Category Archives: Personal Experiences

Rachel's Story

2018_RachelHolliday_DSC_0466bRachel experienced Postpartum Psychosis twice, in 2000 & 2011, after the birth of both her children. Some of her story contains mention of her thoughts when she was acutely ill that some readers may find upsetting, especially as these included about her baby. If you are not feeling 100%, please be aware that Rachel’s story may not be for you at this time. There are other accounts of Postpartum Psychosis on this page which could be more helpful for you if you are looking for stories about the illness. Rachel has fully recovered and now volunteers with APP as a Regional Rep. She runs a hostel for the homeless in West Cumbria and has a great relationship with her children.

"This is my story of my experience of Postpartum Psychosis (PP) following the birth of my children.

So! like a lot of women out there, I got pregnant! And was thoroughly miserable. I was physically ill throughout the whole time. Never did I imagine that I would be probed, injected, examined and scrutinised on such a level that I wondered who my body actually belonged to.

The staff were always fantastic and lovely but it wasn't something I enjoyed. Not one bit! At 6 months pregnant when I threw up all over myself in a taxi and fainted I found myself at the maternity unit “threatening labour”. I was stabbed in each leg with steroid injections, strapped to a machine to monitor baby and after several attempts of taking a blood sample, they succeeded! They then...pricked my finger and to top it all off…inserted a pessary...

Labour managed to subside and I went home. I had pelvic arthropathy (where the tendons in my pelvis were strained) low blood pressure, Group Strep B...yet I digress. I was encouraged to attend the antenatal class but the problem with low blood pressure is you can't stand up for long before you pass out. So when I arrived a noticed a long queue of pregnant women...I joined the queue and eventually we slowly walked into the room but it was too late for me, I fainted and wet myself...!

Self respect, body and mind in shreds, my baby refused to turn. I could barely breath as he was stuck firmly under my ribs. Luckily my consultant had a great idea. He would turn him himself...! How would he do this you may ask? I’ll tell you. He put both his hands on my stomach, and wrenched him round. The pain was just unbearable. I went home and I just thought I can't go on. I sobbed and sobbed, my partner tried to phone my midwife for help but the Doctors Surgery were closed.

I opened my eyes. The LED light displayed 5.58am. At 6.00am there was a loud bang, like a gun shot, I thought I had been shot. I then realised my waters had broke. My partner rushed to the phone to call the hospital as I doubled over screaming with agony. They wanted to speak to me but the phone was attached to the wall downstairs...!! I crawled down the stairs.

"Help me!" I begged.
"Listen to me Rachel, you need to put the kettle on and have a cup of tea." I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing!! Had he called the wrong number???

Soon my parents arrived and drove me screaming and crying up to the hospital. I saw the light inside the hospital but when we got to the door...it was locked!!! We knocked and rang the bell. Eventually the door opened but the lift was broken. Pain searing through me with god only knows what running down my leg, we got to the ward and I got on to a bed.

I can’t tell you what happened for the next 2 hours and 28 minutes as it's rated 18 as it literally scarred me for life... I gave birth "naturally". I felt like I was lying in a torture chamber screaming and begging for someone (anyone) to help me.

My son was born, it was finally all over...the midwife walked over to me, pulled out my breast and began squeezing it with all her might with what can only be described as a blue / green / blood covered "thing" in her arms. He was placed in an incubator, he was 3 weeks early and blue and cold. Alarms sounded, the baby, staff and family rushed out and I was left. Like a slaughtered animal on a bed covered in my own bodily fluids. I didn’t care. I lay still in the silence.

"Rachel, its time to come and see your son". I knew he had died. He was in the morgue. I couldn’t lie there with my son in the morgue, alone. I got off the bed as the blood ran from me onto the floor. "That’s perfectly normal" the lady said. I think I had a bath, then I was in a wheelchair going to see my dead son.

She wheeled me into the SCBU and I asked, "where are we going?"
"We are going to see your son" she replied.
"He's alive?" I said.
"Of course he is!" she said.

And there he was; battered bruised, wires and tubes coming out of him...but alive.

I was put in a dark side room on my own with no clock or anyway of knowing what time or day it was. I was scared, I could hear the repeated screams of terror coming from my mouth but they were in my head. Every 5 minutes there was a knock.

