mother with two young daughters on her lap

Three babies and three very different postnatal experiences.

Mental illness

18th April 2021

This narrative was contributed by Iris Brannan, founder of Luella and Rose.

I have had three babies, and each of the postnatal experiences varied greatly. Before I begin: I’d like you to know that while I’m going to include some details that I think are important, please note that I didn’t understand much of this until quite a bit later.

For some context, I’ve never had a psychiatric diagnosis, before pregnancy or afterwards. There is an entire conversation that we could have about the significance of a diagnosis (vs. simply knowing that you have a mental health problem) in terms of things such as stigma and accessing services, however the point that I’m attempting to make here is that, for the most part, my mental health problems have been isolated around the perinatal period. Additionally, we – my husband and I – moved to England from America one month after we got married and a few months before I fell pregnant. Within the space of these three months we were told that we wouldn’t be able to conceive naturally, and it was a challenging pregnancy because I found it difficult to trust my body.

Poppy was born naturally, a week late, following an induction for reduced movements. My body didn’t react well to the method of induction (pessary) and it was a traumatic birth. Poppy was born very quickly (I pushed twice!) and I lost a lot of blood. I didn’t need a transfusion but was watched for 24 hours instead. Truthfully, I don’t remember very much of those first couple of days because I was in such a daze.

My anxiety built slowly, until it finally peaked when Poppy was about two-and-a-half. At this point, I was having nightly panic attacks. I also had intrusive thoughts, which I remember as being the worst part. I had one in particular that was like a mental movie – a horror film. It was recurrent, hugely distressing and always culminated in a panic attack. In short, Poppy and I drowned in a plane crash as we were crossing the Atlantic to visit my family. It felt so real that I could almost feel the cold water rushing in. For a long time my husband was the only person who knew about all of this. Our nightly ritual became: put the baby to bed, have dinner and watch television, go up to bed, talk Iris through her panic attack and do “the perimeter check.”

What is “the perimeter check”? Around this time I also formed a deeply rooted fear that something would happen in the middle of the night and, consequentially, I developed a compulsive routine to ease these anxious feelings. We nicknamed it “the perimeter check” in an attempt to make light of and cope with an otherwise difficult situation. There were certain things that I had to do around the house in order to feel safe. For example, I had to check that all of the knobs on the stove were off, but sight alone wouldn’t be satisfactory confirmation and so I had to physically touch each and every one. Gradually, the fears began to increase and I wasn’t just worried about something happening in the middle of the night, I was worried about danger constantly. I couldn’t leave the house or go to bed without making these checks, oftentimes repeatedly. I remember sometimes cutting short errands or activities because I had to go home and check that I had, in fact, closed all of the windows to ensure that an intruder wouldn’t get in and wait in the closet. Eventually, I must have been doing these checks 10-20 times a day. As is the way with compulsions, the more I did it the more convinced I was that it was the only thing keeping us safe – it’s a vicious cycle.

It took me a while to figure out that I needed help, naive as that may sound. When you’re in the thick of something difficult or scary it is easy for reality to be distorted. I had symptoms that fit with postnatal anxiety, panic and obsessive-compulsive disorders but it wasn’t until years later that I began to have some clarity in this. Even after I could see that I needed help it took me a little while to decide to ask for it. My pride also got in the way. Ultimately, I self-referred to talking therapies but didn’t visit my GP. I didn’t feel low or depressed (in a way that I could identify at the time) and wasn’t looking for medication – not because I don’t believe in its value but because I didn’t see it as the solution to the problem I was being faced with. If I had known then what I know now I would have gone to see my GP. I struggled with shame, fear and a misguided but subconscious sense of martyrdom; most of the time I’m too proud to ask for help, even when I need it, and I remember feeling afraid of giving the impression that I was incapable of caring for my child. I also assumed that what I was going through was simply ‘part of the package’ of motherhood.

After the talking therapies phone assessment, I was referred to an online portal called SilverCloud. I used it a few times and really tried to get something out of it but it just wasn’t for me. I would have benefitted from more comprehensive care (including contact with a real person) but because I didn’t really understand myself what was going on, myself, I wasn’t able to verbalise the extent of the damage these issues were doing to my life. So, I had to figure out a way to help myself, and so I gave myself a crash course in self-help. At this point my parents knew what was going on, as did my in-laws. It became particularly hard to hide because my new fear of flying meant that we couldn’t visit my family in America.

My husband was incredibly supportive from day one, and still is. Opening up to him about everything, even the stuff that I was afraid of or embarrassed by, was transformative. Vocalising something big or scary strips away its power, and over time – if you talk about it enough – it will cease to hold you hostage. Journaling became a big part of my life and I began to share my story online. I craved camaraderie and contact with women who’d had similar experiences. None of this was a quick or easy fix, but slowly and surely my anxious feelings began to lessen. I was no longer operating on perpetual adrenaline and the panic attacks eased, eventually stopping altogether. If I had to put a timeframe on it, I would say that it took me around a year or so after the onslaught of significant anxiety symptoms to feel some semblance of “normal” – or, at least, more like myself.

Tallulah was born almost exactly four years after Poppy, and therefor about a year-and-a-half after the peak of my anxiety, panic and obsessive-compulsiveness. This pregnancy was easier because I knew what to expect, and because surrounding life was stable and stress-free. Her birth was also natural and calm, the opposite of what Poppy’s birthing experience was. I was braced for a fresh onslaught of hormonally driven challenges but they never came. I’m also sure that Poppy’s gentle, easy-going nature and the large age gap worked in my favour.

I found out that I was pregnant with Sybil when Tallulah was around nine months old. We had only just had an offer accepted on our first house – a major fixer upper – and I’d also just returned to my nursing programme. It was a challenging period of time because life was so chaotic, but the pregnancy itself was easy and, again, the birth was calm. Having already had two babies and two wildly different postpartum experiences, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was on-guard, watchful, but I was also busy with three young children.

When Sybil was five months old I took myself to the GP to discuss medication and antidepressants. I’d had no trouble bonding with my baby but I felt perpetually impatient, short-tempered, low, tearful and increasingly anxious. I couldn’t carry on the way that I was, and didn’t feel like a good version of myself. We discussed the possibility of postnatal depression but also the alternative of stress and burnout. We came to the mutual decision that I would try CBD oil for two weeks and if it didn’t help then I would start antidepressants. On some level, the diagnosis didn’t matter at this point because the treatment pathway was the same.

I tried the CBD oil and it worked. I took it twice a day for around six months (and still do now, when I remember to take it) and it was enough to help shift me out of the overwhelming rut I had found myself in. I was also offered donation-based sessions with a trainee therapist who was working with The Counsellor’s Collective. I had three but was offered more, which I chose not to accept because I felt as though I’d already received many of the answers, as well as validation and closure, that I had been looking for.

Mothering my children came easily; it is my own demons and the relationship that I have with myself that has been the greater challenge. Being responsible for three tiny people means that I don’t have a whole lot of time for myself anymore. On the whole this isn’t considered a good thing, however it often means that I don’t have the time to self-sabotage either. The work that I’ve done to support my mental health has also touched other, unexpected areas of my life and – as cheesy as it sounds – made me a better person. My marriage is strengthened by my increasing self-awareness and the empathy that has come from being challenged on such a deep, fundamental level has opened up my eyes to the suffering of others, making me a better friend and more compassionate person.

My mental health isn’t linear. Like everyone, I have good days and bad days. If there is one thing that I am grateful for however, it is how much I have grown over recent years – and this is a direct result of motherhood.

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