Sophie’s story

I couldn’t have been more ecstatic about becoming a mummy; my daughter was so wanted and becoming parents was a really exciting event for me and my husband Kevin. Yes, we’d anticipated that there may be long nights ahead, dirty nappies, tears and a big phase of adjustment as all first time parents expect, but we were looking forward to stepping into this next phase of our lives together!

In the run-up to her birth, I thought I’d got myself as organised as possible before her arrival, and felt relatively calm and prepared having read all the books, decorated her room, bought a good stash of teeny clothing supplies and been to the NCT classes to meet some new mummy friends.

I was feeling really good, inside and out. Aside from a few pregnancy-related aches and swollen ankles as I got closer to my due date, I really didn’t have much to grumble about with my midwives at my appointments. I was blooming, everything was going ‘to plan’, she was ‘engaged’ and I was classified as low-risk, anticipating that she’d be delivered in our local midwife-led birthing unit in May 2016.

At 36 weeks, I was invited to my hospital for an extra scan which had recently been introduced in my local area to help reduce the national rate of stillbirths. For me it was an opportunity to have a final glimpse of my developing baby and we joked about how my she might already weigh given my swollen tummy, but whilst doctors were checking the baby’s position we discovered she was actually in breach position (bottom first) and well and truly lodged inside me with little room to turn back around at this late stage in my pregnancy.

Dreams of a natural birth drifted swiftly out of the window, and before I knew it we were discussing options for a caesarean section. Alarm bells started ringing! I hadn’t spoken to many women who had shared their experiences of c-sections, and the prospect of major surgery scared me. In the coming days as I waited for my letter with admission dates, I recall frantically researching c-section recovery and trying to anticipate what was going to happen to me. I’m pretty sure that this is where my anxiety and stress levels began, and just a week later at 37 weeks my waters broke and I ended up being rushed in for an emergency c-section.

Isabella Maria made her appearance at 10.32pm on 26th April 2016, weighing in at a dinky 6lbs8oz. She was perfect, with thick dark fluffy hair and beautiful eyes. The operation went very smoothly and the surgeons and paediatric nursing team did a great job of looking after me, reassuring me that she was responding well to the initial tests, including checking her hip movement as her breached position had made her curl up so tightly.

I felt elated and relieved that she was here safely, but also shock at how the evening’s events had unfolded. For someone who likes to be in control, I found it hard to comprehend that my body hadn’t been able to fulfil one of its most natural jobs and I panicked about her wellbeing as she’d arrived prematurely. I felt entirely responsible for looking after her, and from that moment on I put myself under an incomprehensible amount of pressure to ‘make up’ for her start in life, thinking that I’d failed her.

In the middle of our first night together, I was wheeled to the general ward whilst still being attached to a multitude of tubes and catheters. It was early hours of the morning, and my husband was asked to go home and return to visit later that day.

It was hot, sweaty and dark on the ward and I could hear many babies screaming in the background. It was impossible for me to rest, and I was convinced that Isabella wasn’t breathing properly. Despite her was crying, inbetween bringing up a lot of mucus, I recall struggling to reach her and desperately wanted change her soiled babygrow. I continually pressed the red buzzer on my bed, and it felt like an eternity for the midwives to attend to me. Simple tasks like reaching for nappies, getting wipes, and bringing her close to me were difficult and I needed help. I became very weepy, anxious and felt lonely as I attempted those first important feeds with my baby.

One particular midwife offered me some tea and toast, and asked me how I was getting on with the feeding. I just burst into tears; thereafter she suggested that sometimes ‘this feeding malarkey’ wasn’t for everyone and maybe I should put myself out of misery and switch to bottles to help settle Isabella. It wasn’t helpful or what I’d wanted, and I felt even more useless but persevered over coming hours and days despite the haphazard aftercare.

Over the coming days my milk slowly came in, but my mood changed and I was utterly exhausted having barely slept. By the time we were discharged from hospital my nipples were red raw and bleeding as I’d damaged myself but having attempted incorrect breastfeeding positions. I became more and more restless and agitated, and was rather uninhibited telling every visitor possible about my war stories about the birth.

Instead of resting and taking it easy after major surgery, I was gallivanting around our house, doing washing, organsing refreshments for visitors, writing long ‘to do’ lists, and fussing over our daughter. I didn’t want anyone else to hold her, and became very possessive of her. Then I would switch to an emotional mess, hide in the toilet and sob over how I couldn’t cope with the most basic of tasks and be a good mum to her. I was convinced I was doing it all wrong!

My midwife came in periodically to check how we were faring and to see how I was recovering from the operation, but I became obsessed with the scales – Isabella was losing weight rapidly and on the borderline of 10% weight loss, which made me tense, jittery and uneasy.

