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Written in 2008
A few weeks ago, it was my son’s fifth birthday. Amidst the excitement of organising a party and buying presents, a familiar and unwelcome anxiety began to creep into my mind. My happiness at seeing my gorgeous boy grow up into a smiling, blue-eyed, intelligent lad, was mixed with fear. For this year, as with each year since Joe’s birth, the anniversary of the event that triggered a terrifying illness becomes increasingly hard to face.
In July 2002, three weeks before my due date, my waters broke. Despite having fully expected my first baby to be born some time after his expected date of arrival, I was not unduly concerned. In fact, I felt surprisingly calm. I called my husband and the hospital and ran myself a bath. Later, at the hospital, the labour was progressing slowly. Still, I was not panicked, even though I was left by myself all night, without being monitored. My husband had been sent home by the midwife, as she did not expect the baby to arrive for many hours. So, in the darkness of the labour ward, I lay, unsuccessfully trying to sleep through the contractions. At one point, I asked for an injection of diamorphine, a drug which made me feel woozy and high but which did not seem to take the edge of the pain.
By the time my husband arrived at nine o’clock in the morning, my labour had taken a worrying turn. I had a high temperature, my pulse was abnormally fast and I was vomiting. Worse, my baby had stopped kicking. Still, I just felt spaced out and detached from the situation. I was wheeled down to the delivery ward, where it was decided that the baby was distressed and I needed an emergency caesarian section.
The moments between hearing my baby’s heartbeat slow and falter on the monitor and the general anaesthetic taking hold, were the most petrifying I have known. My last conscious memory before the operation, before sinking into unconsciousness, is of silently praying that my baby would survive.
When I woke up, I was in the recovery ward. In the distance – or where they close by? I felt as though I was looking up at the light from the bottom of a well – nurses busied themselves. They told me I had given birth to a boy and that he was in the Special Care Baby Unit (SCBU) because he had been a bit sluggish after the birth.
I lay there, feeling very strange indeed. I had gone to sleep with a pregnant bump. Now, I was awake, but there was no bump and no baby. Had I really given birth? Had this really happened?
I was taken, on a trolley, to the maternity ward, where my husband was waiting. I asked to see my baby but was told this was impossible as I was not able to be moved to SCBU and Joe was not able to come down to my ward. Looking back, I think it was at this point that my mind began to fall apart.
I lay on the bed and was shown a blurred polaroid of my child. It was hard to make out anything other than a reddish face and the rest of the photograph was a bundle of blankets. I asked my husband, Tom, what the baby was like. He smiled and told me that our son was beautiful. My midwife arrived and was full of smiles. I felt nothing. I did not believe I had ever had a baby and didn’t know why these people were playing along with the idea that I had.
Around me, in the ward, there were only shadows and airlessness. There were three other beds. In each bed was a lump. The lumps were snoring. Beside the beds were what looked like plastic fish tanks with new-born babies in them. The babies grizzled and cried and their mothers stirred to feed them. Mine was the only bed without a fish tank or a baby – obviously, this was because I had not had a baby.
Suddenly, a bassinet was wheeled in on a trolley. I was told it contained my son and that I was allowed to hold him for a few moments.
I was passed a bundle of blue knitwear. I looked into the child’s face. I thought that I had never seen anything so beautiful. However, I also knew, with total certainty, that this was not my baby. For a start, he was wearing strange clothes. Where were the sleep suits and cardigans I had packed in my bag? The midwife told me that it was hospital policy babies in SCBU to wear clothes provided by the ward, but no one had thought to warn me of this.
I couldn’t even tell if the baby was breathing. Was he dead? Was he dying? Was he a doll? This was the first seed of fear that led me to believe, for the first year of his life, that Joe was about to suddenly die. In my mind, again and again, I planned his funeral and wondered how I would cope with such a loss.
My pregnancy had been extremely stressful, preceded as it was by four miscarriages. In many ways, I think that, during my fifth pregnancy, I mentally prepared myself for another loss more than I prepared myself for a new baby. So I think that the miscarriages, along with the traumatic birth and a history of severe depression, were all triggers for my postnatal illness.
In my twenties, I became very ill with depression and spent several weeks in hospital. However, I made a good recovery and, until having a baby, I had been free of depression.
Now, here I was, holding this bundle of woolly clothes with a baby inside them. I looked at the child again. Why did his eyes not open and look at me? It was all very eerie. Dutifully, remembering what my books had said about the importance of putting your baby to your skin as soon as it is born, I undid my nightie and held the baby’s cheek to my breast. He did not stir and nothing stirred in me. Who was this baby and where was its mother?
The midwife and Tom looked at me, tears of joy in their eyes. I felt numb. Why were they humouring me? I handed the baby back and sank into an exhausted sleep.
