Living with bipolar meant that we had lots to consider when we were planning a family. We had to get the perinatal mental healthcare team involved from the very start to make sure we had a plan if anything were to go wrong. I knew that, because of my bipolar diagnosis, there was a chance that giving birth could trigger my symptoms, so there was talk of me being admitted to a Mother and Baby Unit (MBU) should I need that extra support.
I didn’t really know anything about MBUs at that point, and I was feeling really well so I felt confident that all would be OK. However, towards the end of my pregnancy more problems arose – I had preeclampsia, high blood pressure and gestational diabetes. It meant that I was under additional pressure, but my mental health still seemed to be on an even keel.
However, I was then told I had to have an elective caesarean and, because I’m on medication for my bipolar, I had to come off it 24 hours before the surgery. This was to allow the medicine to be removed from my body before giving birth.
I had the caesarean as planned on the 17th May 2019. Unfortunately, they had problems getting the epidural into my back so I had to be sedated. When I came round, they initially gave my baby to me but then immediately took him away again because he had a temperature and wasn’t feeding. He was taken into special care.
In the personalised care plan that the perinatal mental health team had put together at the start of the pregnancy, it stated that I needed to have my own, quiet room as lack of sleep can be a big trigger for bipolar symptoms. Unfortunately, somebody else needed the room so I was moved to a ward with crying babies. At this point, my baby boy was still in another part of the hospital.
Eventually, we were given a special care room together because, in addition to my bipolar risks, my little boy had to be tube fed. But by this point I was already becoming unwell. My mind was racing and I wasn’t sleeping.
The next thing I remember is waking up in the MBU in Manchester – many miles from our family home in North Wales.
Prior to being moved to the MBU, I was in a state of psychosis and my memories of this time are a complete blur. I think my mind has just shut out memories of the trauma, but it was a different matter for my husband, who was in the throes of it all, desperately trying to get me the right help. It was really difficult for him because the midwife was off, as was the care coordinator and the psychiatrist! I was initially transferred to a PICU (Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit) in North Wales but then I was moved to the MBU in Manchester as there was nothing closer to home.
I was grateful to have access to an MBU, as it meant that I was able to stay with my baby. But the fact that we had to travel two hours from home made life really difficult. Each day, my husband was travelling for four hours between the hospital and our home, and doing a full time job in between all the travel. The stress he was under was immense.
Regardless, Tommy continued to visit every day and that’s something I am so grateful for because, when you’re in hospital so far from home, it can feel really isolating and lonely. Two hours is a long time when you’re in mental health crisis. I did make some friends in the MBU, but when you’re so far from home it makes everything feel ten times harder.
I had to have ECT (Electro Convulsive Therapy) whilst I was at the MBU, but this was a treatment that had worked for me in the past and, combined with the medication, I started to slowly recover.
Eventually, I was allowed overnight stays at home, then visits for a few days at a time and then, by around the end of July, I was finally discharged. Getting home was such a good feeling, and I really started to feel well again.
However, unless something changes, I don’t think we’d consider another baby as the experience was far too stressful and traumatic for the family.
There’s a national shortage of MBUs overall but, where I live in North Wales, we literally don’t have one at all. I remember the doctor telling me that, if we decided to have another baby, I would probably need to give birth in England so that I had quick access to specialist care if I became mentally unwell again. Because I’m Welsh, I really wouldn’t want to feel as thought I was forced to have my baby in England.
I’m also not confident that we’d be able to get in to the Manchester MBU again. There is such a shortage of MBU beds, so, if we couldn’t get in, it could mean travelling even further away – and the strain on Tommy, and myself and the baby, would be unbearable.
I know how lucky we are to have our baby boy but we’d love for him to be able to have a baby brother or sister. For women like me living in North Wales who are at risk of serious postnatal mental illness, there needs to be specialist care closer to home. I know I definitely communicate better in Welsh, especially when I am unwell, so having support in the Welsh language is also really important.
This is why I’m campaigning for an MBU for North Wales – so other new mums and their families can access support in their first language and to stop so many having to travel so far from home to get the essential care they need.