Four days after being at home, unbeknown to me, out of the blue I developed my first symptoms of Postpartum Psychosis (PP) – a severe form of mental illness which usually begins in the first two weeks after childbirth. I had no history of mental health issues, and this condition didn’t run in my family. One afternoon I fell asleep amid the exhaustion, and woke up screaming having had a horrific nightmare and shaking uncontrollably.

I didn’t feel safe, and my husband realised there was something seriously wrong, but I couldn’t explain what I was experiencing. By this point my thoughts were all over the place, I was constantly jittery and can only describe the sensations of losing my mind as flitting between a dreamworld and then back to a lucid state,

Despite several attempts to report my mental state to my local hospital, midwives, and other healthcare professionals I was turned away and told that I was experiencing a touch of the ‘baby blues’ and normal anxieties for first time mothers, which contributed to my rapid decline, resulting in me being sectioned under the Mental Health Act and taken to a Mother-and-Baby Unit (MBU). As you read on through future blog posts, you will see I have shared more details and examples of exactly what the triggers of Postpartum Psychosis were that I experienced, and the actions my family took to ensure I got the best care possible.

MBUs provide support for mothers who experience severe mental health difficulties during and after pregnancy; mine was at the Broomfield Hospital in Essex, around 40 miles away from my home, where I had to stay for the next 6 weeks with my baby.

It was truly heartbreaking for my family to watch me go from being a happy, positive, organised mum-to-be to someone who had completely lost her mind, couldn’t even speak articulately, and displayed signs of chronic anxiety and fear.

It was totally unpredictable and nobody would have seen this coming. That said, the alternative would have been far worse…some women with PP are not able to get the much needed beds in MBUs and therefore have to be admitted to general psychiatric wards, and face being separated from their babies.

I can’t even imagine what that experience must be like, as MBUs and their staff play a vital part in helping women like me bond with their children, and learn how to be good mothers in safe circumstances.

To stabilise me I had to take a combination of medications, including anti-psychotics that have mood-stabilising properties and sedatives to help me sleep, but also took part in a variety of psychological therapies. As my treatment continued, I also underwent counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and group therapy.

The Postpartum Psychosis was stabilised relatively quickly thanks to medication, but despite the signs of improvement at the MBU, I was traumatised and anxious, experiencing flashbacks of what happened and realising that it is possible to have relapses of psychosis once you’ve been susceptible to it, and therefore a complete sense of normality took me a very long while to achieve.

Overall, my recovery – if you can ever truly get over something as colossal as this – took over a year and I was treated at home by psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses, crisis teams, occupational health therapists, counsellors and alternative therapists to rebuild me.

The journey was long and difficult and left me feeling guilt and a sense of loss for what transpired during my first year with Isabella. I had extremely low confidence, I was nervous, anxious, and a shell of my former bubbly self.

Nowadays I am back to feeling totally happy, restored, optimistic and positive, and I’m enjoying all the elements of motherhood that I had wished for at the outset. What I want to stress is that they experiences of Postpartum Psychosis took an awfully long time to get over, and have also given me a completely fresh perspective on life, made me realise I must not lose hope for the future.  

This is how the Honeycomb Hatcher came to be – my husband and I have really loved being parents to Isabella and have decided we want to have more children together and build our family unit. But, I’m scared that history will repeat itself.

My husband is worried that next time around might be worse, and we’ve questioned whether we have the strength to go through this again. At the time of writing, we are trying for a baby, and via the Honeycomb Hatcher I plan to document my pregnancy and delivery journey, appreciating the very real risks that exist a second time around, as there is a 50/50 probability of facing another bout of Postpartum Psychosis.

Why would I do this to myself, and put my family through this again? Well, that’s a good question, and one I have spent the last 3 years exploring myself more fully, especially as we have to consider the added impact on Isabella if and when PP does materialise.

I am now much more able to talk openly about Postpartum Psychosis and take pride in sharing my experience, as whilst this has shaped my life, it doesn’t define who I am today. I am so appreciative my family, and the healthcare professionals that helped me to get better, and I know that if I can face this once, I can conquer it again.

What I do need is support, and to try and mitigate the risks we Postpartum Psychosis survivors face. I think this can be achieved with strong care plans and a structure (the honeycomb part!) which will frame how I progress in coming months and years. I haven’t found a ‘one stop shop’ to date providing advice for women and families like me who have been through this type of mental illness trauma, and that’s why I want to share with you what I find out along the way, in the hope that it might help you with your birth plans (the hatching part!) too.

The first time around, we didn’t have a clue what this illness was and how to tackle it. Second time around, we will be better prepared and I am determined to make sure I share how to access the resources you need to make practical steps towards making mental health manageable. Have a flick through the sections for women, families, supporters and medical professionals depending on how this illness affects you and let me know your feedback.

After all, Postpartum Psychosis doesn’t discriminate and it’s in everyone’s interest to be educated about this truly horrific and life-changing illness. If you act on triggers and escalate early warning signs, you could just save a woman’s life.

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