"It's time for his feed". I had stitches inside and out where I had torn. Seven in total, walking back and forth to SCBU I just thought...you have to do this. He needs you. I sat next to him and prayed "God, if you let him live I will go to church every week, please just move him into the big boys cot." He had jaundice, 6 Lb 10 but was loosing weight.

The next morning he was in a big boys cot. As an atheist I was quite surprised that God had intervened.

Eventually we went home. I felt dead inside. At home the patterns on the curtains swirled as did the carpets. I couldn’t look at it too long it made me feel sick. There was a large dark shadow figure who stood in the corner of my bedroom, could it be the grim reaper... Night times were worst. Vivid nightmares which I couldn’t work out if I was awake or asleep. My son was decapitated, his limbs had been pulled off. Then I would look and he had his head, but I’d look closer and he had no eye balls, he had large pointed teeth like a wild animal. We were in the depths of hell.

I had to breast feed him with no eyes, just large black eye sockets. I would hear voices through the baby monitors. They were coming for me...they were watching and they knew... Knew what? I don’t know.

Darkness continued and people would come and go. I learned to hide it really well. My CPN at a later date said it was impossible to tell, we were always "well presented".

I begged my partner not to leave me alone. Sleep wasn’t an option, the screams of torture, the sight of my son with ripped off limbs. I could see germs, I went through hundreds of packets of anti bacterial wipes, I was convinced visitors were trying to spread germs to kill me and my son.

I was advised to get a "routine". This comprised of me getting ready and putting baby in the pram, walking to town, and trying to beat the notion to push the pram in front of the oncoming traffic. I would stand at the harbour knowing the water was warm and soothing and my son wanted to be in there with the peace and safety where he belonged. Then I would jolt out of it and walk back, trying to keep away from the main roads and traffic but then I would have to walk through the woods where dark shadows chased us hunting us down. Every now and then I would have a realisation of what I had done. I was capable of harm. I was the evil one.

A very clever sure start visitor recognised something was wrong. She got me to the doctors. I told them I couldn’t sleep or stop crying, but I couldn’t tell them the real truth... I had to protect the dark evil hell we were experiencing. They would lock me up and take away the baby...they would know our secret. So, they put me on anti-depressants. This made things a lot worse. Another encounter where the trees were trying to strangle me and the lamp posts were all on fire as we descended into hell, saw me taken to the local hospital for an assessment. I was placed on anti psychotic medication.

I had been suffering from Postpartum Psychosis. For four very long months.

So the hallucinations stopped and the reality of what I had been thinking hit me. One night when my friend was staying over, I put together all of my medication and took the lot and got into bed for one final time. I woke up in a hospital bed with a tube of charcoal forced down my throat. The nurses looked at my with disgust. Depression hit, big time. I couldn’t feel love, happiness, anger or sadness. Just nothingness and emptiness. Another suicide attempt followed and it seemed apparent I wasn’t going to die. Which seemed unfortunate at the time. Yet, things started to improve.

At this point I contacted APP. They had a "pen friend" project where you can speak to other mums who had been through what I had. She was a life-line, I never got to meet her but I can honestly say she got me through some of the darkest days of my life.

It took around 2 & ½ years to recover from PP. But I never recovered from the birth. Many many years later I was diagnosed with PTSD. I attended CBT therapy and finally, 10 years after the birth I was finally free.

So my life moved on, I got into work, Dylan went to school and things were great! I met my husband and he asked the question..."should we have a baby?"

I honestly thought I couldn’t put myself through that again but once again I got in touch with APP to ask for their advice and they were amazing. They managed to arrange a consultation with a perinatal psychiatrist consultant and he diagnosed me with Cyclothymia, a type three bi-polar and explained that it was highly likely I would have PP again so I needed to go to my GP and ask for them to put a care plan in place. Without this essential advice things could have been very different.

I struggled with the pregnancy, but with a fantastic care plan, mental health team, wonderful husband, friends and family I got through it!!

Anti psychotic medication was ready to be administered at 38 weeks to prevent PP rearing its ugly head...so of course I went into labour at 35 weeks! However, a great birth experience. WCH Maternity team were faultless. My daughter was in special care for a week... And yes I developed PP again as the medication takes a few days to kick in and get the levels correct. I was wrapped in love and care by everyone. The result? I was back in work and off medication within 6 months.

