Alison's story: author of 'A Secret Never To Be Told'

As Alison Cobb’s new book, A Secret Never to be Told is published, the author talks to APP about how the stigma surrounding mental illness almost prevented her from meeting her own mother.

My father was out for the evening and the house was empty. I was 13.  I was wondering what to do and so I went into my father’s secretary’s office - she had a typewriter that I loved to play with. The secretary wasn’t there, but I stumbled across two files on my father’s desk that intrigued me. One of the files had my grandmother’s name on the front (Mrs. E. Brittain), the other my mother’s name – Mrs. D. Brittain.

That was pretty much all I knew about my mother – her name - and that she had died. I began looking through the file and found lots of very dull papers and hospital bills for 25 guineas each. I realised she must have been very ill before she died to have been in hospital. But when I got to the end of the papers, I found that the latest bill was just a fortnight old. My mother must have still been alive!

I kept reading through the files, coming onto my father’s medical description of what had happened to my mother. Although my father didn’t know much psychiatry, he was an orthopaedic surgeon which is possibly why these notes read just like a doctor’s notes would.

I learnt that I was born 10 months after my father and mother married – probably conceived on their honeymoon. However, after my birth, my mother was overly excited, terribly suspicious, fearful of everything and unable to sleep. Eventually, my mother was placed in a psychiatric hospital and put under 24 hour surveillance because she was threatening to kill herself and crying constantly. She was incredibly distressed.

Alison’s mother Dorothy when she was pregnant, with her father, Tommy, at the Norfolk Broads.

As I’ve since discovered, my mother had a good pregnancy and was happy and healthy right up until my birth. She was doing all the things expectant mothers back then did – embroidering things, knitting a shawl for me. She was a very happy woman who was looking forward to becoming a mother. And then it all went very suddenly wrong and she was separated from us and sent to a psychiatric hospital.

As it turned out, my mother was diagnosed with ‘milk fever’, or puerperal psychosis – which is now known as postpartum psychosis. My father’s psychiatric colleagues told him that this condition could run in the family so he raised it with my mother’s parents which didn’t go down very well. They responded by denying any prior history of mental illness and by saying ‘Oh, so you think we sold you a pup do you!

The stigma was huge, but it manifested in tiny moments. I remember one of my cousins saying ‘I know something about your mother that you don’t’ but she wouldn’t tell me what.  It was all kept a big secret and my father later apologised to me for not telling me sooner.

However, even after I learnt about what had happened, my father didn’t like to talk about it and I was never able to visit my mother. But he suffered enormously keeping the secret, not being able to move on with his life, and all the while caring for somebody who, he was told, would never be well enough to leave hospital. The stress became too much. He took his own life when he was just 50 years old.

After I lost my father it took a long time for me to find out which hospital my mother was in. I would ask my aunts and they’d say not to go, that it would only upset her. In fact, my father was himself told by the hospital staff to stop visiting her for the same reason. So she was left alone in hospital and institutionalised for decades.

Of course, when I had my first child I was in absolute terror, staying awake all night watching her and wondering how long I had before it happened to me. Thankfully I stayed well throughout all my pregnancies and beyond.

Eventually I tracked my mother down after sending handwritten postcards to all the psychiatric hospitals in Suffolk. Finally I received a response and, after initially refusing to see me, my mother agreed. I was in my late 20s at this point and already had two of my three children.

My first husband was very supportive, as is my husband now, and he drove me to the hospital where we entered a huge ward with 60 beds in it, all painted silver, with no curtains or carpet. Suddenly I heard a clicking across the floor and my very small mother, in very high heels, came over to us. She wore a lot of make up, her eyebrows were drawn on and her lips painted in a Cupid’s bow that had been fashionable in the thirties. But she didn’t seem in any way ‘mad’.

The first thing she said to me was ‘You must be Alison. You’re terribly late.’ She said it was a terrible place for us to meet and asked if we could take her somewhere for lunch, which the hospital agreed to.

I had my two young children with us and she peered at the youngest and said how she looked just like my father. She hadn’t seen him in 30 years but that was the first thing she saw.

When we got into the hotel and sat down there was some butter in front of us. My mother asked if it was butter or marge. Told by us that it was butter, she ate it all with a knife and fork saying ‘we only get marge in the bin’.  And I thought, that’s a perfectly sane thing to say or do in the circumstance.

She wasn’t crazy, she was institutionalised.

But of course she had no recourse, because nobody believes you when you’re classed as ‘mad’. However, after my father died and we could no longer afford the cost of the private hospital, my mother was moved to an NHS hospital. It was here that she did much better, reconnected with her sisters who would visit her, and was eventually discharged. It’s comforting to know that my mother had eight happy years working as a live-in house help and living independently before she died.

I thank the heavens that today there are much more useful, helpful drugs and better services. But postpartum psychosis is still a very serious illness that needs to be diagnosed very quickly, because of the potential danger to the mother or her baby, which is why we need more awareness. The symptoms may be amongst the worst of the childbirth-related psychiatric disorders, but the illness has a very good prognosis and most women can go on to make a full recovery.

Hopefully today, more women are able to stay with their babies while they recover and not become separated, like my mother and I were all those years ago, with such damaging consequences for her, for my father and for me.

If you’d like to read Alison’s full story, you can buy a copy of her book, A Secret Never to Be Told, here