It was 2018. Hugo and I had an extremely happy, healthy, normal pregnancy. There was no reason anything should go wrong, no warning signs. But when it came to the birth itself, I ended up having a really traumatic labour and a C-section, and we were told our gorgeous little boy, Jet, had been starving in the womb.
Once he arrived safely, Jet needed to feed all the time to get his weight back up. I was already sleep deprived and was scared and in shock from the labour, so I started feeling all these feelings – anxiety, fear and restlessness. I had no idea how you were supposed to feel after giving birth, and I’d never experienced any mental health problems prior to this, so I thought it must be normal.
Jet and I were kept on a ward because he was underweight and I had been through such a traumatic birth. But being in such a distressed state, to me it felt like a carousel of hell. One baby would wake up, one mum would be crying, one dad would be crying. It all felt too much, I was completely unable to sleep and I was feeding Jet non-stop around the clock.
Then my feelings of dread and doom massively intensified.
I felt like something really, really bad was going to happen but I just couldn’t put my finger on it. I kept thinking that when we get home with Hugo we’ll all be OK and things will calm down. But that couldn’t have been further from the truth.
When we arrived back home it felt as though I was in some kind of vacant holiday home. It didn’t feel like the home I loved. Within days – possibly even hours – I was experiencing racing thoughts, delusions, I couldn’t eat, sleep or concentrate on anything. I was very unwell but looking back I do feel I was explaining my symptoms quite coherently to the health professionals. However, I wasn’t given any diagnosis and we were more or less left to get on with it.
The delusions started becoming obvious to others soon after, particularly to Hugo. I started thinking that every ambulance or police car was coming for me, that teddy bears had cameras in their eyes and that Hugo was trying to steal our baby. Eventually, I became suicidal.
I was admitted to a psych ward when Jet was just three weeks old.
At that point I was so out of touch with reality I wasn’t sure if I was going to a police station, a zoo or an asylum to be locked up. The idea of a psych ward feels like a frightening place anyway but now I know that psychiatric patients are just like anyone else – just like you and me. In fact, more than anything, being admitted to the psych ward actually filled me with relief – I felt that I’d finally found the right type of help that was needed.
Waking up the next morning alone in this room with no baby, no Hugo and these starchy white sheets, I realised that it was the first time I’d slept in three weeks. I remember the nurses saying ‘it’s Sunday today so just chill’ but my brain was racing in some kind of frantic hell. It was, in fact, my first Mother’s Day.
I started therapy from the Monday alongside people in addiction, or diagnosed with a personality disorder or schizophrenia, and it took me a while to work out why I was there. But I’m pleased I’m a bit of a goodie two-shoes because I did everything the doctors told me – attending the sessions, taking the meds. But recovery was really up and down, and for a while I was still occasionally thinking that Hugo was part of a conspiracy.
After two weeks in hospital I fell into a deep depression - which in some ways felt worse. Depression has this awful effect of making you feel like you’re in debt to everyone for everything. I felt guilty because I’d taken time out from motherhood – but it wasn’t like I was snorkelling in the Maldives!
I was on anti psychotics, antidepressants, sleeping pills – I felt like a zombie mum, so I certainly couldn’t just get back to parenting no problem. Hugo and I really relied on our bond and our trust. My conspiracies were off the wall, but Hugo really knew me and helped me, giving me time and patience.
I was also really worried that my bond with Jet was compromised. But when he bumped his head and he wanted me I kind of thought ah - he does forgive me, he does love me and trust me.
Taking action to recover
There’s a large part of recovery you have to do yourself – you have to take whatever steps you feel able to. I taught myself CBT, read every book that everyone had written on motherhood and mental illness, I spent time with my beautiful friends and family, and met other mums who had been through what I had at APP café groups.
The beautiful thing about losing the plot is that you just don’t care anymore it’s so liberating! Things don’t bother me as much as they used to. Rejections happen all the time in my work as a writer and I more easily take them in my stride these days. And if I trip over in the street I just don’t care - I’ve waved goodbye to shame and guilt – they are useless emotions that we really don’t need. And to think that Hugo and Jet would ever hold me accountable for this illness that wasn’t my fault was just ridiculous.
Writing my memoir has also really helped me.
I think Hugo and my family were worried it might be too triggering for me but it really does come down to acceptance – I wasn’t trying to rail against it or be angry at it. Writing about it is like trying to bottle a night terror. It’s so meta - you’re trying to tell a story within a story. When your brain cracks like that, you believe anything. If you told me at the time that I was a crisp I would have believed you – I might have thought, oh this is because I didn’t look after my hamster when I was ten and he’s getting his own back. Throw into that the irregularities of a newborn, the spontaneity, the unpredictability, the expectations – it’s a complete recipe for madness.
But we made it out alive! And writing played an important part in helping me to process what we had been through. It was like the final part of my recovery.
Laura’s book, What Have I Done? is published by Square Peg and available from all good bookstores. To find out more click here.