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When I recovered APP invited me to a meeting where survivors from all over the country were joining together to look at new ways of working. I was unsure about going as PP is such an emotive subject for me, but I went and it felt so great to be part of a community of women who understand. APP were looking for Regional Reps across the UK to help women just like me in my community who were suffering from PP. I agreed and I have got to say it’s the most rewarding work. PP is very taboo, but unless women like me and the other reps take a stand and raise awareness, more will suffer in silence.

I survived PP...twice. There are many that don’t. Which is why the new Mother and Baby Unit opening in September 2018 in Chorley, will be vital for the women of Cumbria and Lancashire.

I didn’t know PP, my partner and family didn’t know PP either, and because of that, we nearly all lost so much...

But there is good news!! We can and will recover from PP with the right help!!

Action on Postpartum Psychosis are an organisation built up with women just like me and the resources they offer are vital in the support to survivors of PP and their families.

Postpartum Psychosis has made me a stronger, more resilient person. I am alive and I love my children now more than ever! With the help and support of APP... I survived the battle and PP lost...Twice."

Claire's Story

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Read Claire’s powerful poem she wrote a couple of years ago about her experiences suffering with PP in 2006, after giving birth to her son.

9 years ago…

9 years ago, I was frightened, I was lost,
Having a baby had come at a cost,
A price so high, I almost wondered,
how deep down the depths I had plundered…

9 years ago, I couldn’t leave my home,
The thoughts in my mind had uncontrollably grown,
Panic suddenly gripped me by the throat,
I couldn’t breath, all alone, feeling remote.

9 years ago, I screamed in terror,
Running into the street, bare feet in error,
The journey to hospital went by in a blur,
My Partner stopped at the garage, a forced detour…

9 years ago, my mind had gone crazy,
I limped in the hospital, reality hazy,
Surely I’d only just broken my hip,
I couldn’t remember? did I fall? did I slip?

9 years ago, I was admitted to a psychiatric ward,
Not a Mother and Baby unit, like some reward,
Men and women, all out of their minds,
I thought they wanted to poison or rape me, it takes all kinds.

9 years ago, I lay on the floor,
Screaming like a toddler, I could take no more,
Surely this would wake me up?
Save me from this hell close up…

9 years ago, I pulled my bedcovers tight,
The curtain surrounded me, I prayed in fright,
A patient rampaged through the night,
I’m sure she thought in her head, that she was alright…

9 years ago, I escaped from hell,
I really thought I’d been locked in a cell,
A voluntary prison to keep me from harm,
At one low point, I’d set off the alarm…

9 years ago I convinced a panel,
That I could control the voices, switch over the channel,
They let me home to see my baby,
Unable to breastfeed, not a chance, not a maybe.

9 years ago, a decision I made,
No longer was I going to live life afraid.
I grew strong, I grew brave, I took daily action,
Came off of my meds, despite their reaction.

9 years ago I lost my twin sister,
A surreal experience, how I wept, how I missed her,
My body just went through the motions,
All around me was grief, I was full of trapped emotions.

9 years ago I turned to the light,
Faced my fears daily with a positive might,
Looked after myself, made sure that I slept,
Ate regularly, exercised, my mind I just kept…

9 years ago, I came back from the brink,
I’m a fighter, a survivor, I was saved, didn’t sink.
My faith grew more with each passing day,
My husband, my rock, by my side did he stay.

9 years ago I beat mental illness,
Today, I’m more calm, mindful in stillness,
Meditation I practice, self love and awareness,
Never look back in anger, but was I treated in fairness?

Fast forward 9 years and what can I do?
To make a difference, to a lot, not a few?
I’m lucky, I’m grateful, for I have survived,
For others, a different ending, women have died…

Today, I stand tall to combat the stigma,
Postpartum illness is still an enigma,
If you feel strongly, then just share my post,
Amen to the father, the son, and the Holy Ghost.
Love x light x inspiration x

 

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Jenny's Story

And still it rained down, crosshatching the sky.

