As an ambassador for the mental health charity MIND in West Essex, I work with them to raise awareness of mental health issues and reduce the stigma associated with asking for help.
I have a very personal reason for wanting to do this. A reason that takes me back over six years to the very beginning of my journey to joy.
(This is a long post, my friends. You might want to grab a cuppa and settle in.)
If you’ve read my bio you’ll know that I started blogging as part of my therapy for Postnatal Depression. In fact, I’ve come to understand that it was probably the traumatic birth of our daughter and not just her prematurity or being isolated from friends and family while we lived in China as expats for four years, that was one of the main contributing factors to my depression.
Over time I blocked out a large part of my daughter’s early life, protecting myself.
But here I’m going to go back in my mind to those early dark days and piece together what I can. Not for closure or resolution but because it’s an important part of my journey. I hope that it helps to explain why removing the stigma around mental health issues is so important to me and I hope that it helps you if you’re feeling as lost and hopeless as I did. Please know that there is help available. That there is a way back.
Let’s start at the beginning…
On June 25th 2009 Michael Jackson died
I remember precisely where I was when I heard the news on CNN because I was lying in a hospital bed in Shanghai, just across the street from our apartment, willing my baby to grow.
Our baby girl had always been small for her dates, but our week 34 scan showed that her slow growth had slowed too much and somehow my amniotic fluid level had started to drop. Ten days later she’d gained no weight at all and the fluid had dropped again, this time down to just under 7cm. Our OBGYN admitted me immediately into hospital so that we could be monitored closely. I was put on an IV drip, paddles were strapped to my belly and I watched as a graph of our baby’s heartbeat spewed out on long sheets of paper, the nurses chatting in Mandarin around me. I caught a word every so often and tried to figure out what they were saying but it was too exhausting so in the end I let it wash over me. The OBGYN popped in later and confirmed that so far everything was ok but I’d have to stay in overnight.
As it turned out I didn’t go home until our baby was born two weeks later.
As well as breakfast, lunch and dinner the nurses started bringing me protein shakes three times a day, the kind a weight lifter drinks. I breathed in thirty minutes of oxygen every few hours, burning my nose and drying my throat. I was given three steroid injection to help strengthen her little lungs, preparing for the likelihood of an early c-section. Our OBGYN wanted to try and hold on until 37 weeks because there was no neo-natal ward at the expat hospital we were in and she didn’t want to have to transfer us to the local hospital unless it became absolutely necessary.
At a time when I should have been nesting at home it was all very scary and bright and real.
I listened to BBC Radio 2 by internet, the reassuring voices telling me the time at home, the weather, the news, anything to still my mind. My husband Stewart had joined me in the hospital, working from a desk in the corner of my room and going back to our apartment to sleep.
And all the time I had to eat, eat, eat in the hope that it would help our tiny baby to gain weight.
My weight went up to 11st 8lb. Hers didn’t budge an ounce.
This meant that my placenta wasn’t functioning properly and was starting to break down too early. At the same time I was reabsorbing amniotic fluid, leaving baby in a dangerous position. Guilt and anger at my own body flooded through me – why had it stopped nourishing and protecting our baby? Then the fear began to creep through my veins, after everything we’d been through to get this far, fertility treatment with day after day of drugs and injections, had fate finally caught up with me?
The days passed slowly and I had a scan every morning to check our little one’s weight and length. Seeing her bobbing about on the screen was a blessing that I looked forward to – just to know that she was still there, still alive, still moving. I began to obsess about fluid levels and heart rates, learning more than I ever wanted to know about the importance of every little ounce and bpm.
On the morning of 6 July 2009, I had my daily scan as usual. But this morning something was different. We could never understand what the technicians were saying to each other but this time our OBGYN didn’t translate for us. She just watched the monitor closely. A few minutes later she told us that our little baby girl’s breathing had started to slow, ever so slightly, and so she wanted to take her now. I would be having a c-section at 36 weeks in three hours time.
