Why I write about maternal mental health in my novels – part 4

In Maternal Mental Health Matters Awareness Week, I’m sharing something I wrote leading up to publication of The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood, where I talk about my own mental health in the first days and weeks of motherhood, and why I frequently address this topic in my fiction. It’s too long for one post, so I’ve split it into four, and this is the fourth and final post (scroll down for parts one, two and three) 

Moving from psychosis to depression

After breaking down in front of the health visitor, I was diagnosed with PND, but I was still breastfeeding so I didn’t want to take anti-depressants, and by that time, the really scary symptoms had gone anyway. My GP was wonderful, and when I told her how frequently Emma was waking, she said, ‘The first thing we need to do is to get you a good night’s sleep.’ She prescribed something to help Emma sleep for longer. I’m sure this would be frowned upon today, but it was a turning point for me. That night, Emma slept for six hours, and when I woke I leapt out of bed and rushed to her room, convinced she must have died in the night!

When my son was born two years later, I had a brief resurgence of the PND, and I became paranoid about nuclear war again, but I didn’t have those other symptoms that made me fear I was losing my mind. There are very few photographs of me as a new mother, and I can’t remember why – maybe I just didn’t want to be seen.

Two years later when my son was born, I had PND for a few months, but it was nothing compared with what happened the first time.

Post-natal mental health issues are still not talked about enough, and back then they were barely talked about at all, which is probably why I’d never even heard of postpartum psychosis. I was vaguely aware of postnatal depression, but I knew little about it and felt slightly ashamed when I was diagnosed – other women had ‘baby blues‘ and got over it within a few days, so why was I so weak? I was embarrassed. I told no one except my sister and my husband, and ten years later, he tried to use it against me during our divorce, bringing it up as ‘evidence’ that the reason I’d taken the children and left him was that I was ‘mad’ (I left because of emotional abuse).

Trying to raise awareness

Much later still, I was happily remarried and making a new life. I trained as a magazine journalist, specialising in health and parenting and contributing regularly to women’s magazines, and the parenting and baby mags. I placed features on many different topics, but I couldn’t get anyone to take a piece on postnatal depression. It was important, I argued, to raise awareness. If new parents and their families recognised the symptoms of PND and the circumstances that might lead to it, there would be more chance of the mums receiving support and treatment.

A common response was, ‘we don’t want to frighten new mums’. I understood that, but it was my contention that if women were more prepared for the possibility that the first weeks of motherhood may not be as joyous as they’d been led to expect, they might actually feel less frightened by what was happening to them. I believed – still believe now – that the enormity of childbirth and new motherhood is frequently underestimated. Not only does your body go through a major trauma, often resulting in minor or even serious injury, but there is also a major emotional upheaval and a dramatic change in lifestyle.

Back in the 80s when I gave birth, and even in the early 2000s when I was in journalism, the baby books and magazines didn’t prepare women for any of this. The mum and baby shots you’d find in their pages were likely to make you feel inadequate and guilty. In those first weeks I barely had the energy to shower, let alone do my hair and makeup. The mums and babies in the photos were smiling, but my baby seemed to cry all the time and I was too tired to smile.

How different are things today?

I often wonder what would have happened if I’d given birth in the age of the Internet and social media. Maybe I would have Googled ‘hallucinations’ or ‘I can’t sleep because I’m scared my baby might die’ and found that I wasn’t the only one. Maybe things would have been easier if I could have chatted online with another mum at four in the morning when my baby wouldn’t stop crying and I was on my knees through lack of sleep. As it was, my best friend, who also had a young baby, lived too far away for me to get to easily. We’d talk on the phone, but during the day when things didn’t seem so bad. Today, I’m guessing I would go on social media in the middle of the night to see who else was up, to compare notes and understand that I wasn’t alone.

Or maybe it would have been just as bad. Maybe Facebook would have shown me even more photos of perfect mothers and smiling babies than the magazines did. I’ve heard so many young mums today saying their friends seem to cope better than they do. Is it more likely to make you feel inadequate if the perfect mothers in the photos are your friends? Maybe you’re even less likely to confide in them if they’re regularly posting photographic evidence of their maternal competence.

What if, behind those Facebook posts, some of those mums are crying and desperate but think they’re the only ones?

Spread the word!

I truly think we can go some way towards improving the situation for new parents by talking more about the possibility that things won’t be as wonderful as they may have hoped, at least, not for the first few weeks. Both parents may struggle to cope with sleep deprivation and the change in lifestyle. New mothers may even develop a postnatal mental illness which may be mild, or could be severe.

I don’t understand why it’s such a taboo, because talking about it doesn’t make it happen. It’s so important to recognise the possibility, and if you spot the symptoms, to get help, whether it’s for yourself, or for someone else.

I hope you’ve found these posts interesting and even helpful. I also hope you’ll read my latest novel, The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood which, while inspired and informed by my own experience, is a fictional story about people who never existed. Maybe stories are one more way we can make it easier to talk about these issues.

The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood

The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood

To discover more about Postpartum Psychosis and how to get help, contact  Action on Postpartum Psychosis (APP)  

 

Why I write about maternal mental health in my novels – part 3

In Maternal Mental Health Matters Awareness Week, I’m sharing something I wrote leading up to publication of The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood, where I talk about my own mental health in the first days and weeks of motherhood, and why I frequently address this topic in my fiction. It’s too long for one post, so I’ve split it into four, and this is the third post (scroll down for parts one and two) 

Lack of sleep

I wasn’t prepared for the level of sleep deprivation that comes with a new baby. When people talked about ‘sleepless nights’ it was with an almost cheery tone. It’s still the same – they see a newborn, then grin widely and say, ‘bet you’re having a few sleepless nights!’ And you’re supposed to smile and nod in return. No-one told me I’d end up crying with tiredness. No-one warned me that when the baby finally slept I would suddenly become sharply alert and completely unable to sleep, terrified that she would die while I slept, or be carried off somewhere by I knew not what or who.