(On Whom the Rain Comes Down, by Jenny Pagdin)

"There was no real rain - it was a relentlessly hot summer, my baby was three months old, I was just recovering from a severe stomach bug. My episiotomy still hadn’t healed and - with the breastfeeding – I’d not slept properly in weeks. Pregnancy had been a tough time emotionally, but with every new knock I suppressed my emotions further - and besides, I felt happy. While I was carrying, my best friend became seriously ill – several family members were accused of fraud - my auntie died – we had an increased chance of Downs - my flatmate and good friend killed herself - I weathered it all. Because I was going to protect my unborn child from all my suffering - by making sure I didn’t suffer any of it.

Then one day my baby fainted and we couldn’t bring him round for quite a few minutes. There had been concerns about him since his six-week checks. Something ‘went’ in my brain, and the next day I experienced a sudden and acute postnatal psychosis.

We waited far too long to seek help, not really aware that the condition existed. Meanwhile my hallucinations, delusional beliefs and behaviour were getting out of control. After a long weekend of this it was time to see the doctor. When he told me I would be treated as an inpatient I was relieved. I assumed that after a night away I would be able to come home, just as I’d had one night in hospital after giving birth - I didn’t expect to be 200 miles from home for six weeks. But I did make it back.

2018 JennyHealing has come with the passage of time, the support I received from an APP volunteer and my medical team and - perhaps most of all - from the rare and precious opportunities I have had to meet and speak with other women who have been through this experience. I now know there is no such thing as a ‘them’ and an ‘us’ - we all share the same human vulnerabilities.

I have also found refuge in writing. I wrote most of the poems in my short collection Caldbeck a full four years after the postnatal illness. By then I had made a good recovery, and writing them cemented this by giving me the feeling of resolving traumas. I feel proud of my achievement with publishing the pamphlet and hope it will resonate for others in a similar position."

Click here to read more of Jenny's poetry and order a copy of her debut pamphlet.

Jocelyn's story

JocelynJocelyn gave birth to her son in a Brazilian hospital. She had a traumatic time. An unwanted cesarean, subsequent infection, complications and further surgery kept her from taking care of her baby. When she was finally allowed home to be with her family, things didn’t go well. Thankfully, she eventually found APP.

“I was finally allowed home and felt like an awful mother, I hadn't had the skin to skin contact for as long as I wanted when he was born, I couldn't do all his "firsts" and now I was back to square one again.

I thought I had postpartum depression and my husband told me one night that he thought I was depressed. I agreed with him but not to his face.

My husband realised that there was a bigger problem when we decided to go into town by bus. I was convinced he was actually taking me to the hospital, as he was using a different nappy bag. I thought people were staring at me and then at my baby. I thought I was bleeding and my dress was covered in blood and the reason people were staring at the pram was because there was no baby in it. I thought that the second c-section was because my baby had died and everyone was humouring me by agreeing that my baby was still alive. I asked my husband if we actually had a baby and if he was alive and in the pram. He replied of course can you not see him? My response was I can but can everyone else?

Everything seemed much worse than it was. I thought my husband hurt his shoulder, which had been broken a few years ago. I was sure he was in lots of pain but was trying to hide it from me so as not to worry me. I took myself and my baby off to a friend's to give him an excuse to go the hospital without me supposedly knowing and spent the afternoon telling my friends that he was in hospital but didn't want me to know or worry me.

We decided to go the beach, thinking that some time away and a place to relax would calm me down. I would break down and have panic attacks not knowing who to trust because if doctors lied about things then everyone did. One day we were on the beach and we went into the sea and I was convinced I was dying and the waves were taking me into the light to die. Then when my husband was dressing me I started screaming that he was putting me in a straight-jacket.

We finally decided that we should go back home and see a psychiatrist. After 3 or 4 attempts to get me in the car, we finally got on our way. I refused to open my eyes at the hospital, as I didn't want to see anything that wasn't real or see the doctor from my first surgery. They sedated me as I hadn't slept for 3 days and took me to another room which I thought was the operating room, as I still refused to open my eyes. I started screaming not to give me an epidural, as in the second c-section it was done by a resident and was really difficult and painful as I was so tense. I was petrified I was going to get another. I was told to come back the next day as the psychiatrist wasn't there.

