down twice. If that is what waits ahead for me though, I’m ready for if. Postnatal depression was the most difficult thing I have ever been through but I did get through it. If I made it out the other side once, completely in love with the baby who’s arrival sparked the illness off in the first place, then I sure as hell can make it through it again. With all the love and happiness and complete absence of any negativity and anxiety I feel when I look at Alex now, this is all the reassurance I need to know that if the worst happens, everything will be ok in the end. I’m stronger now but I’m still praying everyday that that lightening bolt misses me and I get to live my dream with my three children, I’m praying everyday that the nightmare is really and truly over.
This post has been extremely cathartic for me, if you’ve made it all the way to here then I can’t thank you enough for reading my story. I just want to say, if you’re going through something at the moment, try writing it all down, gets those feeling out and you’ll be able to start to make sense of them. Writing about my mental health has been like therapy to me and although it was difficult to look back and reflect in order to write this post, I feel so much more positive and excited for the future now. I feel like putting these words out there has helped to soothe the pain that has been living inside me for so long.
If you feel like you may be suffering with post natal depression here is a list of resources and charities that can help and support you.
If you are feeling suicidal or need urgent help please ring 999 or speak to The Samaritans 116123
If you found this post useful or inspiring, you may also like to read the several other posts I have about post natal depression over in the mental health section of my blog.