Any ability to concentrate that I had left was soon smashed by a cacophony in my head – snatches of music and voices, some singing, some talking, as though several televisions were on at the same time, all on different channels, all running together in my brain. It was as though my mind was never, ever at rest.

Isolation and the company of crows

With my then husband working nights and sleeping during the day, I spent many hours alone. I didn’t have friends living nearby, and I didn’t drive, so it would often be days before I saw anyone other than my husband, who offered very little support. I spent a lot of time pacing up and down, jiggling my crying daughter on my shoulder and looking out at the wooded area behind our garden, watching and hearing the crows as they came and went. They felt like company. For me, there will always be a strong association between crows and early motherhood, which is one of the reasons I use them to illustrate Leah’s state of mind in The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood.  

The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood

The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood

Delusional thinking and paranoia

It was at about this point that I began to imagine that my baby daughter was judging me. She slept so little that she and I inhabited a separate night-time world in which it felt like we were the only people awake, and there was something about the way she would fix her eyes on mine that started to unnerve me. There was a wisdom in her eyes, a knowingness. It was as though she was assessing my competence as a mother and finding it wanting. I became afraid that I wouldn’t be allowed to keep her, that ‘they‘ would come and take her back – don’t ask me who ‘they’ were, because I’ve no idea. This wasn’t like the fear I had later, that social services might take her away because it was clear I wasn’t coping like the women I saw in the magazines, the ones who were all smiling and capable. This was the strange idea that she had been ‘sent’ to me by some indefinable source and that she might report back to them that I was making a pig’s ear of caring for her, and that ‘they’ would therefore take her back.

I remember also that my sensory perception became skewed. Noises seemed extra-loud and colours brighter than they should be. My perception of the size of things went wrong, too. It wasn’t just that they looked bigger than they were, it was as if I could sense their density and bulk, and it was massively out of proportion. It was worse at night when I was at my most tired. I’d look at the lamp, say, or the pillow, and I’d feel overwhelmed, almost engulfed by its apparent hugeness. It was terrifying.

I’m not sure how long this went on for, but certainly a few weeks, possibly months. I didn’t tell anyone, and no-one noticed except my sister, but she was only 19 and didn’t know what to do. But gradually, I stopped seeing bodies in the trees and I had fewer nightmares. The paranoia lasted longer, and it was a long time before I was able to stop thinking about scenarios in which something happened to my baby – everything from illness to accidents to kidnapping. I also feared there would be a nuclear war any day, and that I’d be killed and Emma would be left unprotected in a post-apocalyptic world. My mind was like a horror film.

The beginnings of recovery

As the weirdness slowly faded, it was replaced by more common symptoms of depression. I was tearful and anxious, I felt down all the time, and guilty for bringing a child into such a terrible world. But things were less scary. My stitches healed slowly – it was eight months before I could have sex again but Dr Snooker-fan had done a good job with the needle so there were no long-lasting problems. I didn’t recognise my depression, though, and it was only much later when a new health visitor asked me how I was coping that I broke down and sobbed for about fifteen minutes.

Final post tomorrow.

 

Why I write about maternal mental health in my novels – part 1

 

This week, 29 April – 3 May, is Maternal Mental Health Matters Awareness Week. If you’ve read my latest novel, The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood, you’ll know that I have a special interest in maternal mental health. My kids are in their 30s now, but I went through a tough time during those first weeks of motherhood, especially after my first child was born. I was so terrified that my baby would be taken away if anyone suspected I wasn’t coping that I didn’t tell anyone what I was going through, and it was only when I interviewed a perinatal psychiatrist as part of my research for this book that it became clear that I’d suffered from postpartum psychosis, albeit in relatively mild form.

My memories of those early weeks are still painfully vivid. Not only of crippling exhaustion, but of nightmares, fleeting hallucinations, paranoid anxiety and delusional thinking. I was desperate for sleep, yet unable to give into it because I was terrified my daughter would die while I slept. I wasn’t sure if was going mad or if I was simply exhausted, but I knew my ability to cope was at fault. After all, other women managed…

Me with Emma the day after she was born

The experience has haunted me ever since, and if you’re one of my regular readers, you will know that all my books touch on postnatal depression or the difficulties of early motherhood in some form. But my most recent novel, The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood, is perhaps the book I’ve been wanting to write ever since I became a mother, and as this is Maternal Mental Health Matters Awareness Week, I thought I might share my own experience and talk a little about how I came to write  the novel. There’s too much to say in one blog post, so I’m going to split it into four consecutive posts.

Cornelia Blackwood started as a short story called When the Bough Breaks around fifteen years ago. I was working as a magazine journalist and I’d been trying to to convince the magazines I wrote for regularly that they should run something on postnatal depression, or perhaps on the effects of sleep deprivation and lifestyle change on new mothers. They weren’t interested, so I thought I’d try exploring it in fiction. The short story worked well, but I wanted to go deeper with a novel, and this novel is perhaps the closest I’ve come to saying what I want to say about how, for some women, the experience of early motherhood can be difficult, exhausting, frightening, and traumatic. In some cases, that manifests as postnatal depression or even psychosis. For many women, the glowing and serene new mums that smile out from the pages of the baby magazines represent their own experience, and for them, I am truly happy.

But for some women – more than you may think – new motherhood is not a rose-tinted time that glows brightly in the memory, rather it is dark and frightening and bathed in shadows.

This is post one of four, so tomorrow, I’ll talk more about how it was for me in those first few weeks. (You’ll need to scroll up for part two!)