The next day I was given 5 months worth of antidepressants and sent home. Having no previous history of mental health issues, hearing some of the things I did, just sounds unreal. My husband said I thought I had two babies at one point because of the two c-sections. I thought that my baby was acting like scenes out of The Exorcist, that my husband had cameras in the bedroom to check that I was being a good mother. I was paranoid about everything and couldn't make simple decisions. I became obsessed with taking photos to see if I could really see my baby and that he was real. People told me I shouldn't eat certain foods because it would give the baby more colic, wind or make my milk taste funny. So I stopped eating and lost about 2½ stone in 3 weeks. Because everyone was talking Portuguese I always thought they were talking about what a bad mother I was.

After researching postpartum psychosis, I found APP and frequently used the peer support forum. This was the only support I had until we decided to return to the UK when my son was 9 months old. I received some CBT and continued with antidepressants.

I found that speaking to other people that had had the same experience was the most valuable support. While mine was only online, if women and their families had a "buddy" that they could meet up with that had been through the same experience, I believe this would be invaluable.

There is so much stigmatism and shame admitting that you are struggling during what should be the happiest moment in your life, connecting with other people I believe would help families feel more normal and provide hope."

Sue: Method in my Madness

Sue Mckendrick
Sue and baby Alex in 2000

Sue experienced PP after the birth of her son Alex in 2000. On the occasion of their 50th birthdays in 2016, Sue and husband Iain asked friends and family to donate to APP, instead of giving them gifts. They raised an incredible sum, over £700! We are so grateful to Sue and Iain and their generous donors.  When we got in touch to thank them, Sue sent us a copy of her book, “Method in my Madness” – the title of which came to her during her episode of PP 16 years ago. Here we share three of her wonderful poems. 

Sue reflects, “In the year 2000,  my world was turned upside-down. I had Postpartum Psychosis, a severe episode of mental illness which begins suddenly in the days following childbirth. During my mania, I was mad about poetry and I promised to write a book called “Method in my Madness”.  Clearly, such an idea was ridiculous, because at the time, I could not focus to write a single coherent sentence!  It took me about 7 years before I could face writing a poem as it brought back such painful memories.

These poems are a personal reflection on this difficult period in my life.  This experience has changed my attitude towards mental illness.  As a result, I don’t take my own mental health for granted and try to find time to unwind.”

Out the Sun Roof

Natural birth cancelled and birth plan
abandoned; the baby didn’t come on cue.
Wired up, monitored more than
I wish; should the details be taboo?
Surgeon poised with his knife.
Is this the best day of my life?

 They top up the epidural
I can feel poking and prodding.
Midwife and surgeon in conferral;
head stuck, pushing and pulling.
Implements and gowns all sterile.
Iain is watching and holding
my hand; overwhelmed, is it joy?
Huge relief: a baby boy!

One week later, I was in the Royal Edinburgh Hospital.  Mental health provisions for mother and baby were inadequate and I was separated from my new baby. 

Just a New Mum

Just a new mum: all nervous and tense.
No strength to move about,
cut off from baby, no self–confidence.
Feeling I need to punch out
at doctors who irritate and annoy.
My abilities, I have come to doubt:
one moment sad, one moment happy
and no idea how to change a nappy!

 Overwhelmed, I feel overcome.
The ward is abuzz.
Crying because I want my mum;
can’t sleep; my head’s a fuzz;
painkillers make me dazed and numb.
I write lists, joke and sing because
lost my judgement, lost my mind,
memories seem misaligned.

Is this a nervous breakdown?
Pyschosis is diagnosed, agreed;
all day in my dressing gown.
Eyesight distorted, can’t read.
I’m just a new mum – all slowed down.
Expressing milk but can’t feed.
How can I be in such a state,
scared of what will be my fate?

Method in my Madness

With glistening eyes oozing sadness,
he is stressed and tense.
“I think there’s method in my madness!”

He listens and gives me a look,
not wishing to cause offense,
his glistening eyes oozing sadness.

“That’ll be the title of my book.”
It will be full of common sense.
Good title: Method in my Madness!

“Do you like it?”  I burble.
He is sitting on the fence,
his glistening eyes oozing sadness.