The birth wasn’t exactly as I’d planned it…
I remember that my initial reaction wasn’t fear, but excitement. I didn’t think too much about the process, the epidural, the operation at that moment. I didn’t even think about what having a premature baby would mean. After so long waiting at the hospital I just couldn’t wait to meet our little girl.
Nurses came to shave and gown me in preparation for the operation and at 1.50pm I was helped onto a gurney in my room. The husband held my hand and kissed me goodbye – he had to wait behind while I was wheeled through a maze of corridors by an orderly. Lying on my back looking at the ceiling I noticed the broken lights and ceiling tiles and thought again how different this probably all was to what most Mums-to-be experienced back at home.
We went up to the fourth floor of the hospital in a noisy goods lift alongside an elderly man in a wheelchair, just inches from my almost bare body. Finally I was wheeled into a large white room and transferred to another table for my epidural. Our OBGYN was there waiting for me, all prepared in her operating gown. The technician barked in Mandarin that I needed to lie on my side and stay completely still. The table was uncomfortable and I felt like a beached whale. Michelle told me that I would feel a little sting from the injection to numb the area before the epidural was done. Thinking back I can’t isolate the two things in my mind – all I can remember is the pain as the needle went in. And came out. And went in again. I kept thinking that this didn’t seem right. I don’t know how many times they tried to do the epidural but I do remember Michelle holding my hand so tightly and telling me to try and stay calm. I know now that it took 45 minutes.
Eventually, they lay me on my back and I started to feel my legs go numb. I was wheeled into another room, the operating theatre, where thankfully Stewart was waiting for me. By this point I was scared. The curtain was put up between us and the medical team and Stewart held my hand. I looked into his face with tears in my eyes.
I didn’t feel the incision. But we both heard the rush of water as it escaped out of me and hit the floor.
Then I started to feel again. Hands inside me, hands tugging, pulling. The pain started as a dull ache but grew quickly. Tears were running down my face and Stewart told the nurses that I could feel everything, that I was in pain. But the OBGYN said that it was too late, she had to take our baby now.
I couldn’t believe this was happening. Was she ok? Was everything alright? I didn’t care about anything else as long as our baby was safe but the pain kept coming in waves.
And so my amazing husband and I went through a visualisation technique that we’d practised in case we’d been lucky enough to have a natural birth. He took me to our favourite skiing mountain at Mont Tremblant in Quebec. He made me feel the cold air on my skin, showed me the beautiful blue sky. He led me skiing down the mountain as he had done countless times for real and I focussed every ounce of my being on that ski run.
I know now that what I couldn’t see, what he could see as he lifted his head to tell Michelle what I was feeling, was our doctor kneeling on the operating table, her hands in my belly up to her elbow, wrenching our baby out of my body. And I’m all the more grateful for his cool head.
And then she was out. Our beautiful little baby girl, just 66oz, joined us in the world. Through the blur of tears I wanted to see her, to hold her but the nurses put her in an incubator before I had the chance.
We agreed that Daddy should go to be with her. Then… nothing.
I woke up out of a morphine-induced sleep back in our room. I had desperately wanted to do skin-to-skin and breastfeed from the start but as I looked over I could see Michelle sitting on the sofa feeding our baby girl her first milk from a bottle, showing Daddy what to do.
She was so tiny, so fragile, it broke my heart.
Please don’t think that I feel any ill-will towards the nurses and doctors in China. On the contrary without their help we wouldn’t have had our miracle. They did what needed to be done. It wasn’t the fairytale birth that I’d planned for, hoped for, but after five years we finally had our baby girl.
The first few days were so hard…
The first few days after the birth were as traumatic as the birth itself.
Our little girl was so tiny that she struggled to feed well. And without the support of a health visitor or midwife visiting me at home I had no idea that she wasn’t gaining the right amount of weight. When I finally took her back to the hospital for a check-up they said she was malnourished and I was barked at for not feeding her properly. I was doing the best I could but it wasn’t enough.
When the paediatrician left the room I sobbed hysterically in my own Mother’s arms. We were given a strict regime of breastfeeding every two hours round the clock and I was told to pump after every feed. Pretty soon I was mentally and physically exhausted.
