It's #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek so - with his permission - I'm sharing this picture of me aged 21 with my then 1 month old son. I'd had a very problematic pregnancy where doctors, midwives, obstetricians and specialists had all advised me not to get too attached, or keep my hopes up, they described it as a "threatened" pregnancy that would almost definitely not result in a healthy, timely birth. We went to antenatal classes designed for parents experiencing or expecting issues which included trips to the neonatal intensive care unit where the staff explained all the equipment that might be used on the baby, and the maternity unit where the staff explained all the equipment that might be used on me.
I felt very isolated as other than my husband, I didnt think anyone could understand the tension of what we were going through. Ironically throughout that time the medical professionals kept stressing how important it was to relax! Our parents were very pragmatic about it all. We were so young that only one or two of our friends had had babies and they'd had straightforward pregnancies and deliveries so we felt uncomfortable sharing our worries with them. At one point the consultant put me on a very mild dose of an antidepressant, mainly to act as a muscle relaxant, to try and alleviate some of the medical issues. Unfortunately I had a terrible reaction to the drugs and experienced hallucinations and incredibly powerful waves of anxiety and paranoia so after a couple of weeks they had to stop the treatment.
To everyone's amazement and relief, our son was born only 3 weeks early, after a fast but normal delivery, and seemed absolutely fine. They kept me in hospital for a couple of days because of my history. The day after the baby arrived, I saw in his notes that the paediatrician had written that he had a slight heart murmur and I went into an absolute meltdown. I felt like I had caused a problem which had somehow damaged him. I felt like we were being punished for some reason. One of the midwives sat with me for hours and calmly explained that the heart murmur was common in babies born slightly early and it would most likely go away within a day or two. She was right and by the time we left hospital, it was fine. He was fine. I wasn't fine.
Somehow, they had done everything they could to prepare me for an ill or disabled baby but not for a healthy baby.
I found the when experience profoundly shocking and once I was home with my new son, I secretly waited for him to die. We were too lucky. He wasn't meant to be survive. I couldn't leave him alone for a single second in case it was his last. I was responsible for this. So, from being an occasional insomniac, I stopped sleeping altogether and stayed on guard. I'd go to bed at the same time as my husband and as soon as he fell asleep I would resume my sentry position by the cot and make sure the baby was breathing. I'd occasionally prod him or tickle his face with a tissue if I wasn't sure. I'd sometimes hold a mirror to his nose to double check because I didnt trust my own eyes watching the rise and fall of his chest. If he moved I was convinced it was because he was suffocating. I spent a lot of time phoning parent helplines with questions like, "If my baby is sleeping and turns his head will he stop breathing?" They were very patient. When he was awake I was slightly calmer but constantly on edge and didn't leave him alone for a second.
Throughout this time, I maintained a bubbly, cheerful demeanor to other people. Friends and family members always commented on how fantastically I was managing. Health visitors complimented me on how well looked after my baby was. I looked exhausted but ALL new mums look exhausted. The big thing is, and this is my point, no one ever asked me how I was. Everyone told me how I was. No one asked. There was no opening to say "not coping, actually." With my logical mind I know that I could have approached any number of people and had a sympathetic, understanding response but I wasn't in a mental place where I was able to initiate that conversation. And every day that passed with a healthy little baby boy felt like a stolen day as I waited for the inevitable tragic outcome that I deserved.
After a few months I felt myself spiralling and some innate sense of self preservation somehow pushed me to speak to my
husband properly about how I was feeling. He had had his own anxieties throughout the pregnancy and beyond which I hadn't been aware of, as I was so stuck in my own head. He'd also been really worried about me but as we were so young neither of us had had the tools to approach each other with our concerns. How would we cope when we opened that dark Pandora's box? I think the many years of friendship and relying on each other that we had shared before becoming a couple managed to carry us through those initial difficult conversations.
My husband encouraged me to contact my original midwife as I'd had a good relationship with her. Because I'd had my baby early she was away in holiday and not able to be at the birth, so my follow up had been with a range of local midwives rather than one who knew my history. It was incredibly helpful to talk through the whole experience with her and be able to see why I'd fallen into this slightly weird kind of postnatal depression. She also took on board the need for the specialist antenatal classes to prepare you for every outcome - including a positive one. Somehow this was enough to tip me back onto a path back to wellness. I made a friend who also had a young baby but this was her 3rd child so she was able to be a kindly mentor as well as a mate. I found using the parent helplines as well as other mental health support lines really useful if the darkness and anxiety crept in.
Over the next few months I slowly regained my equilibrium and finally began to enjoy motherhood in a way that I hadn't been allowed to enjoy my pregnancy. He's now an adult human of almost 25 and I'm grateful that this terrifying start to life hasn't in any way damaged our relationship. Well, as far as I know. If he starts doing stand up and his debut Edinburgh show is about this then I'll have to reconsider.
The thought I want to leave you with is this. Don't make assumptions about how people are. If you care about someone, ask them how they're feeling, and mean it, and wait for an answer. This seems so obvious but it's quite amazing how often people tell you how wonderful you look or how well you're doing or how successful you are at something - which is lovely when it's the right time to hear it - instead of saying, "how are you?" and waiting for the answer.
Thank you for reading and for everything you do and will do, whether intentionally or by being a lovely friend, to support the people in your circle. Please feel free to share.