Baby Alex gurgles.
If only I could write a single sentence.
There must be some method in my madness.

I start to tell a joke about Agnes
and Ayli next door, but lose my focus,
my glistening eyes oozing sadness.
Some day you’ll find method in my madness!

Secrets and Lies: David's Story

David is a retired university teacher. David’s mother, Flora, suffered from Postpartum Psychosis in 1933, and died in 1943, before the advent of the NHS, and antipsychotic and mood stabiliser medication in the 1950s.

David wrote down his moving story for his children, by way of a historical record, self-explanation, and a caution of the risks of failing to communicate about mental health. He has agreed for us to share it with you. 

Stigma, fear, misinformation, lack of awareness regarding PP still exists in many parts of our world - in families, playgrounds, mums and baby groups, our working lives. Thanks to APP’s Big Lottery project, things are changing, and this change is now beginning to take on a pace of its own. 

Secrets and Lies tells of the individual pain caused by failure to communicate with loved ones and, in particular, children, about Postpartum Psychosis - and the intergenerational impact of stigma, shame and family secrets. 

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flora-mervinMy mother Flora Agnes Mervin (nee Bell) was born in 1905 and died in 1943. She was, to put it mildly, a tragic figure.

She met my father Henry William Mervin (always known as Harry) at the Civil Service Sports Club at Hilsea in Portsmouth some time during the late 1920s. He was employed by the Post Office which he had joined as a telegraph boy. After service in the army during the First World War he had spent three and a half years in Egypt, working as a wireless operator at the GPO wireless station at Abu Zabal, twenty miles from Cairo. On his return to the UK Harry was posted to the Central Telegraph Office in London where he worked for three years before his marriage to Flora in 1930 at St Marks church in North End, Portsmouth. He was then 31 and she was 26.

On 31st July 1933 I was born in a nursing home in Ealing where the recently married couple had settled. Flora was unable to breast feed me and became, as a consequence, intensely distressed. Harry arrived home one evening to find his wife being looked after by a neighbour who, he said, had found her to be “ in a desperate state of depression.” He then set about removing Flora and her baby back to Portsmouth.

There she was diagnosed as suffering from puerperal insanity, now known as postpartum psychosis; this is a rare condition, occurring in 1-2 of 1000 births, or 0.1%. Flora was admitted to Portsmouth City Mental Hospital, (formerly known as Portsmouth Lunatic Asylum, and later as St. James’ Hospital) on 27th November 1933 with Harry telling the hospital that his wife had been “normal till two months after parturition. She then complained of feeling confused and not able to concentrate on anything. She had difficulty in feeding the baby then she became depressed with suicidal tendencies-remorseful seemed to think she had let her husband down.” Meanwhile her brother, my Uncle, George Balfour Bell, stated “that she had an idea that she had neglected her baby, that the baby was dead, and that she herself should throw herself in the sea.”

The above is heart rending enough, but it is nothing compared to the dreadful, agonising detail of her situation 5 1/2 years later when Dr Thomas Beaton reported that Flora’s “condition on admission was one of acute confusional psychosis. She was grossly confused, restless, hallucinated and needed every nursing care and attention. During the course of her illness the acute excitement and confusion have diminished. She remains now indolent, apathetic and disinterested. She is still vividly hallucinated and continually complains of voices which talk to her from the walls and ceiling. She is still sufficiently intelligent to realise her position, but she is liable, from time to time, to periods of violence, during which she becomes destructive. She is quite incapable of occupying herself, needs considerable attention in regards to her physical habits and cleanliness, and is essentially a patient requiring hospital care and control.”

The same doctor noted further that Flora “has been given intensive treatment, including the modern convulsion therapy, but in spite of this her condition, following the acute confusional state, has shown a progressive deterioration, and she might be described now as suffering from chronic hallucinatory psychosis with a slowly progressing secondary dementia”. 

While Flora was going through these ghastly agonies I was a small child totally unaware of my mother’s existence, growing up as an evacuee in Chichester. Seemingly the lady who cared for me there had been instructed by my father to tell me that my mother had died when I was born. It came as a great shock therefore to be informed in 1943 by a fellow evacuee, with the brutal frankness that children are sometimes capable of, “Your mother just died……its in the paper.” I now know that he was referring to the bleak announcement in the Deaths column of the Portsmouth Evening News of 1st October 1943 which read “MERVIN, Flora Agnes (nee Bell) at St James’s Hospital, 27th September. Loving memories Harry, Mother, Balf.”