On top of this, our daughter did not sleep at night. She cried and cried as we walked her up and down the apartment for hours at a time, thinking she had colic. We emptied bottle after bottle of Infacol, syringing it into her little mouth, hoping it would help. I realise now that she was probably just hungry, unable to take in enough of the nourishment that her tiny body needed because she was just too small.
Thankfully the strict regime worked and she gradually started to gain weight. I dozed between feeds either on a chair or the cushioned window seat in the nursery so that the husband could get the sleep he needed to go to work. I almost forgot what it felt like to sleep in a bed. Slowly time passed but after a few weeks my Mother had to go back to the UK and the lack of sleep and support and constant stress of her weight gain left me ragged and withdrawn.
Then the obsession began…
I obsessed about my milk and wrote down the length of each feed, timing them to the minute and keeping a detailed log. From the elation of finally seeing our beautiful little girl in my arms after waiting and trying for SO long, I began to feel no emotion towards her at all. I knew that I should be happy but I felt numb and ungrateful. I was so tired but I couldn’t sleep. It was a struggle to even smile. I started to separate myself from my expat friends because I felt guilty seeing how happy they were when I felt so empty. Thoughts started to pass through my head. Bad thoughts. Thoughts that I can’t even bear to put into words here.
It was my husband who came back from a business trip and realised I needed help. And thankfully, after a distraught and tearful consultation with a psychologist, I was diagnosed with Postnatal Depression. She told me the awful thoughts I was having were normal after the trauma that I’d been through. She offered me anti-depressants but I didn’t feel they weren’t right for me so we turned first to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and she taught me coping strategies that I could use when the black days came.
One of them was writing.
I’d always loved to write and through it, I started to find a way back to me. A way to cope. A release through creativity.
I wrote on the good days, I wrote on the bad days. I wrote when I wanted to cry and scream. I wrote when it became too much and I wanted to run away.
Over time it got easier, day by day, week by week, month by month. I found myself again, I learned to cope, life became brighter and the fog lifted.
Seventeen months after the birth of our daughter my first website was born. Six years later and I’m here sharing the lessons I’ve learned, moving away from PND and the habit of negativity in the hope that it helps others to start their own journey to joy.
Do you feel like this?
Thankfully with a lot of support I found my way through the fog of Postnatal Depression.
But you don’t have to have had a traumatic birth to feel the way I did. Postnatal Depression affects 1 in 10 women within a year of giving birth (and 1 in 25 new Fathers too).
These are some of the symptoms of PND. Please, please, if you recognise any of these symptoms in yourself (or someone close to you) get in touch with your doctor, your health visitor, your family or one of the organisations listed below and ask for help.
There is NO shame in it, there is a way out of the fog, a way back to you.
- Tearfulness, weeping frequently
- Panic attacks & anxiety
- Being unable to sleep or feeling exhausted even when you have had sleep
- Flashbacks to your labour & birth
- Feeling physically ill, and physical symptoms such as chest pain, headaches, dizziness
- Constant worry over your own health or that of your child/children
- Worries over cot death
- Not feeling any emotion to your baby
- Obsessive thoughts or repetitive chanting thoughts or voices
- Thoughts that you may harm your child or a member of your family either accidentally or deliberately, most mums with PND DO NOT harm their children
- Feelings of being overwhelmed
- Many women describe feeling in a deep pit or suffocating feeling
- Worries over everyday objects that could cause harm to yourself or your child – e.g knives, stairs, even cars or buses
- Self harm
- Feeling numb & lack of emotion
- Putting on a brave face to hide how you feel
- Feeling like a failure and a “bad Mother”
- Feeling of wanting to escape and that your family would be better off without you
- Suicidal thoughts and feelings
Organisations you can contact for help and support
In the UK: The Samaritans, Tommys, MIND (and if you live in Essex; MIND in West Essex), Pandas Foundation
In the US: Postpartum Support International, Postpartum Progress (includes a list of organisations by state)
Elsewhere: Postpartum Progress has a list of organisations covering South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and the UK