The next day, I woke up, having slept badly. All night, I heard babies crying but woke to emptiness. I saw a woman I recognised from my ante natal class. She was breast-feeding her new baby. I wanted to ask her if her baby was real or just a pretend one like mine was.
I was still attached to a multitude of tubes. A morphine drip fed me pain relief, a catheter lay between my legs, two other drips provided antibiotics and hydration. Eventually, two nurses came and removed all the drips and tubes. I felt like a moored ship being set free on the water. I looked around me. Morning light had lifted the shadows out of the place.
My husband arrived and we went up to SCBU. I felt no physical sensation at all, even my wound did not ache. It was like my nerve endings were dead.
In the SCBU, tiny babies, born too soon, lay motionless in incubators. Their faces were obscured by hats and tubes, monitors ticked and pipped. Their little hands were curled like the claws of a rodent. Their stillness was terrible because it was so like death.
Tom led me to where Joe lay, fast asleep, in his cot. I picked him up and held him. I felt fascination with this tiny person. He had his father’s eyes and my nose. With shock, I suddenly understood that he was, in fact, my child. However, for many months afterwards, I was still regularly visited by the fear that he was, in fact, not really my child at all. Today, however, was a good start and my spirits soared.
At the same time, a numbness and paranoia stole into me. Meekly, I submitted to the nurse’s demands that I start to express my milk. Joe had a feeding tube, as he was not yet able to suck. The breast pump was horrifying. It hurt to use and was both humiliating and mechanical. The sight of yellowish colustrum (the fluid produced before the milk fully comes in) squirting into the bulb of the pump was both weird and repellent.
I began to fear that the nurses were making notes about me. I worried they thought I was a failure as a mother. They were brisk and bossy, as they undoubtedly have to be, given the sensitive and emotional nature of their work. I was desperate to please them, to make them see that I was doing well. One day, I accidentally gave Joe too much milk down his feeding tube. I shook and shook as I heard the nurses discussing it. I was sure they were laughing at me.
At no point did anyone ask how I was feeling or coping. One nurse even made jokes about how I would ‘go peculiar’ when my milk came in. She didn’t mean to be insensitive, but I wanted to crumble into dust at her words.
One afternoon, after feeding Joe, I went into the parents’ kitchen in the Special Care Baby Unit. There was a lady there, one of the other mums, sitting with tears rolling down her cheeks. I didn’t know what to do, so I just left her. To this day, I wish I had spoken to her but I didn’t know what to do. There was a real lack of emotional support in the unit. I remember being told off by one of the nurses for carrying Joe through to the nurses station after he’d choked on his milk. I asked what I should have done and she told me I should have wheeled him through in his crib. I was amazed. I had just had major abdominal surgery and had been told not to carry or push anything and she was expecting me to wheel through a hugely heavy trolley with a choking baby in it?
Eventually, Joe was well enough to stay in the ward with me. The ward was an unnerving environment and we were both unsettled by it. Visitors came and went, bearing flowers and cards. One day, the ward was full of people and very noisy. Although the rule was that only two visitors attended each mother, some people flouted this and there were often over a dozen visitors per bed. It was nearly August and the baking airlessness of the hospital were unbearable. I resented the awkward, stooping attendance and intrusive stares of the families who came to visit. I didn’t want them to see me breast-feeding my baby or have them anywhere near me. Eventually, a nurse came through and ordered extra visitors to leave. She opened all the windows and pulled the curtains back from all the beds. One woman had taken the electric fan on the ward into her area and complained at the nurse moving it so we could all benefit from it. I was stunned at the woman’s selfishness and longed to go home, back to my own bed.
The days went by. Time had lost all meaning. Joe spent most of the night screaming and the feeding was becoming harder, not easier, as he got hungrier. I felt really odd. I hadn’t washed or changed my clothes for several days.
One morning, a nurse came to me and told me I should get dressed and go for a walk. I looked at her in horror – was she mad? Obediently, I took off my filthy hospital gown and bathed. In the white, echoing bathroom, I gazed at the neat, sewn-up mouth of my operation scar and my flabby, empty stomach. I closed my eyes and floated.
I got dried and dressed in normal clothes and then remembered I only had a sweaty pair of slippers to wear on my feet. The slippers were stinking and I dropped them in the bin. Barefoot, I left the hospital and stood in the sun. I pressed the sole of my foot onto the pavement, hoping to feel something that would convince me I was real. I looked up at the blue sky and the shimmering sun. Light seemed to collide with darkness and explode in the sky. Perhaps I should lie on the tarmac and levitate into the heavens.