It is still difficult for me to believe why I did not ask for some sort of explanation for this puzzling new information from the lady looking after me, or from my father on one of his occasional visits. The fact of the matter is I suppose that at the time I was a decidedly timid 10 year old boy and from the beginning I appear to have been drawn into the disgraceful conspiracy of silence surrounding the tragedy of my mother’s life and death.

Much later, when I was nearly 40, I became aware of the circumstances surrounding my mother’s death and my father’s marriage to my stepmother. In a letter written in 1972, he reported that after Flora’s incarceration in November 1933, when he was still working in London “I came down to Portsmouth nearly every week end to visit your mother and you. For the first few weeks it seemed as though your mother might recover, but as the months went by, and she eventually failed even to recognise me, any hopes I had began to fade.” Shortly after Dad returned to Portsmouth and continued for three years to visit Flora with her condition showing no sign of improvement and it becoming increasingly evident that she would never recover.

This was surely an incredibly stressful period in my father’s life. His financial situation was desperate, there was no NHS to provide for Flora’s care and the 25 shillings per week this cost took a large chunk of his meagre salary of £5 per week. His plight was such that whilst in London he was dependent for survival on a weekly whip round by his Post Office colleagues. His finances eased when he was back in Portsmouth living with his mother, although understandably, he suffered from bouts of depression and came to dread having to visit a wife who no longer recognised him. He appears to have given up on the visits in 1936 and it was then that his relationship with Norah began and his life took a turn for the better.

The 12 page letter Dad sent me nearly four decades after these events, arose from a conversation I had with a half sister when she came with her husband to visit us in Knightcote in 1971. On that occasion, probably after a few drinks, I spoke to my her of my frustration at knowing nothing of my mother, of having no idea about what sort of person she was and my unhappiness at my father’s unwillingness to talk to me about these matters.

In that letter he begins by saying “I have always been conscious of my failure to enlighten you on the tragic events following your birth, and I have appreciated your feelings on the subject. You did on one occasion ask me one or two questions about your mother’s illness, which I answered, but nothing followed that, and I have always found it difficult to open the subject verbally - hence this letter.” I remember the occasion he refers to well, indeed my memory of that event is rather better than his. I  was home for the weekend, some time in my twenties, and we went for a drink at the nearby pub. In the relaxed atmosphere of that place, I finally plucked up the courage to ask, “My mother, was she anything like me?” This was answered with a resounding “No” with Dad making it clear that no further discussion would be welcome. This bleak, fleeting exchange was the one and only occasion, throughout my life, when my father spoke to me about my mother.

Partly, of course, the fault is mine. I should have had more guts; I was just not brave enough to insist on him giving me some answers to the questions that had troubled me for so long and which trouble me even yet. What sort of woman had that beautiful young girl in her confirmation dress grown up to be? What attracted him to her? What were her interests? What were her strengths and her talents? What made her laugh and what made her cry?

my-mother

It is difficult not to conclude that my mother was badly let down by her closest relations. Not only by her husband but also by her brother and her mother. Each of the latter two went to their grave without so much as speaking her name to her only child. What they effectively did was to reduce her to the status of a non person, to deny her very existence. Why did they not realise that this was a unforgivable thing to do? In that notice in the paper on her death it said “Loving memories Harry, Mother, Balf” What an awful, bitter irony given the complete failure to honour her memory by speaking about her in any way to her son. All human beings, rather pathetically, are anxious to be remembered. “We will remember them” is the refrain at remembrance ceremonies. In fact few of us will be remembered for very long, and yet for immediate family members to act as if a deceased person has not even existed, to blot out all memory of them, is to do them a terrible disservice.

In trying to understand why my father was unable to look me in the eye and to ever talk to me about my mother, I assume that it was partly due to an understandable wish to shut out of his mind dreadfully painful memories. It may also be the case that it was because he felt guilty. Not about remarrying, given the circumstances he was surely entitled to do that, but because of the unfortunate sequence of events that took place in 1943.

Five years previously the law had been changed to provide grounds for divorce other than adultery. Wilful desertion for three years or more; cruelty; and incurable insanity were now added and Dad and Norah decided to take advantage of this change. They wished to get married and now he could divorce Flora to make that possible. There duly appeared in the Portsmouth Evening News of 9th July 1943 under the headline INSANITY GROUNDS FOR DIVORCE, “A decree nisi was also granted to Henry William Mervin of St. George’s Road, Southsea against Mrs Flora Agnes Mervin on the ground of her incurable insanity. They were married at St Mark’s Church, Portsmouth in 1930 and there is one child. Since 1933 Mrs Mervin has been a patient at the City Mental Hospital.” A little less than three months after the divorce the desperately ill Flora died and a month after that the marriage took place. As my father said in his letter “it was a tragic coincidence that your Mother died during the same year”

The fact that Flora died so soon after the divorce may have instilled in my father some pangs of guilt and possibly, in retrospect, he may have also felt badly about his decision to not have me present at his wedding-an event of which I was totally unaware at the time. I have often wondered why I was excluded from that occasion. It is not as if I was a baby. I was 10 years old and my indignation at being left out increased considerably when I discovered many years later, that a cousin of almost the same age did attend. Presumably, the concern was that if I had been there it might have led to me asking some difficult questions. To put it another way, my exclusion was a major contribution to the conspiracy of silence regarding my mother amongst her relations.

Apart from any guilt no doubt the other factor that prevented my father and others from talking about Flora and her illness with me was the shame and the stigma attached in that era to having insanity in the family. To use an even uglier word she was consigned to a hospital that had just a few years previously been known as the Portsmouth Lunatic Asylum. The fact that this poor woman was insane, or was in the terminology of the time a lunatic, was apparently thought to be sufficient reason for her name to be kept out of family conversations, for her relations to blot out all memory of her and to conduct themselves as if she had never lived.

What has writing this very sad story accomplished? In a small way it has allowed me to give vent to my long felt unhappiness at the treatment of my mother. It has had, for me, a helpful cathartic effect, allowing me to come to terms with an issue which has troubled me for many years It has also brought home to me the merits of speaking frankly, of facing unpalatable truths, of getting things out in the open. Obviously there are limits to speaking frankly. Civilised behaviour requires that we do not give voice to every thought that passes through our heads irrespective of the hurt, or the offence it may cause others, but that doesn’t justify what happened in this case where secrets and lies had tragic consequences.

There is also an element of weakness in writing letters about important matters, rather than speaking about them face to face. And now here am I doing the same, putting my innermost thoughts down on paper, having failed to give voice to them when it could have counted. To add to that, I am ashamed to say, that when I had that conversation with my half sister that led to Dad’s letter I cravenly asked her not to tell him what I had said, for fear of upsetting him- an injunction she evidently ignored. Similarly, on an earlier occasion, I said much the same to an aunt in talking about these matters, in the wake of a drink or two, at a wedding. She subsequently sent me a short letter with a few words that I have treasured ever since “Your Mother was pretty, gay and very intelligent.” At last some one had told me just a little of the woman who brought me into the world and whose awful, indescribably unbearable illness had come about as the result of my birth.

My father was a decent, kindly man who had a hard life, and he endured horrors and privations of a sort that have never befallen me. He did however find it difficult to face up to his responsibility to the poor damaged Flora. He is not alone in that of course, both her mother and her brother should have done more to honour and preserve her memory. And then there is my own culpability. On more than a few occasions, I shrank from confronting my father: I lacked the guts in other words, to demand the answers that I so sorely needed. Finally, this unhappy story does nothing to restore in me any sort of religious belief. Why would a supposedly merciful God allow an innocent young woman to suffer ten long years of torment followed by the obliteration of all memory of her having lived? 

Secrets and Lies, Action on Postpartum Psychosis
David and his son John, Flora's grandson
Secrets and Lies, Action on Postpartum Psychosis
John's children Lizzie and Charlotte, Flora's great granddaughters

 

Secrets and Lies, Action on Postpartum Psychosis
David's daughter Alice and her children Rachel and Jack, Flora's great grandchildren

 

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