I went back into the ward. A peculiar lightness came over me. The drabness and sluggishness left me. My spirits soared into euphoria. I stood in the middle of the ward and addressed the other mothers. I felt like a stand-up comedian, making jokes about my baby screaming all night. The other women just looked at me oddly and with some irritation, but I barely noticed.
I felt all powerful, a mother goddess to my feeding child. Looking back, this was my first serious manic episode and it swept me away with its awful power.
My emotions swung madly – was this just hormonal or something more sinister? It didn’t occur to me to wonder. The lady in the bed next to me was attached to a blood transfusion drip. Her face was pale and ghostlike. She was having problems feeding her baby and, as he slept, she just stared into space. I tried to talk to her and make friends with her, but she did not respond. I felt tears bubble up inside me.
One day, another mother was wheeled into the ward with her baby. Soon afterwards, a doctor arrived and told her that her baby’s blood sugar was low and the new-born must be taken into SCBU straight away. My heart swelled with pity for her as she started to sob. I knew I must help her – only I could heal her sorrow. I approached her bed and started speaking, very quickly indeed, about what had happened with Joe. I told her I would always be there to help her. The woman smiled and thanked me. I knew I had saved her.
Quickly, this manic euphoria dissipated and I found myself crying under my blankets again. Without warning, a doctor arrived to discharge me. Tom came to pick me and Joe up. We left the place, to start our new lives as parents. It would be strange not to have nurse and doctors around to help, but I was just glad to leave.
There were things that bothered me about the ward. For a start, there were bloodstains all over the place – on the walls, on the curtain around my bed – and the loos stank. I worried about Joe and I getting ill. The heat was unbelievable and there was no privacy.
The first few days at home were dreadful. Tom had used up all of his paternity leave whilst I was still in hospital and had to return to work, leaving me with the baby. At night, Joe barely slept more than ten minutes at a time and the breast-feeding was not progressing well at all. I dreaded each feed and could hardly stand to be near my own child as I felt he was dictating everything in my life.
My moods were still going up and down, but most of the time I was depressed and despairing. To make matters worse, my community midwife, who would normally have visited me after the birth, was away. A series of about six different locum midwifes visited and their advice was confusingly conflicting.
One weird thing I remember about this time is that one particular midwife visited me two or three times but I never recognised her. Each time she visited, I introduced myself and told her my story. Now, I wonder why my obvious confusion and difficult grasp on normality didn’t worry her.
This midwife was not very friendly. In fact, her manner was quite hostile and patronising. She asked me, on her first visit, why I was still seeing a midwife when my baby was over ten day sold. It was clear that she hadn’t bothered to read my notes. She dismissed my concerns over the breast-feeding and the sleeping. On one visit, she looked disdainfully down at the sofa I was sitting on and told me that it was covered in dog hair and my baby might develop sensitivities. Now, I have two dogs but I hoover my house every day and scientists have said for a long time that exposure to pets actually helps a baby’s immune system, but this woman’s words crushed me and I felt even more of a failure.
One night, having not slept properly for days, I became suicidal. I looked at the screaming baby in my arms and thought about smothering him. Anything to stop that screaming. Nothing stopped his distress and I felt I was unable to help my own child. I looked at the open window and wondered how it would feel to throw him out. I looked at the telephone and thought about who I could call to have him taken away.
Voices yammered in my head, telling me I was a failure. I knew it was my own thoughts tormented me, but I had no peace of mind at all.
I told my husband, with no emotion in my voice, that I was going to drown myself in the nearby river. With a look of total panic, he told me to go to bed and sleep. For the next few months, Tom did the bulk of the night feeds. I felt terribly guilty, but sleep, to me, was like water is to a man dying of thirst.
I felt such a failure. This wasn’t how I planned it. I’d wanted a baby so much. It wasn’t fair. I wanted to be a mother, but now I was a mental case, a suicide risk.
The next day, a new midwife visited me and realised instantly that I was ill. With her help, I made the decision to feed Joe formula through a bottle. That decision changed my life. Although I felt guilty about stopping the breast-feeding, as well as a sad sense of loss, Joe fed much better and seemed more contented. He put on weight and slept better. I know longer dreaded each feed and my poor, blistered nipples healed and no longer hurt.
I was referred to a psychiatrist who quickly diagnosed postnatal depression. She was a lovely person and reassured me that I was sane but I had an illness that could be treated and cured. I still had a problem with my moods swinging from spaced-out euphoria to depression and, eventually, I was diagnosed with a mild bipolar disorder. With the help of therapy and medicine, I became better. It took me a long while to recover and Joe’s birthday is still a mixture of joy and fear, but I truly believe I have finally conquered postnatal illness. I will be on medicine for the rest of my life, but it is a tiny price for a healthy mind. I love being a mum now and I am so lucky to have a supportive husband, family and excellent medical care.